JONAH’S GRATEFUL PRAYER
Jonah 1:17-2:10 NET
1:17 The Lord sent a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights.
2:1 Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish
2 and said, “I called out to the LORD from my distress, and he answered me; from the belly of Sheol I cried out for help, and you heard my prayer.
3 You threw me into the deep waters, into the middle of the sea; the ocean current engulfed me; all the mighty waves you sent swept over me.
4 I thought I had been banished from your sight, that I would never again see your holy temple!
5 Water engulfed me up to my neck; the deep ocean surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.
6 I went down to the very bottoms of the mountains; the gates of the netherworld barred me in forever; but you brought me up from the Pit, O LORD, my God.
7 When my life was ebbing away, I called out to the LORD, and my prayer came to your holy temple.
8 Those who worship worthless idols forfeit the mercy that could be theirs.
9 But as for me, I promise to offer a sacrifice to you with a public declaration of praise; I will surely do what I have promised. Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
10 Then the LORD commanded the fish and it disgorged Jonah on dry land.
This month’s theme is God’s heart for the nations – piggybacking on the message Penny shared on October 31st from Matthew 24:14. God’s heart is to redeem the lost from all the nations, so Jesus commissioned us to go to all the nations and preach the gospel to them. We have a job to do, and nothing should distract us from it – not even our expectation that we are at the end of the age. In fact, the closer we come to the end, the more evangelizing we must be doing.
Jonah had a job to do. He was sent to the capital city of the nation of Assyria – Nineveh. He didn’t want to do it, so he boarded a ship going far away from Nineveh. But as we saw last week, God has ways of getting us back on track when we decide to go the wrong way. Jonah wound up being thrown overboard, and God provided alternate transportation to get him to Nineveh: he was swallowed by a big fish.
Jonah prayed from the stomach of the fish (1-2).
I used to think that Jonah’s prayer from the stomach of the fish was a prayer of repentance. I now realize that I was wrong.
I made a mistake in my interpretation of this text. I want to share with you today the fact that I was wrong and had to change my interpretation. But I also want to trace the process that I used to come to the wrong interpretation. We need to be honest with each other about our fallibility. God’s word is infallible, but we are not. His word is inerrant, but we are going to make errors when we interpret it. We need to be honest about that.
So, here is the process I went through when I first read Jonah 2 – and came up with a wrong interpretation. The first thing I noticed was how Jonah said that he had prayed from the belly of Sheol.
Sheol (שְׁאוֹל) is one of the Hebrew words that the writers of the Old Testament used for the state of being dead. It’s not the only word they use for this state. Sometimes they use the word death. Sometimes they use the word destruction. Sometimes they use the word grave. Sometimes they use the word pit. But the biblical authors often use these words to express the idea that they are in danger – that they are close to dying.
When the Hebrew writers actually talk about Sheol, they describe it as a deep, dark, silent place where everyone goes when they die, and rest without any conscious awareness until they are woken by resurrection.
But often the biblical authors talk about being near Sheol as being in great danger – as being almost dead. Here are some examples of that:
“O LORD, you pulled me up from Sheol; you rescued me from among those descending into the grave” (Psalm 30:3 NET).
“The ropes of Sheol tightened around me, the snares of death trapped me” (Psalm 18:5 NET).
“But God will rescue my life from the power of Sheol; certainly he will pull me to safety” (Psalm 49:15 NET).
That is what Jonah meant when he said that he had called out to God “from the belly of Sheol.” That part I got right.
But what confused me was that the text says that Jonah prayed from the stomach of the fish that had swallowed him. I thought the stomach of the fish was the belly of Sheol. This passage actually uses two separate Hebrew words to make it clear that…
Jonah was in the belly of Sheol before he was swallowed by the fish (3-7).
In verse 3, Jonah says that God – not the pagan sailors – threw him into the deep waters, into the middle of the sea. He said the ocean current engulfed him; that all the mighty waves God sent swept over him. In other words, he had been buried at sea while still alive. He did not expect to stay alive long.
In verse 4, he said that he thought he had been banished from God’s sight, that he would never again see God’s holy temple. In other words, he did not expect to be rescued from that watery grave.
In verse 5 he said that water engulfed him up to his neck; the deep ocean surrounded him; seaweed was wrapped around his head.
The Hebrew word for “neck” is nefesh (נֶפֶשׁ). That’s the word that lots of translations render “soul.” But it’s not what people call a soul. When people think of a soul they think of something immaterial that survives the death of the body. But Jonah’s nefesh was his neck. He was nefesh-deep in the water, and the seaweed was wrapped around his head, forcing him under the water. Jonah was about to drown.
Then he went under. In verse 6, Jonah says that he went down to the very bottoms of the mountains. The NET says “the gates of the netherworld barred me in forever.” That’s not a good translation. Jonah is not talking about the netherworld. The ESV states it better: ” I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever.” Jonah is using prison language. He says that he sunk to the bottom and was being held there permanently. He was going to that watery grave. He was going to Sheol, with no hope of rescue.
Then the rescue happened. Jonah says that the LORD brought him up from the Pit. Remember that the Pit (the Hebrew word here is shachat (שַׁחַת)) is a synonym for Sheol. Jonah was in the belly of Sheol when he was drowning in the water – before he was in the stomach of the fish.
In verse 7, Jonah says that when his life was ebbing away, he called out to the LORD, and his prayer came to God’s holy temple.
Jonah’s prayer from the fish was not a prayer for help, it was a prayer of gratitude (8-10).
The fish was not Sheol. The fish was God’s gift to Jonah. It was his means of rescue from the grave. Jonah’s prayer from the fish was not a prayer for help, is was a prayer of gratitude because God spared his life.
In his prayer, he thought about those pagan sailors who had thrown him into the ocean to save their lives. He said in verse 8 that those who worship worthless idols forfeit the mercy that could be theirs. Actually, those sailors had not turned back to their pagan idols. They had offered sacrifices to Jonah’s God because of the power he displayed.
And in verse 9, Jonah promised to do the same thing. He had learned his lesson. In verse 10, we learn that the LORD commanded the fish and it disgorged Jonah on dry land. Jonah went from a grateful prayer for salvation to a grateful life of service.
That is what is supposed to happen to us as well. We are saved to serve. We are rescued to obey the great commission. The God whose heart is for the nations sends someone to our nation to preach the gospel to us. We believe in the gospel and are saved. Then, we are supposed to go to someone else, somewhere else, so that they too have the opportunity to be saved.
Now, Jonah could have prayed this prayer, and then gone back to his own life, and forgotten about the call to Nineveh. But he didn’t do that. His gratitude produced a commitment to follow his commission.
Now, I submit to you that you and I have been rescued from a worse fate than that of Jonah. He was rescued from drowning and going to Sheol – the grave. But we have been rescued from the second death – destruction in Gehenna. We have been rescued from the death from which there is no resurrection. Jonah was rescued from a temporary grave at the bottom of the sea. We have been rescued from permanent destruction.
Jonah had the good sense to high tail it to Nineveh after he got burped up on the beach. He was not perfect – he still had some lessons to learn. But the God who saved him – sent him. He was going to preach to those Ninevites.
Brothers and sisters, the God who saved us has also sent us. Jesus said, “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
” (John 20:21). It is a great thing to praise the Lord for rescuing us from hell. It is an even greater thing to show our gratitude like Jonah did – by seeing to it that other lost people get an opportunity to be saved.
LORD, make us grateful and obedient servants like Jonah.