Jonah 1 represents the history of Israel in the history of Jonah. In Jonah 2, in the experiences that Jonah has in the sea and in the stomach of the fish, details are given about experiences that Israel gains. While Jonah is kept in the stomach of the fish, he is also under the disciplining hand of God. That is also the case with Israel among the nations. Jonah’s prayer is a prayer of thanks for the saving he has experienced, that he is not swallowed up by the sea, but is alive in the stomach of a fish.
1 Jonah Prays
1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the stomach of the fish,
The prayer that Jonah prays when he is in the fish shows us much of prayer in general. There is first and foremost the reason for his prayer. Jonah prays because he is in great distress and a hopeless situation. Where is he when he prays? He is in the stomach of a fish.
Secondly, this shows that the way to heaven is always open to any prayer, no matter from where it is sent. Thus Paul and Silas pray from a prison (Acts 16:25).
Thirdly, it is clear to Whom he prays: he prays to the LORD his God, Whom he believes in, with Whom he has a personal relationship.
And fourth, what does he pray? His prayer is not a prayer for salvation, but a confession and thanksgiving for the salvation he received. He speaks to “his God” and a little further on he speaks of “my God” (verse 6). These statements show his trust in God. Despite the fact that he fled from God, he knows that God did not let him go.
Jonah is here a picture of the believing remnant of Israel in the end times when they are in great tribulation and without prospect. The remnant, like Jonah here, can turn to no one but God alone; it can expect help from no other than God alone. God will answer their prayer. He will keep the remnant of His people through the fire and the water, and be with them therein (Isa 43:2).
2 In the Depth of Sheol
2 and he said,
“I called out of my distress to the LORD,
And He answered me.
I cried for help from the depth of Sheol;
You heard my voice.
It is striking that Jonah, while praying this prayer in the stomach of the fish, does so in the past tense. This seems to indicate that his prayer refers to his (short) stay in the water and not in the fish. He does not actually talk about the latter. Perhaps we can see it in such a way that his stay in the fish has to be seen as a kind of salvation, or at least the beginning of it. It gives him hope for real salvation. He saw his hopeless situation as already gone by when he was in the fish. His hope for his salvation is therefore clearly expressed in his prayer.
When Jonah was thrown into the raging sea, he thought he was in the depth of Sheol, i.e. the realm of the dead. The place where he was, seemed to him to be the place where they are who have left life and where death is. At the place of death, all self-interest is gone. He has been thrown back on himself. Every resistance is broken. So he is in the right position before God and God can bring him where he needs to be.
He called to God in his distress and was heard. All expressions of his distress are strongly echoed in expressions that we often hear in the book of Psalms. The Psalms express the experiences and feelings of the pious Jew, often when he is in great distress.
A comparison between Jonah and Psalms shows a number of similarities:
Jona 2:2a – Psa 3:4; 120:1
Jona 2:2b – Psa 18:5-6; 30:3
Jona 2:3a – Psa 88:6-7
Jona 2:3b – Psa 42:7
Jona 2:4a – Psa 31:22
Jona 2:4b – Psa 5:7
Jona 2:5a – Psa 69:1b-2
Jona 2:6b – Psa 103:4
Jona 2:7a – Psa 107:5-6; 142:3
Jona 2:8a – Psa 31:6
Jona 2:9a – Psa 69:30; 107:22
Jona 2:9c – Psa 3:8; 37:39
Jonah must have been familiar with the book of Psalms and stored the Psalms in his heart. Now the Spirit can remind him of these parts and can let him quote these. Because Jonah knows them, he can take support and comfort from them. And so Scripture is meant for us (Rom 15:4).
3 The LORD Has Done It
3 “For You had cast me into the deep,
Into the heart of the seas,
And the current engulfed me.
All Your breakers and billows passed over me.
He does not attribute the situation in which he finds himself to what the sailors have done with him (Jona 1:15). Nor does he talk about an accident. No, in what happened to him, he acknowledges God’s actions as a result of his disobedience. God had cast him into the deep. The sailors were only the executors of God’s discipline. In the same sense Paul never calls himself a prisoner of Nero or of Rome, but of Jesus Christ.
It is important to look beyond the circumstances and see that God is behind them. Jonah humbles himself under the mighty hand of God (1Pet 5:6-7). Salvation for a soul in need can only come if the hand of God is recognized in it.
What Jonah experiences corresponds to what is written in Psalm 42 (Psa 42:7). There a God-fearing Israelite is speaking who remembers how he used to go to God’s house with the multitude of God’s people. But that is over. He has been driven out of the land. He experiences the chastening of God which had to come over His unfaithful people as the breakers and billows that pass over him.
So it was with Christ when He was nailed on the cross. Only, He was in distress and misery and among the “breakers and billows” of God’s judgment for the benefit of others because He made Himself one with the sins of others. Because of this He not only did feel Himself alone, but He really was alone in the three hours of darkness. Then, and only then, He was forsaken by God. Never will this apply to any man except those in hell. Neither did it apply to Jonah in the stomach of the fish.
4 “So I said, ‘I have been expelled from Your sight.
Nevertheless I will look again toward Your holy temple.’
Jonah says he was expelled from God’s sight, while he himself had chosen to leave the presence of God (Jona 1:3). Here he experiences what this is. The terrible thing about hell is that someone there is expelled from God’s sight. There is nothing more terrible for a man than to be without God. Similarly, the happiness of heaven lies in the fact that someone is close to God. On earth one can feel that God has expelled him, no longer bothering about him. That is a great grief (Psa 31:22; Isa 49:14).
Jonah realizes how awful it is to be away from the presence of God. He longs to be back in it again. Jonah comes from the ten tribes realm. There, under the leadership of Jeroboam I, the people erected their own temples in Bethel and Dan (1Kgs 13:26-33). But they do not count for Jonah, nor for any God-fearing Israelite. Despite the religious confusion he sees only one place of worship and that is Jerusalem. Here he already says in faith that he will see again the temple that stands there.
5 Fear of Death
5 “Water encompassed me to the point of death.
The great deep engulfed me,
Weeds were wrapped around my head.
Jonah acknowledges that his path of disobedience had brought him to the point of death. He despaired of life. This is the inevitable consequence of the will of man moving away from God. The God-fearing man also expresses himself in this way in the book of Psalms (Psa 18:5; 69:3).
The faithful remnant will also acquire this experience when it is in the great tribulation. They suffer the disasters that come upon the unbelieving mass of the people because of their sins. They are part of the people, but are repentant and acknowledge their guilt. Therefore the LORD will deliver them from their misery.
6 The Turning Point
6 “I descended to the roots of the mountains.
The earth with its bars [was] around me forever,
But You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.
After his fears of death, it seemed that it was the end of Jonah. At least that’s how he experienced it. He could not sink deeper, and at the low point the door was closed behind him. There was no way back and this seemed to be his final destiny.
This would have been the case if God had not intervened (cf. 1Sam 2:6; Psa 30:3). When all hope for salvation seemed lost, He revived in Jonah the remembrance of Him for Whom no situation is hopeless. In the heart of Jonah his faith in the saving God was revived. He acknowledged in God the source of life, Who gives him back life.
7 The Way Out
7 “While I was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
And my prayer came to You,
Into Your holy temple.
We sense how the heart of Jonah comes to rest more and more. Despair is changing more and more into hope, which dawns increasingly in his heart. That hope can never be the result of changed circumstances, because he is still in the stomach of the fish. He has no reference point at all. He is in ink black darkness. He does not know where he is going. More than anyone else has experienced, Jonah experiences how the remembrance of the LORD lifts a person beyond his circumstances.
It looks like that Jonah, precisely because of his stay in the fish, saw that the LORD was working to save him. From that he drew hope. In any case, he was able to breathe for three days because he would of course have drowned in the water otherwise.
He speaks with faith that his prayer has arrived in God’s holy temple. This might be the experience of anyone who, in his life, finds himself in a situation in which every way out seems closed. He may know that God is there.
It is God’s intention that through such situations we will learn what Paul learned: “seeing no apparent issue, but our way not entirely shut up” (2Cor 4:8b, Darby Translation). When Jonah despaired of life, he remembered the LORD, and prayed to Him. He has seen the hand of God in the storm and in the lot, but in his deepest need he looks at God Himself. When prayer comes to God, He helps and saves.
8 The Big Difference
8 “Those who regard vain idols
Forsake their faithfulness,
Jonah has gained a new experience of God’s faithfulness, while he had shirked from it by leaving the presence of God. Only God is the source and personification of faithfulness. With his experience, Jonah wants to warn others not to give up the LORD. He ran away from God. That almost ruined him. But God has taken care of him.
Although he is still in the stomach of the fish, he is back with God. Overwhelmed by His faithfulness, he sees the great difference between the living God and the dead, insignificant idols. No vain idol can save. All those who put their trust in something other than God are violating their souls.
Jonah is not an idolater in the usual sense of the word. He is not kneeling before idols of wood and stone. Yet in a sense Jonah is an idolater. He has served himself, he has placed himself at the center. This self-awareness, which has led him to self-willed action, independent of God, has brought him into the greatest misery and deepest need. Now that he has reached this conclusion, he wants to make everyone aware of the folly of such actions.
9 Salvation Is From the LORD
9 But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving.
That which I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation is from the LORD.”
After his warning to whoever wants to hear it, not to serve vain idols, Jonah turns again to the LORD. He will honor Him with sacrifices of praise (Psa 50:23). He will offer the LORD the fruit of his lips (Hos 14:2). His heart is full of gratitude for Who the LORD is. He praises Him for what He has done. What has the LORD done? He has taught His servant an unforgettable lesson, in which He saved him.
Jonah got to know the LORD in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. He also promised the LORD something. What that is, is not mentioned. It is obvious that he promised to carry out the task (cf. Jona 1:16).
The final words of his prayer indicate that he attributes his salvation completely and only to the LORD. He stops struggling and now expects everything from Him.
10 Back at the Start
10 Then the LORD commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land.
The confession that the salvation is from the LORD is the moment that the fish vomits Jonah up onto the dry land. It is like the man who is mentioned in Romans 7. He also lives between hope and fear. He longs for living according to God’s commandments, and he still does not succeed. Always focused on himself, searching for strength in himself, he becomes increasingly desperate. His total despair is expressed in the words: “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Rom 7:24).
These words herald the solution, the salvation. He has said “who” will set me free. That means that he no longer expects it from himself, but from someone else. That Someone is Jesus Christ, as the following verse says: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25a). This confession brings the man, so to speak, from the swamp, in which he sank deeper and deeper, onto the dry land. This dry land is described in Romans 8 as follows: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).
Now that the disobedient servant has come to full surrender, he is freed from his perilous position. As soon as the LORD commands the fish to do so, it vomits Jonah up. There is no need for a repeated command. Brute beasts carry out an order faster than rationally thinking people.
We don’t know where Jonah was put on dry land. But it could have been in the neighborhood of Joppa. From there he had taken the wrong direction. It also fits in with the way God acts when He restores someone. Anyone who has deviated must first return to the point where the deviation started. Often the point of deviation is the moment that a certain sin is allowed in someone’s mind without condemning it. After the thought often follows the deed. Then not only the deed should be condemned, but also the thought. What someone allows in his thinking is generally decisive for his behavior.