By Shelley Neese—
Welcome to Bible Fiber where we are encountering the textures and shades of the prophetic tapestry in a year-long study of the twelve minor prophets, one prophet each month. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.
This week we are studying the second chapter of Jonah. Chapter 2 interrupts the narrative progress of the book with a three-stanza poem delivered by an undigested Jonah from inside the belly of the whale, making the book three-fourths prose and one-fourth poem.
The most historically famous sermon on Jonah’s prayer from the whale was delivered by the fictional character, Father Mapple, in chapter nine of Moby Dick. Moby Dick by Herman Melville is the story of Captain Ahab’s revenge on a white whale. Before Ahab sets out on his risky whaling mission, one of his sailors attends a church service with Father Mapple who preaches from a lectern in the shape of a ship’s prow. The former whaler turned preacher naturally was keen on the book of Jonah and the “weighty lesson” derived from Jonah’s supplication. Hear this excerpt from Father Mapple’s sermon:
For sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look towards His holy temple. And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance, not clamorous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale. Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.
By many accounts, Moby Dick was Melville’s retelling of the Book of Jonah, and an articulation of his own theological grappling with the attributes of God. Melville grew up in a family where his mother’s relatives were staunch Calvinists and his father’s relatives were liberal Unitarians. Melville had to reconcile God’s abundant mercy with His divine wrath. Jonah is the prophetic book that best gives human voice to the struggle over the mystery of God’s nature, His Will, and His system of justice.
According to the book, Jonah spends three days and three nights inside the belly of the fish. Three days is the number often used in the Hebrew scripture for lengths of journeys. I am sure you have learned in your bible studies by now that nowhere does the Hebrew dag gadol in Jonah or the Greek in Matthew 12:40 name the fish specifically as a whale. The proper translation is the general description: “large fish” or “great fish.” Jonah’s distress does not come from his coming to consciousness inside a fish. Instead, Jonah’s prayer is a thanksgiving for his deliverance from drowning. He rightly understands that God appointed the fish as the instrument of his rescue. And unlike the prophet, the fish immediately responds to God’s commands, both in snatching Jonah off the seafloor and conveying him to dry land. And to further highlight the divine appointment of the fish, the fish transported Jonah to Nineveh, the very land he had tried first to avoid.
The death wish that Jonah had during the storm has passed. The prophet cries out to God. In the first portion of the psalm, Jonah dramatically relives the ordeal of near drowning. He recounts in the past tense his pleas to Yahweh in his last moments of consciousness. In 2:6, Jonah has descended to the bottom of the sea. According to the text, he cries out to God “from the belly of Sheol.” What was Sheol in the mind of ancient Israelites? It was the underworld of the dead, a place far removed from God. Psalm 6:5 asks: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” Jonah fulfilled his aim to flee from Yahweh’s presence as far as possible, and the reality terrified him.
Jonah’s prayer borrows prayer language from the Psalms. Jonah praises God for delivering him from drowning: “I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit” (2:6). Psalm 30:3 contains the same exaltation: “You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit.” God delivered Jonah from the bottom of the seafloor; weeds wrapped around his head (2:5). The Psalmist was lifted “out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire” (Ps. 40:2). The Psalmist praises God for drawing him out of deep waters (Ps. 18:16), but Jonah repurposes the language. In his case, the deep waters were his punishment and they were not metaphorical (2:3). Jonah 2:3 also gives a direct quote from Psalm 42:7: “All your waves and your billows passed over me.” Once again, what the Psalmist meant metaphorically, Jonah meant literally.
Despite the beauty of Jonah’s prayer, a closer look at his speech shows he may not be right of heart yet. He pays tribute to Yahweh for his deliverance, but his prayer is noticeably absent of any type of confession or repentance. Jonah cries out to God, “I have been driven away from your sight” (2:4). But remember from chapter 1, it was Jonah who banished himself from the presence of God. Jonah at one point strikes a self-righteous tone. He says, “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty” (2:8). While other prophets of Jonah’s time condemn idol worship, like Hosea (4:12), Jonah needs to do more internal reflection before he begins naming others wrongdoing. Recall that Jonah’s rebellion mortified the Phoenician sailors who were certainly idol worshipers.
Jonah, after dwelling on God’s providential salvation, is compelled to sacrifice to God. This same compulsion struck the sailors in the previous chapter when they were delivered from the storm. God answers Jonah’s plea by prompting the fish to spit him out, an undignified deliverance for Jonah and an awkward end to chapter two. The prophet’s revival was short lived. He completed his commission to prophecy to the Ninevites, but he retained the same blind spots as to the full expanse of God’s grace. We will talk more about Jonah and the Ninevites next week.
Most of the Minor Prophets point to the grand mission of the coming Messiah. Christians best understand the Messianic prophecies in the light of their fulfillment by Jesus our Savior. Jonah is missing those big picture prophecies like Jeremiah’s foretelling of a coming covenant written on our hearts (Jer. 31) or Amos’s prophecy of restoring the tent of David (Amos 9). Jonah plays a different role in the foreshadowing of Jesus. His encounter with death and three days inside the fish are a symbol of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Admittedly, Christians often try and turn everything in the Hebrew scriptures into analogies for the life and mission of Christ, and sometimes that inhibits them from reading the Old Testament on its own merit. But this is not the case in Jonah. Twice in the gospels, Jesus directly points to the “sign of Jonah” as prophetic of his own death, burial, and resurrection. Jesus says, “For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:39-40).
Jesus adds, “something greater than Jonah is here.” Jonah delivered a message of repentance to the Ninevites and their hearts were ripe for hearing the truth of Yahweh. But salvation came to only those few and only for that short amount of time, as the prophet Nahum will later make clear. Jesus’s death and resurrection, on the other hand, was the signal for the disciples to go forth into the world and preach the good news of the saving works to all nations and for every coming generation. That is what Jesus means that “something greater than Jonah is here.” God has always been doing big things, but this is way bigger!
Jonah deserved his punishment. His rescue was strictly the result of God’s mercy. Jesus did not deserve the grave, but He conquered it, nonetheless. Jonah promised Yahweh he would issue a sacrifice in gratitude for his deliverance. Jesus sacrificed himself as the deliverance for us all.
Father Mapple summarized the importance of Jonah to his congregation of shipmates. “This book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of Scriptures,” Father Mapple preached. “Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound!” May you explore the book of Jonah on your own for even more truth that touches the depths of your soul.
Please join me next week for Jonah and the third chapter, the prophet’s oracle to Nineveh.
Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge. I hope Bible Fiber can help you with any 2022 resolutions to go deeper into God’s word. Bible Fiber is available on YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts.