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Feb 2 / Chuck Smith, Jr.

January 29, 2017 – Jonah 1:17-2:10

A Song From the Belly of the Beast

And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish Jonah 1:17-2:1

Intro: The story of Jonah could have ended when the storm calmed

For example,
“Then the sailors threw Jonah into sea, and the Lord found a replacement”
– but because God had something else in mind, so the story goes on
• today’s episode is a brief narrative with a prayer inserted into it
• the narrative part begins in 1:17-2:1 and introduces Jonah’s prayer
◦ the narrative concludes in 2:10 with Yahweh’s answer
– rather than let Jonah drown, Yahweh appointed a great fish
• not to scare Jonah, but to swallow him
◦ “appointed” will be used three more times
(each time, it refers to a specific action God took with Jonah)
◦ also, like Nineveh, the wind, storm and sailors’ fear, the fish was great
• so now, Jonah was either treading water or sinking
◦ probably thinking, “This is it”– then a huge fish started circling him
◦ but after being swallowed, he still wasn’t dead — he was alive inside the fish!

Three days . . . the way the Old Testament uses figures is neither technical nor exact
– rather, numbers are frequently used in stories to create a sense of volume
• regarding the three days and three nights,

Uriel Simon observes, “This is a common idiom to denote a period that is long, but not too long”

◦ it can be a period of purification (Ex.19:10-11), restoration (Ho. 6:2), or completing a journey (Ge. 22:3-4)
• being inside the fish could not have been comfortable, or easy to breath, or smelled very good
◦ but that it was three days before Jonah prayed, demonstrates how stubborn he was
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD — what the captain asked him to do, but he had not done
• it was not the prospect of dying that got to him, but being stuck in limbo

. . . and he said,
I called out of my distress to the LORD,
And He answered me.
I cried for help from the depth [belly] of Sheol;
You heard my voice. 
Jonah 2:2

Jonah’s prayer is structures as a psalm of praise

Are we meant to assume he composed this poetic prayer inside the fish?
– possibly – it definitely contains lines from other psalms
• maybe he pieced together stanzas he had sung many times before
◦ many “spontaneous” prayers in our churches are little more than a string of cliches
• one thing that strikes me as odd, is there is no mention if his wrongdoing
◦ the closest he comes to an admission of guilt is in verse 8 — an obscure statement
◦ this not a psalm of confession
– the past tense may suggest this was written after the fact and upon reflection
• poetry recreates experience – and psalms take us inside the heart of prayers
• what we have is an embellished account of what his soul endured

To understand the poem, we have to accept its nonlinear development
– the events are out of sequence
• the first stanza sums up Jonah’s ordeal: I cried, God heard (cf. Ps. 120:1)
◦ it is so general that it could apply to any crisis, or life-threatening situation

Claus Westermann, “The typical speech of all these Psalms [of Praise] (including Jonah 2) makes it clear that the one speaking does not at all intend to speak of what actually happened to him. . . . the important thing was not the ‘individual features’ but the testimony of the witness.” (Praise and Lament In the Psalms)

• this is how the Psalms maintain their universal appeal and usefulness
◦ that is, how they become our prayers, both corporate and private
◦ notice also the shift to second-person, You – the prayer is personal
– notice how Jonah says same thing twice:
I called/I cried — out of my distress/from Sheol — He answered/You heard
• this is a feature of biblical poetry known as “parallelism”
◦ the words or themes of the first land are paralleled in the second line
• in this instance, what Jonah adds in the second line specifies and intensifies what he said in the first
◦ the generalized distress is specified as Sheol (the grave; he was as good as dead)
◦ the theme of his prayer is praise to Yahweh for rescuing him

For You had cast me into the deep,
Into the heart of the seas,
And the current engulfed me.

All Your breakers and billows passed over me.
So I said, “I have been expelled from Your sight.
Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy Temple Jonah 2:3-4

Jonah tells his story – the short version

This is a first look at his underwater sea adventure
– it was not the sailors, but his God tossed him into sea
• and he did not land in shallow water, but the deep and heart of the seas
• the current engulfed him while the waves rolled and broke over him
– his inner monologue reveals his interpretation of these events

So I said, “I have been expelled from Your sight”

• the idea is that if God looks away, the person dies
◦ but this, of course. was Jonah’s doing
◦ he tried to run from Yahweh’s presence; he created the vacuum
Nevertheless marks a turning point (a very dramatic one in Ps. 73:23)
◦ as thought he said, “I won’t accept this fate. I can choose to act”
◦ if he wanted God to look at him, he had toward God
toward Your holy temple – reorient himself
◦ how to prevent dizziness from twirling or spinning: keep your eyes on a fixed point
◦ the devastating breakers and billows were Yahweh’s, but so was his holy temple

Water encompassed me to the point of death.
The great deep engulfed me,
Weeds were wrapped around my head.
I descended to the roots of the mountains.
The earth with its bars was around me forever.
But You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.
While I was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
And my prayer came to You,
Into Your holy temple. Jonah 2:5-7

Jonah’s Story – the longer version with more details

Water surrounded him, the deep engulfed him, weeds were wrapped around his head
point of death translates what is more literally, “unto my nefesh” (throat)
• since air passes through the throat, nefesh is also translated “soul”
◦ and since food is also taken through the throat, nefesh is translated “life”
◦ water up to the the organs of breathing and swallowing
• forgive me, but I am reminded of the Smothers Brothers singing, “I’m being eaten by a boa constrictor”
– v. 6 is a journey to extremes in space and time
• space: in a story of ups and downs, Jonah sinks to the lowest point in his story
◦ it is also the lowest point on earth — if you descend there, you do not return

Have you entered into the springs of the sea
Or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
Or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? (Job 38:16-17)

◦ there is a lot of spatial movement in the psalms, even to metaphysical regions
• time: forever – this is where Jonah hit bottom
◦ Alcoholics Anonymous stresses that some people must hit bottom before they change
◦ this is where Jonah’s Rescuer found him, O Yahweh my God

The moment he was running out of breath and his soul was fading,
– Jonah remembered, which means to bring into present moment awareness
• to take the mind back can begin the journey back
my prayer — the first step in returning is prayer (cf. Hos.14:1-2)
• the temple was the focal point of reconnecting with God
◦ that’s where Jonah’s prayer found God

Those who regard vain idols
Forsake their faithfulness,

But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving.
That which I have vowed, I will pay.
Salvation is from the LORD. Jonah 2:8-9

The two lesson he learned through all of this

First, Those who regard vain idols — in my opinion, a poor translation
– the word “idol” does not appear in the Hebrew text
• it is assumed, because idols are sometimes referred to as emptiness, nothingness, vain
◦ I would prefer something like empty illusions
◦ for example, Jonah’s illusion that he could escape God or his will
faithfulness is not an accurate translation of hesed, but a theological interpretation
hesed is mercy, loving care and kindness
◦ those who cling to their empty illustions forfeit the real compassion God has for them
– the flip side of empty illusion is worship – it is what people do when rescued
• this is where the episode with the sailors ended,
◦ and it is where Jonah’s psalm resolves
• but Jonah’s worship has fuller, deeper expression
◦ this is because Jonah knew Yahweh
◦ his psalm is his voice of thanksgiving and the payment of his vow

The second lesson he learned: Salvation is from the LORD 
– not from other gods, putting up a valiant effort
• certainly not from empty illusions
• the message Jonah’s psalm is meant to communicate

Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto dry land. Jonah 2:10

A short, simple end to the story

What was swallowed in the sea got spewed onto dry land
– Phillip Cary referred to this as “a ridiculous anticlimax”

Conc: It is not only Jonah’s prayer that grabs our attention

His form of communicating it to us also demands attention
– he shifts from narrative prose to poetry
• a form of literature that requires us to exercise different reading skills
◦ poetry slows the pace of both our reading and of the story being told
◦ we have to feel our way through the poem
• a psalm, a poetic prayer like Jonah’s, is a work of art
◦ like the sacred clothing of the priests, psalms were composed for glory and for beauty (Ex. 28:2)
– these are missing elements in many of our prayers and worship
• not that we have to always pray beautiful prayers
◦ but that we give serious thought to our conversation with God (cf. Ecc. 5:1-2, 6-7)
◦ artful prayers are heart-full prayers (or heartfelt)
• think of the prayer Jesus composed for us to pray
◦ the Our Father reaches to the heights of heaven,
◦ yet takes into itself our deepest concerns here on earth

Allow your heart to pray in its native form–i.e., creatively
– as in other aspects of Christian spirituality, a child can lead us
• they are not afraid to express their deepest affection with crayons, paper and paste
– maybe write out one of your own prayers
• say your prayer in a poem, declare your gratitude in a psalm

Whatever else, let’s leave to one side
our adult fears and self-conscious concerns
and free our spirits into prayers and praise

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