I get a, pardon the pun, fishy feeling when I read Jonah 2. Something just doesn’t seem quite right. Something seems out of place. Let me see if you get that feeling too. Here are some phrases from vv. 2-8:
“I called to the Lord and he answered me.”
“I called for help and you listened to my cry.”
“You brought my life up from the pit”
All of verses 2 to 8 seem to indicate that Jonah is reporting about some event that had already reached its favourable resolution. But he is still in the fish! He may have been saved from drowning, but he’s still not out of troubled waters!
If you have a bible with cross references, you will find a whole bunch of them for these verses. There are links with at least ten Psalms, in addition to Lamentations, 1 & 2 Samuel, Job, Deuteronomy and 2 Chronicles.
The links are revealing, especially the links to the Psalms. They are from two types of Psalms. On the one hand is Psalm 86, which is a prayer, much like our prayers, in which we use present tense imperatives while asking God to do something. Save me from this situation, deliver me according to your love, etc.
On the other hand is Psalm 18, which is a thanksgiving psalm, in which a person who was in a distressing situation recounts publicly how God delivered him. Here we have verbs predominantly in the past tense. I was in distress and he delivered me, I was surrounded by enemies and he rescued me, etc.
In Jonah we have the strange situation of a person who is still in distress offering a mish mash of elements from the Psalms that sounds like a thanksgiving. Nowhere in the Psalms do we find the situation of a person who is still in distress offering a thanksgiving. The person may make vows and promises concerning what he would do if he were delivered. But he does not offer thanks before thanks is due.
Jonah’s words sound like a knee jerk response to a trying situation. It sounds not quite genuine. It sounds as though Jonah, who seems to have known scripture very well, was simply repeating some of the lines. In other words, in his situation it sounds like religious platitudes.
And though v. 1 tells us that Jonah prayed to God, he begins by saying, “In my distress I called to the Lord.” Does one actually pray to God that way? Do we tell God, “In my distress I called to the Lord?” Does that not sound like something we might hear in a testimonial? In fact, if v. 1 did not tell us Jonah was in the fish and that he was praying, we would quite easily have concluded that these verses belong after chapter 2, after God has actually delivered Jonah.
In fact, some scholars have suggested that we move the last verse of chapter 2 to just after the last verse of chapter 1 so that all these past tense references might make sense. But I think the author of Jonah’s story is making another point and is using Jonah to make it.
Having told us that Jonah prayed, the author tells us actually that Jonah babbled some random verses from the Psalms and other books of scripture. We would be hard pressed to comprehend what Jonah was praying for because there is no such thing as a request in all these verses. There is not even one present tense imperative in the whole passage! There is a promise to fulfil a vow in v. 9, but absolutely no indication of what God’s part of the bargain was!
But the author is a remarkable storyteller. In 1.17 he has told us that Jonah was in the fish for three days and nights. Surely he can’t simply go to 2.10 and have Jonah spat out. No! He needs some time to pass in the reading.
And the reader would be thinking, “What in the world did Jonah do for all that time?” And the author tells us, “He prayed.” But it is evident that this was supposed to be tongue in cheek. Jonah ‘prayed’ – that is, he repeated some phrases already etched in his mind, but he was actually just saying words.
But through all of this, God was teaching Jonah something. And what that something is, is revealed in the timing used by the author. At the end of chapter 1 we read that Jonah was ready for death by drowning. And just at that time the author tells us, “But God provided a fish.” The strangest of provisions, but enough to spare Jonah from drowning.
But once again, Jonah is in distress. He is in the fish, in pitch blackness. His fate is uncertain. But God commands the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land. And the author tells us that this happens just after Jonah himself, despite his babbling has voiced the central lesson of the entire book.
Verse 9 stands as a literary hinge in the book. Just as the reader is beginning to think, “Ok, he’s babbling in the fish. When will this get over?” Jonah finally says, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”
And immediately he is on dry ground. What the author is trying to tell us is that we may know all of scripture, but that is not going to save us in any way. Rather, salvation is God’s prerogative.
This is something Jonah had forgotten. He ran away toward Tarshish because he knew that taking any message to Nineveh might open a door through which God could save the Ninevites. He ran away to Tarshish because he wanted to have the final say about what happened to the Ninevites. He thought, “If I refuse to go, they will never hear the message and will perish.”
He is even willing to die when he asks the sailors to throw him overboard. In those days, very few Israelites knew how to swim even in calm water, let alone in a churning sea. When he asked to be thrown overboard, he expected to die. However, the author tells us, “but the Lord provided a great fish.”
Jonah may have had plans. But his plans were not going to thwart God’s plans. But God provided a great fish. And Jonah finds himself still alive.
And when he finally admits what the real situation is – namely that salvation is God’s prerogative – he finds himself ashore and with the same task.
Salvation belongs to the Lord. It is a declaration, not just about God being in control. Rather, it is also surrender. It is surrender to the foolishness of God’s ways.
Jesus compared himself to only one prophet – Jonah. To those listening to him, Jesus had mentioned his impending death and his resurrection. Everything from Jonah 1.17, where God provides a fish to swallow Jonah, to Jonah 2.10, where the fish vomits Jonah, is used by Jesus as a sign of his death and resurrection.
To those who were waiting for salvation to come to the Jews through military might, Jesus said, “Unless a seed dies, it remains by itself.” And finally that is how God chose to save the world.
Salvation belongs to the Lord.