It seems to me that when we discuss the story and book of Jonah, we very often miss a key element. There is much talk of the first chapter, which features the well-known Bible story of Jonah’s stubborn disobedience of God’s command to cry against Nineveh and the ensuing stormy voyage, as well as the detail of Jonah being swallowed up by a fish prepared by the Lord. We also spend much time on chapters 3 and 4, in which Jonah does go to Nineveh and preach to them a gospel of repentance for sin, and Jonah becomes angry at God’s will for the city. However, we seem to frequently glaze over chapter 2. This chapter contains the words of Jonah while in the belly of the fish. It is a very beautiful prayer, and we would do well to study it as much as the other chapters for its instruction regarding our prayer lives. It also serves as a preparation for worship of Jehovah.
Verse 2 sets the tone for the prayer. In it, Jonah acknowledges that he cries out to God “out of the belly of hell” and “by reason of [his] affliction.” He also makes mention of God’s ability and willingness to hear him. This is a good way for us to formulate our own prayers, as well as to approach the house of God tomorrow – in total admission that we are sinful creatures worthy of hell and unworthy to be heard by Him apart from His grace, but also recognizing that that grace is present for us and that He does hear us. Proper reverence is vital in worshipping God, and reminding ourselves that we need Him for all things is a good way of obtaining that reverence.
Verses 3 and 5 are closely related, describing the horrors of drifting into the depths, suffocated by weeds. The literal nature of this part of the prayer is obvious, but it has a symbolic component as well. When we become ensnared by a besetting sin, we are Jonah, trapped by seaweed and pressed on every side by the increasing burden as we continue to sink further and further into the depths of sinfulness. At times, we, as did Jonah, can feel as though there is no escape, and we destined to drown in our wicked way.
However, there is hope for the child of God. Verses 4 and 7 both mention turning to God’s holy temple. It is the natural reaction to attempt to swim to the surface on one’s own power, but we know in our hearts this is foolishness. Our only salvation is in God, and to obtain it, we must turn to Him and own that we are sinful. This too is mentioned by Jonah; in verse 8, he says that others “observe lying vanities,” and in so doing “forsake their own mercy.” However, he makes a beautiful confession in verse 9, stating, “But I will sacrifice unto Thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord.” As we come into the holy temple of God tomorrow, let us do so with hearts full of sorrow for our sinfulness, but also filled with thanksgiving, remembering that “Salvation is of the Lord.”
God’s answer to the prayer is seen in verse 10: the fish vomits Jonah out. There is much practical instruction for us here. His prayer is answered because it is a true prayer, the only kind God heeds. May we come to Him on Sunday with a pure heart, prepared to rightly worship and petition Him, as Jonah did.
A good summary of the prayer is found in verse 6: “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me forever: yet hast Thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.” Remember tomorrow morning when you go to the house of the Lord that in the past week, you have truly descended to the bottoms of the mountains and have become imprisoned in your sinfulness. But remember too that God, through Christ’s work, lifts you out of the depths of sea, removing you from the ensnarement of your sins. As we sing in Psalter number 29:
“My soul in death’s dark pit
Shall not be left by Thee;
Corruption Thou wilt not permit
Thy holy one to see.
Life’s pathway Thou wilt show,
To Thy right hand wilt guide,
Where streams of pleasure ever flow,
And boundless joys abide.”