Christianity 201

April 19, 2020

Jonah and the Psalm

by Ruth Wilkinson

I recently posed this question as an informal Facebook poll: “Did the story of Jonah happen literally as it appears in the Bible?” The majority said yes. No surprise. The Church has been defending the story’s miraculous nature since the early Church Fathers. For many, it’s even a test of faith in God’s sovereignty; can you believe God didn’t do it, without believing God couldn’t do it?

JonahintheWhale_RuePeople often say that it “must have happened—Jesus says it did.” Fair statement, but one that needs some thought. What is the relationship between Jesus and Jonah?

Let’s assume that the event literally happened to Jonah, son of Amittai, prophet to King Jeroboam. That Jonah’s psalm in chapter 2 was his prayer, recorded as he prayed it.

Why would Jonah sing his gratitude to God in the middle of this mess? Why does Jonah never expresses remorse?

And where does Jesus fit in?

Now the Lord had appointed a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the fish three days and three nights. Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish.

Matthew records Jesus saying: “…For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.” Matthew 12:40 (HCSB)

Both events involve a prophetic man who comes back after three days of being given up for dead, but in all other respects, narrative contrasts are greater than similarities.

  • Jesus is in conversation with God all through his approach to the grave: Jonah is silent until he can’t stand it any more.
  • Jesus laments God’s turning His face away; Jonah is the one who turns his back.
  • Jesus enters his grave as an act of submission: Jonah embraces death as part of his rebellion.
  • Jesus, as God, returns by an act of power and of will: Jonah as vomit.

I called to the Lord in my distress, and He answered me.
I cried out for help in the belly of Sheol; You heard my voice.

Jonah finally breaks his silence. Some suggest he’d been unconscious, others that Jonah physically died and was resurrected, based on Matthew’s “sign of Jonah,” and the reference to Sheol.

For Christians, “Sheol” can bring to mind medieval pictures of Hell, but to Jonah the image is very different. Sheol was beneath the earth, the farthest place from Heaven, where the dead descended to (or were raised from if God opened the gate). Those who entered it became silent shadows, without knowledge, passion, or hope. Yet God ruled there, and in the Messiah’s day the righteous would be released to joyously participate in His kingdom.

Some see a connection here with 1 Peter 3:18-20 and Ephesians 4:9 but there’s no real support in scripture for the idea of Jesus “descending to Hell.” Peter speaks of earth, and Paul of the past, not of metaphysics. Instead, they drive home for us the understanding that Jesus overcame time and space to walk in the dust, and “humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross.”1

You threw me into the depths, into the heart of the seas,
and the current overcame me. All Your breakers and Your billows swept over me.

For modern songwriters, switching ‘voice’ mid-song is a no-no. Not true for the Psalmists who switch from addressing God, to His people, to the writer’s own soul and back again. Jonah moves from speaking about God, to direct, dramatic accusation.

Jesus also recognizes God’s hand in directing his path, but He does it with an attitude of humility and submission that culminates in His prayer, “If this cannot pass… Your will be done,”2 modelling not blame but trust and obedience.

But I said: I have been banished from Your sight,
yet I will look once more toward Your holy temple.
The waters engulfed me up to the neck;
the watery depths overcame me; seaweed was wrapped around my head.

Jonah has what he wanted—to be far from the face of God—and realizes he should have been more careful in his wishing.

He’s bound and suffocating, tangled in something beyond his strength. He echoes Psalm 88: drowning, God’s wrath, an innocent sufferer, accusation, demands for rescue, loneliness.

At His loneliest moment, Jesus draws instead from Psalm 22 and its anticipation of praise in better days. Like Jonah, Jesus grieves God’s absence. Like Jonah, He identifies Himself as an innocent. Unlike Jonah, He actually is one.

At least Jonah is looking in the right direction—back where he came from.

I sank to the foundations of the mountains;
the earth with its prison bars closed behind me forever!
But You raised my life from the Pit, Lord my God!
As my life was fading away, I remembered Yahweh.
My prayer came to You, to Your holy temple.

Jonah continues to deny the cause of his trouble—his own choices. But something has changed.

He’s run as far as he can but still has a connection to the One from whom He ran. He knows to whom he speaks, how he will sound in those ears and what the response is likely to be.

In the darkest place possible, his heart and mind turn to the brightest. In the grip of the worst monster, he looks toward the most loving Father. At his farthest from home, his mind turns to the Holy of Holies, the centre of all Creation.

To “remember” is not just to recall, but to be intentionally mindful. Of the past—what God has done. Of the present—where He meets us. Of the future—in which he awaits.

This is where Jonah comes closest to Jesus, who in His own climactic moment on the cross contradicted His own sense of abandonment and declared the words of Psalm 31:5, “Into Your hand I entrust my spirit…” trusting God to “…redeem me, Lord, God of truth.

Jonah, weakened and lost, cannot save himself but Yahweh-remembered can and will. Jonah is freed from the pit.

Those who cling to worthless idols forsake faithful love

Has Jonah learned anything? Has he changed? He hasn’t admitted his guilt. We see no contrition. Instead, he condemns “those” who forsake faithful love which comes from the God that Jonah fled. So who is he talking about?

Those” sailors whose misfortune it was to give Jonah a ride? They’d been pagan until they met with Yahweh. Afterward they’d sacrificed and made vows to the LORD, a step toward becoming “Hebrews.” But Jonah didn’t see that happen. He was already underwater and sinking. All Jonah knew of them was that they were “those who cling to worthless idols.” Perhaps he assumes they’ve lost their chance.

Those” Ninevites, violent and cruel people? He’s endangered his own life to scuttle their chance at receiving the faithful love of God. Is he hoping that this proverb is a promise?

All that’s left is himself—the prophet who clung to the idol of his nationalistic hatred, forsaking the faithful love of God. Jonah’s not the only prophet to object to his assignment. So did Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. He is, however, the only one who upped sticks and ran. The others spoke honestly to God and received His response. Jonah built a wall of silence and refusal between himself and God.

Jonah and Jesus again part ways. Jesus didn’t only accept His role, He chose it. “…He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men.”

One rabbinic writer said:

Jeremiah sought the honor of God and the honor of Israel;

Elijah sought the honor of God and not the honor of Israel;

Jonah sought the honor of Israel and not the honor of God.”

One might even substitute “Jonah sought the honor of himself…” Jesus sought the honor of the Father through obedience, pursuing and rescuing those who clung to their idols and could not, on their own, find the freedom of letting go.

…but as for me, I will sacrifice to You with a voice of thanksgiving.
I will fulfill what I have vowed. Salvation is from the Lord!

Then the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.

The fish has been carrying around 180 extra pounds of ballast. Enough is enough. The LORD lets her off the hook. It’s time for Jonah to head inland.

Three days of silence, a burst of eloquent gratitude, and either hypocritical self-righteousness, or an excuse to head to Jerusalem instead of Nineveh. No wonder she was sick.

Jonah heads reluctantly to Nineveh, wanders around—in silence for three days—before delivering his message.

But Jesus spent His ministry reaching out and being available to not only men like Himself, but to enemies and invaders, strangers and rejects, women and children, heretics and hypocrites. After His resurrection, He allowed only moments to pass before reconnecting with the people he’d come to save.

****

However… what if instead of Matthew’s rendering, we look at Luke’s record of the same statement: For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so also the Son of Man will be to this generation. Luke 11:30 (HCSB)

Despite the fact that Luke wouldn’t have heard it first hand, his understanding of the Jonah/Jesus parallel seems better grounded: just as Jonah’s message of God’s grace toward Nineveh had “overturned” the city, so would Jesus’ overturn the world.

The verb in Jonah’s message to Nineveh seems intentionally ambiguous. Throughout Scripture, it’s translated as demolished, overturned, overthrown, transformed or turned around. Those who (eventually) heard it inferred a threat of destruction, creating fearful repentance. But was this true prophet of Israel not also used to point to an alternative fulfillment?

Nineveh was beautifully, life-givingly “overturned.”

So, yes. Jesus wanted us to remember this story. He wanted us to learn from it.

I’d argue that the least important question about this story is whether it “happened.” What matters is that we learn from Jonah’s mistakes and are free to not repeat them. That we learn from Jesus’ example and are free to make it real in our lives.


1 Philippians 2:8 HCSB

2 Matthew 26:42

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