THE BOOK OF JONAH
Read Chapter 2
As you read, ask yourself these questions:
How far "down" has Jonah now gone?
What is Sheol?
What did Jonah do while in the belly of the fish?
Did you note Jonah's prayer was full of references to the Psalms? Make a note of each one you notice.\
Do you think Jonah's story should be read literally, or as some type of parable or allegory? How do you think the original Hebrew readers would have read Jonah's story? Did they consider it allegorical?
Was the fish a sign of God's judgment or His mercy?
Did God ordain the events that are transpiring in Jonah's life?
1. How far "down" has Jonah now gone? The author tells us Jonah has gone down, to the "depth of Sheol" (2:2), to the "base of the mountains" (2:6), or as some translations say, to the "root" of the mountains.
2. What is Sheol? The biblical authors define it:
Psalm 6:5 "In the depth, there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol, who will give you praise?"
Isaiah 38:18 "Sheol does not thank you; death does not praise you; those who go down to the pit do not hope for your faithfulness.
Sheol is a place where God cannot be remembered, cannot be praised, and cannot be thanked. It is a pit of death. Because Scripture says that in God's presence there is "fullness of joy [and] pleasures forevermore" (Ps 16:11), Sheol is a place of sheer despair.
Sheol is the place of ultimate exile, the place Jonah found when he ran from God's presence. He finally encountered what he was looking for, but discovered it was not what he was hoping for. Disobedience always ends with the same result.
3. What does Jonah do in the belly of the fish?
Deeply exiled from God's presence, Jonah finally realizes how much he depends on the God of salvation from whom he has been running. In his distress, he finally calls out to God in prayer (2:1).
Following this first verse, the remainder of the chapter is Jonah's prayer to God and God's answer.
4. References to the Psalms:
Nearly every verse of Jonah 2 repeats a phrase from at least one of the Psalms. I noted these examples:
Jonah 2:2 I called out of my distress, and he answered me
Ps. 4:1 - Answer me when I call, God of my righteousness! You have relieved me in my distress; 18:6 - In my distress I called upon the Lord, 106:44 - He looked at their distress When He heard their cry; 118:5 - From my distress I called upon the Lord; The Lord answered me and put me in an open space.
Jonah 2:2 I cried for help from the depth
Ps. 18:6 - In my distress I called upon the Lord, And cried to my God for help; 120:1 - In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me; 130:1 out of depth I have cried
Jonah 2:2 I called for help from the depth of Sheol;
Ps 86:13 - You have saved my soul from the depths of Sheol.
Jonah 2:3 For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me.
Psalm 88:6 You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.
Jonah 2:3 All Your breakers and waves passed over me.
Ps. 42:7 - All Your breakers and Your waves have passed over me.
Jonah 2:4 - I will look again toward Your holy temple
Ps. 138:2 - I will bow down toward Your holy temple
Jonah 2:5 water encompassed me to the point of death
Ps. 18:4 - cords of death encompassed me; 69:1–2 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.
Jonah 2:6 you have brought up my life from the pit
Ps 30:3- Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; You have kept me alive, that I would not go down to the pit; 40:2 - He brought me up out of the pit of destruction,
Jonah 2:7a When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord,
Psalm 77:11, 12 - I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
Jonah 2:7 My prayer came into your holy temple
Ps 18:5 - he heard my voice out of his temple
Jonah 2:8 Those who are followers of worthless idols abandon their faithfulness
Ps 31:6 - I hate those who devote themselves to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord.
Jonah 2:9 - I will sacrifice to You With a voice of thanksgiving
26:7 - proclaim with the voice of thanksgiving and declare all Your wonders.
Jonah 2:9 – Salvation is from the Lord."
Ps 3:8 - Salvation belongs to the Lord; 37:39 the salvation of the righteous is from the Lord
The prophet is finally someone whose example we can follow (remember, in chapter 1 it was the unbelieving sailors who made all the best choices, not the Hebrew prophet). In his distress, when his own words failed him, Jonah prayed the words of Scripture.
Because modern-day readers have a difficult time believing a man was swallowed by a fish and lived three days in its belly, many readers question if Jonah should be read literally or if we should assume it is an allegory or some kind of parable.
5. Do you think this story about a man in the belly of the sea being swallowed by a large fish should be read as allegorical, as a parable, or as a matter of fact? That's an important question, but a more important one is how would the Hebrew people have read Jonah's book?
An allegory is "a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one" (Oxford Languages). This understanding assumes Jonah is representing the nation of Israel - possibly because Jonah means "dove," and the dove is often considered a symbol of the Hebrew nation. Jonah's choice to disobey God and run to Tarshish represents Israel's disobedience. The fish symbolizes Babylon and, therefore, when the fish vomits Jonah, that represents Israel's second chance after her exile to Babylon.
The parable is "a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson" (Oxford Languages). The lesson, as the Jewish people understand it, is one of hope. They see the second chance given to Jonah as an example of God's mercy shown to their nation. This is why the Jewish people read the book of Jonah every year during Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.
We can only assume that the ancient Israelites would have read it like every prophecy in the OT. Remember, Jonah was a prophet, and this book is listed among the Writings or Prophets in the Old Testament. So, I believe the ancient Hebrew people would have heard Jonah's story the way they heard the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Malachi - as God's word to them through the prophet. The primary difference, however, is that in Jonah's book, the word of God is not spoken through the prophet's words; the word of God is displayed in the prophet's life. They would have received Jonah's story as a message from God.
When answering whether they would have believed it was a true story or an allegorical/parabolic presentation of God's message, it is also important that much of the language of Jonah was not unfamiliar to the ancient readers. Old Testament prophets often delivered their message from God through similes and metaphors. (A simile is a comparison that uses the word like or as; a metaphor uses a word or symbol to represent something else.) The Hebrew people would have understood Jonah's story because they had already heard much of Jonah's vocabulary in the words of other prophets.
Note these other prophecies spoken to the Hebrew people and note the similarities to events displayed in Jonah's life:
Hosea 8:1, 8 -
Like an eagle (simile) the enemy comes against the house of the Lord because they have violated My covenant and rebelled against My Law... 8 Israel has been swallowed up (metaphor).
Hosea is saying that because of Israel's sin, their enemy – like an eagle swooping in – will overtake and "swallow up" Israel.
Jeremiah 51:34 -
"Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon has devoured me, he has crushed me, He has set me down like an empty vessel; He has swallowed me like a monster, (this word, "monster," is tannin; it can mean dragon, whale, or sea monster.
"Nebuchadnezzar is compared with a gluttonous man devouring Jerusalem and setting her aside as one does an empty vessel whose contents have been quaffed." (Thompson)
Habakkuk 1:13: -
Your eyes are too pure to look at evil, and You cannot look at harm favorably. Why do You look favorably at those who deal treacherously? Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up those more righteous than they?
Habakkuk asked why God had allowed a nation as evil as Babylon to swallow Israel – a "righteous" nation.
Isaiah 49:19 -
For your ruins and deserted places and your destroyed land—Now you will certainly be too cramped for the inhabitants, and those who swallowed you will be far away.
God speaks through Isaiah to the Israelites about His plan to restore them to the land after their exile and to make them a light to the nations. Those who had swallowed them will no longer have any control over them.
Not only the Prophets, but the Psalmist also wrote with similes and metaphors:
Psalm 124:2-4 -
Had it not been the Lord who was on our side when people rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive when their anger was kindled against us; then the waters would have flooded over us, the stream would have swept over our souls; then the raging waters would have swept over our souls.
Swallowed up, flooding waters, sea monsters – all of these used to describe the fate of Israel should they not repent of their disobedience to God's covenant and turn back to Him.
Can you see how the original readers of this book would have easily identified with the historical truth of a man being swallowed by a sea monster? The prophets had predicted that Israel, who had abandoned the covenant word of God and fled from Him, would suffer the judgment of God. Jonah fled from God's presence and rejected the word of God. Like God promised Israel, Jonah was swallowed or devoured by a "monster." It would not have been difficult for the ancient Hebrew people to hear the story of Jonah in a literal sense - God allowed this to happen to Jonah to show what would eventually happen to the Israelite nation if they did not turn their hearts back to God.
However, the Israelites might also have read this story as an allegorical presentation utilizing the similes and metaphors the previous prophets and psalmists used to predict the future of the nation. Either way, they would have recognized God's message, whether allegorical or literal: When we turn our hearts from God and disregard His Word, He will intervene in the lives of His people, but always for one purpose:
When God issues a divine judgment, inherent in judgment is His invitation to repent and His promise to save.
6. Was the fish a sign of God's judgment or His mercy?
To best answer that question, it's important to note that the belly of death for Jonah was not found in the belly of the great fish. Sheol, this exile from God's presence was found in the belly of the sea itself - "I called for help from the depth of Sheol" (2:2). Jonah's prayer was prayed from the belly of the fish (2:1), but his prayer recalls his distress in the belly of the sea (2:3-9). Re-read Jonah's prayer and note that the Lord heard and delivered him from: Verse 3: the current flowed around me, all Your breakers and waves passed over me; 5: Water encompassed me to the point of death. The deep flowed around me, seaweed was wrapped around my head. 6: I descended to the base of the mountains.
Jonah experienced all of this distress in the sea, not in the fish. It was when Jonah was experiencing the distress of the deep sea that he called out to God, and how did God answer him? By mercifully providing a fish to save him. The sea, not the whale, was a sign of God's judgment. The whale was God's mercy.
That would have been vitally important to the Hebrew people's understanding of Jonah's story. God used what had been Israel's curse (metaphorically speaking, the whale/swallowing/devouring) as Jonah's salvation. God told the Hebrew people, for hundreds of years, that He was going to judge their disobedience by allowing an enemy to devour and swallow them, but here, in Jonah's story, God was promising the Israelites that though He judges, He also mercifully provides salvation. As we said earlier, inherent in judgment is God's invitation to repent and His promise to save.
The fish once represented the judgment of God and the enemy that would devour them, but God used that judgment to supply a second chance to Jonah. Like Jesus, who took upon himself the curse of death so that we could receive God's merciful salvation, Israel's curse has now become Jonah's salvation. Ironically, Jonah wanted to escape the presence of God; however, he discovered that even in the furthest exile, God is still in control. As He raised Jonah from the depths, he realized that "salvation is from the Lord” (2:9).
We consider all this when we answer our final question...
7. Did God ordain the events that are transpiring in Jonah's life?
Recall from chapter one that Jonah is running from God (1:3). He refuses God's command to preach to the Ninevites and plans his own course - away from God's presence. Nonetheless, God will not leave Jonah alone in his self-destruction. So He sends a great storm (1:4), yet Jonah still tries to avoid God by going down below in the ship to sleep through God's storm (1:5). But he can't sleep because the captain orders him to get up. Finally, Jonah admits that he is the reason for the storm (1:12) and confesses that everyone on the ship will die if he doesn't die. Jonah insists that the sailors hurl him into the sea (1:15) to satisfy God's wrath. However, did you notice in Jonah's prayer that he placed the blame on God, "You threw me into the deep" (2:3)? Is Jonah blaming God for something that was his own fault, or did God throw Jonah into the sea?
Yes and no. When we run from God, we will suffer the consequences of disobedience. Jonah understood the storm was his fault, and he understood that the only chance to redeem the sailors' lives was for him to die. That is why he said in his prayer that being cast into the sea was God's fault. He understood that lives were saved only through God's severe judgment of his sin. He understood something very important to our theological understanding-- unless God judges, we cannot find salvation because salvation is from God alone. Only God can judge our hearts because only God can mercifully redeem them.
"Those who are followers of worthless idols abandon their faithfulness, But I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving. That which I have vowed I will pay. Salvation is from the Lord" (2:8,9).
What Jonah wanted: To get away from the presence of the Lord.
Why? He didn't agree with God's reasons for sending him to Nineveh.
What Jonah got: As far from the presence of God as possible; the belly of Sheol.
Was that what he envisioned? Obviously not; he calls it "distress."
What Jonah deserved: judgment for disobedience.
What Jonah needed: mercy.
What Jonah found: Judgment and mercy. He finally experiences God for who He is – just and justifier.
It is important to keep in mind that Jonah made these claims about God's salvation (v. 9) before God redeemed him from the belly of a fish (v. 10). It was God's judgment that finally got Jonah's attention. In the sea, he cried out to God, but in that fish, he began to recognize God for who He truly is - our salvation.
What can we learn from Jonah’s prayer? As we read it properly, Scripture examines and exposes our hearts. When it does, the Spirit leads us to do what Jonah would not do on the boat. God’s grace leads us to confession where we find the hope of redemption. Even if we know God’s Word (even if we can quote much of it), we don't necessarily know God. Remember what Isaiah said, “these people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (29:13). That was, according to Isaiah, the condition of many Israelites at the time, not just Jonah. However, our example's (Jonah's) knowledge of Scripture did not equate to a proper knowledge of God - not the kind of knowing God invited Him to.
That is why we, as Bible students, "seek to know." We want to seek understanding of God's message so that we come to know God. When we look for anything - or anyone - else in the Word, we will never know God in a way that encourages us to confess our sins and "look toward [His] holy temple." As we see in Jonah's life, anything less than knowledge of God produces a heart far from Him that remains merciless toward others. Thankfully, God was dedicated to reaching the heart of His prophet and was willing to go to great extremes to heal him.
God judged Jonah's (Israel's) sin of disobedience to the Word of the Lord; however, the Lord of the Word is always merciful, even in judgment.
Here in chapter two, we see a different side of Jonah than what we were introduced to in chapter one. Maybe that was God's plan, that Jonah would become someone who realizes who God is and how much He can be trusted to save - but not only save a Hebrew prophet. God is faithful to shower mercy upon "whosoever" chooses to trust in Him.
Remember, to read this book properly, we must constantly ask ourselves if we are like Jonah. Are we like chapter 1 Jonah who ran from God's presence, thinking he knew better than his Creator? Maybe we are more like chapter 2 Jonah who, arriving at a place void of God's presence, realized how desperately he needed God. We can answer that question by how we respond to the Word of the Lord, and particularly, how we respond to Him during the trials of our lives.
We, like Jonah, navigate storms of life, storms not always of our own making. Life on earth can be difficult, and some of our most difficult struggles are simply the result of living on a sin-filled planet. But like the sailors who were suffering through the same storm as Jonah, we see that God can take problems that are not of our own making and redeem them for our good. However, we must trust Him with the trial - believing He has done as He pleased (1:14).
Some of our storms, however, do come as a consequence of our own decisions. As those consequences cause us to plunge deeper and deeper down into the sea of sorrow, we too may feel that we have gone down into an abyss of hopeless darkness. Maybe you're still down below sleeping, unaware of how desperately God is trying to get your attention. He might use storms to judge your disobedience, but when we are ready to look up, there in the darkness, God's mercy shines brightest.
"Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13)." The good news for every believer is that God's mercy will triumph over His judgment because of the work of Christ. Though sins bring shame, Christ stands before the Judge and testifies on our behalf, ever rebuking our accuser. Christ was made a curse to redeem us from the curse of sin (Gal. 3). Christ paid our debt; every penalty that was due us, Christ has swallowed for all eternity.
The Cross forever turned God's judgment to mercy.
If you've read ahead in the book of Jonah, you know, that although Jonah prayed a beautiful prayer of repentance, he is actually still angry at God. So, as you read chapter three, you might ask, "if Jonah's prayer is a prayer of repentance, why does he remain angry at God?"
Because repentance isn't a once-and-done. Repentance begins, but it never ends; it must continue and mature. Like all of our walk with Christ, repentance is a process.
"The Christian life is a lifestyle of repentance" (Martin Luther). Not that we must constantly feel ashamed for falling short, but because in repentance we draw near to the presence of God. We come to know God in more profound ways at the altar of repentance. Therefore, we ought never to shy away from it; you'll always find a God of mercy at His altar.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is a time to reflect on the previous year and look forward to a sweet year ahead. At the beginning of the celebration, the Israelites blow the Shofar. The trumpet's sound announces the arrival of the God of judgment. For ten days following the Rosh Hashanah celebrations, the Israelites ask the Judge to evaluate their hearts and search them for unrepentant sin. At the end of the ten days, at Yom Kippur, the Shofar sounds again. The second blowing of the trumpet, according to Jewish tradition, accomplishes "harmony between the rigid powers of judgment and the flowing powers of mercy" (Jeremy Montagu). This second blast of the Shofar announces to all those who have repented before God that He has moved from His judgment seat to His mercy seat. "According to Jewish tradition, when we appear for Divine judgment, the angels say, "Don't be afraid, the Judge is your Father." It is this understanding of who God is that enables the Jewish people to bow before God in repentance - they are expecting His mercy.
We need never be too afraid to come before God in repentance. He is our Father who judges our hearts but whose mercy overwhelms His judgment in forgiveness.
In C.S. Lewis's book, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, when the children are about to meet Aslan for the first time (Aslan represents Jesus), they ask: "Aslan is a lion - the Lion, the great Lion? I'd thought he was a man. Is he quite safe?"
"Safe?" said Mr. Beaver ..." who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good."
Following God does not always feel safe because God is not always safe. Sometimes He asks things of us that don't seem in our best interest. That is why we rebel – that is the definition of sin - we think we know the path that leads to our best good and decide our way is better than God's less-safe plan. The problem is that our best good is not our best, nor good. So, to keep us on the path He planned, God often has to guide us in ways that don't feel safe, including allowing storms in our lives that bring a lot of despair. One day, however, we come to know God in such a way that we see His fierce mercy even in His fierce judgment. In God's plan, we discover truths we would not have recognized any other way because God knows that the light of His mercy shines brightest in the darkness.
That is not to say that every bad event in our lives is God's judgment against us. Certainly not. However, we ought always to stop and ask ourselves if we have purposefully set out on a journey away from God's presence. If that journey has taken us to the belly of Sheol, is our despair actually God's intervention? You can be assured that if the judgment is from the hand of God, you are also experiencing His hand of mercy. He is bringing judgment for no other reason than to cause you to make a U-turn on your journey. A u-turn of repentance will always lead to salvation, for "Salvation is from the Lord."
Remember in chapter 1, the unbelieving sailors made better choices than the Hebrew prophet, who was constantly making disobedient choices. But in chapter 2, Jonah finally recognizes that the God from whom he was running was the only one to whom he could turn when he was losing his life. So when he couldn't find his own words to pray, he prayed God's word back to Him. Jonah's prayer "takes on the form of an individual psalm of thanksgiving" (Gordon Fee).
If the Word is hidden in our hearts, when the waves pass over us, when we feel as though we have been cast out of His sight, when it seems water has encompassed us to the point of death, and when we are so low it seems that seaweed is wrapped around our head at the roots of the mountains, remember the Lord, look toward His holy temple, and create your own individual psalm of thanksgiving with His Word (2:1-7). God is always faithful to His Word, and remember His Word is always faithful to save..."Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land." Mercy indeed.
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