But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights.
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
‘I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?” The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’
Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
Now the comedy really begins. Jonah is drowning in the waters of Chaos and God appoints one of the monsters of the deep to eat him. Three days elapse (in Hebrew thought meaning Jonah’s on the point of death: 1 Sam.30:12, cf. John 11:39); and then for the first time Jonah prays to God. But his prayer is unexpectedly one of thanksgiving, not a prayer for help!
In the narrative context, Jonah has gone down as far as humanly possible from the presence of God; but his prayer is full of phrases reflecting a close dependence on God, an acceptance of God’s will and gratitude to God for listening to him and rescuing him. None of these phrases correspond to anything Jonah has said or done in the text; and they are strangely confusing when read carefully. They imply that Jonah is in the water, not a creature’s belly; and at one moment suggest he is at the surface (waves), then near the shore (reeds), then at the bottom of the sea (roots of mountains, the Pit). He accuses God of driving him away (v.4) but Jonah was fleeing; he claims to have prayed for help (v.2) when he hasn’t; and concludes with a declaration of faith and a promise about future sacrifices (v.9) which sound ludicrous in his current situation.
The story ends as God instructs the sea-creature to vomit (the meaning of the Hebrew) Jonah back onto dry land, without specifying a location.
Most of the phrases in Jonah’s prayer are drawn from the Psalms and would have been recognised by the first hearers of this story. Perhaps the author is conveying a universal human truth, that anyone in a desperate situation tends to cry out for divine help, often incoherently, drawing on any remembered traditions. Praise God that the Spirit intercedes on our behalf to turn groaning into prayer.
Sovereign God, we rejoice that you never abandon us but watch over us, even in what we might consider the darkest, most god-forsaken, places. We rejoice that you hear our prayers and discern our heartfelt need of you, even if we pretend otherwise. We rejoice that your love is stronger than the powers of death; and that in Christ you lift us up from seemingly hopeless situations and set us back on the pathway to life. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge