Jonah's Song (Dr. Trey Benfield)

Scripture Readings:

Leviticus 26:11-13
Amos 9:1-4
Jonah 2:1-10

Last week we began our study of Jonah.  The big point I made was that Jonah did not flee simply because he was disobedient or because he wanted to be exclusive and not see foreigners become part of God’s family.  Jonah fled because the people of Nineveh were part of one of the most violent, ruthless empires in history and what he was called to do was dangerous and crazy.  It would have been the equivalent of going to the heartland of ISIS and telling them that what they were doing was wrong and God was angry with them.  

Jonah’s call was reflective of the command to love our enemies, a principle that is completely radical and resists our attempts to make it manageable.  However, the call to love our enemies is ultimately about hope.  Hope in a God that will right wrongs but will also change and redeem.  It is a hope in a real solution to end the cycle of violence, oppression, and exploitation that is represented by Assyria.  It is a faith that God’s kingdom is here and that the church’s work is about embodying and communicated this message by loving our enemy confident that all authority in heaven and earth already belongs to Christ.

Our passage today looks at the most famous part of the Jonah story.  As we read Jonah is swallowed by a great fish and after spending three days and three nights in the fish’s belly is vomited up onto the shore.  The experience of being in the belly of the fish seems to have led Jonah to pray to God for deliverance and to do so by composing a poetic psalm.  

So we find Jonah in prayer literally from the guts of the fish.  We really have very little information as to what kind of fish we are talking about.  All we are told is that it is a great fish.  The Hebrew word for fish is pretty broad basically covering any sort of animal that is in the sea - so the story could intend that Jonah was swallowed by a really big fish, a whale, a sea monster or anything else that lives in water.  However, despite our focus on the nature of the great fish the text is more focused on the poem describing Jonah’s experience inside the fish.  

Jonah’s prayer is in the form of poetry.  As I have mentioned before, poetry in the Bible uses exalted language with lots of imagery designed to help us feel and experience what the author is trying to communicate.  So the point of Jonah’s psalm is for us to put ourselves in the place of Jonah and in some way take part in his ordeal.

Jonah starts his prayer by stating, “I called from my trouble to YHWH and he answered me.”  If you remember from chapter 1, the verb call is repeated over and over.  God tells Jonah to call to Nineveh.  When the storm comes, the captain of the ship commands Jonah to call to his God.  The sailors call to the Lord asking that they not perish as a result of Jonah’s actions.  Jonah fled from the command to call to Nineveh and although the pagan captain and sailors call to Lord, it is only at this point in the story when Jonah is in the guts of a fish that the prophet finally calls to the Lord.  

It is interesting that Jonah begins this prayer in the guts of the fish by proclaiming that the Lord answered him in the past tense.  In fact, if we turn to the Psalms we find similar language.  Psalms 120:1, “In my distress I called to the Lord and He answered me.”  or Psalm 118:5, “Out of my distress I called on the Lord, the Lord answered me and set me free.”  So what Jonah is doing is using standard language in his prayer.  Actually, it is not just this line, but multiple places in Jonah’s poem where he borrows from others Psalms.  Jonah’s psalm is essentially a mashup of lines from various psalms.  We might easily say that Jonah is being cliche.  However, I think that should be a lesson to us in our prayer life.  We don’t need to be original or particularly creative.

As we read Jonah’s psalm, it seems Jonah has now become aware of his true plight.  We saw in chapter one that there was repetition of the word “down” - Jonah goes down to Joppa, down to the ship, down into the down-most part of the ship.  Now Jonah sees that his flight from the Lord has led him to the lowest depth - Sheol.  When people died they went to the place of the dead called Sheol.  The ancient Hebrews did not think in terms of heaven and hell.   I should note, Sheol is not a place of punishment but it is also not described in any other way but a negative place.   Sheol is beyond the reach of any power except God because nothing short of resurrection will save those from Sheol.

As Jonah’s song continues, we see Jonah more and more realize the helplessness of the situation.  Jonah views himself as merely the object of the raging sea.  It is God who cast Jonah into the deep, the flood surrounds him, it the waves pass over him.  The waters close over him and the deep surrounds him.   Jonah is nothing but an object.  He no longer has agency, he cannot exert his will, he is utterly without ability to control his situation.    

The Israelites, like most ancient people were not a seafaring people.  The sea for them was a place of unpredictability and chaos.  In most of the surrounding ancient mythologies the evil god came from the sea.  We even sea this is the New Testament, the beast of the book of Revelation comes out of the sea.  So the image presented here would have been the stuff of nightmares to the ancient world. 

Jonah also knows that the forces acting on him, placing him in a helpless condition and the nightmare he finds himself, are entirely a result of the actions of God.  It was God who hurled the wind on the sea.  It is God who hurled Jonah into the deep.  It is God’s waves and billows that pass over Jonah.  Yet Jonah still finds hope because because he knows that God also has the power to save him from his predicament. 

Much of the language Jonah uses is taken from Exodus imagery.  Another song, Exodus 15:5 describes the drowning of Pharaoh’s army, “the depths have covered them, they sank into the deep.”  There is also a reference in verse 5 to the reeds wrapping around Jonah’s head.  We typically say that Pharaoh’s army was drowned at the Red Sea but this is a mistranslation.  The Israelites crossed and Pharaoh’s army was destroyed when Moses parted the Sea of Reeds.  This point is significant because in both of these references to the Exodus, Jonah is substituting himself into the role of Egypt.  Jonah is the enemy while the pagan sailors are the ones who have just been passed through the raging sea to safety.  

Jonah on the other hand continues in his descent further down.  In the ancient world, their view of the earth was a flat land where we live with a blue dome above it.  This blue dome held up the water that came down in the form of rain.  Underneath the earth was another large body of water where springs and rivers come from.  In the Genesis flood story we are told that all the fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven were opened.  The land was held up by large mountains that were surrounded by these underworld waters.  It is beneath these mountains that Jonah finds himself.  Worse the way up is is blocked by what verse 6 calls bars.  Even in this unbelievable picture of hopelessness that Jonah has painted he still finds hope in the power and love of the God he has disobeyed.  

So the central question of chapter two and the central question of our sermon is how can this be?  Up until this point Jonah has basically done everything wrong.  In the history of the prophets, he is probably the worst.  Even this poem which on its surface follows the standard language of a typical Thanksgiving Psalm reveals Jonah’s shortcomings.  Jonah never admits guilt for his situation.  At the end in poem in verse 9, Jonah is even oddly self-righteous.  He is not like those who “pay regard to vain idols” and therefore “forsake their hope of steadfast love.”   However, Jonah is not innocent like Job.  The story make abundantly clear that Jonah has only himself to blame for the suffering he is undergoing.   

Look at the passage we read earlier from Amos.  Here the Lord is addressing the Northern kingdom of Israel.  Notice the similarities in the language between this passage and Jonah’s prayer.  They are pictured as being in Sheol, they go down to the bottom of the sea.  The Lord sends a sea serpent after them.  They are in the same predicament as Jonah. However, the Lord does not use it to rescue them.  In a few years, the Assyrians will conquer, resettle, enslave the men, and carry the women to become prostitute.  All the nasty things the Assyrians are known for will happen to the Northern Kingdom and they will become the so called ten lost tribes of Israel.  What is the difference between them and Jonah?  

To answer this question we are going to have to know a little about how to read Hebrew poetry.  So let me give you a brief outline of how Hebrew poetry is structured.  The basic unit of meaning is a line which in the biz is called a colon.  Colons are organized into groups of similar lengths with similar meanings called parallelism.  Several of these parallel groups of cola form a complete thought called a stanza.  Typically we find the key point the stanza wants to communicate in the middle of the stanza usually in a single colon that is distinguished by not having a parallel.  

So if we look at Jonah’s psalm we find it consists of two stanzas.  The first stanza is contained in verses 2-6 and the second in verse 6-10.  In the first stanza we find the key point in verse 4, where Jonah says, “I am driven away from your sight, yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.”  The key verse for the second stanza is verse 7, “and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.”  

Notice at center of both stanzas we find Jonah returning to the holy temple.  The holy temple is important because the temple represents the place where God and His people meet.  It is the location that forms the axis between heaven and earth, where God provides a way through sacrifice, atonement, and forgiveness, where a holy God condescends to be with His people.   What Jonah has identified in the midst of his disobedience, his arrogance, and his fear is that the Lord his God wants to be with His people and Jonah claims for himself, despite everything that has happened, that the Lord is his God and that Jonah belongs to the Lord.  

When we come to the last line of verse 6, we find a colon that belongs at the end of the first stanza and the beginning of the second stanza.  This line acts as a hinge connecting the two stanzas together.  It is the take home message for the psalm - “you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.”   YHWH Lord is Jonah’s God.  

Jonah may mess up and be wrong about every other point.  However, here he has identified, claimed, grasped, and found hope in the central teaching of the Bible that God so passionately desires a relationship with His people that nothing will stop Him from making this a reality.  It is the whole story of the Old Testament.  Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden but God even amid his judgment promises them deliverance.  God calls Abraham, a pagan dwelling among pagans, to bless Abraham so he can be a blessing to all people.  When God’s people suffer slavery in Egypt God dramatically rescues them and Exodus 6:7 God tells us why He would do this, “I will take you to be my people and I will be your God.”  

In the book of Leviticus after giving the people all the rules and regulations they are to follow as they approach and worship at the tabernacle, God tells them why He does this, “I will walk among you, and will be your God and you will be my people.”  When the Israelites break the covenant and the Babylonians conquer them and lead them into exile, Jeremiah promises a new covenant and restoration and the reason given for doing this is “so you shall be my people.”  Ezekiel says the same thing after seeing God revive the dried bones in the valley and make them live again.  

When Christ comes he refers to Himself as the temple.  At first it seems a bit of a stretch, but what Christ means is that He embodies everything the temple symbolized.  Christ through His death makes the ultimate sacrifice and provides the final atonement providing forgiveness so that God can meet with humanity.  The whole message of the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ because it all leads to the achievement of God’s plan    of being a God who is in relationship with His people.  It is what provides hope to a prophet who should have no hope.  It is what provides hope to a displaced people who find themselves by the rivers of Babylon weeping.  It is what provides to us the confidence and ability to stand before the throne and cry Abba, father because He is our God and we are His people.  

Jonah concludes his song with the words, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.”  In Hebrew you would say this, “yesu ata  lyhwh”   You may be familiar with the shorter, anglicized version of this phrase - Jesus.  Matthew tells us that Mary will bear a son and his name would be called Jesus - because “He will save His people from their sins.”  All of this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call his name Immanuel, which means God is with us.”  The purpose and heart of the Old Testament, the purpose and heart of the Gospel is that He is our God and we are His people and this is symbolized, realized, achieved, and demonstrated for us in Jesus.  

For all of Jonah’s faults He is right about one thing, perhaps the only thing he is right about, that he belongs to God and that knowledge, that fact means that even in the guts of a fish or even if taken by death itself, God can and will save His people.  Salvation is the Lord’s.  It belongs to Him.   Salvation is the Lord’s possession.  If the Lord wants to save nothing will stop Him.  Jonah cannot thwart the Lord’s plan to save Nineveh by fleeing.  Neither can the storm, or the fish, or death take Jonah from the Lord because Jonah belongs to the Lord.

The story of Jonah is the story of the gospel and it is good news for us.  We are a people who live in fear as Jonah did.  We are a people who are all too often self righteous as Jonah was.  We are a people hesitant to call out except when faced with overwhelming circumstances as Jonah was.  We are a people who lack creativity and eloquence and must borrow words to even talk to God as Jonah was.  However, despite this we are a people who can have hope as Jonah had.  A people who have hope because we can have confidence that despite circumstances, appearances, doubts, and our own recalcitrance, the Lord is our God and he has sent Jesus so that we can look on Him and our prayers can come to Him.  As Paul said, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, not things to come nor height nor depth nor any created thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”