It’s easy to love God when things are going well. When we get a promotion, heal from a sickness, or receive good news about a tough situation, one of our first reactions can be (and should be) to praise God for His favor in our lives. However, as followers of Christ, our challenge is to recognize that God is God whether things are good or bad. Thankfully, God has given us many examples in the Bible, including the story of Jonah.

Jonah was a prophet who was tasked with what was, in his mind, a suicide mission. Instead of being obedient, he ran away. Still, God got him back on track and used him for great things in spite of his faithlessness and prejudice. For an in-depth examination of Jonah 1, check out this post.

In the second chapter of Jonah, we see our titular character praying a prayer of thanksgiving even though he was inches from death. To aid our understanding of Jonah 1:17-2:10, let’s consult the New Bible Commentary and New Bible Dictionary.

1:17-2:10 | Jonah’s gratitude at God’s grace for rescuing him from death

Jonah 1:17-2:1 – Narrative Introduction

17 And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. 1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish,

–Jonah 1:17-2:1

1:17 | Death by drowning was what Jonah expected. The words the LORD prepared a great fish indicate to the reader that Jonah would not die, but be rescued. Several reliable accounts exist of people’s survival at sea after being swallowed by whales (see D. K. Stuart, Hosea-Jonah [Word Books, 1987]). Those were natural survivals, due to the body’s remarkable ability to live on small amounts of oxygen (though normally unconsciously) in cold water, something medically well established. Also a factor is a whale’s frequent surfacing for air. Jonah’s rescue was by divine arrangement, however, and thus supernatural in considerable measure.

Great fish in Hebrew nomenclature could designate either a whale or one of the larger sharks. Three days and three nights is a special phrase used in the ancient world with the meaning ‘long enough to be definitely dead’. It derives originally from the ancient pagan notion that the soul’s trip to the after-world took three days and nights. Jesus’ use of the same phrase for the duration of his death before his resurrection (Mt. 12:40) carries a similar force: it is a way of saying that he would really die, not that he would be literally dead for exactly seventy-two hours.

2:1 | Whether or not he remained conscious at all times, Jonah was sufficiently alert some time during his days in the fish or whale to realize that he had not drowned but was being kept alive, and to utter the thanksgiving psalm that follows in vs 2–9. The form and structure of the psalm indicate that Jonah well understood that he had been given life instead of the death he deserved. A thanksgiving psalm was a musical poem prayed in gratitude after deliverance from some sort of threat or misery. Twelve psalms in the Psalter are exclusively or partially individual thanksgiving psalms (Pss. 18, 21, 30, 32, 34, 40, 66, 92, 103, 108, 116, 118). Six are exclusively or partly corporate (community) thanksgiving psalms (Pss. 65, 67, 75, 107, 124, 126). Such psalms are also found outside the Psalter (e.g. 1 Sa. 2:1–10; Is. 38:9–20).

Thanksgiving psalms have usually five elements:

  1. an introductory statement of appreciation for rescue
  2. a description of the misery rescued from
  3. a description of the appeal for rescue
  4. an indication of the rescue itself and
  5. a testimonial or vow to continue to show gratitude via future worship.

The psalm of Jonah includes all five elements, in the order listed above. There is no way to tell whether Jonah composed this psalm himself (as a prophet he was a musical poet by training) or whether he simply used a psalm he already knew to express his gratitude. At any rate, the psalm is an eloquent statement and may well have been polished before the event.

Jonah 2:2-6a | Jonah recounts his situation

2 saying
“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3 For 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.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
5 The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;

–Jonah 2:2-6a

2 | This verse is the psalm’s introduction, summarizing Jonah’s rescue.

3–6a | These verses recount the misery Jonah was in. Several psalms use the metaphor of drowning as a kind of all-purpose statement of misery, so Jonah’s psalm should not be viewed as unique to his personal situation. Psalms tend to describe a few severe trials (mainly enmity, illness, entrapment, drowning and death) as typical hardships for which the reader may mentally substitute his or her own misery. In v 4 yet I will look again … is better rendered ‘How can I look again …’ on the basis of ancient Gk. manuscript readings.

Jonah 2:6b-9 | Jonah’s rescue and vows

yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD my God.
7 When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

–Jonah 2:6b-9

6b | This verse constitutes the brief description of the rescue.

7 | Here Jonah includes words of appeal for rescue, typical of psalms of this type.

8–9 | These verses are the concluding testimonial/vow section of the psalm. Worthless idols in v 8 is in Hebrew (lit.) empty nothings. Idolatry is dangerous for many reasons, one of the most prominent being that idols cannot save. Only the Lord, Israel’s God, can save. The last words of the psalm, Salvation comes from the LORD (lit. ‘Salvation is the Lord’s’) can also have the sense that he saves whom he will—he is in charge of the whole business of salvation. This, from Jonah’s own mouth, foreshadowed the possibility that the Lord would choose to rescue the Ninevites from their troubles.

Jonah 2:10 | Jonah returns to land

10 And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

–Jonah 2:10

10 | Again we are reminded that the actions of the fish or whale were controlled by God. The sailors had failed to get Jonah to shore (1:13). God did it, however, via the fish, preserving Jonah from death. Notions that Jonah’s skin would now be stained by stomach acid, etc. are all purely speculative.

This type of psalm at this point in the book sends a clear message:

Ancient Israelites who heard or read the story of Jonah could not miss the implication. A thanksgiving psalm is a song of gratitude. It is not an all-purpose prayer suitable for any occasion. People prayed thanksgiving psalms because they had been rescued from danger or hardship, as a way of thanking God for showing mercy to them. Jonah was stating, in the common manner of worshipping Israelites of his day, that he was grateful for the mercy God had shown him. He was alive even though he did not deserve to be. He had not drowned, even though death was the punishment he had merited (1:12). Jonah had experienced the grace of God, and he knew it and said so eloquently and at length. God had not treated him as his sins deserved. That is the message of the psalm prayed from the inside of the great fish.

For more context on Jonah’s psalm, here’s what the New Bible Dictionary says (under Jonah, book of):

The book is widely accepted as a unity, apart from the psalm (2:2–9), which many scholars have held to be an interpolation. The present trend may be towards its acceptance, however (cf. Kaiser, IOT, p. 196). The psalm is not so inapposite as has often been claimed; Jonah had been rescued from a watery grave—even if he had yet to be released from the fish’s belly—and the use of traditional language depicting death in marine metaphors is therefore remarkably fitting. At the same time, it is noteworthy that the more usual frame of reference of such a psalm lays the basis for the NT interpretation of its significance (cf. Mt. 12:39ff.).


New Bible Commentary & New Bible Dictionary

New Bible Commentary Dictionary giving thanks

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