Richard E. Young

Copyright © 2000 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Chapter 2 - Come Hell and High Water



2:1 And Jonah prayed to his God17, Yahweh, from the guts41 of the fish.

2:2 And he said: "I cried out4 in my distress42 to Yahweh and He attended43 to me. From the womb44 of the world of the dead45 I called for help15 and You heard my voice.

2:3 "And You threw46 me deep48 into the heart47 of the seas where the currents turned around me and the breakers and waves49 passed over50 upon me.

2:4 "I said that I was banished51 from before Your eyes - yet I will again look with regard towards Your holy Temple.

2:5 "The waters engulfed my soul35; the abyss52 surrounded me; seaweed bound up my head53.

2:6 "I went down9 to the roots54 of the mountains where the bar of the gate55 of the earth confined me forever56. But You caused my life57 to ascend up6 from the pit58, Yahweh, my God17

2:7 "When my soul35 was faltering59 I remembered Yahweh and my prayer entered into Your holy Temple.

2:8 "Those that hold onto60 the breath61 of empty speech62 let go63 of their loving-kindness64.

2:9 "But I, with a voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You. What I vowed I will pay65. Salvation is from Yahweh."

Jonah's Psalm

Chapter two consists of Jonah's prayer, which resembles a psalm. Moreover, in some Septuagint manuscripts this psalm of Jonah resides among a collection of sacred poems following the canonical Psalms. Many people who encounter difficulties will quote parts of Scripture such as Psalm 23 or the Lord's Prayer. It seems that Jonah did this also in his distress, for parts of his prayer correspond to Psalm versus 42:7; 69:2,14,15; and 77:1-3. However, Jonah probably did not compose this psalm as we now have it while in the fish. Aside from Jonah having been under too much stress to design something as well crafted as this series of parallelisms [d], his experience was also presented in the past tense (i.e., Hebrew perfect tense). Nonetheless, it does accurately reflect Jonah's feelings and outlook during his experience in the fish.

If we extract the multiple parallel expressions in Jonah's prayer and group them together in more or less chronological order, we would obtain the following sequence:

  1. Jonah's situation: the guts of the fish; the womb of the world of the dead; deep into the heart of the seas; the abyss; the roots of the mountains; the pit.
  2. Jonah's affliction: currents turned around me; breakers and waves passed over upon me; I said that I was banished from before Your eyes; waters engulfed my soul; the abyss surrounded me; seaweed bound up my head; the bar of gate of the earth confined me forever; my soul was faltering.
  3. Jonah seeks God: Jonah prayed to his God, Yahweh; I cried out in my distress to Yahweh; I called for help; I will again look towards Your holy temple; I remembered Yahweh.
  4. Jonah's declaration: "Those that hold onto the breath of empty speech let go of their loving kindness. But I, with a voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You. What I vowed I will pay."
  5. God heeds Jonah: He attended to me; You heard my voice; my prayer entered your holy Temple.
  6. God Saves Jonah: You caused my life to ascend up from the pit, Yahweh, my God; salvation is from Yahweh.

Parallelisms are common in Hebrew. The objective was not redundancy but to gain a fuller and more accurate picture of a subject by viewing it from different perspectives.

Jonah's Situation

The fish parallels the ship of chapter one, and consequently, the guts of the fish coincides with the inner recesses of the ship (1:5). Whereas the ship represented Jonah's plans for himself, though, the fish represents God's plans for Jonah. Jonah brought himself into the hull of the ship but here God brought Jonah into the guts of the fish. Jonah instigated and made his own downward journey. He thought he was in control and could manage his rebellion against the Lord. But God now showed Jonah that his managed rebellion was only the beginning of his descent. Jonah was no different than any other man. We all think that we can manage that "little white lie" or that "small indiscretion." The Jewish theologian, Solomon Schechter, spoke about the "evil imagination" of man, which the rabbis personified as the Evil Yezer:

"His ways [the Evil Yezer's] are of the insinuating kind, appearing first to the man as a modest traveler, then as a welcome guest, and ending in exacting obedience as the master of the house. He shows himself also as an effeminate being with no capacity for doing harm, but afterwards overwhelms with masculine strength. The snares in which the Evil Yezer entangles man are at first sight as insignificant and vain as the thin thread of the cobweb, but take soon the dimensions of the rope, making it impossible for man to free himself from it." [e]

At some point things unravel and spin out of control and the effects are bigger than anything we anticipated. And in our case - as well as Jonah's - God brings about the unraveling. He causes the unraveling of our best laid plans in order to bring us back to Himself.

God threw Jonah into his situation. In 1:15 we read that the men threw Jonah into the sea. But here Jonah stated that God had thrown him there (2:3). God's demonstration of power and sovereignty became greater and greater as Jonah descended deeper and deeper.

The description of where Jonah found himself brings up primeval and other worldly images. Jonah found himself engulfed in a frightening and alien world unfit for human habitation. There was no air, drinkable water, edible food, or sunlight. It was devoid of people and community. An allusion to the primordial creation occurs in the word tehom, translated here as the abyss. Tehom occurs in the Creation story as the word "deep" in the verse "darkness was over the face of the deep" (Genesis 1:2). Indeed, this is the primitive world before it was made suitable for any living creature.

Jonah's journey compares to a journey back in time until he reached "forever" (olam). Olam means "time out of mind," and thus can be "very ancient time," "extremely future time" or "eternity." In a sense, Jonah had gone back through time and met eternity. But eternity now had a twist. Before the beginning, God existed without creation. But here, creation exists without God. Jonah had fled from God's presence and now received what he had sought, though not the way he thought it would be. Jonah wanted to be sovereign over his own life and yet still receive all of the benefits from God. But unbeknown to Jonah were the consequences of self-sovereignty. Existing completely independent of God meant that all of those things that God had provided to sustain and protect Jonah's life were necessarily removed; the gifts ultimately come as a package deal with the Gift Giver. None of us can survive independently of the environment that God has provided for us. When we venture into a hostile environment, such as the Deep Ocean or outer space, we have to carry our own self-contained environment with us. God, on the other hand, is self-sustaining in any environment. He can as easily exist in a pleasant meadow as on a distant and frozen planet or in the heart of a burning sun. So to be sovereign like God means that one must not only take on the task of being self-sustaining in any possible environment that one may encounter in creation but be self-sustaining in eternity as well. Jonah touched the edge of this outer darkness and realized he did not really want to exist independently of God.

We know the abyss of the soul that Jonah spoke of. David described it when he wrote, "for the inward thought and the heart of a man are deep" (Psalm 64:6). It is a psychological abyss that we usually travel over as if we were on a ship at sea, unaware of its depth. If we could clearly peer down into it we would experience vertigo and back away. But sometimes, oblivious of it's depth, we fall headlong into it, like Jonah.

The abyss is also a metaphor for the difficult troubles that a person cannot extricate themselves from (Psalm 42:7; 69:2,14,15; Ezekiel 26:19; Isaiah 51:10). Sometimes we bring ourselves to this place by our own doing, like Jonah. At other times others bring us there, as was Joseph when he was sold into slavery and wrongly put into prison. And occasionally, Satan brings us there, as he did with Job. When we enter these extreme difficulties it seems as if we trek through an inhospitable and alien world and feel isolated. But in all cases, God is in control and does not abandon us. Indeed, He tells us, "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you" (Isaiah 43:2a).

Jonah compared his position to the womb (beten) of the world of the dead (sheol). This is an oxymoron for we associate wombs with life and yet the writer associates it here with death. James, the brother of Jesus, evoked a similar image: "when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death" (James 1:15). On one hand Jonah's sin placed him in a gestation of death. But as the story unfolds we discover another image develop as well - new birth. Jesus said that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). Here Jonah is a picture of that grain of wheat that will not bear fruit unless it first dies. And it is a picture of how we must die to ourselves, through Christ, so that we may bear the fruit of the Spirit.

Jonah also likened his circumstances to a pit. The word shachath, translated as "pit," figuratively means "grave" or "destruction" and is nearly synonymous with sheol, the world of the dead, used in 2:2. But shachath also has the nuance of a pit used to catch wild animals. David said that evil men dug a pit for him (Psalm 33:7). A pit was said to be dug for capturing the wicked (Psalm 94:13). The wicked were described as falling into a pit of their own making (Psalm 7:15; 9:15; Proverbs 26:27). Here we have the image of Jonah as a wild animal captured by God in a trap. An analogous image occurs in Jonah's descent to the roots of the mountains where he said he found himself confined in the underworld by a bolted gate. He was a prisoner. He was trapped. These images of the pit and prisoner echoes Joseph's experience in Genesis. Joseph's brothers threw him into a pit because of their jealousy. Jonah and Joseph both act as types for Christ who also entered into a pit when He was separated from the Father and said "My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?" Further, with Jonah as a type for the Hebrews, he foreshadows the kingdom of Judah that was pictured as an animal caught in a pit and taken into captivity to Babylon (Ezekiel 19:1-9).

Jonah never would have chosen to go where God took him just as none of us would choose to go through some our own horrible experiences. But in the end Jonah learned lessons he could not have learned otherwise. At times God must take each of us through inhospitable worlds to teach us things that we could not learn any other way.

Jonah's Affliction

The terror that the sailors only tasted when they realized that the creator of the universe pursued them Jonah now swallowed whole. We have the image of Jonah completely at the mercy of God as represented by His instruments - the fish, the sea, and the earth. He is swept by the currents, buffeted by the waves, engulfed by the waters, and his head tangled in seaweed. He is banished from God's presence, taken to Sheol, and imprisoned in the earth. Jonah feared nothing before. But now he was helpless in the hands of God and learned that indeed, "it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31).

Jonah's faltering soul here corresponds to his becoming faint from the hot wind and sun in chapter four. Here Jonah's head was afflicted by seaweed; in chapter four his head was afflicted by the hot wind and blazing sun. Whenever we are physically attacked our natural instinct is to cover and protect our head. The affliction of Jonah's head depicts the assailing of his most vulnerable part and God subduing Jonah's center of control over his life. In a sense his head represents the stronghold of his resistance to God's rule over his life. We can see this illustrated in the story of the capture of Jerusalem by king David. When the Israelites first took possession of the Promised Land they did not gain full mastery over the land until David captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites (II Samuel 5:6-10). Jerusalem, under the control of the Jebusites, represents those areas in our life that have refused to submit to God's control; it is a "stronghold of the flesh." Once David captured Jerusalem, though, Israel flourished under David and Solomon's reigns. And so it was with Jonah. God besieged Jonah's citadel of resistance with the intent of capturing the lordship of his life. The desired outcome would be for Jonah to experience a spiritual "golden age" with the Lord ruling from Jonah's strongest position.

The word gal, translated here as "waves" in 2:3, has as its root meaning "something rolled." For that reason gal also means a "heap of stones," for stones and water roll to create heaps of water and piles of stones. A gal, as in a heap of stones, was placed over a dead body for burial (e.g., Joshua 7:26; 8:29). And here emerges an image of Jonah's death and burial. However, another pertinent account of a heap of stones occurs in the story of Jacob and Laban. Jacob and Laban ratified an agreement on their respective territories by erecting a gal as a witness to their covenant (Genesis 31:46-52). When Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land they erected a pile of 12 stones as a memorial to how the Lord had stopped the flow of the Jordan and brought Israel into the Promised Land (Joshua 3:4-9). The first connotation of gal sets Jonah under the waves as a type for Christ's death and burial. But the second connotation, as a witness to an agreement or a memorial, adds significance to the stone that was placed over Christ's tomb (Matthew 27:6; Mark 15:46; Luke 24:2; John 20:1). That stone, which was placed there in Christ's death and rolled away from the entrance at His resurrection, acts as a witness to the new covenant and a memorial of how the Lord has brought us all into what the Promised Land itself was a type for - the new life in Christ.

Jonah Seeks God

Shown the consequences of his disobedience Jonah prayed to God for the first time. Jonah was originally told to cry out (qara) against Nineveh (1:2); he now cried out (qara) to God. But almost immediately the more emotionally charged word zaaq was used. Zaaq means to "call out for help" and is the same word that described the sailors panicked cries in the wild storm. Jonah was beginning to fear like the sailors had feared. God's plan was for Jonah's fear to progress as the sailors' fear had done beforehand. His final fear should be the fear of God.

Jonah looked "with regard towards God's holy temple." We know that the Temple in Jerusalem was only a shadowy model of the heavenly Temple. God's presence makes things holy. Originally, all of creation was holy. But, by God allowing free will to enter into creation, He also allowed the potential for parts of creation to become unholy. When Moses met the Lord at the burning bush the Lord told him, "Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5). When the Lord is present, there is holiness. Jonah, who once fled from the presence of the Lord, again looks towards God's presence.

Jonah's Declaration

The word shav translated here as "empty speech" in 2:8 means "lies" or "falsehoods." It too can figuratively mean "idols." This verse is typically translated with the word idols. The word shamar translated here as "hold on" carries the meaning of to "guard," "keep", or "regard." The unity of the image seems to hold together better with shav translated as "empty speech" rather than as "idols" because "breath of empty speech" contrasts well with the "voice of thanksgiving" in the next verse.

How can one hold onto a breath? Further, the words of this breath contain empty speech; that is, lies. This doubly hopeless maneuver can only result in the release of loving-kindness from your grip. Jonah was saying that he would not sacrifice to the Lord with empty words. The thought here is of one who vowed an animal to the Lord but substituted an inferior animal when it came time for the actual sacrifice (Malachi 1:14). Jonah tells the Lord that he would not do that. Rather, he would pay with the fullness inherent in true thanksgiving what he had vowed to the Lord; Jonah would go to Nineveh.

Jonah's payment to the Lord contrasts with the payment he had previously made to the sailors in his escape attempt (1:3). There, Jonah only reaped the abyss with that payment.

God has never required anyone to make a vow. However, if anyone did do so they were obligated to fulfil it:

21 "When you make a vow to the Lord your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the Lord your God will surely require it of you. 22 However, if you refrain from vowing, it would not be sin in you. 23 You shall be careful to perform what goes out from your lips, just as you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God, what you have promised" (Deuteronomy 23:21-23).

The vow (neder), once taken, was considered a sacred duty and was invalidated only if it had been taken rashly with its fulfillment requiring a violation of the Law. Consequently one was to very carefully consider a vow before taking it (Proverbs 20:25).

But exactly when did Jonah vow to go to Nineveh? Did he make it only after God had, in a manner of speaking, twisted his arm while in the fish? With a little thought we can deduce that Jonah actually made this vow before the beginning of the book. When Jonah initially became a prophet he implicitly vowed to be a representative of God as His spokesman. His running away violated the sacred obligation he had sworn to.

The act of becoming a Christian involves an implicit vow not much different from that of a prophet. We vow to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:24). But we know from the parable of the Sower and the Seeds that not everyone who takes on the sacred obligation to follow the Lord fulfils it (see Matthew 13:1-23). Jesus told us to count the cost of discipleship before vowing to follow Him (Luke 14:27-33).

Other than this vow of discipleship to the Lord very few people make any other vow before the Lord. However, there is one vow that many of us do make before the Lord yet treat it with the same gravity as a New Year's Resolution. That is the marriage vow. Deuteronomy 23:21-23, cited above, should be carefully examined before anyone marries. Once taken, each member of the marriage should realize that they have sworn to a sacred obligation before God Himself. God will hold everyone accountable for our vows for our entire lifetime. Jonah realized that he had taken a vow in his past that God was now holding him to. Some people feel that vows are "only words," but God sees them as serious business.

God Heeds Jonah

The word anah, translated here as "attended to" (2:2) also means "to afflict" as well as "to humble." The manifold meanings are apparently intended, for God attended to Jonah's cry but Jonah was also afflicted and humbled.

Jonah's prayer acted as an emissary for him, going where Jonah felt he himself could not go. Though Jonah felt banished, his prayer entered into the very presence of God. It passed the angelic guards at the gate of the heavenly Temple and entered into the Holy Court to present itself before the King of the Universe. Whether it was pompous or humble, pretentious or sincere, it was still allowed entrance. The blood of Jesus makes it possible for all of our prayers to confidently come into the Lord's holy Temple (Hebrews 10:19). Thus even the most contemptible sinner can send a prayer into God's holy presence as an emissary. If this were not so then none would ever have a chance to repent. Once the prayer appeared before God He evaluated it. Nothing was obscured; all prayers are completely transparent to Him. If He could detect even a trace amount of worth in the prayer He would extract it out and delight in it. God readily responds to even the barest of prayers containing true humility and thankfulness. He then gladly runs to aid the one who sent the prayer.

God Saves Jonah

Salvation is exclusively from Yahweh. The implication for Jonah was that salvation was not the sole possession of the Jews. The same truth holds true for all Christians today. Jesus said, "no one comes to the Father but through Me" (John 14:6b). Christians hold this truth as foundational. Yet groups qualify Jesus' statement by asserting that no one can come to Jesus except through them. They thus become the guardians of access to Jesus, and therefore guard access to God. This attitude existed in Jonah and the Jews of his day and still exists in several "exclusive" Christian churches today; they find it inconceivable that God would work with anyone outside of their group. Once the Apostle John complained to Jesus, "'Master, we saw someone casting out demons in Your name; and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow along with us.' But Jesus said to him, 'Do not hinder him; for he who is not against you is for you'" (Luke 9:49-50). No one acts as the guardians of Jesus and salvation. Yahweh Himself holds access to salvation exclusively through Christ. All can approach Christ independently of any group affiliation.

2:10 Yahweh then spoke to the fish and it vomited66 Jonah onto the dry-ground31.


Undignified Deliverance

Why was Jonah delivered in such an undignified way? The word qo, translated as "vomited," has no other meaning. It could have been worseat least he didn't come out the other way! Certainly he was happy to get out of the fish in any event. But vomited out? I'm sure Jonah would have preferred to effect his own rescue in some less humiliating way if he could. But Jonah was not in control and had no hand in his own deliverance. For us it is the same: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9). Many people find it too humiliating to be delivered in God's way and, for pride's sake, want to have a hand in their own salvation. But God will have none of that. If Jonah had performed some clever feat to extricate himself from the fish, such as Pinocchio and Geppetto did by lighting a fire to cause the whale they were trapped in to cough them out, then some could claim that sheer human will or ingenuity came to Jonah's rescue. But for those God delivers God alone will be praised.

Before, the dry ground designated deliverance. But now, more specifically, the dry ground depicts deliverance provided exclusively by Yahweh. God explained that He had dried up of the Red Sea and the Jordan so "that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, so that you [Israel] may fear the Lord your God forever" (Joshua 4:24). God's purpose for Jonah here was the same as for Israel. He was to learn to fear Yahweh not in word only but in his heart. This passage from Joshua also tells us that the intent for the Gentiles, as represented by the sailors and the Ninevites, was that they would "know that the hand of the Lord is mighty."

God's Loving Deliverance

Ultimately the fish represents God's loving deliverance of Jonah from his rebellion and death. The Lord tells us "when you pass through the waters, I will be with you" (Isaiah 43:2a). But Jonah needed discipline; so like a loving father, God disciplined him. Certainly Jonah did not see the benefit in his experience, for "All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful" (Hebrews 12:11a). Nevertheless, in the waves and deep of the sea God's love enveloped him. From this view point Jonah's undersea journey resembles Samuel Trevor Francis' song "O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus":

O the deep, deep love of Jesus
Vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean
In its fullness over me,
Underneath me, all around me,
Is the current of Thy love;
Leading onward, leading homeward
To my glorious rest above.

O the deep, deep love of Jesus,
Love of every love the best;
'Tis an ocean vast of blessing,
'Tis a haven sweet of rest,
O the deep, deep love of Jesus,
'Tis a heav'n of the heav'ns to me;
And it lifts me up to glory,
For it lifts me up to Thee.

Footnotes for Chapter 2

[d] For example, in 2:1b - 2:2 we observe the parallel:

[e] Aspects of Rabbinic Theology: Major Concepts of the Talmud, Solomon Schechter (The Macmillan Company: New York, 1909) p.248.

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