Staff & Sling
Ministry

Joseph E. Hébert, Ph.D.

98119 N 3745 Rd
Okemah, OK  74859
918 623 3078

Jonah's Prayer

Everyone is familiar with the story of Jonah. At least they know the part about the whale, which is what got me to thinking about Jonah in the first place. Lately I've preached a series of sermons on the various translations of scripture, and in particular how many adhere to a translation principle of dynamic equivalence (e.g. the NIV). This is a form of translation that crosses the line between translation and interpretation, and consequently such translations are simply not adequate for studying God's Word.

Anyway, my point throughout this series of sermons has been that to truly understand what God said, to take your studies to the next level if you will, you must concern yourself with the actual words He inspired His various authors to write. That means looking up the Hebrew, Greek and occasionally Aramaic words and finding out what they mean(t), both definitively and implicitly, to the intended audience. And as for interpretation of scriptures, as Christians we have pastors and teachers to interpret scriptures, but most of all we have the Holy Spirit to teach us and to give us all wisdom.

Anyway, in the course of studying this topic I've pointed out many translation errors in the NIV. But not wanting to leave anyone thinking I am prone to the King James only mindset, I've made a point of looking at any instances I could find where King James' translators erred. Potentially, one such instance can be found in the Gospel of Matthew.

For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12: 40).

The Greek word which is herein translated "whale" is 60J@H (ketos). It is the root from which we derive the word cetacean (which includes whales). Whereas the word eventually did come to mean whale (or at least marine mammal), in the first century it did not. It meant sea monster, or great fish. 

Of course I'm not at all certain that the average 17th Century Briton (or anyone else in the 17th Century for that matter) would have made the distinction between a whale and a great fish, so I'm not prepared to say that King James' translators erred. In point of fact, I don't know that Jonah himself would have made such a distinction, which implies that we can neither assert nor deny that the great fish of Jonah's story was a whale. Nonetheless, the point is made that we should trust the Holy Spirit, not Zondervan Publishing, to show us what His Word means.

Now it was in this context that I took a renewed look at the book of Jonah. And it was in this context that I noticed a couple of things about his prayer.

Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly, And said,

"I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, [and] thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, [even] to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars [was] about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay [that] that I have vowed. Salvation [is] of the LORD," (Jonah 2: 1 - 9).

First, note that this is a prayer of thanksgiving. It is not Jonah's plea for God's mercy. Oh, to be sure Jonah pled for God's mercy, for God's salvation, but this was not that prayer. While Jonah's plea for God's mercy is recounted, it is consistently recalled in the past tense.

Note that when Jonah called out to the Lord he wasn't at all certain that God could hear, but he turned to the Lord nonetheless. "I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again to thy holy temple." This may bring to the astute reader's mind another passage of scripture wherein Jesus told some that it would be better for them if a millstone were hung around their neck and they were cast far out to sea (e.g. Matthew 18: 6).

To understand both Jesus' warning and Jonah's plea, you must understand the implications of drowning at sea to the mind of the ancient Jews. They believed that their place in the resurrection was dependent upon being buried in the promised land. Even today, observant Jews place a high value on being buried in Israel. This may be something of an oversimplification, and I don't claim to understand the finer points of the theology involved, but the point remains that being drowned at sea was the worst possible death one could impose on a Jew. It took them out of God's purview. It isn't until Revelation 20 that we are assured that the sea will one day give up its dead to the resurrection.

Apparently, while adrift under the sea, but before being swallowed by the great fish, Jonah lost consciousness and died. "The waters compassed about me, to the soul." This is more than just being encompassed around his body, more than just being under water. Note he says that "The weeds were wrapped about my head." That he says nothing about struggling against them implies unconsciousness. "I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars [was] about me for ever:" Note that now he's speaking about the bottoms of the mountains (plural), not the bottom of the sea. Referencing the bowels of the earth as it were clearly denotes the grave. "...: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, ...." A life in corruption is a clear reference to physical death, and he praises God for restoring his life. And finally, without need for added comment, "When my soul fainted within me ...."

Some may choose to say that he only lost consciousness, that he didn't actually die. I on the other hand read that he died, and so I believe that he died. But that's not the important part. In the first place I'm not at all sure that those who would distinguish "death" from "near death" can themselves provide any definitive delineation. Moreover, I have no problem whatsoever with God reviving the dead. And that, to my mind at least, is the important point. Once Jonah was in the belly of the great fish he was very much alive. This is evidenced by the fact that it was from that belly that he prayed the prayer of praise and thanksgiving recorded in his book.

And that brings me squarely to the second point I've noticed in Jonah's prayer. Have you noticed how much of his phraseology seems familiar?

"I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me;"

And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which [are] in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; (Exodus 3: 7)

Mine eye mourneth by reason of affliction: LORD, I have called daily upon thee, I have stretched out my hands unto thee (Psalms 88: 9).

In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me (Psalms 120: 1).

"...; out of the belly of hell cried I, [and] thou heardest my voice."

Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD (Psalms 130: 1).

For great [is] thy mercy toward me: and thou hast delivered my soul from the lowest hell (Psalms 86: 13).

"For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me."

Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me (Psalms 42: 7).

"Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple."

For I said in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes: nevertheless thou heardest the voice of my supplications when I cried unto thee (Psalms 31: 22).

"The waters compassed me about, [even] to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars [was] about me for ever:"

Save me, O God; for the waters are come in unto [my] soul. I sink in deep mire, where [there is] no standing: I am come into deep waters, where the floods overflow me (Psalms 69: 1, 2).

I am counted with them that go down into the pit: I am as a man [that hath] no strength: Free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, whom thou rememberest no more: and they are cut off from thy hand. Thou hast laid me in the lowest pit, in darkness, in the deeps. Thy wrath lieth hard upon me, and thou hast afflicted [me] with all thy waves. Selah (Psalms 88: 4 - 7).

It is abundantly evident that Jonah had studied God's Word, and had hidden God's Word in his heart. Jonah prayed from inside the fish's belly. He had nothing to read and no light to read it by. Still, he knew exactly what God's Word had to say about his circumstance.

Summary

In each of these two points is a lesson for all Christians. First, as did Jonah we too are to give thanks in all things.

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (I Thessalonians 5: 18).

In the worst circumstance of his life, Jonah gave thanks to God. Moreover, we are to give thanks, not just in all things, but for all things as well.

Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; (Ephesians 5: 20).

Second, we too are told to hide God's Word in our hearts (see Psalms 119: 11).

But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and [be] ready always to [give] an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear: (I Peter 3: 15).

What does it mean, to sanctify God in our hearts? It means to give Him sanctuary. And we know from John 1: 1, 14 that Jesus is the Word (hence the use of upper case). So when we study God's Word, we are literally, in some albeit mysterious yet no less real and meaningful way, giving the Lord sanctuary, a home, in our hearts. Understanding this makes meaningful Jesus' admonition in John 15: 4, 5 that we are to abide in Him, and He in us, if we are to bear fruit.

Clearly Jonah did just that. He hid God's Word in his heart, he sanctified the Lord in his heart, and oh how he bore fruit. He preached against Nineveh and all the people repented. This is still called the greatest revival in history.

Now in light of that understanding, consider the rest of Jonah's prayer.

"But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay [that] that I have vowed. Salvation [is] of the LORD."

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, [which is] your reasonable service (Romans 12: 1).


Matthew 18: 6    But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and [that] he were drowned in the depth of the sea.

Revelation 20: 13    And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.

Psalms 119: 11    Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.

John 1: 1, 14    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

John 15: 4, 5    Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye [are] the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.