1 From the belly of the fish he (Jonah) prayed to Yahweh, his God; and he said:
2 Out of my distress I called upon Yahweh,
And he answered me;
from the belly of Sheol I cried.
You heard my voice.
3 You cast me into the abyss,
into the heart of the sea,
and the flood was all about me.
All your waves, your billows washed over me.
4 And I said: I am cast out
of the sight of your eyes.
How shall I behold again
your holy Temple?
5 The waters surrounded me
even to my throat,
the abyss encompassed me.
The seaweed was wrapped about my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down into the countries beneath the earth,
to the peoples of the past.
But you raised up my life from the pit,
Yahweh, my God.
7 While my soul was fainting within me,
I remembered Yahweh,
And my prayer came before you
into your holy Temple.
8 Those who serve worthless idols
forfeit the grace that was theirs.
9 But I with song of praise
will sacrifice to you.
The vow I have made,
I will fulfil.
From Yahweh comes salvation.
10 And Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the shore.
The NRSV, as well as the translation I used today (and most translations, to be honest) have Jonah speaking to us from the belly of a “big fish” rather than a whale. But to be fair, in the ancient world, there wasn’t really a solid distinction between mammalian and non-mammalian aquatic creatures. If you saw a whale, you’d probably call it a big fish.
So on that basis, I feel reasonably justified in telling you some very juvenile “whale jokes” today:
- Why did the whale cross the road? To get to the other tide.
- What did the southern whale mamma say to her three babies? Whale, whale, whale, I do declare…
- What do whales eat? Fish and ships.
- What do you call a whale wearing headphones? Whatever you want, he can’t hear you.
- Whale Fact: Did you know that a blue whale is so long, if it were laid out lengthwise on a football field, the game would probably have to be cancelled?
- How are a dog and a marine biologist alike? One wags a tail and the other tags a whale.
Meanwhile, back to our whale tale. The second chapter of the book of Jonah, unlike the other three chapters, is poetry. And because it’s an extended prayer, because it doesn’t have the same narrative flow as the rest of the story, it often gets skipped over, or summarized by simply saying, “Jonah prayed to God in the belly of the whale, and he repented.”
But to summarize or skip over this part of the Book of Jonah would be kind of like going to see William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, and having the director come out on stage and say, “Two teenagers fall in love and then they die. The end. Go home.”
The second chapter of the Book of Jonah is the most beautiful part of the story, the most personal, and perhaps the oldest part as well. It begins with a double cry–an accusation AND a plea for help–both addressed to God.
“YOU cast me into the abyss, into the heart of the sea, and the flood was all about me. All YOUR waves, YOUR billows washed over me.” That may seem a little bit odd for those of us who remember just one chapter ago, Jonah was clearly the one saying to the sailors, “Throw me into the sea.” But this is also an ancient recognition that God is in control, in charge of ALL things, good and bad. That includes nature (the billows and the waves) but also human nature, all of our decisions and actions come back to God’s plan in the end. So God, YOU did this.
Ironically, Jonah was running to get away from Yahweh, which seems pretty futile to us, but now he says “I am cast out from the sight of your eyes.” In other words, he finally got his wish. But that vision goes both ways–if God finally cannot see me anymore…that means I can’t see God anymore: “How shall I behold again your holy Temple?” (the Temple is a common euphemism for God).
Then beginning in verse 5, we get this wonderful and poetic water imagery: “The waters surrounded me even to my throat, the abyss encompassed me. The seaweed was wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains.” In other words, I have sunk down as far as it is possible to go in this world.
Verse 6 is a bit difficult to translate in Hebrew. Our translation says “I went down into the countries beneath the earth, to the peoples of the past” which would be a poetic way of saying the land of the dead. A more literal translation would be “I went down to a land where bars were shut upon me forever.” Another possible reading would be “As I went down (further and further), the land (the earth up there) became barred/locked away from me forever.” However you read it, the situation is dire. There is no hope.
And right at this lowest point, the point of death, the point of complete darkness, come these unexpected words:
“But you raised up my life from the pit, Yahweh, my God.”
This is the turning point; from here the motion is all upward: 7 While my soul was fainting within me, I remembered זָכָ֑רְתִּי (zachareti) Yahweh. Or, Yahweh “came up” in my mind. Then “my prayer came before you into your holy Temple.” Prayers going up, too.
Verse 8-9: “Those who serve worthless idols (literally, those who send up the vapor of vanity) forfeit the grace that was theirs. But I with song of praise will sacrifice to you. The vow I have made, I will fulfil.
Vanity going up in smoke, Song of praise going up, sacrifice going up, promise going up…and presumably Jonah and the Whale going up again, too. Finally, “From Yahweh comes salvation.” In other words, ultimately, everyone is going up.
So. There is beautiful imagery, movement, and comfort in this poem, this prayer, when we take the time to actually read it. And if you’ve spent any amount of time reading another book of the Bible, the Psalms, the second chapter of Jonah may even sound familiar:
Psalm 69: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.”
Psalm 42: “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me.”
Psalm 88: “You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves . . . They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me.”
The metaphor of the drowning man crying out to God is a recurring theme throughout the Psalms. In fact, there’s a really good chance that the second chapter of Jonah began its life as a Psalm.
One possibility is that the author of the story gets to the point where Jonah is in the belly of the whale, and needs a really good, moving musical number to stir the hearts of his audience, to capture Jonah’s cry and repentance, and he thinks of this old Psalm that would fit really well, one with lots of watery images.
But there’s another possibility: Instead of the psalm being added as ornamentation for a pre-existing story, many biblical scholars have speculated that the entire story of Jonah and the Whale may have been crafted by the author as a vehicle for a famous and well-loved Psalm.
We do this all the time: Puff the Magic Dragon was a well-loved children’s song long before it was turned into an animated film. The 1954 musical “White Christmas” written as a backstory for Irving Berlin’s already famous song.
What makes us suspect that this was the case with the second chapter of Jonah? Well, for starters, there’s absolutely no mention in the psalm itself–in the prayer–about a whale, a big fish, the Ninevites, Jonah’s mission, or his identity as a prophet. And if he IS a prophet of Northern Israel living during the age of prophets, he likely wouldn’t have known about or referenced the Temple in Jerusalem (twice) because that belonged to the Southern people of Judah.
Last week I also mentioned that the name for God in Northern Israel was Elohim, not Yahwheh. But if this Psalm was written in Jerusalem, long after the age of the prophets, by a skilled writer in Jerusalem who just assumed that Yahweh and the Temple had always been a thing for all of Israel, that would explain a lot.
Reading chapter 2, You can almost see the mind of the author at work, psalm in hand. The psalmist cries out from the belly of Sheol (which simply means “down there” in Hebrew). But he also says that God cast him into the heart of the sea. Well, how does one “cry out” underwater, let alone sing an entire song of praise? Maybe we need a place under the water where our Psalmist could do that? How about inside something…something that can also bring him back up again, following the movement of the Psalm?
The Psalmist, after singing his song of praise, also promises to “fulfill his vow.” What might that vow have been, wondered the author of our text? Had the psalmist already broken a promise to God? Was that why he was drowning? And if he was cast into the heart of the sea, there must have been a boat to get him out that far…
And suddenly we have a captivating story, ready to set the stage for our beloved Psalm–one that will answer some of our long-standing questions about it, too.
So Pastor–are you saying that the story of Jonah isn’t true? That it’s all made up? But it’s in the Bible! It’s God’s Word…it HAS to be true!
As I said last week, some ancient stories are just too old to prove one way or another. But I’m amazed at how many people seem determined to try. In preparing this sermon, I came across pages of articles and sermons dedicated to proving that a person could actually survive being eaten by a whale or a shark or a large fish. There’s an often repeated story of a man named James Bartley, who in the late 1800s claimed to have experienced this. The claim is highly suspect and full of holes, but it continues to circulate.
Sometimes I think that in modern, 21st century America, we have an unhealthy obsession with empirical “truth.” It’s an obsession that was not shared by our ancestors, who understood that truth presents itself in many different forms.
If I say “the sun always rises in the East” there is a degree of empirical truth to that statement. But if I say “the early bird catches the worm” there is truth to that statement as well, and it’s not at all in conflict with the equally true statement “good things come to those who wait.” A photograph captures a certain kind of truth, and a beautiful oil-painting on canvas in the hands of a skilled painter captures an entirely different kind of truth–one that the photograph cannot.
If you need for every word on every page of the Bible to be literally, factually, historically true, and if you spend your time trying to argue and prove this to be the case, chances are you will miss the greatest truths it has to offer. You will focus on the whale, and you will skip over or summarize the Psalm “inside” the whale, which is the deepest, most beautiful treasure, the most ancient and profound TRUTH that the Book of Jonah has to offer.
And that kind of truth, more than all the rational facts, theories, and explanations you’re ever going to get from a 2,500 year old story, IS useful to us today. I doubt any of you are ever going to find yourself eaten alive by a giant fish. But at some point in your life you will (or perhaps already have) feel like the waves are closing in all around you; like you are sinking under the weight of a world that doesn’t know, doesn’t care, and doesn’t have any hope to offer. That feeling is very real, very authentic, very true.
But so are the truths we learn from today’s poetic text:
- In the midst of our deepest darkness we are not alone, and our prayers are not in vain.
- All that goes down into the abyss, through God’s grace will be lifted up, and will rise again.
- It doesn’t really matter what kind of fish you are…it’s the poetry inside you that counts.
One last thing. How do you make a whale float? With root beer, ice cream and a whale!