Song of Jonah

Song of Jonah

Song of Jonah

Please read Jonah 2.

The Song of Jonah

In my distress I called  to the Lord, and he answered me.

From the depths of the grave I called for help, and you listened to my cry.

You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas,

and the currents swirled about me; all your waves and breakers swept over me.

I said, ‘I have been banished from your sight;

yet I will look again toward your holy temple.’

The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me;

seaweed was wrapped around my head.

To the roots of the mountains I sank down;

the earth beneath barred me in forever.

But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God.

When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord,

and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple.

Those who cling to worthless idols, forfeit the grace that could be theirs.

But I, with a song of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you.

What I have vowed I will make good.

Salvation comes from the Lord.”

(Jonah 2:1-10, NIV).

AUTHOR. No one has claimed authorship of this book, but tradition has always maintained Jonah as the obvious author. He was a prophet between 793-753 BC, during the reign of Jereboam II. Jonah was a great preacher from Galilee (II Kings 14:25) during the expansion of Israel, when the borders were extended and Israel was growing in its rather arrogant nationalism. The book itself was probably written sometime between 785-760 BC, and has been accepted as historical in rabbinic literature. Jonah’s prophetic contemporaries were Amos, Isaiah, and Micah.

THE BOOK. Jonah the book is a classic story in ancient folklore. Read the story of Pinnochio if you want an interesting allusion to Jonah. This book is unusual in prophetic literature. Most of the Bible’s prophetic books are centered on the prophet’s messages, focused on the words of the Lord being spoken by the prophet. But Jonah is all about the story, the narrative of this time during the prophet’s life. Jonah’s words in the book for the most part were contained in his song, but there were was no one around to hear those words, except God, of course.

There is much scholarly controversy about the genre of the book: a myth? an allegory? a parable? a fable? Or was it actual history, filled with unlikely but miraculous drama? The truth is that the story doesn’t fit easily into those fictional genres. So rather than force the book into a product of the imagination, it might be better to simply accept the story as true, an historical series of events in the life of a real Biblical prophet. The fact that we can point to his birthplace, his name, his father, and under whom he served as a prophet of the Lord seems to allow us in good conscience to think of his story as historical. The hero of the story isn’t Jonah, interestingly enough. The protagonist, the main character, of the book is God. Either Yahweh or Elohim is mentioned 39 times in the book. Jonah is only mentioned 18 times. God is front and center: the God who is sovereign over all creation, and can command wind, sea and fish to obey Him; the God who is attractive to pagans like the mariners and the Ninevites; the God who is universally merciful, everyone deserving a chance at redemption; the God who goes outside the borders of the Chosen People to express His accountability and judgment and compassion.

THE FISH. So Jonah hears God’s call to go to his enemy in Nineveh, he sails in the opposite direction towards Spain (Tarshish), he gets thrown into a stormy sea during his voyage, and is swallowed whole by a giant fish.

Why did God in His sovereignty send a fish, of all things? Several reasons come to mind: He wanted to save Jonah from drowning. He wanted to get Jonah’s attention, not kill him. God still had plans for Jonah. God wanted to teach Jonah a lesson. God wanted to punish Jonah for running away, not destroy him. God wanted to give Jonah a second chance. God wanted to repeat His call to Jonah, and give him another chance to obey; God wanted to transport Jonah back to shore so he could walk to Nineveh. What more efficient method of transportation in the sea could there be than in a living submarine? The fish that God provided for Jonah was a miraculous act of mercy, any way you look at it.

TRAPPED. Jonah was in quite the predicament. He was trapped inside the digestive system of a giant fish. It could have been a giant whale shark, or a whale, or maybe even a one-time miraculous fish created especially for the occasion by the Lord of Creation. Any way you look it, Jonah was confined in a genuine claustrophobic environment. Add to that the fact he was trapped in a tiny space with murky water everywhere, rotting fish, seaweed floating around and getting in his hair, and a frightening darkness with no hope of natural light. Jonah was indeed a captive audience for God. There was no way out of this solitary confinement. He expressed his feelings about his tight quarters in his song… “the deep surrounded me; the earth beneath barred me in forever.” Yet, Jonah was thankful God had saved him from the storm, and from being eaten alive by the fish. No doubt he thought about Ps. 18:16, “He reached down from on high and took hold of me; He drew me out of the deep waters.” God loves to make a way where there is no way. After three days in the fish, God had it vomit Jonah onto the shore, safe and sound. Once again, Ps. 18 says it well, “He brought me out into a spacious place; He rescued me because He delighted in me.” (v. 19). Whenever we feel constrained or trapped, remember Jonah in the fish, and call to mind God’s delight in you. Jonah’s gratitude released his spirit before he was physically rescued. God can bring us into a spacious place, a wide-open freedom of spirit, even in the midst of containment. Many people in this world are trapped in isolation and confinement. It takes a toll on the spirit. Let us continue to pray for and minister to those who are incarcerated, in detention, refugee centers, in a nursing home or hospital, or trapped in never-ending chronic pain or addiction. Ask God to free their spirit into a spacious place, liberated in the Spirit of the Lord.

THE SONG. The song of Jonah is a prayer of thanksgiving. Because God intervened, Jonah did not drown in the stormy sea, and was not eaten by this giant fish. He survived certain death, and now in the belly of the fish it was time for some soul-searching. Jonah was somehow able to collect himself, and he gratefully addressed his God. He was immersed in Scripture, he referred to the Psalms, and he spoke to the Lord from the heart. He seemed to be  more upset over his distance from God than anything else. “I have been banished from your sight.” He was disheartened over the fact that God had abandoned him there in the fish. Jonah desperately wanted to return to the Presence of God in His holy temple. Sitting there forlorn and dejected, Jonah “remembered” the Lord. He thanked Him and worshiped Him, and vowed that he will approach God with sacrifice and thanksgiving. “What I have vowed I will make good.” Jonah seems to gain confidence in the Lord as the song progresses, from merely describing his plight and reviewing his predicament, to expressing faith in the God who has rescued him. Jonah closes with a classic Biblical statement of faith, “Salvation comes from the Lord.”

THE PSALMS. It’s no wonder Jonah’s song reads like a psalm. In fact, many scholars refer to it as a psalm. Here’s why: every single verse in Jonah’s song either quotes or alludes to a passage from the Psalms. Jonah is a prophet who knows his Scripture, is well-versed in the Psalms, and like a faithful God-follower has memorized much of the Word. There he is, stuck in the belly of a giant fish, punished for his disobedience, and Jonah brings to mind several excerpts from Scripture to comfort and strengthen him. He had hid the Word in his heart, and now it is giving life in a deadly predicament.

TURNING OUR BACKS. It is instructive to consider the various translations in order to get a full picture of Jonah’s prophetic words in verse 8:

  • “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit grace that could be theirs.” (NIV).
  • Those who worship false gods turn their backs on all God’s mercies.” (NLT).
  • Those who worship hollow gods, god-frauds, walk away from their only true love.” (Message).
  • They who cling to empty folly forsake their own welfare.”  (Tanakh).
  • Those who regard empty idols forsake their hesed-mercy.” (NASB).
  • Those who pay regard to useless idols forsake their own Source of mercy and lovingkindess.” (Amplified).

Jonah knows first hand what it feels like to turn his back, coming very close to forfeiting God’s grace. At the close of his prayer-song, Jonah is thankful that God showed him mercy in the midst of rebellion. How ironic, of course, that he didn’t want to extend God’s mercy to his enemies. We need to keep thinking about any empty folly or worthless modern idols we may be following. The last thing we want to do is turn our backs on all God’s mercies.

AFTER THE FISH. After being spit out by the fish onto the shore near Joppa, Jonah is convinced he needs to obey the Lord’s mission and go to Nineveh. The fugitive prophet finally decides to heed the call. He might still be reluctant, his heart might still be divided, but he is no longer a rebellious renegade. God has saved him from certain death, and he is feeling morally obligated to be sure. He never wanted this mission in the first place, because the Assyrians were dreaded enemies of Israel, unspeakably cruel, and deserved nothing but judgment from the righteous Yahweh. And the people of Israel, in their nationalistic pride, wanted nothing to do with pagan Gentiles. They knew they were the Chosen People, and they acted like it. But Jonah was grateful to God, and he decided to complete his unpleasant mission to save his enemies. So Jonah walked the 500 miles to Nineveh, preached God’s fire and brimstone to the Ninevites for three days, and waited outside the city to see what would happen.

Jonah was evidently quite effective and the Spirit was moving as the people of Nineveh repented. And God mercifully forgave them of their witchcraft, pagan idolatry, and various atrocities. But soon after, Jonah resented God for His mercy, compassion, and ability to stay His anger. Jonah was disgusted that God would be true to His nature, and he even quotes Exodus 34, the great self-revelation of God’s loving character. This was the same mercy, remember, that God had just showed Jonah. But Jonah was petty and petulant, especially after the Lord sent a worm to take away his shade-plant. Jonah was upset at the shriveling up of the plant, but he wouldn’t have blinked an eye if 120,000 people would have been wiped out.

The story ends abruptly. Jonah gets a gold star for even writing this story for posterity, as he looks like a very resentful, unmerciful believer throughout most of the book. The fact that he humbly wrote the story which would only humiliate him for generations is an impressive miracle in itself. It’s interesting that Nineveh’s spiritual turnaround didn’t last for very long. 100 years after Jonah, God tapped Nahum to preach exactly the same thing to Nineveh. Only this time, they did not respond with repentance. Within a few years of Nahum, the Assyrians were obliterated by the Babylonians.

JESUS AND JONAH. One day a group of Pharisees came to Jesus and demanded that He perform a miracle. In their minds, this would prove his authority to say what He has been saying. This was a strange request, since all they had to do was follow Jesus around for a day or two and witness any number of healings and miracles. Jesus was offended that they wouldn’t recognize and accept the truth about God and the Messiah. Jesus was displeased that they continued to question His authority. He didn’t mince words and said that “only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign.” He then said that He will give them the “sign of Jonah” to prove He is the Messiah. Just as Jonah was given a new life, so to speak, after three days in the fish, Jesus would come back to life after three days in the tomb. Perhaps then the people would recognize the truth and repent, like the people of Nineveh. Maybe then the people would have the evidence they seem to need to prove His authority. Jesus sadly noted then that “Now someone greater than Jonah is here – but you refuse to repent.” (Matt. 12:39-42; Luke 11:29-30; Matt. 16:4).

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