“Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 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'” (2:1–2).
Jonah’s story is quite familiar to most Christians, as nearly all of us who have grown up in the church heard it more than once during our days in children’s Sunday school. Despite our familiarity with Jonah’s ministry, however, we must note that there is a common misunderstanding about one major portion of the account. After Jonah was thrown into the sea, God appointed a “great fish” to swallow the prophet, and he remained within the belly of the fish for three days and for three nights (Jonah 1:17). People tend to see the fish as an instrument of the Lord’s judgment when, in fact, the fish was the very means by which our Creator saved Jonah from certain death. Readers likely interpret the fish as God’s judgment due to Jonah’s words; while in the belly of the fish, he spoke of crying to the Lord “out of the belly of Sheol” (2:1–2). When we read that phrase in context, we see that Jonah spoke not of a fish’s stomach but of the bowels of death itself, Sheol being a common Old Testament term for the grave. Jonah was cast into the sea to save the lives of the sailors en route to Tarshish (1:11–16), but the churning waters were no safe haven for the prophet. When Jonah prayed to God, he referred to the flood surrounding him, the waters closing in to take his life, and seaweed wrapping around his head (2:3–5). In His grace, the Lord rescued Jonah from the pit—the grave—even though the prophet had disobeyed His command to go to Nineveh (v. 6). Jonah’s song in today’s passage is remarkable for two reasons. First, it indicates the authenticity of his repentance. The prophet never claims God owes him salvation, and he never attempts to list mitigating circumstances to try to excuse his disobedience. This is true repentance— an acknowledgment of guilt before God with no attempt to explain it away and a turning to the Lord in His heavenly temple as the only hope of forgiveness. Father Mapple in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick captures this in his sermon: “Sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wait for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that in spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look towards His holy temple.” Second, Jonah’s song is notable because of its affirmation that salvation belongs to the Lord alone (Jonah 2:7–9). Jonah was utterly helpless in the sea and unable to save himself. So, too, are we powerless to save ourselves from the wrath of our holy God.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
We bring nothing to the Lord when we come to Him for salvation. Even our faith, the instrument of our justification, is a gift from Him (Eph. 2:8–10). This is a great truth that we must tell ourselves repeatedly, for otherwise we will certainly forget it. One way we can do this is to consciously look for evidence of God’s grace in the stories recorded in Scripture. God’s grace to Jonah in saving him with the fish reminds us that salvation is all of Him.