Jonah: prayer

When last seen Jonah had just hit bottom, swallowed alive. Up to this point, despite lots of opportunities, Jonah had not prayed, even when commanded by the ship’s captain in the midst of the raging tempest at sea – even as all the crew around him offered prayers to a pantheon of gods. But now it is different. He is alone, his choices and their consequences have “consumed” him, and … and what?

In the previous post I had offered you a chance to enter into the possible experience of the original hearers of this narrative as their context was explained. But what about the context of your life? Work, family obligations and more can consume us. Our lives can seem like being adrift in a tempest. Our efforts yield no results – and we are at the end of our rope. We have hit bottom. Alone. How many of us at this point in our own story, drop to our knees and raise our hands in prayer, reaching out to the Lord for rescue?

And Jonah finally prays (v.2)

The whole of Chapter 2 is anchored, in time, by two verses:

But the LORD sent a large fish, that swallowed Jonah; and he remained in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (v.1)

Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore. (v.11)

Verses 3-10 are not a sequence unfolding between the two anchors. It is a prayer that is uttered, perhaps composed, after Jonah had probably considered his circumstances. Jettisoned overboard, floundering in the tempest perhaps hovering at near drowning, the horrifying moment he understands he is being swallowed alive and is helpless, every panic instinct kicking into overdrive…but eventually he “comes to.” He takes stock of his surroundings, feels the seaweed clung about [his] head. (v.6) – bounces between anger, denial, regret and more. The lyrics of a song by singer-songwriter Hal Ketchum come to mind: “I wonder if I’m past the point of rescue; Is no word from you at all the best that you can do.” I think the lyric captures that liminal moment as Jonah finally turns to God in resignation, his last grasp at life. There in the midst of the 3 days/nights, he experiences the certainty of the rescuing, saving presence of God – and knows he will be OK. “From the belly of the fish Jonah said this prayer to the LORD, his God.” (v.2)

The prayer is looking in the rearview mirror to that point of rescue “Out of my distress I called to the LORD, and he answered me; From the midst of the nether world I cried for help, and you heard my voice.” (v.3) Scholars see Jonah’s prayer as consistent with a psalm of thanksgiving. Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, 101) identifies these parts, and they are typical for a thanksgiving psalm.

Notice that in 2:3, Jonah finally “calls” (qā·rā) or “calls out” to God. In Jonah 1:2, God asked that Jonah qā·rā against Nineveh. What Jonah would not do for God he is forced to do for rescue.  Also, it is noteworthy that in the beginning of v.7 the prayer continues the language of spiritual descent used in the previous chapter: Jonah continually went down (yā·rǎḏ) away from the presence and will of God.

Finally, he has gone down so far, he has hit bottom. But he has not been “resuscitated,” as it were, to life on dry land – the life he had known. At this point he is only rescued from death. He is alive, but betwixt-and-between. Jonah describes it as bě·ṭěn šeʾôl – the “belly of Sheol” or “belly of the netherworld.”

I would suggest that the continual use of the phrase “down” (yā·rǎḏ) connects to a larger Biblical tradition. Sheol is typically depicted as a place to which one “goes down” (yā·rǎḏ; e.g., Num 16:30; Job 7:9; Isa 57:9; cf. Isa 29:4; Ps 88:3–4). It represents the lowest place imaginable (Isa 7:11) often used in contrast with the highest heavens:

Though they break through to the nether world, even from there my hand shall bring them out; Though they climb to the heavens, I will bring them down. (Amos 9:2)

If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too. (Ps 139:8)

It is higher than the heavens; what can you do? It is deeper than the nether world; what can you know? (Job 11:8)

Jonah wanted to be as far from God as possible and so headed out to Tarshish. He has now found the place farthest from God. He is at death’s door, “the bars of the nether world” are closing behind him, creating an image of an eternal jail. Fate has him in its grip. It is inevitable. Fate is simply endorsing what Jonah himself had initiated. But with “one foot in the grave” so to speak, he recognizes the peril of his position, the sheer and utter depth to which he has sunk. He has hit bottom and now calls out to God. He is at the pivot point, looking back at how he got there, he looks forward in desire to “your holy temple.

God rescues him. Like the covenant people who turned their back on God, so too Jonah. Like the covenant people who were returned from exile as God’s gracious response, so too Jonah.

That part of the commentary is offered from the optimistic part of me. Hoping that Jonah has indeed experienced a deep-rooted conversion and that he truly desires God’s “holy temple.

Yet another part of me cannot help but think about the parable of the “Prodigal Son.” Did the son decide to return home in true penitence? Partial penitence? Or maybe just the logical conclusion that even the servants at home have it better than he did at that particular moment. Maybe our prodigal Jonah is in a similar conundrum.

When my soul fainted (ʿā·ṭǎp̄) within me, I remembered the LORD (Jonah 2:8)

Compare that to the account of the “Prodigal Son.”

14 When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need.15 So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.16 And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any.17 Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.18 I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.19 I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’20 So he got up and went back to his father. (Luke 15:14-20a)

Jonah hit bottom and life was ebbing away (one of the meanings of ʿā·ṭǎp̄). At one point in the narrative, it seems as though Jonah preferred death to being God’s prophet to Nineveh. In the belly of the whale, with the bars of Sheol closing behind him, perhaps he reconsiders. Then he remembered the Lord and consequently prayed.

Did the prodigal son experience conversion and repentance? Or did he just reach a practical solution to his current problem? If he did experience conversion and amend his ways, did it last? I have the same questions about Jonah.

In his ʿā·ṭǎp̄ clearly Jonah began to “wake up” and turned to God in prayer. Where is God in all this? “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20b)

And so, it is with God, ever watching from his holy temple, ready to sprint to our side and embrace us. God desires that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4) The question is, will we accept the salvation?

Then the LORD commanded the fish to spew Jonah upon the shore. (v.11)

There is an old expression, “your attitude determines your altitude.” It is one thing to accept the gift of rescue and salvation, but will there be a significant change in attitude that will allow the full height of altitude to be reached? Stay tuned.

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