Studying Jonah: Part IX
B. A praying prophet running back to God, 2:1–10
Moving from the worship being offered by the sailors (1:16), a new section of the book is introduced with prayer being offered by Jonah from inside the great fish (1). With the storm now calmed and the sailors joyfully off on the horizon, Jonah breaks into a psalm of thanksgiving for the deliverance he has experienced, is experiencing, and will experience. This is a noteworthy contrast from the first pericope of the book in which Jonah is shown to be a prodigal prophet running away from God. Now, as will be shown, there are glimmers of—while not totally realized—repentance. Jonah shifts from a prodigal prophet to a praying prophet.
i. Jonah calls out to God, 2:1–9
After an introduction (2:1), the poetic form of verses 2 through 9 of the second chapter of Jonah stand in contrast to the narrative form of the rest of the book. While some, assuming the never-wavering rebellious attitude of Jonah, assume his prayers to be anti-prayers, i.e. mockeries of what communication between a finite creator and its infinite Creator should resemble (2), it is the view of this author that, based on textual evidence, the prophet’s prayers, while imperfect, do demonstrate a softening heart. In other words, there seems to be a slight "turning back to God” for the once completely rebellious prophet.
Tucker, among many others, notes that the form of chapter 2 resembles that of a thanksgiving psalm (3). A distinguishing characteristic of this type of psalm is the credit given to God for a specific action he has done in the life of an individual or group of people (4). In the case of Jonah, he certainly has something for which to to express thanks to God!
The structure of the thanksgiving psalm generally includes an introductory summary of the situation, a description of the trouble from which God provided help, a call for the needed divine aid, a description of the type of aid provided, and a vow of thanksgiving for deliverance (5). As will be reflected in the following outline, Jonah’s prayer from inside the great fish, follows a similar pattern, thus, justifying the given hope-filled label of this second pericope: A praying prophet running back to God.
a. Jonah summarizes, 2:1–2
2:1. Jonah prayed. When referring to the communication between Yahweh and Jonah, the text has typically been using the verb, קרא, “to call” (e.g. 1:6, 14; 2:2; 3:8). In the opening verse of chapter 2, however, we now find the more typical Hebrew verb for this type of communication, פלל, “to pray” (cf. 4:2).
To Yahweh his God. The reader is reminded at the outset of the second pericope that, in spite of his terrible actions leading to his current plight, Jonah still very much considers Yahweh his God (6). His rebellion and momentary disdain for his office as prophet had not irreparably severed their relationship.
From the belly of the fish. Some will object to the believability that this psalm was composed by the prophet while being carried along inside the great fish. “This arises, however, from a failure to appreciate the fish’s function; it is the means by which Jonah is delivered from death by drowning” (7). In other words, and as has already been argued, disbelief in anything around the fish miracle is to miss the thrust of the text. And, it seems, Jonah recognizes this reality and calls out in praise to God for his eventual deliverance even before he is on dry land (8)! Apparently, thoughts of salvation are all that is on the prophet’s mind as there is no mention of what it is actually like on the inside of the great fish. This is less about the fish and more about God’s sovereign and miraculous deliverance of his prophet.
There can also be noted some similarities in structure between pericope one and pericope two including trouble facing the human characters, prayer offered to God, deliverance from the troubles, and promised sacrifices in thanksgiving. The table below outlines these parallels.
2:2. It appears that Jonah begins this psalm by referring back to a prayer he prayed soon after being thrown overboard by the terrified sailors. As is common in Hebrew poetry, parallelism is implemented and, in this case, synonymous parallelism, i.e., the idea is repeated in slightly different ways for emphasis and style and, when read together, provide the hearer/reader with a more full understanding of the authors’ meaning.
Out of my distress I cried to Yahweh. Jonah, understanding his personal helplessness as he sank in the sea, called out to the God he has served for much of his life. Like the sailors in chapter 1, Jonah recognizes he has but one option left. In the paralleled line the prophet uses שׁוע, “to call for help” (cf. Hab. 1:2). Jonah recognizes his dire circumstances and resigned himself to God’s mercy.
The word translated distress (צָרָה) carries with it a sense of desperation. Even a glance of its use across the minor prophets demonstrates a human helplessness and oppression being experienced (cf. Obad. 12, 14; Nah. 1:9; Hab. 3:16; Zech. 10:11).
From the belly of Sheol I cried out. Sheol, in the Old Testament, refers to a dark wasteland reserved for the wicked as divine punishment by separation from God (9). The distress Jonah is experiencing is vividly emphasized in his reference to the place where wicked men are abandoned and taken away from the goodness and mercy of God. Some commentators suggest that depth (מִבֶּטֶן) refers to the innards of the great fish. However, verse 1 used a different Hebrew word (מִמְּעֵי) for this same point of reference. In context is seems to make the most sense that, in light of his recent disobedience, identification, and punishment, Jonah is crying out in desperation to the only One who can deliver him. And he’s calling out to Yahweh, not just for deliverance from the sea and the great fish, but also for deliverance from possible separation from God in Sheol.
When he called out to God in despair, Jonah celebrates that that God heard his voice (v. 2d) and answered him (v. 2b). God responding to cries for help is a theme through the psalter (cf. Pss. 18:6; 118:5; 120:1) and thus it is no surprise that it is found in this, a psalm of thanksgiving.
b. Jonah recounts his trouble, 2:3–6a
2:3. You. While it was by the sailor’s hands he was thrown into the sea (cf. 1:15), Jonah recognizes that, ultimately, it was Yahweh’s prerogative. “It was not the ocean as some inanimate ‘it’ or a personified ‘she’ that posed the threat to his very life. These were God’s waves and breakers that were threatening to swallow him” (10). Yet again, the absolute sovereignty of God is on display in the book of Jonah and, this time, it is the prophet himself who recognizes it.
Threw me into the deep, into the heart of the seas. This is a vivid description of Jonah’s experience of sinking in to the waves. Down, down, down he sank. And the river swirled around me. He is being enveloped in the cold darkness. All Your breakers and waves passed over me. Jonah’s helplessness, “smallness,” and powerlessness is on display in his description of the circumstances.
2:4. In light of his overwhelming defencelessness, Jonah concludes, addressing Yahweh, that he has been banished from your sight. What the prophet is experiencing is that of complete rejection from God (cf. Ps. 31:22). This is the idea of banishment without hope of return (11). He has been cast outside the safety of the camp of God’s presence. Having only recently attempted to run away from God, Jonah now finds himself destined for Sheol and, in effect, receiving exactly what he had originally been longing for, i.e., separation from the presence of the Lord. Now, however, experiencing that separation, the prophet realizes it is not as desirable a locale as he had once deceived himself to believe.
A connection between the first and second lines of verse 4 can be seen with the word for sight. In the first half Jonah declares that he has been expelled from God’s sight (עין) and yet declares he will one day again gaze (נבט) upon the temple.
The second half of verse 4 contains antithetical parallelism. Whereas he feels as though he has been (perhaps rightly and understandably) expelled from God’s holy presence, Jonah declares with hope, I will again gaze upon your holy temple. Jonah is sure that his time is not yet through. Perhaps this confidence is rooted in the fact that he is being carried, miraculously, in the belly of a fish—a sign of God’s provision. Perhaps this confidence is rooted in prior experiences with the faithfulness of God or the zeal with which the Lord desires his word to be delivered. Whatever Jonah’s rationale, it is clear that something has changed in his mind between the time he was commissioned and the time he was thrown into the sea. And now, for whatever reason, Jonah declares confidence that he will one day again set his eyes upon the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.
2:5. After an oasis of hope is offered by Jonah in verse 4b (i.e., the anticipation of seeing God’s temple again), the prophet returns to recounting his current predicament.
The waters surrounded me up to my neck. He is surrounded and being suffocated. The deep engulfed me. He is immersed and now, it would almost seem, is out of sight, even the sight of the only One who can provide salvation—Yahweh (12). Once again, this admission harkens back to Jonah’s initial desire to be away from the Lord’s sight.
My head was being bound up with reeds. The praying prophet is imprisoned by the death-bringing waters of the sea and is now ensnared by the vegetation in the Mediterranean. Drowning seems inescapable.
2:6a. Jonah continues to sink; To the roots of the mountains he descends. This phrase seems to refer to the very bases of the mountain which extend to the sea floor (cf. Eccles. 16:19). Jonah, then, is describing the extent of his descent. There is not much further down he can sink. “No longer upheld by his God, the psalmist feels himself sinking helplessly and hopelessly to the netherworld” (13).
The bars of the earth were around me forever. Jonah’s literal sinking to the depths is also used as a metaphor for his sinking to the place of the dead, a permanent prison in the earth of which there is no escape. Shoel is a permanent, gated, residence. A modern paraphrase may include the idiom “rock bottom.” Thus concludes Jonah’s recounting of his troubles.
c. Jonah anticipates his rescue, 2:6b–7
2:6b. Halfway through verse 6, Jonah transitions from a recounting of his trouble to an anticipation of his rescue. He shifts from past tense to future tense (14). In retrospect, Jonah declares you lifted up my life from the pit, O Yahweh my God. It is Yahweh, Jonah’s Yahweh (חַיַּי יהוה אֱלֹהָי), that saved him. He could do nothing for himself, locked behind the bars of the earth, entangled in the weeds at the roots of the mountains.
His helplessness is solidified in verse 7. While my soul was fainting away from me, I remembered Yahweh. While his life was slipping away, while he was descending to Sheol, he brought back to mind (זכר) the nature and character of God. And my prayer came to you in your holy temple. In spite of his disobedience and rebellion, in spite of his dire circumstances, and in spite of his unworthiness, Jonah’s call for help and mercy ascended into the very presence of the Lord he had been trying to escape. The contrast is, again, stark. While Jonah could not descend any deeper (e.g., Sheol, the roots of the mountains, the pit) his prayer rose to the highest of highs (e.g., the holy temple of God).
The direction of Jonah’s deliverance, lifted up my life from the pit (וַתַּעַל), and the ascent of his prayer (וַתָּבוֹא) are significant as it serves as a long anticipated change in direction in the book of Jonah (15). Up until this point in the narrative, while God had called Jonah “up” to himself and to his will, the wayward prophet had made great efforts to descend “down” away from God and away from submission to his holy commission. Note, in the table below, the direction of the verbs used throughout the first two pericopes of the book.
The first of two pericopes of the book of Jonah (titled in this work, collectively, as “God commissions Jonah”) is bracketed by two identical commands (1:2; 3:2) from God to his prophet to arise (קוּם), to get up and carry out the mission he is graciously bestowing upon him. This should be seen as an invitation from God to be used by God in his sovereign work (again, the sovereignty of God has been noted throughout the opening two chapters).
“Jonah, arise. Get up and follow me.” The author, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is here creating a dichotomy, or, a fork in the road—up toward the will of God (obedience) or down away from the will of God (rebellion). The extreme destination of the later road is identified in this narrative as Sheol, i.e., the lowest of the low (16). The rationale for the mission God is giving to Jonah solidifies this distinction: Preach against the Nineties because their evil has come up before me. So, where is God? In what direction, so to speak, can God’s goodness and mercy be found? Up.
As has been discussed, Jonah seems, for a brief moment, to obey. He gets up. Is this obedience we’re seeing? Is this a prophet accepting the mission and ascending into God’s will? Unfortunately, Jonah chooses the other option available and went down to Joppa, found a ship, paid the fare, and went down into the ship. When the storm begins, Jonah is nowhere to be seen. Why? The text tells the reader that the prophet has continued to sink away from the Lord and has gone down into the hull of the ship, lain down, and fallen asleep. The repetition of the direction makes it clear the choice the prophet has made—disobedience and rebellion.
The disturbing contrast between Yahweh’s prophet and the pagan sailors is striking. One particular point when this is the case is when the captain finds the down, down, down, down, down Jonah and, as if echoing the voice and invitation of God, commands him to get up. This command reminds the audience that the invitation of God upon Jonah still stands in spite of his willful descent. After the lot falls on Jonah, the prophet instructs the men to lift him up and throw him down into the sea. With reluctance, the sailors eventually do lift Jonah up and throw him overboard.
This is where the downward trajectory seemingly picks up momentum. Jonah himself is reporting his fall as he sinks down to Sheol, to the great deep, descending to the root of the mountains. Keeping in mind Jonah’s original intent in running from God, that he would flee from the presence of the Lord, he has now achieved what his heart had so desired at the outset of the narrative. He has sunk as low as one can sink, as far from God’s will as possible. While invited up to God’s will, God’s plan, God’s use for God’s glory, Jonah has now completed his descent from all of those privileges and blessings.
Now being shown the error of his ways, the prophet calls out to God from the deepest of deeps, the lowest of lows. In verse 7, a dramatic shift takes place. Jonah remembers Yahweh, throws a prayer up to God like a flare and, to his relief, it traveled up to God in his holy temple, the highest of highs! God, not Jonah, lifted the wayward prophet up from the pit. The ascent has begun because of the Lord’s graciousness, his power, and his mercy and it culminates as the great fish swims up to shore and vomits his passenger up onto dry land.
As if to say, “Let’s try this again, Jonah,” Yahweh repeats his initial command and invitation: Get up! The question is, what will the prophet now do?
d. Jonah promises his thanksgiving, 2:8–9
2:8. Jonah is going to now contrast idolators (v. 8) with faithful people of God (v. 9). In the former case, those who pay regard to useless idols, those who are snared into the worship of anything that is not Yahweh, forsake their faithfulness. The idol worshippers, when met with dire circumstances such as Jonah has been facing, will come to realize the impotence of that which they are worshipping. The idols cannot and will not bring the aid they so desire (17). The implied alternative is, then, those who regard Yahweh will never find him anything other than trustworthy, reliable, and powerful enough to deliver and comfort. This, of course, is what motivates Jonah’s thanksgiving.
2:9. Contrasted to the inevitably disappointed idolators, Jonah promises to be faithful to God. But I, with a voice of praise, will sacrifice to you. Having experienced God’s power, mercy, and love in his life, Jonah determines to respond with undiluted gratitude.
That which I vowed I will pay. Jonah’s promise to sacrifice and vow to the Lord harkens back to the response of the sailors in 1:16. This is a gratitude-motivated action, not one to incur God’s favour.
Salvation belongs to Yahweh! Could Jonah find a better way to summarize his appreciation to Yahweh for his gracious deliverance in spite of the prophet’s own disobedience? This final, triumphant, and anticipatory utterance of the psalm honours God in that it “extols his work as Saviour … [and] implicitly extols Yahweh’s position as sole Saviour” (18). Yahweh, and only Yahweh, saves! Looking ahead to chapter 4, however, it is this very truth about God’s nature and character that will cause Jonah heartache and frustration.
ii. God responds to Jonah: A deliverance, 2:10
2:10. The text once again leaves poetry for prose and records the means by which Yahweh answers his prophet’s request. Then Yahweh spoke to the fish and it vomited Jonah onto the dry land. Alexander rightly describes this as a “somewhat unconventional, and very unceremonious, return to land” (19). The swallowing and vomiting of the prophet by the great fish bracket in this second pericope.
Douglas Stuart, Hosea–Jonah (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 470.
See, for an example, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, “Jonah: A Fantasy of Flight,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues 18 (2008): 271–99.
W. Dennis Tucker Jr., Jonah: A Handbook on the Hebrew Text (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2018), 9. See also, Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, 472.
Brian L. Webster & David R. Beach, The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 16.
Youngblood, Jonah, 101.
Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, 475.
Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 123.
James Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 69.
Cf. Deut. 32:22; Job 7:9; Pss. 9:17; 86:13; Isa. 14:15
O. Palmer Robertson, Jonah: A Study in Compassion (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), 32.
Bruckner, Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, 73.
Jerome T. Walsh, “A Rhetorical Critical Study,” Biblica 63 (1982): 222.
Blumenthal, “Jonah, the Reluctant Prophet,” 106.
For an examination of the use of ‘space theory’ in the interpretation of the book see Rees, “Getting Up and Going Down,” 40–48.
Exell, Practical Readings in the Book of Jonah, 91.
Stuart, Hosea–Jonah, 478.
Baker, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, 129.
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