Jonah: In the Belly of the Fish

Jonah 1:17-2:10
May 3, 2020
Matt Goodale

Our scripture reading today comes from Jonah 1:17 – 2:10. Hear the word of the Lord:

17 And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.

Then 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.
For you cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!”

10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

Our Bibles tell the story of God’s people, Israel. From beginning to end the Bible tells the story of how this small tribe of people interacted with and came to know God over time. It tells of both great acts of faith and incredibly barren seasons of unfaithfulness. And at the center of this whole story—and literally at the center of our Bibles—is a book that is not quite like the rest. The book of Psalms. This book is different because it doesn’t do much to move the story of the Bible forward. It’s a pause in the action.

As a kid I liked the book of Psalms, because I knew exactly where to find it in my Bible. My Sunday school teachers taught me that if I find the center of my Bible and open it, I will land in Psalms. The book of Psalms is how I got a bearing on the rest of the Bible. It was my compass. I could locate a story or a passage based on if it was before or after Psalms in my Bible. I was grateful for such foresight on the part of those who organized our Protestant Bibles, that they would put such a large and easy to find book smack dab in the middle of my Bible.

Of course, as a kid, I had no idea what to do with the Psalms when I turned to it. I could find the book of Psalms any day, anytime, but ask me what it’s there for and you would get a blank stare. Most of the rest of the Bible made sense to me (aside from some of that weird prophecy stuff), but I never knew what to make of the psalms. I knew it was a book of prayers and songs, but between the outdated language, the uncomfortably raw emotions and the lack of a plotline, I spent most of my time avoiding the psalms. I much preferred the exciting parts of the Bible that moved the story forward—the parts of the Bible where stuff actually happened. The psalms were too stuffy, too old and too boring.

I don’t remember reading the Jonah story straight through as a kid, but I’m certain that I would’ve completely skipped over chapter 2, Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish. Heck, probably even up to the time I went to seminary I would’ve skipped over this chapter. It’s just not as exciting or thrilling as the rest of the story. I mean, we’ve reached the climax–Jonah has just been swallowed but a fish for goodness sake!—but instead of an exciting scene that moves the plot forward, we get a prayer.

The giant fish—the part we’re all really excited to hear more about—occupies only one sentence in the whole narrative. Two sentences if you count it vomiting Jonah back up on dry land. The story was moving forward so marvelously. We’re intrigued to hear what happens to Jonah. A giant fish has come to swallow him! And then, in the belly of the fish (or whale if you prefer) we get no action, no narration, no excitement. Just prayer.

Jonah’s story, it seems, is put on hold in the belly of the fish. The fish is like God’s big timeout call. Jonah’s prayer is bookended by two exciting narratives on either side, but the prayer itself functions more as a deep breath, a pause, a timeout, a break from the narrative. But most of us don’t like it when stories are put on hold.

A few years ago I was at a movie theater when the power went out. We were already partway into the film and had to wait upwards of twenty minutes for them to get the movie going again. As you can imagine, nobody was pleased. We don’t like to wait, we don’t like to be taken out of the action. Particularly as Americans, we are accustomed to a way of life that doesn’t involve many pauses, breaks in the action or space for reflection. We prefer to move from one activity to the next; we prefer the story that is our life to keep moving ahead, always unfolding, never being put on hold. We don’t like it when stories are put on hold, particularly when it’s our story.

But inevitably, there is always some sort of fish that comes and swallows up at different times in life, forcing us to take a timeout. This fish takes many forms: Job loss. Illness. A death in the family. An unexpected and sudden twist in life’s road. Quarantine. Something happens to us that we never expected to be a part of our story, and like Jonah, we find ourselves in the belly of a fish. It is dark in the belly of the fish. It’s cold and lonely. There doesn’t seem to be any opening for escape. It’s all-consuming, all-encompassing. To be in the belly of the fish is to feel like someone has hit the pause button on life. It doesn’t seem like there’s anyway forward. The script is being rewritten and it doesn’t feel like we have any say in the next act.

Jonah is taken out of the action. God hits the pause button. For three days and three nights. That’s an eternity when you’re stuck in the belly of a big ol’ fish. And what does Jonah do in the fish’s belly? He prays. That Jonah prayed is not especially remarkable; we commonly pray when we are in desperate circumstances. And finding oneself in the belly of a giant sea monster is definitely up there on the list of desperate circumstances. But, there is something very remarkable about the way Jonah prayed. He prayed a “set” prayer. Jonah’s prayer is not spontaneous nor is it original self-expression. It is completely derivative. As pastor/theologian Eugene Peterson writes, “Jonah had been to school to learn to pray, and he prayed as he had been taught. His school was the Psalms.”

Line by line, Jonah’s prayer is furnished with the stock vocabulary of the Psalms. Not a word or a line is original. Jonah got every word – lock, stock and barrel—from his Psalms book. But it is not only a matter of vocabulary, of having words at hand for prayer. The form is also derivative (Peterson). Biblical scholars have generally divided the psalms into two broad categories: psalms of lament and psalms of thanksgiving. Both of these types of psalms have their own specific form. If you read the psalms enough you begin to see this form in every one of them.

We know that Jonah, like every other Hebrew child, went to Psalms school. Psalms is the prayer-book of the Bible, and every good Hebrew would have memorized most of these prayers over the course of their lifetime. Jonah is no exception. Jonah is a master of the psalms, and as he sits in the belly of the fish, he puts his mastery to good use.

If you pay close attention to Jonah’s prayer you may be surprised by it. It is not a prayer of lament, but a prayer of thanksgiving. It’s a prayer of gratitude for God’s salvation. What!? Jonah is sitting in the stomach of giant sea monster, in the middle of God-knows-where, and he chooses to pray a prayer of thanksgiving in the standard thanksgiving form? He knew how to pray lament. But instead he chooses thanksgiving.

As Peterson writes, “Something important is emerging here: Jonah had been to school to learn to pray, and he had learned his lessons well, but he was not a rote learner. His schooling had not stifled his creativity. He was able to discriminate between forms and chose to pray in a form that was at variance with his actual circumstances. Circumstances dictated ‘lament.’ But prayer, while influenced by circumstances, is not determined by them. Jonah, creative in his praying, chose to pray in the form ‘praise.’”

Jonah finds himself stuck in the belly of a fish, with his life effectively put on hold. Tragedy has befallen him and he has a choice of how to respond to it. He could’ve chosen to sit for three days and three nights pouting, raging at God, or just trying to pass the time, waiting until he could get his life back on track. Given his track record so far, none of these actions would’ve surprised us.

But instead, Jonah chooses not to squander the precious time he has been given in the belly of the fish. He uses it creatively. He recognizes the pause in the action and chooses to let it be a time of self-reflection, a time to take a deep cleansing breath. And this time in the belly of the fish is directed by his schooling in the Psalms. Jonah knew how to pray from the belly of the fish.

And indeed, the Jonah we see in the belly of the fish is a very different Jonah than the one we see outside the fish. Outside the fish Jonah is stubborn, arrogant, ungracious and more than a little bit entitled. He is very self-focused and can’t see much beyond his own desires and what’s in front of him. But inside the belly of the fish, Jonah is reflective, thoughtful, reverent. In the belly of the fish, Jonah is God-focused. And he chooses a form of prayer – thanksgiving – that expresses gratitude to God for the salvation and redemption he has found while in the fish’s belly.

To our ears, this is a strange thing to be grateful for, but Jonah, trained in the Psalms, recognizes that some of the most authentic, raw and life-defining prayers emerge from the belly of the fish.

These fish experiences, if we let them, can refine us and bring out the best in us. They can be salvific and redemptive in a way. These experiences, if we let them, can turn us towards God. In fact, in the belly of the fish, we are faced with only two options: to turn more inward—to become even more self-focused than we already are when we don’t have the time to slow down and reflect on life—or we can turn outward, towards God.

The Psalms train us to turn outward. They supply us with the language and the form to address God no matter where we are in life. But they are especially useful for when we will inevitably find ourselves in the belly of a fish. Because it is in the belly of the fish that we encounter the Living God. The Psalms teach us how to address God in ways that most of American Christianity is unable to do. Unfortunately, much of how we were taught to pray from a very American brand of Christianity is self-focused. We are taught to pray with our self at the center and in focus. This type of prayer can still be authentic and raw and shouldn’t be completely done away with; but it is insufficient for those times we find ourselves in the belly of the fish.

It is no surprise that most of us have never been as well trained in praying the Psalms as Jonah was. The book of Psalms was the most important and well-used book in the entire Bible for the first 1900 years of Christianity (not including how important it was to our Jewish ancestors before that). But in the last 100 years Psalms has become one of the most neglected books in our entire Bible. Why is that?

Jonah’s prayer, learned well from the Psalms, turns his focus outward towards God. Jonah’s desperate circumstances become a redeeming grace. It is in the belly of the fish that Jonah finds new life. We thought his life was over – Jonah probably thought his life was over! But God had other plans. God wasn’t finished with Jonah yet. God never gave up on Jonah. Sometimes it just takes a big fish to swallow us whole before God can get our attention and we slow down enough to hear God’s voice.

To varying degrees we all find ourselves in the belly of some sort of fish right now. Our lives have been put on hold in different ways. For some of us it’s bearable. For others of us it’s getting unbearable. And we are faced with a choice: will I squander these days, these weeks, these months of my life? Or will I recognize this as an opportunity to dig deeper, to learn to address God from the midst of an unbearable place? Grace and healing are most often found not at the peaks of life, but in the valleys, the bellies of life.

And the Psalms are our companions on this journey through the fish’s belly. The Psalms teach us how to turn heaven-ward. They furnish us with words for our prayers when we have none. When we pray them we know we are praying along with a whole host of other believers in this time and in times past who have found comfort, strength and hope in these very same words.

During this quarantine especially, I have made it part of my daily rhythm to pray at least one Psalm each morning, whether I feel like it or not. Sometimes the prayer is for myself; sometimes what I’m praying doesn’t fit my circumstances and so I know I must be praying it on behalf of someone else.

I encourage you to use this time when our lives are put on pause to explore the vast treasury of prayers contained in our Psalms book. Let them be prayers for yourself. Let them be prayers on behalf of others. Allow them to turn your eyes and your heart heaven-ward. Allow the raw honesty and courageous supplications found in the Psalms to train you in prayer.

Much like Jonah, we find ourselves searching for grace, redemption and meaning in the belly of the fish. Take courage knowing that God is not finished with you. God’s grace will never stop chasing you, even into the belly of a fish. Because it is during times like this, when our story feels as if it has been put on hold, that God is hard at work creating new life in us. Amen.