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Jonah 2:1-10

December 1, 2014

This chapter in the story of Jonah is the forgotten chapter. When people tell the story of Jonah they ordinarily do not include this hymn. It seems like a pause in the story that can be discarded without loss. But actually this hymn that Jonah prays from the belly of the fish is integral to the overall structure and meaning of the story.

If Hollywood were to turn this story into a movie, the scene in the belly of the fish would certainly be one of the most dramatic. We would see Jonah struggling in the water and then–cue the “Jaws” music–we would see a huge sea monster heading straight for Jonah. Then he would be pulled violently under the waves. Jonah, in terror, would struggle vainly to get away from the jaws of this beast, but the enormous mouth, with its glistening, razor-sharp teeth, would close around him. Suddenly Jonah plunges down a slimy tunnel of darkness and into a stomach vat of acid and fish bones (or human bones?). Jonah shrieks in horror as he spends three days and nights in damnation.

That’s the Hollywood version, but it bears no resemblance to the biblical version. In this story the fish is salvation, not damnation. It does not scare Jonah, it rescues him. He does not wail from inside the whale (sorry for the pun), but sings a song of prayer and praise. If it were not for the fish, he was facing certain death.

The hymn in chapter 2 does not appear to have been composed specifically for this story. If it had been, we would expect it to mention the ship, the storm, the fish, and a confession by Jonah for trying to run away from God’s mission. Instead, this appears to be an already existing hymn, similar to many in the Book of Psalms, that is ready for use on any occasion when one has survived certain death and is now expressing gratitude and commitment to God. The hymn ties in nicely with the Jonah story because of its images of drowning. It also carries forward the theme of Jonah going down. The word “down” is repeated frequently in the first half of this story: Jonah goes down to Joppa, goes down into the hold of the ship, goes down into sleep, and goes down “to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” This repeated downward movement emphasizes Jonah’s increasing spiritual distance from God and spiritual death. But as people in AA often say, you frequently have to “hit bottom” before you face reality and begin the path to sobriety. So it is with Jonah. He must lose everything before he can begin his ascent to healing and wholeness.

But so far it is a false ascent. The hymn of thanksgiving and the commitment to make sacrifice to God make it sound like Jonah has fully come to his senses and has responded to God’s embrace. We are supposed to believe that Jonah is now reconciled to God; and now, empowered by God’s grace, he will fulfill God’s mission for him. Yes, he will fulfill the mission–spectacularly so; but he is far from reconciled to God (as will become plain in chapter 4). The story at this point is fooling us, because Jonah is fooling himself. His “salvation” is–we will soon see–quite shallow and unreal. This is an important point because no matter how spiritually sincere we look and sound to ourselves, we may be totally fooling ourselves regarding our actual love and trust in God. Jonah’s commitment to God is not as full as it now appears to be. He has the right theology (“those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty”) but not the right heart.

The story is carefully structured and balanced. Chapter 1 is about running away from the word of God while chapter 3 will be about fulfilling the word of God (using an identical introductory formula). Chapter 2 is about responding to God’s rescuing grace with gratitude while chapter 4 is about responding to God’s rescuing grace with anger. All of these parts are necessary for the story to have its full meaning; so do not ignore chapter 2!

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From → Jonah

One Comment
  1. Harold Bergey permalink

    Ryan, Good stuff! Thanks for posting. Harold

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