Minor Prophets: Jonah’s Psalm


Jonah is associated with the giant fish, a reluctant prophet of hope to the enemies of his people.

In chapter 2, Jonah’s repentance brings redemption

Taken on its own merit, the Psalm in chapter 2 is quite beautiful. Skillfully woven into this poem are the ancient theologies of God’s character and presence, God’s holiness, redemption, and sovereignty. Because it is a Psalm, it was meant to be heard, with music, so I have read the Jonah’s prayer out loud, and added instrumentation.

Jonah 2 [NRSV] | As read by Joanne Guarnieri Hagemeyer, music by AShamaluevMusic

To the ancient Hebrew, it was not just that God exists and appeared to people, God also went beside, accompanied, and had sustained nearness to God’s people. Deep within the Torah, the Lord declared God’s omnipresence, saying


I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you.

And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.

Leviticus 26:11-12 (NRSV)

The Lord’s particular holy presence was on God’s holy mountain Zion, dwelling within God’s holy city Jerusalem, and visibly present in cloud and fire upon the seat of mercy in God’s holy sanctuary temple.

God’s faithfulness in being present with Jonah, even hearing Jonah’s prayer from the utter depths of the sea, of death itself, as God listened from the seat of redemption that covered the ark—and consequently the law—exalted Almighty and Compassionate God above every other god.

I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me;

out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.

Jonah 2:2 (NRSV)

It distressed Jonah deeply that he might never again see the place of God nor experience God’s face shining upon him. It was worse even than death to this prophet’s soul.

You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me.

Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’

Jonah 2:3-4

To be cast away was deserved, for God was holy, and all that was unholy was unfit to be in God’s holy place. To the ancient Hebrew, God was set apart, creation had certain spaces for each category of life, the water its boundaries and the dry land, creatures in each of their domains. So it was also for God’s people. They were to be set apart to God.


For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves

Leviticus 11:44 (NRSV)

Yet Jonah had defiled himself and creation by breaking faith with God, then having himself cast into the sea rather than repent.

Nevertheless, in a stunning display of mighty power, overwhelming compassion, and undeserved mercy God redeemed Jonah from the pit of deserved condemnation and death.

This went to the core of faith for the ancient Hebrew, for this was the God Who had delivered Israel from perpetual enslavement and ultimate extinction. At the very beginning of their history the Lord had proclaimed,


I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.

Exodus 6:6 [NRSV]

The fundamental movement of the Lord was to move God’s people from bondage to freedom, from objectification as enslaved persons to beloved people in relationship with the Almighty Sovereign and God of the Cosmos.

Jonah’s Psalm drew upon this theme of bondage and eventual end. Just as surely as Israel was being inexorably crushed and done away with under Pharaoh’s cruel despotism, so also Jonah would soon be gone forever.

The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains.

I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever;

yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God.

As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.

Jonah 2:5-6 (NRSV)

Such compassion required a response, and Jonah knew well what that must be. He had already been born into a covenant with God, a covenant that marked him as belonging to God forever, but now he must repair the breach he had rendered through his rebellion.

Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.

But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.

Deliverance belongs to the Lord!

Jonah 2:9 (NRSV)

This spoke to the very foundation of Hebrew faith, the Mosaic Covenant and Sinai Theology.


“So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?” God had commanded Moses to ask this of the people. Though they were in the wilderness, the blazing sun radiating its waves of heat upon the land, they remained cool under the refreshing cloud of the Lord. Even this gift they could never repay.

They did not know what the Lord required, they were forever in God’s debt.

“Only to fear the Lord your God,” Moses cried out in his powerful voice. “To walk in all God’s ways, to love God, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

Overcome with emotion, Moses’ voice broke. And the people wept with overflowing hearts, for they did love this strange and powerful being Who had conquered every enemy with mighty acts.  

“And,” continued Moses, once he had composed himself “To keep the commandments of the Lord your God and God’s decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.”

As one body, every child, every woman, every man vigorously nodded their heads. This we will do, they cried back, with every fiber of their being.

You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” Moses thundered. There had already been trouble among them in this, for along with the Hebrew people had come Egyptians, and those from other nations who had also been enslaved, yet believed in God.

“You shall fear the Lord your God; GOD alone you shall worship; to GOD you shall hold fast, and by GOD’S name you shall swear.” Moses was fierce, larger than life, as he raised up his hands towards the great pillar of cloud and fire Who rose up before them, and over them. Yes, they whispered, in trembling reverence. Oh yes, God alone.

“GOD is your praise; the Lord is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.” Many fell to their knees, others threw themselves prostrate in worship, and a great cry rose up from the throng of God’s people in the wilderness, “Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”[1]


Jonah’s own willful spirit, his high dudgeon against what God had asked of him, to show graciousness and compassion towards the Assyrians, would not bend its stiff neck until Jonah’s hair was getting tangled in seaweed. His prayer revealed how he had been brought to the end of himself and found out that though he had forsaken God, God had not forsaken him. 

Jonah

  1. talked honestly about what was happening to him and how he felt about it. He did not try to explain away his sin or make excuses for himself. Instead he was completely vulnerable with God.
  2. repented of clinging to a worthless idol, in this case his independence from God’s will. He did not ask God for anything, he realized God had given him grace even when he had forfeited it.
  3. was thankful for God’s spiritual deliverance, and for the fish which rescued him physically.
  4. was ready to meet God on God’s terms. Earlier, the sailors feared God, made a sacrifice, then made vows to God. Having been tutored by them, Jonah also would make sacrifice and vow.
Jan Brueghel the Elder. 1568-1625. Antwerp. Jonah and the Whale. Munich Alte Pinakothek.
Old Testament. | jean louis mazieres , flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Salvation is possible only because God makes it possible: it is of the Lord   

God’s sovereignty over all the earth, over the sea, over life itself, was displayed in the Lord’s dramatic rescue of Jonah, For God commanded the fish to spew its treasure upon the land, and it did so. Centuries later, Jesus would show the same divine power and sovereignty when he commanded a fish to spew its treasure into the hands of Peter.


[1] Taken from Deuteronomy 10:11-22 (NRSV)

[Jonah | James Tissot (1836-1902), French painter / Public domain]

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