Fishy Prayer – Jonah 2

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Is there such a thing as a fishy prayer? Or do we just mean a lovely prayer prayed from inside a big fish? Jonah’s prayer in Jonah 2 is a beautiful example of prayer – and yet we will see that there might be something fishy about it after all…

Jonah 2 is a beautiful prayer to God from a man in the depths of human misery and threat to life. As we look at this prayer we learn much about God and his grace – his undeserved kindness to us. But you must remember this: Whoever you are when you bow before God in prayer, that is who you truly are. He sees you.

A beautiful prayer

When we think of Jonah we obviously think of the fish. Read v1.

If you do a Google image search for “Jonah” you’ll see a lot of whales and fish. Was it a whale (mammal) or a fish? There’s no Old Testament Hebrew word specifically for whale, so who knows? In fact, it’s not important. This is about Jonah, and you.

So the bulk of Jonah 2 is Jonah’s prayer. Remember God had told him to get up and go to Nineveh, to preach God’s judgment against the wicked city. But instead of going up, he went down – away from God, and away from obedience. He went down to Joppa, went down to a ship, went down into the ship, and now he’s in a fish going down into the depths of the sea. Read v2.

The language is very much like many of the psalms. Psalm 69 has lots of the same images about swirling in the depths. It was written by David three hundred years earlier, so Jonah very likely knew the language of the psalms and used it. And no wonder. V2 has the kind of language that many millions of people have experienced: The amazing delight that when I was in trouble, God heard my cry – and answered me!

And very real trouble too: Read v3. This isn’t just having a bad day – he’s in mortal danger! When you’ve hit bottom, and you’ve no strength or hope, what one thing can you possibly do? Pray.

God hears, now matter how low you are

Read v4. The Temple in Jerusalem. The place where God placed his particular Presence, in the Most Holy Place, above the ark of the covenant – the place of meeting between holy God and sinful humanity. He who had “gone down” so far, looked up to God in his Temple for help – and God heard.

Jonah gives a graphic and symbolic image of how far he went: Read v5-6a. V5’s imagery of sinking beneath the waves is deliberately suggestive of someone being buried – this is the language of death. V6 is very poetic: What is at the foot of the mountains? The very bottom of the sea.

  • He says he sank to the lowest points of the earth – regarded in the Ancient Near East as the gates to the place of the dead, Sheol.
  • In Job 38, God asks Job: 16 “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? 17 Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?”
  • (The same deep darkness that David calls the valley of the shadow of death in Psalm 23.)
  • And once through those dark gates, they shut behind you for ever. Who could rescue anyone from such a place?

Read v6b. No-one else could help Jonah there. At the very lowest place a person can be – with no hope to help himself in any way – he looked up, up to where God dwells – and was heard.

Read v7. Is there any other god or idol that could have helped him just then? No, none. Read v8. Not money, fame, family, or a massive Social Media following could have saved him – only God alone. And Jonah knows it and praises God for it: Read v9.

How many people have prayed similar things? “Lord, if I ever get out of this situation, this bed, this job, this mess – I’ll praise you and keep all my promises!” And so we get a final mention of the fish: Read v10.

A picture of salvation

The image of people passing through water and danger, and being kept and rescued by God appears in various places. The earliest is Noah and his ark.

  • Judgment on the whole earth, yet Noah and his family were kept safe in the ark.
  • They were brought through dangerous waters to safety on dry land. Everyone else perished in the water.

Then there was Moses and the Red Sea.

  • The Israelites were brought out of Egypt and led through the Red Sea to dry land and safety on the other side.
  • The Egyptians weren’t so lucky – and perished in the water

Remember Joshua and the Jordan.

  • As the Israelites entered the promised land, God held up the river Jordan to enable them to pass through – coming to Canaan’s dry land in safety.
  • The occupying nations would perish before Israel.

And then Jesus himself was baptised in the Jordan by John.

A picture of death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus said that Jonah’s death, burial and resurrection in the fish was a picture of his own:

  • Matthew 12:39-40 Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.

The big difference

But whereas with Noah, Moses and Joshua, the guilty were judged and perished – with Jesus it was the innocent who perished as he took the punishment that the guilty deserve. His death and resurrection are the hope of every Christian. We trust that he died for us, in our place. And he is raised to life – ready to forgive all who come to him to share in his life.

And that’s why we get baptised! As you come to faith in Christ, you repent of your sin before God. You turn from your sin and turn to God for forgiveness. You trust in Christ’s work – that’s what saving faith is. Then you become united to Jesus. Your old self is dead and buried in his death. The life you live is him in you.

So Jonah’s experience is one of the Bible’s images of death and resurrection pointing you to Jesus. Because, until you do look up and pray (as Jonah did), then spiritually speaking you are at the gates of hell right now – and will remain that way until one day when you step through and they shut behind you. Never to open.

You are called to repentance and faith today. Without Christ, you are at the bottom of the sea and lost. With him, you have hope and eternal life.

When we feel in the depths

But we need to say something else about praying from the depths. Even as Christians we can still hit a rock bottom experience in life: A serious illness, grief, concern for someone you love. You may well feel you’re in a place of deep darkness, with everything swimming over your head. But even in such times you need to be clear:

Even so, in the valley of the shadow of death you are not alone. The Lord is your shepherd; he leads, you follow.

  • When Jesus healed the paralytic in Mark 2, he prioritised forgiving his sins. Your eternal life is much, much more precious than your mortal body.
    • Forgiveness of sin is more important even than good health.
  • Even so, in the valley of the shadow of death you are not alone. The Lord is your shepherd; he leads, you follow.
  • He may heal you or he might not. But we mustn’t limit our thinking to this short timeline.
    • His redemption of you will be complete. You will have a body without decay, and walk on a perfect earth; you will be with the Lord forever.

If biblical images of resurrection and life were restricted to this life, they’d be a bit disappointing, wouldn’t they? Christ himself is the hope of glory in our hearts. But in the meantime, the Lord still has plans for us. And so:

Fishy Vomit

Let’s go back to Jonah 2:10.

Some translations have “vomit” and some have “spit” – and whichever you think is the most gross, that’s the one! The writer could have been gentler, or just glossed over the details… but he didn’t. The grossness is deliberate.

Jonah’s prayer is beautiful. There’s not a word out of place. But it’s a fishy prayer because it betrays a problem in Jonah’s heart.

When the word vomit is used in the Bible it’s always gross – and is often used to describe God’s action in revulsion and judgment. God has rescued Jonah, but the language used suggests God is not happy with him. But why?

Jonah was where he was because of rebellion against God. Inside the belly of the fish, he prayed for rescue. But did he pray a prayer of repentance? In v9 he clearly commits to worship God, but is he determining to obey the LORD and go to Nineveh?

What motivates prayer?

I said that his prayer is a lot like David in Psalm 69. David certainly prayed for rescue, but because he was God’s king he was concerned for the honour of God’s name. More, David wanted his rescue to be an encouragement to others to call out to God for help. See the motivation for this prayer? Others benefit.

Jonah’s desire is to escape death and return to praise God. Twice he mentions praying to God in the Temple. But coming from the northern Israel, he’d have actually worshipped God at golden calves in Bethel and Dan – not at the Temple in Jerusalem. Even his hopes of worship would be detestable to God.

Jonah wants salvation without repentance. He wants worship without obedience. And remembering that he was supposed to go to preach at Nineveh, he even wants grace received but not shared. A fishy prayer because it is, at heart, so self-centred.

Whoever you are when you bow before God in prayer, that is who you truly are. He sees you.

Whoever you are when you bow before God in prayer, that is who you truly are. He sees you. Christian, think about his grace to you in salvation in Eph 2:

8 For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.

You are saved by grace. You don’t deserve it. He has done the work for your salvation. And as his workmanship, you are to do good works he has prepared for you. Works that may be in the workplace, at home, or even in a hospital ward, or waiting room. So yes, cry out to God as Jonah did! The God who dwells beyond highest heaven will hear you, and forgive. He will save you! And you are his.

Salvation is of the LORD

The last part of Jonah 2:9 is just two Hebrew words, something like: “Salvation is of the LORD”.

  • Which means he saves you from hell itself to eternal life!
  • He does so at great cost to himself, and grace to you.
  • He saves you to himself; to what he has planned for you.

So yes, cry out. Worship him. Delight in him – forever and ever! But then consequently obey, love, serve, participate, tell.

The Bible has no concept of “private faith”; we are all his, to do his work, to tell others. So get up and do stuff for God.