It's not about the fish, it's about the prayer, but this beautifully poetic prayer is missing something...
According to Webster, poetry is “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm”
How many of you read poetry on a regular basis? Very few I assume. How many of you listen to music? Then you understand poetry! Songs are poetry set to music, and as such you know that some songs can make you cry, some are a call to action, some just make you think about life and relationships, some tell you a story.
Roses are red
Violets are blue
Sugar is sweet
And so are you!
It is a pretty basic poem, right? What makes it a poem?
In understanding this poem, your brain does the following:
Roses are red and violets are blue. Those are both statements that I can agree are true and it is setting a precedence that what is being stated is to be counted as a matter of fact. It is also comparing two items that are related: roses and violets.
Sugar is sweet is also true, and therefore, by the pattern established, it is considered whatever comes next is also true. And you automatically connect that you are related to sugar like the roses and violets are connected. But you are NOT actually sugar, which is where the poem enhances your meaning of “sweet” by going beyond taste to you as a being. So, even in this simple poem, there is a depth of meaning that is created with just a few words.
But not all poetry works this way, does it?
Haiku, unrhymed poetic form consisting of 17 syllables arranged in three lines of 5, 7, and 5 syllables respectively.
October's Gold by Paul Holmes
Like crunchy cornflakes
Gold leaves rustle underfoot
Beauty in decay.
In this case, poetry is defined by structure. However, it still uses imagery to make a point.
In BOTH poems we are given enough details to allow the reader to make either a simple conclusion or even more profound connections.
Just as American poetry is different from Japanese poetry, so Hebrew poetry is unique.
“Briefly defined, biblical Hebrew poetry is a nonmetrical form of verse characterized above all by verbal inventiveness, a discernible poetic diction and texture, and concision. This particularly lean style is characterized by short lines, consisting of only two to six words per line, lending the impression of a heightened, dense form of discourse, achieved by bringing semantically important words together. As with other bodies of poetry, it routinely involves higher concentrations of words and phrases with rare meanings or usages, bold ellipses, sudden transitions, and other stylistic complexity.”
Hebrew poetry relies on word play, repetition of words, comparison of thoughts and contrast of thoughts all using as few words as possible.
Roughly 1/3 of the Old Testament is made up of poetry. The translators of the original languages often give us a clue that it is poetry by using indentation of the verses. We mentioned that there are many stylistic elements of Hebrew poetry that are presented in dense language to get us to think about a bigger picture. We also mentioned that often there is a quick lesson that can be learned or truth that can be understood at first glance.
When you read this poem, what do YOU notice?
While there is a lot on the surface, I have to admit that over the years I have only scratched the surface of this prayer.
CONFESSION: Often when I read a prayer like this, I skim over and it jump to the next bit of action.
BUT, this prayer is a vital part of the book! The fish… not such a big deal, the prayer is quite amazing when you start to dive into it. I want to help you see just some of the layers of meaning and the depth of this poetic prayer that Jonah recorded for us.
One of the things that is unique about this prayer is that it seems to be directly related to the psalms. Almost every line has a direct connection to a Psalm. While it is quite common to reference other poetry in a poem, to have so many references is unusual.
m ** I have a chart, it is on the screen here, and I will put it online with all of the verses typed out. Be sure to check ncfchurch.org and view the message notes for this.
“I called to the Lord in my distress, and he answered me. I cried out for help from deep inside Sheol; you heard my voice.” (Jonah 2:2, CSB)
Psalm 3:4 ||I cry aloud to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain. Selah [CSB]
“When you threw me into the depths, into the heart of the seas, and the current overcame me. All your breakers and your billows swept over me.” (Jonah 2:3, CSB)
Psalm 88:6–7 ||You have put me in the lowest part of the Pit, in the darkest places, in the depths. Your wrath weighs heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. Selah [CSB]
“And I said, “I have been banished from your sight, yet I will look once more toward your holy temple.” (Jonah 2:4, CSB)
Psalm 31:22 ||In my alarm I said, “I am cut off from your sight.” But you heard the sound of my pleading when I cried to you for help. [CSB]
“The water engulfed me up to the neck; the watery depths overcame me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.” (Jonah 2:5, CSB)
Psalm 69:1–2 ||Save me, God, for the water has risen to my neck. I have sunk in deep mud, and there is no footing; I have come into deep water, and a flood sweeps over me. [CSB]
“I sank to the foundations of the mountains, the earth’s gates shut behind me forever! Then you raised my life from the Pit, Lord my God!” (Jonah 2:6, CSB)
Psalm 30:3 ||Lord, you brought me up from Sheol; you spared me from among those going down to the Pit. [CSB]
Psalm 49:15 ||But God will redeem me from the power of Sheol, for he will take me. Selah [CSB]
“As my life was fading away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple.” (Jonah 2:7, CSB)
Psalm 107:5 ||They were hungry and thirsty; their spirits failed within them. [CSB]
“Those who cherish worthless idols abandon their faithful love,” (Jonah 2:8, CSB)
Psalm 31:6 ||I hate those who are devoted to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord. [CSB]
“but as for me, I will sacrifice to you with a voice of thanksgiving. I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation belongs to the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9, CSB)
Psalm 3:8 ||Salvation belongs to the Lord; may your blessing be on your people. Selah [CSB]
Just to show you how any Jewish reader would automatically hyperlink Jonah’s prayer to the Psalms, let me read excerpts from just a few of them:
Psalm 88:1–7 ||Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out before you day and night. May my prayer reach your presence; listen to my cry. For I have had enough troubles, and my life is near Sheol. I am counted among those going down to the Pit. I am like a man without strength, abandoned among the dead. I am like the slain lying in the grave, whom you no longer remember, and who are cut off from your care. You have put me in the lowest part of the Pit, in the darkest places, in the depths. Your wrath weighs heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves. Selah [CSB]
Psalm 18:4–6 ||The ropes of death were wrapped around me; the torrents of destruction terrified me. The ropes of Sheol entangled me; the snares of death confronted me. I called to the Lord in my distress, and I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears. [CSB]
AMAZINGLY similar vocabulary, isn’t it? Only in David’s Psalm 18, he was being hunted down by his enemies, including king Saul. And God DID deliver David from Saul and his other enemies.
WHO is Jonah’s enemy? I think we are going to want to chew on that one for a while! And I think that is exactly what the author wants us to do.
The language of the poem is designed to create a picture of what is taking place, You can almost feel the despair as Jonah goes from the breakers to the water being up to his neck, to seaweed over his head and then sinking below the waves and then sinking even more until he reaches the roots of the mountains.
But even more than that, it is making a statement. The further down the prophet sinks, the farther he is from Yahweh his God. And at the farthest point, having been banished form the presence of God, it feels like death and the grave. So, there is an image he is painting of separation from God being like death.
Where else do we have that same image? The GARDEN! When the man and woman eat from the tree, God said the punishment would be death and they were banished from the presence of God, to the East of Eden. We also see this with Cain’s punishment in Genesis 4.
So aside from the imagery of the drowning and peril of Jonah, we have also a deeper image of the death that comes from separation from God.
It is masterfully written!
Another repeated word is the fish. A “great” fish. Jonah uses the word “great” about the storm, the fish, the city of Nineveh.
The FISH is the book ends to this section.
The fish obeyed.
Which shows God’s sovereignty over creation once again. He commanded the fish and the fish obeyed.
THOUGHT: in chapter 1, the sailors worshiped and made vows to Yahweh. In chapter 2 Jonah did the same thing.
In chapter 2, God appointed a fish to do his work and the fish obeyed. In chapter 3 God appoints Jonah a second time to do his work, and Jonah will obey this time.
BONUS: notice that even though Jonah was on the brink of death and as far from God as possible, when he prayed, God lift him UP out of that spot and “delivered” or “saved” him. This is a beautiful picture of what God has done for us as well.
So, let’s move on from the repeated words to look at some unusual, or uncommon words. We mentioned that the uncommon words are meant to make a point by standing out.
In chapter 1 we learned that Jonah was running away from God. He left his home and went away from Nineveh. He told the sailors that he was running away from God.
In the Bible, when God appears, such as the garden in Gen 2, or to Abraham, or to Moses when he gave him the commandments in the wilderness, WHERE was God?
On the mountain.
As a matter of fact, Jerusalem is on a mount and the temple was at the top of that. The mountain, the temple, these are images for the presence of God.
So, if Jonah sank to the “roots of the mountain”, what does that imply? He is at the farthest point he can physically get from Yahweh.
Jonah 2:6–7 ||I sank to the foundations of the mountains, the earth’s gates shut behind me forever! Then you raised my life from the Pit (the grave), Lord (Yahweh) my God! As my life was fading away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, to your holy temple. [CSB]
So what does this tell us about God?
It shows his omniscience – that he knows all and hears all, no matter how far Jonah was from God, even out of sight (supposedly “hidden” from him) God still hears. (And we know he still “sees” too!)
No matter how far you run from him you are always a prayer away. There is no distance so great that God cannot hear your prayer.
Another phrase we are meant to ponder is in verse 8:
Jonah 2:8 ||Those who cherish worthless idols abandon their faithful love, [CSB]
Where have idols been mentioned in this book? They were not in chapter 1 and they are not mentioned in this book at all! It was not the idolatry of the Ninevites that God was going to punish, it was their terrible violence.
2 Kings 17:13–15 ||Still, the Lord warned Israel and Judah through every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commands and statutes according to the whole law I commanded your ancestors and sent to you through my servants the prophets.” But they would not listen. Instead they became obstinate like their ancestors who did not believe the Lord their God. They rejected his statutes and his covenant he had made with their ancestors and the warnings he had given them. They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves, following the surrounding nations the Lord had commanded them not to imitate. [CSB]
In Jeremiah 16, God promises the exile will come because Israel and Judah “have filled my inheritance with the carcasses of their abhorrent and detestable idols.”
PERHAPS, this reference is meant to remind us that this story is really about Israel and the exile, and not so much about a fish and a prophet? This is one I am still pondering and working through myself.
OK, so the MAIN character in this poem is God, and the best supporting role goes to the fish, but what about Jonah in all of this? What was his response to the way that God dealt with him?
I will worship, sacrifice and keep my vows. This is what the pagan sailors did!
REPENTANCE! He never says he has sinned. He never confessed his rebellion in running from God and he never asked for God’s forgiveness.
This is the exact OPPOSITE of almost every Psalm you will read! David, who wrote many of the Psalms, has songs and prayers of confession and repentance.
In Psalm 51, David writes a poem to God, a prayer, after he is called out for his sin of adultery with Bathsheba. Here is part of his response:
Psalm 51:1–3 ||Be gracious to me, God, according to your faithful love; according to your abundant compassion, blot out my rebellion. Completely wash away my guilt and cleanse me from my sin. For I am conscious of my rebellion, and my sin is always before me. [CSB]
David repented of his sins. Where in this prayer do you hear any confession or repentance?
Jonah is more like the Pharisees of the New Testament:
Luke 18:9–14 ||He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and looked down on everyone else: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee was standing and praying like this about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like other people—greedy, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of everything I get.’ “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even raise his eyes to heaven but kept striking his chest and saying, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this one went down to his house justified rather than the other, because everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” [CSB]
In spite of the lack of repentance, in spite of the continued arrogance of Jonah, God sees fit to spare his life and recommission him for service.
What does this teach us about God? [mercy – a major theme of the book]
What does this teach us about ourselves?
The sudden realization of the laser on your chest: Jonah & Pharisees pray without acknowledging their own faults…it’s “they” who sin, who worship Idols. It’s “Jonah” who runs away from God and hates that God loves his enemies. But we shouldn’t miss out on the prophetic attribute of this book which applies Jonah’s BAD character as a mirror into our OWN sinful tendencies and failures. How often do WE, though in different contexts, exhibit the same heart conditions?
These are just SOME of the messages that are being spoken through the poetic prayer of Jonah. I am sure that if you spend more time you might even find more messages than these. The messages are meant to teach us about God, his working among his people, his dealings with the nations, and also the condition of our own hearts and actions.
Perhaps we would do well to pray like David, too:
Psalm 139:23–24 ||Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my concerns. See if there is any offensive way in me; lead me in the everlasting way. [CSB]