The book of Jonah is a most extraordinary book. Chapter one was filled with great excitement and adventure. Chapter two has the form of a Psalm. Chapter three seems like a nice and tidy finish to the book. Then chapter four is a revisit to the grumpy and short-sighted Jonah. This week, we look at chapter two and see Jonah at his best. His prayer is full of imagery that can be quite literal and yet fits perfectly as a metaphore for the Christian life or the story of Israel.
Jonah was commissioned by God to take a word of judgement to a foreign nation – Nineveh. He rebelled and tried to escape from God by going to the end of the earth in the opposite direction. God tormented his escape and he was thrown into the sea in order to save some pagan sailors. In the final verse of chapter 1, Jonah was swallowed by a huge fish – something which God had arranged for him.
- 1:17-2:1 Narrative Context: The Lord provided – the fish swallows Jonah
- 2:2 – Jonah’s opening summary: In my DISTRESS, I CALLED to The Lord and He DELIVERED me (past tense)/li>
- 2:3-6 – Jonah’s distress – downward movement/li>
- 2:7 – Jonah’s call for help/li>
- 2:8-9 – Jonah’s deliverance/li>
- 2:10 narrative close: The Lord provides again – the fish ejects Jonah/li>
Jonah, who disappeared at the end of the last narrative section (1:1-1:16) is now the centre of attention again.
The story begins with this context: Jonah is in the belly of a fish for three days and nights. Note that this phrase: ‘three days and three nights’ is a kind of short hand for three days (doesn’t sound short), and is not meant to be an exact timeframe. It does act, in the scriptures, as a repeated phrase to help us readers link events together – like this event and the event of the resurrection!
God, the LORD, is in complete control. This is no rogue fish, but a message from God to Jonah.
Jonah prayed to God from inside the fish. There seems to have been two prayers that Jonah offered, one in the fish and one prior to being in the fish – while he was descending to the deep. The prayer of Jonah while inside the fish reflects much on what happened to him prior to being swallowed.
The narrative of Jonah works fairly well without the inclusion of the psalm (verses 2-9). Try and read the narrative skipping these verses (so 1:17-2:1; 2:10 onward). The narratives simply tells us that Jonah prayed while inside the fish, and the LORD commanded the fish to vomit Jonah out. So, the actual prayer he prayed while in the fish could have been for deliverance from the fish. Then, a psalm is inserted in the story to tell us what was in Jonah’s head. You might expect a lament to be given but we get a song of thanksgiving.
It is probable that Jonah cried for help while descending to the depths of the ocean, then he prayed again for help when in the belly of the fish and then he created a psalm to describe the two events together. Thinking of it this way, helps us to relax and enjoy the psalm to hear what it contributes to the whole book of Jonah.
Although 1:17 tells us that the fish was a provision from God to save Jonah, Jesus and the Apostles use the same imagery to describe judgement. See the following NT references…Matt 12:39-42; Acts 2:22-28 – esp 24 and 27.
This introduces the shape of the whole psalm. Distress leads to calling out for help which results in deliverance by the only one who can.
This verse contains a classic Hebrew poetry technique where two sentences mirror or parallel each other.
“In my distress | from the deep in the realm of the dead,
I called to the LORD | I called for help,
and he answered me | and you listened to my cry.”
This summary from Jonah could recall his time in the sea or his time in the fish. The following verses lend it to being about the former, but the summary nature of this verse, and the observation that this psalm was probably constructed after Jonah was spat out, lets us say that both are true.
Jonah’s existence was thrown into chaos. He was out of control with no hope to live.
‘I have been banished from your sight’ – wasn’t this what Jonah wanted?
‘yet I will look again toward your holy temple’ – the temple in Jerusalem symbolised almost literally the presence of God. This phrase should be taken to mean that Jonah turned to the LORD for help. His mind’s eye turns toward the presence of God. He looked to God for salvation.
‘the roots of the mountains’ – just picture how low Jonah feels he is going.
‘But you, LORD my God, brought my life up from the pit.’ Jonah’s story here is the story of judgement. The place he was being sent was the abyss – ‘banished from God’s sight’, ‘the realm of the dead’, ‘barred…forever’, ‘from the pit’. There is no long stretch to imagine this story being about a sinner who is aware of his oncoming destruction. His life is out of control and only hell is the future – unless God can raise up their life!
Another summary statement that could apply to both the abyss of the ocean and the stomach of a fish.
Before it was too late, Jonah remembered the LORD and he cried to God for help. This is the message of the gospel – to repent and believe the good news. But we are called and we call others to repent before it is too late.
Jonah was given a second chance by God. He fled his responsibility to obey God and tried to run from God’s sight – but God would not let Jonah go. He cares for Jonah. God’s patience means salvation (2 Peter 3:15).
Both the sailors trapped in the storm and the people of Nineveh had to turn away from their idols and turn to the God who made heaven and earth (1:9, 16).
An idol is anything that we cling to I suppose. If it is not God that we are clinging to then there will be an idol or a few that you will be able to identify.
Also and conversely, when there is anything that we cling to in competition with God, this is an act of denying the love of God and the only one worthy of our worship.
The one who serves God gives thanks to him and are full of thankfulness.
The one who serves God will freely confess: ‘Salvation comes from the LORD’ – Jesus Christ is LORD (Romans 10:9)
The sailors and Jonah and the Ninevites call on the name of the LORD and then made vows (1:16, 2:9, 3:9). Turning to God for salvation is not just idle words but we are to repent and obey. Faith is not just what we believe or know, it is how we will live.
This verses is the matching bookend to the psalm to 1:17. The LORD is in control. The fish is no random accident. Jonah is transported from the depths and judgement of the ocean to the safety of dry land.
Jonah went into the belly of a ship to run away from God and go in the wrong direction, but God gave Jonah a one way ticket back in the belly of a huge fish.
Jonah’s psalm gives us the shape of God’s mission: all the world are to turn from worthless idols and cling to the God who saves. The sailor’s had no idea who Jonah’s God was. They were told and they sacrificed to him and were saved. Nineveh will hear the impending judgement coming, they will cry out to God and lament, hoping to be rescued. Jonah, who had denied the true God fell under God’s judgement but was saved when he turned back to the true God.
Salvation and deliverance are themes of this psalm. Salvation is of the LORD. Thanksgiving and praise follow.
- Notice how much work goes into reading the bible. It is one thing to simply tell the whole Jonah story to Sunday School kids. It is quite another thing as adults to pick up the scriptures and consider every word and sentence as though they were crafted by someone far smarter and wise than ourselves. Do you pick up the bible and read it with a craving to learn and grow and struggle to understand?
- Sometimes, as Christians, we forget where we have been saved from. Jonah was in great distress and needed a saviour. The sailors and the people of Nineveh respond to the word of God in the same way – each lamented and cried out to God for help. Have you forgotten what distress you were in before you turned to God? Do you carry a sense of urgency or desperation to know God and to turn away from idols?
- Being aware of sin in the world and sin in your own heart is a good place to start. That means God is speaking to you. Have you, though, called out to God for his salvation? Jonah describes his problem, called to God for help, and committed himself to follow God – he made a vow to God. Have you declared God as you master? Have you committed to follow him no matter where he takes you? Turning to God and turning away from idols?
- Jonah had a ‘big fish’ experience. I like to see this as God doing whatever it takes to wake us up and get us back on track. In no way do I see the time in the fish as pleasant for Jonah. God’s care for us will mean that we will experience discipline from him as we would expect from a loving Father. In a time when we would expect a lament from the mouth of Jonah, we hear thanksgiving. I wonder if you have experienced a ‘big fish’ moment in your life? Perhaps there will be more to come?
Prayer of the week
Heavenly Father, help us to want to be in your presence. Rescue us from everything that takes our attention away from you. Teach us to keep turning to you for our help. Thank you for the salvation that comes through Christ alone. Help us to live for you everyday. Amen.