Jonah III: The Whale Song - Jonah 1:17-2:10

Normally, God’s prophets worship God, and the pagans are judged. Normally, being in a ship on the water means that you are safe, and being in the belly of a fish means that you are dead. Normally, when you hear a whale song, the whale is the one singing. But nothing about the story of Jonah is normal, and so if you were out at sea next to this particular whale, you would have heard quite a different song rising up from her belly.

Having been miraculously and humorously saved from the sea, Jonah sings a psalm of thanksgiving that glorifies God by celebrating the central truth of the Bible: salvation belongs to the Lord. His prayer in chapter 2 is full of repurposed lyrics from the Psalms, such as Psalm 18, 42, 120, and 130. Jonah knows a lot of Bible, but it takes a downward trip to Sheol to drive the truths in his head down into his heart, and even then it takes a lot more for those truths to be worked out in his life.

All throughout this prayer we see Jonah getting a new perspective. In 1:15, the sailors hurled Jonah into the sea, but in 2:3, Jonah sees God’s hand and says, “You cast me into the deep.” In 1:17, from the human perspective, Jonah is in the belly of the whale, but in 2:2, Jonah sees himself to be in the belly (or better, womb) of Sheol, the biblical name for the place of the dead. Ch. 1 tells us that Jonah fled from before God’s face, which especially refers to the temple, but in 2:7 Jonah realizes that he still has access to God’s temple, even at the very gates of the underworld. And most importantly, Jonah on the boat and in the water knows God’s judgment, while Jonah in the whale is experiencing God’s mercy and love.

But as much as Jonah’s eyes are being opened, there are hints that for all the lessons he’s learned, Jonah still has a long way to go. He rejoices and gives thanks that God has saved him from distress and danger, but he doesn’t mention anything about guilt or repentance. Jonah still has to work to do on his prideful, self-righteous heart, but fundamentally, he is no longer running from God. Yes, he’s still sinful, but he’s doing exactly what sinful people need to do: he’s calling on God for salvation.

And as we chart the journey that’s brought him to this point, the text gives us a picture of death and resurrection. As a psalm or song, Jonah’s prayer uses images and poetic language to convey a very grim situation: he finds himself in the belly of Sheol, the waters close over him, and the weeds are wrapped around his head. Jonah is as good as dead.

But at his lowest moment, God has mercy on Jonah. 2:6 is key: “I went down,” Jonah says, “but you brought me up, O Yahweh my God!” This whale song is depicting Jonah’s descent to Sheol and back, a three-day voyage of death and resurrection, after which, in 2:9, Jonah summarizes his experience as well as the message of the whole Bible in one sentence: “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” He’s not just confessing that God does the saving, but also that who God saves, how God saves, when God saves, and why God saves is all up to God. Humans can’t engineer it, earn it, or even explain it! Salvation belongs to the Lord, and Jonah’s story makes that abundantly clear.

Despite Jonah’s foolishness, he has not drowned and entered Sheol; he is alive and well. The great fish has served as Jonah’s ark, preserving him through the flood of his own rebellion, and landing him back on dry land. He has received unimaginable mercy from God, and God deserves all the thanks, sacrifices, and vows that Jonah could possibly offer, and much more. Jonah doesn’t fully appreciate what just happened, or fully understand the meaning of the wonderful words that he’s saying, but he does grasp the heart of the gospel: out of His steadfast love and mercy, God saves sinners.

So far in Jonah, we’ve seen amazing hints of how the gospel of Jesus Christ will bear that out, and in chapter two, the picture of salvation continues to be filled in as Jonah is saved through a three-day journey of death and resurrection. There is enough gospel in Jonah for Jesus to declare that Jonah functions as a sign of His own ministry. And if Jonah knew enough to confess that salvation belongs to the Lord, how much more should we magnify God for the salvation that He has accomplished for us through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Posted on Friday, February 22, 2019 by CJ Bowen