Jonah Prays

Part 2 Of 3

Previously, we looked at the mercy of the LORD in delivering Jonah from certain death by sending a big fish to swallow him up. In this article, we’ll consider Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish.

Verse 1 says, “Then Jonah prayed unto the LORD his God out of the fish's belly.”

What a contrast to chapter 1 where Jonah did not pray. The captain of the ship woke him up from his deep sleep and instructed him to arise and call upon his God for salvation. Jonah did arise but the text gives us no indication that he prayed. Jonah was on the run from God. Why would he want to call upon God? Prayer was just about the last thing on his mind at that point. You can be sure that as the ship was leaving the port of Joppa, Jonah did not pray that the Lord would grant them a safe passage to Tarshish!

And when the storm was raging and lashing relentlessly against them, Jonah did not pray that the LORD would calm the storm so that they could be on their way to Tarshish.

No, Jonah must have been a prayerless man all the while that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD. That’s one of the sure signs of backsliding in a believer, isn’t it? When a Christian fails to pray or when his prayer life has dropped to negligible levels, you can be sure that he or she is in a state of declension or backsliding.

But now that he was in the belly of the fish, he once again prays unto the LORD his God. Jonah was responding to the Lord’s restoring grace. He still had a long way to go in his sanctification but this was a start.

Jonah’s prayer is recorded for us from verses 2 to 9 of chapter 2. The form of the prayer is similar to thanksgiving psalms found in the psalter.

We may divide it into three parts. Firstly in verse 2, we have an introductory summary of his prayer. Jonah called for help, and God answered. Then secondly, from verses 3 to 6a, we have an expansion on Jonah’s call for help. And thirdly, from verses 6b to 9, we have an expansion on God’s answer.

Verse 2, “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.”

Now it’s important to understand that Jonah was not praying for deliverance from the fish’s belly. Rather, he was giving thanks for being saved by the fish. His affliction and his crying out from the belly of hell do not refer to his time in the fish but to his struggle for his life while he was sinking deeper and deeper into the sea. Jonah was at the brink of death and he felt that he was as good as dead. But he cried out unto the LORD in those desperate moments, and the LORD mercifully heard his voice.

Verses 3 to 6a elaborate on Jonah’s cry to the LORD. We read in verse 3, “For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.”

Isn’t it interesting that Jonah speaks of God as being the One who cast or hurled him into the sea, and he refers to the waves and floods that swept over him as belonging to God? Jonah was really testifying to the sovereignty of God in all things.

Yes, it was the sailors who were the immediate ones who threw Jonah overboard, but Jonah knew that ultimately, it was of the Lord’s doing. They were but His tools or instruments. The ultimate reason why Jonah was in the water and struggling for his life was because God had ordained it so.

Verse 4, “Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.” Here, Jonah expresses the depth of his despair and plight. Not only was he drowning in the water but he felt that God had cast him away from His presence. Yes, Jonah knew that God was everywhere and that nothing escapes His all-seeing eye. But Jonah also knew that it is possible to be out of favour with the Lord and to be cast out of His favourable and gracious presence.

This was how he felt in those moments of distress. Jonah had wanted to flee from the LORD’s presence and now the LORD gave him a slight taste of that so that he might know and feel how awful it is to be forsaken by the LORD.

Nevertheless, in the midst of all this, Jonah also expresses his deep faith and hope in the LORD. He says in the second part of verse 4, “yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.” No matter how forsaken Jonah felt, he did the right thing, and that was to look up and to look far to the dwelling place of the LORD, even toward His holy temple.

The last thing we should do in such moments is to look inward on ourselves and our failures and sins. Always look up and look out of yourself, and to the LORD. Jonah looked in the right direction and he looked to the right object, even the holy temple where God is pleased to meet with His people. We too must look up and look to the holy temple, even the LORD Jesus Christ.

Christ is the true tabernacle or temple of the LORD. Did He not say to the unbelieving Jews in John chapter 2, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up?” The Jews thought He was talking about the physical temple complex but Jesus was referring to the temple of His body.

His sacrifice for sin is the only sacrifice that is acceptable before God and that can reconcile God and sinners. He is the One we all need to look to at all times and especially at times of distress and despair. 

Verses 5-6a continue to describe his plight in the sea. “The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever:”

Jonah was expressing his feeling of being in the very deepest part of the sea. The seaweeds or the underwater plant life, which grows only at the bottom of the sea, was entangling and trapping him. Furthermore, he felt the immense pressure of the water crushing him and refusing to allow him to return to the surface. He had the sense of being entombed by the sea without any hope of escape. And so this was Jonah’s situation and how he felt as he went down into the sea. But Jonah cried unto the Lord, and the Lord heard his voice.

This brings us to the next part of his prayer or psalm from the second part of verse 6 till verse 9. The second part of verse 6, which reads, “yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God”, is really the turning point of the prayer. The God who had cast him into the sea is also the God who stretched out His almighty hand and pulled him out of the depths of death and despair.

Jonah was filled with praise and thanksgiving to God for His mercies and compassion toward him – a wretched sinner who deserved to perish forever but who was miraculously delivered.

Verse 7, “When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple.” This echoes the thoughts of verse 2. In his deep distress, when his soul was fainting and his life was ebbing away, then he remembered the LORD and his prayer went up to Him in His holy temple.

Jonah has been likened to the prodigal son in our Lord’s parable in Luke chapter 15. In his state of desperation when he has been driven into the corner of hopelessness and when he has come to the end of himself, then he is made to look upwards and to seek the help of the very One whom he has run away from and offended. 

What Jonah did and how the Lord responded to him ought to give all of us great encouragement and hope. None of us have fallen as far away from God as Jonah in the sea. His going down all the way to the depths of the ocean is figurative of a believer who has gone as far away from the Lord as possible. But if this Old Testament prodigal could receive mercy even at the furthest point of his departure from the Lord, then there is hope for all of us as well.

Remember the Lord this day and look to Him. Let your prayers rise up into His Holy Temple. Do it right now. Do not delay. Turn your heart and your eyes to the Lord and you will find mercy from Him. If you are a believer, even one who has gone astray and fallen into the deep sea of spiritual declension, turn to Him and experience what Jonah experienced – deliverance and restoration.

But if you are not a believer, still, this call to turn to the Lord is applicable to you. All who look to the Lord and call upon His name, all who seek salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, will be saved.

But if you choose not to look to Christ, if you choose to look to an idol or false god for help, then you will not be saved. This is what Jonah means when he says in the very next verse, “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.” The words “lying vanities” refer to idols that are vain and worthless. These are utterly powerless to save, and those who cling to them will perish. They will forsake the mercy that could have been theirs. There is no salvation in any one other than the Lord Jesus Christ. All who insist on looking to worthless idols will not live but die.

And so in contrast to trusting in idols and false gods, Jonah says in verse 9, “But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.” These words echo the words of the pagan sailors at the end of chapter 1. After the storm had suddenly ceased with the throwing of Jonah overboard, the sailors feared the Lord exceedingly and they offered a sacrifice unto the LORD and made vows to Him.

Jonah does something similar in the belly of the fish. He offers to the Lord a song of thanksgiving with his voice. As I mentioned earlier, we can think of this whole prayer of Jonah in chapter 2 as a psalm of thanksgiving unto the Lord for His gracious deliverance.

Bear in mind again that Jonah was not praying to be delivered from the belly of the fish. Often that is the way that people understand this prayer of Jonah. But that is not so. Rather, he is giving thanks to God for the deliverance that He has already experienced in the belly of the fish!

But not only does Jonah sing a psalm of thanksgiving, he also made a vow to the Lord. We do not know what the content of his vow was, but most probably he vowed to be faithful to his task as a prophet of the Lord and to go where the Lord would have him to go. And he was resolved to keep that vow.

Finally, this prayer or psalm of Jonah concludes with a marvellous declaration, “Salvation is of the LORD.” Salvation is not of Baal or Chemosh or Milcom or Molech or any of the other gods of the pagans.

When the great storm first descended on them, the pagan sailors cried out every man to his own god. But their cries and prayers were all ineffectual because these and all other gods of the Gentiles are utterly powerless to save. They have mouths but they speak not, eyes but see not, ears but hear not, noses but smell not, hands but handle not, and feet but walk not.

Salvation is not found in them. Not one of them and not even all of them combined. But neither is salvation found in man or in the arm of flesh. Remember how the sailors at first did not want to throw Jonah overboard. They tried their very best to row the boat to safety but they simply could not. They were unable to deliver Jonah and themselves by their own might and strength.

So neither the gods of the heathen nor the power and wisdom of men could save. Only the LORD, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land, is able to save. And He did save that day. He calmed the storm on the sea so that the sailors did not perish. And He sent out a great fish to swallow Jonah and prevent him from drowning.

Salvation is of the LORD and of the LORD alone. It wouldn’t be too far off to say that this statement in Jonah 2:9 is the key verse of the whole book. In chapter 1, the sailors experienced the salvation of the LORD. In chapter 2, Jonah himself experiences the salvation of the LORD. In chapter 3, the people of Nineveh would experience the salvation of the LORD. And in chapter 4, the conversation between the LORD and Jonah would focus on the salvation of the LORD.  

Ultimately, this truth that salvation is of the LORD points us to the Lord Jesus Christ for He is Himself the salvation of the LORD. His very name means salvation. The angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream instructed him to name the child Jesus, which literally means “Jehovah saves” or “Jehovah is salvation.” And Jesus is salvation because of who He is – the God-man, and what He has done – His perfect life, His atoning death, and His miraculous resurrection from the dead on the third day. In fact, His resurrection is pre-figured or typified in the last verse of this chapter, which we will consider next time.

—Linus Chua