Have you ever heard a testimony that just didn’t sound right? Maybe, something like: “My life was a mess, but then I wised up and trusted God, and so now I’ve pulled it together …” Crassly put, but I bet you’ve heard something of the kind.
This week in Jonah 2, we find the prophet in the belly of the fish. Jonah’s initial response to God’s commission to preach to Nineveh was flight (1.1-4a). This response resulted in the prophet being out to sea, plunging toward death and destruction and in the company of Gentile Mariners. The continuing result of Jonah’s disobedience was Jonah’s apprehension by God (tossed from the ship and swallowed by the fish) and reverent fear of the One-True-God on the part of the Gentile mariners (1.4b-17).
Now, in the belly of the fish (a place of both death and reversal) Jonah prays to God. In his psalm of declarative praise, Jonah reverses his preference for death over obedience (:1-6). Jonah responds to God, recognizing God’s attentiveness: I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me (:1). How ironic. The Mariners had been praying to God when Jonah wasn’t. The ship chosen by Jonah had taken him to death and chaos, indicated by the sea; the fish chosen by God will carry Jonah to life, indicated by dry land. God had attended Jonah, but how odd Jonah would take credit for doing the calling.
Jonah responds to God, recognizing God’s mercy in judgment (:3). For 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. “You did this to me!” Jonah seems to be saying. Oh, how extreme Your judgement. How severe Your mercy.
Jonah responds to God, recognizing God’s deliverance (:4-6). Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.” Jonah is quoting himself here. Prayers offered “toward the temple” reflect the language of exiles. Jonah will attempt to come to God once more, even as he passes into death: The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me … Language here reflects Ancient Near Eastern cosmology. He’s sinking, so he understands, to the foot of the mountains that hold the earth; he’s wrapped in the reeds of the River of Death. He’s going DOWN … DOWN … DOWN, even as he’s traveled since first rejecting God.
Then, we come to the crucial colon of the psalm: … yet you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God (:6b). In recognizing Israel’s God as his God, Jonah experiences reversal. He begins to move UP.
In the second half of the psalm, Jonah resolves to re-enter God’s merciful plan (:7-10). When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you in your holy temple (:7). Fantastic! But, where is Jonah’s emphasis?
Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love, but I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you … (:8-9) True again, but something isn’t right here! There’s no repentance. There’s too much self-piety … too much self-resolve … too much passion for calling out other sinners … not enough brokenness.
… what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD (:9) And so it does, but in resolving to do what he hadn’t done before, the reader gets the feeling that the story is not done yet. And, it isn’t. God responds to Jonah (:10). And the fish, carrying Jonah to dry land where he will continue his lessons in God’s merciful plan, vomits Jonah on the shore.
Stepping back a bit from the story, we as readers recognize that Jonah thinks that God is all about getting him to go somewhere to do a job. We can see that God is really about the business of peeling back the layers of self-piety and bringing holiness to Jonah, even while He accomplishes His mission for the nations.
Jonah doesn’t get that, yet. And, sometimes, we don’t get it either.
My response to God in His merciful plan might involve misplaced self-reliance.
Likely, this comes in our place of greatest struggle—probably the place where we feel we must work the hardest. Possibly, it’s here where we most desire to make a good showing of conforming to God.
That just could be the place where God wants us to know the greatest brokenness. Then, we might (like verse :6b, where Jonah got it right!) say with Jonah: … you brought my life up from the pit, O LORD my God!
Have another look at Jonah 2.1-10 and think through the following questions:
There’s laugh-out-loud irony in this passage, and it’s hard not to smile at Jonah’s poor example of following God. What about Jonah’s thinking in this passage do you find most puzzling?
Where in my life am I straining to please God? Where am I lashing out at injustice, or something that isn’t right in my life?
Could it be that these two questions together could lead us to the hidden places in our lives where we’re simply trying to conform to God without actually being broken in His presence?
Where have I known real brokenness over my sin? How is that different than simply trying harder to please God or resolving to do what’s right in God’s presence?
Jonah’s career contrasts sharply with the ministry of the Lord Jesus. Where do you catch a bit of foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry in this passage? How is Jonah both like and unlike Christ?