Jonah 2:6-9 – Jonah’s Prayer, Part II: Did Jonah Repent?

The first half of Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 2:2-6a) recalled Jonah’s plight in the sea—thrown into the water, engulfed in the waves, and sinking deep into Sheol—and his prayerful response, a cry for help. The second half of the prayer expresses thanksgiving for Yahweh’s deliverance (Jonah 2:6b-9). The two halves represent a typical Thanksgiving Psalm where the crisis and petition are remembered and the deliverance is received with thanksgiving (e.g., Psalm 116).

A thanksgiving song is an appropriate response to Jonah’s experience. Hurled into the sea and sinking into its depths, God delivered Jonah in response to his petition.

However, something is missing, something we might expect in a penitent petitioner. The petition is present as well as the thanksgiving, but the penitence is missing. There is no explicit confession of sin or repentance in the song, which we might expect since Jonah’s circumstances were due to his resistance to the divine call. Instead, it is almost as if the song presumes an innocence. Jonah is delivered from death but nothing in the song identifies why the singer is in danger or why Yahweh hurled him into the sea. Jonah simply asks for mercy—deliverance from death, but not mercy for his decision to flee from God.

Jonah gives thanks for Yahweh’s saving act, which is sending the great fish to swallow him up and deliver him to land. The thanksgiving is authentic and pious, but the lack of sorrow or mourning for his flight suggests something else lies hidden in Jonah’s heart. Something is missing.

Jonah’s Thanksgiving

Following Kevin Youngblood’s structure for Jonah 2 (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, 100) in the presentation of the text of 2:6c-9, the second half of the prayer stresses divine salvation.

Then you brought up my life from the pit,

O Yahweh, my God!

The contrast between “brought up” and Jonah’s descent is important. Though Jonah descended into the land of Sheol beneath the sea, God empowers his ascent from the pit (Sheol). This descent and ascent is resurrection language. Jonah goes down to the grave, but ascends to life. There is more to think about in that language, and I will offer something in a future post paralleling the sign of Jonah with the resurrection of Jesus.

This language also contrasts divine actions. Though Yahweh hurled Jonah into the sea (Jonah 2:3), now Yahweh restores life through the great fish Yahweh sent the fish to swallow Jonah in order to preserve his life. Yahweh disciplines Jonah and then redeems him.

The invocation, common in the Psalms (Psalms 7:1, 3; 13:3; 18:28; 30:2, 12; 35:24, etc.), expresses the deep connection between Jonah and God. Yahweh—the covenant God of Israel, the maker of land and sea—is, Jonah confesses, “my God.” Though hurled into the sea and brought near to death, Jonah does not give up his relationship with Yahweh.

As my life was ebbing way,

I remembered Yahweh!

“I remembered” articulates faith. While it is true “Yahweh remembered” (e.g., Exodus 2:24; 6:5) is more foundational to the faith of Israel and Israel even prays for God to “remember” (e.g., Exodus 32:13), Israel’s response to Yahweh’s pursuit is to remember Yahweh. This is not a reversal of divine initiative as if Jonah causes God to remember Jonah or Jonah thinks he has made the first move in some sense. Rather, it is Jonah’s response to Yahweh’s pursuit.

Jonah’s life is ebbing away because Yahweh hurled a wind upon the sea and Yahweh hurled Jonah into the sea. God is pursuing Jonah through a severe mercy, and Jonah responds by remembering Yahweh. Memory serves Jonah’s faith and propels his prayer (cf. Deuteronomy 5:15; 7:18; 15:15; 16:3, 12; 24:22). This, again, is the language of the Psalter. In our distress and lament, psalmists often remember God (Psalms 63:6 [“think” is the verb “remember”]; 71: 16 [“praise” is the verb “remember”]; 119:55; 143:5). In particular, Psalm 77, which laments a troubled life, ultimately “remembers” God (77:3, 5, 11). To remember Yahweh is to call to mind Yahweh’s mercy, promises, and redemptive works. Jonah knows Yahweh.

My prayer came to you,

[it came] to your holy temple.

This is the middle or central affirmation of the second half of the prayer. The direct address, “You,” and “your holy temple” are parallel expressions. This is not some mere ritualized piety, which has lost connection with God. On the contrary, it embraces the promise articulated by the Solomonic prayer at the dedication of the temple in 2 Chronicles 6. The temple assures Israel of God’s mercy to those who seek Yahweh. When Israel prays toward the temple, they pray toward God’s dwelling place and thus to God.

Here Jonah claims the promise of God; he is not presuming on God’s grace but invoking God’s promise. Jonah knows where to turn when in distress, and he knows Yahweh is merciful.

Those who worship vain idols forsake [your] mercy,

but I will, with the voice thanksgiving, sacrifice to you;

what I have vowed I will pay.

Here Jonah surprises us a bit. He draws a contrast between his commitment and the commitment of idolaters. We might wonder whether Jonah has in mind the sailors on the ship, the Ninevites, or something more general.

The language echoes Psalm 31:6: those who worship (shamar) worthless (hebel) idols (shawe’). As such, it is typical language to describe those committed to false gods. While the language does not necessarily betray any kind of arrogance, Jonah’s use—given the context of the narrative—may reflect a kind of self-assured piety.

In Jonah 1, the sailors called on their gods, but they ultimately worshiped Yahweh and offered sacrificial vows to Yahweh, which is exactly what Jonah promises to do as well. Jonah, we might suppose, is unaware of their worship since they only worshiped Yahweh after Jonah’s expulsion. The narrator highlights the sailors’s worship while Jonah continues his merciless polemic against idolaters.

Indeed, we might see something of Jonah’s hatred for idolaters in his language. It expresses his unchanged attitude toward Nineveh, perhaps even for the sailors or all idolaters. His contrast between them and himself is an empty one since we know how the sailors worshiped Yahweh and we anticipate the repentance of the Ninevites in Jonah 3. Ironically, Jonah is the only one who does not have a change of heart in the narrative since he resents how God shows mercy to Nineveh in his prayer in Jonah 4.

Jonah does not want idolaters to receive God’s mercy (hesed). Translations vary, but it is best to take the term hesed (sometimes translated in Jonah 2:8 as “loyalty,” NRSV) as a reference to Yahweh’s mercy rather than the idolater’s loyalty. As Youngblood notes (p. 112), this important biblical term “never refers to human actions toward God, though it can refer to charitable acts towards one’s fellow-humans.” Idolaters, according to Jonah, have no stake in Yahweh’s mercy. Ironically, while giving thanks for Yahweh’s mercy to himself, Jonah glories in the lack of mercy for idolaters and, seemingly, prefers idolaters never experience that mercy. This is certainly the case for Nineveh since Jonah resents the mercy they ultimately receive (Jonah 4:2-3).

Consequently, though Jonah will appropriately praise, sacrifice to, and pay his vows to Yahweh at the temple when the time arrives (and rightly so, Leviticus 7 and Psalm 116 are examples—this is not Jonah exhibiting some kind of works righteousness!), Jonah does not want idolaters offered the same opportunity. He wants no mercy for idolaters.

Deliverance belongs to Yahweh!

Salvation and Yahweh often occur together in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the Psalms (3:7; 6:4; 7:1; 18:2-3; 20:9; 24:5, etc.). More specifically, this exact phrase does not appear anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. It affirms Yahweh’s sovereignty over salvation and deliverance; God alone will decide salvation. Yahweh’s salvation is not, as Youngblood notes (p. 114), “subject to human manipulation.”

Yet, Jonah attempted to manipulate Yahweh by fleeing from Yahweh’s presence. Jonah did not want to become the instrument of Nineveh’s salvation or Yahweh’s mercy. This confession, however, is perhaps an acceptance of Yahweh’s sovereignty: God will save whomever God has decided to save. In effect, Jonah bows before that sovereignty, though he does not like it, and accepts Yahweh’s commission to Nineveh. As we see in Jonah 3, the prophet carries out Yahweh’s mission, despite his misgivings about its justice.

Piety and Protest

James Bruckner uses this language in his NIV Application Commentary on Jonah. I think it is helpful.

Jonah’s prayer reveals authentic piety, but it also has a subtle (perhaps not so subtle) protest. Jonah is truly thankful for a new chance at life, but he is nevertheless reticent to show idolaters mercy. He acknowledges the sovereignty of God over salvation but his heart does not embrace mercy for Nineveh. He accepts his mission but ultimately resents its fruit. As Youngblood discerns, Jonah moves from resistance to acceptance and then to resentment; this is the book’s narrative flow from Jonah 1 to Jonah 4.

This tension–between piety and protest–is present, and we should not resolve it but let it stand since the narrative itself promotes it. Jonah moves from resistance to acceptance, but then his acceptance moves to resentment. Consequently, his acceptance is not full but conditioned. He accepts the mission but resents it.

At the same time, we should not overemphasize the protest. It is there, but some find it under every rock. For example, some find “works righteousness” or mere ritualism in Jonah’s commitment to sacrifice at the temple, or some think Jonah substitutes the temple for God for God. Some suggest Jonah’s frequent use of the first person singular (I, me, and my—seventeen times altogether) represents an egocentric orientation (possible but uncertain).

However, all this is present in the Psalter. For example, Psalm 116 uses the first person singular almost thirty times. Psalm 116 also expresses thanks through a thanksgiving sacrifice and vows, just like Jonah. And Psalm 116 intends to do this in the “courts of the house of Yahweh” at Jerusalem (116:19), just like Jonah.

While Jonah protests—by what is missing and somewhat by what is said, Jonah is also devoutly gives thanks for Yahweh’s deliverance. We see authentic piety in this prayer, but it also provides hints that Jonah’s heart toward Nineveh has not changed.

So, did Job repent? Yes and No. In one sense he repented. He accepted the mission. In another sense, however, he did not repent since he never fully bought into the goal of the mission. Jonah repents only in the sense he goes to Nineveh and carries out the mission whereas previously he fled from the presence of God. He does not repent of his theological animus towards Nineveh, that is, he does not want God to show them any mercy.


Jonah is thankful, and he will devote himself to the worship of Yahweh. But his heart is unchanged.

Perhaps this is a struggle we all have though about different things. We are committed, and we seek God. But some dimensions of our souls are unchanged, and we struggle to fully conform our hearts to God’s heart.

Parts of our hearts are unknown to us until God confronts us with a choice, as God did with Jonah. God’s severe mercy revealed something about Jonah’s own heart, which is as yet unresolved at the beginning of Jonah 4. Jonah did not think idolaters should be shown mercy, particularly the Ninevites.

Perhaps God chose Jonah for this mission to specifically reveal to Jonah how out of sync he was with Yahweh’s heart.  Just as Jesus called the Rich Young Ruler to give all he had to the poor as a way of revealing his heart, so God commissions Jonah for a mission of mercy to Nineveh.  Both had the same response–they walked away.

God sees the struggle in Jonah, and God pursues him with a severe mercy to reorient his heart. Jonah changes (repents) and accepts the mission, but his heart is unchanged. God still has some more work to do on Jonah….and on us.

One Response to “Jonah 2:6-9 – Jonah’s Prayer, Part II: Did Jonah Repent?”

  1.   Darryl Lewis Says:

    John Mark, I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving. I am thankful for you and all the hard work you put into these articles. They are a great help to me.

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