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  • Writer's pictureRick LoPresti

The prayer of Jonah

Many people have heard the story of Jonah and how he spent three days and nights in the belly of a whale. The unbelievers reject this as fiction or allegory. However, 2Kings 14:24 refers to him as a real person. Most importantly, Jesus Himself referred to him as a real person and specifically cited the fact that he was in the belly of the whale for three days and nights (Mt 12:39-41, Mt 16:4, Lk 11:29-32). The context in which Jesus cited the account of Jonah was that the unbelievers asked Him for a sign. He replied that they would be given this sign. Just as Jonah spent three days and nights in the belly of the whale, He would spend three days and nights in the earth. The Lord also mentioned that Jonah preached to the Ninevites, and they repented. Therefore, if the account of Jonah is not true, neither is the gospel of Jesus Christ; but they both are true.

Some reject this and say not only do whales not eat meat, but a man could not survive three days in one’s belly. First of all, the book of Jonah says it was a large fish and does not specify what kind. The word in the New Testament translated whale also means large fish without specifying what type. This is not only physically possible, but there are modern accounts of this happening. We must also account for the fact that God is Creator and Lord over all, and He can do as He pleases with His creation. He made the sea creatures out of nothing (Gen 1:20-23). People see miracles every day. They can choose to believe them or ignore them.

God called Jonah to preach to the Ninevites. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria. It was a particularly wicked place, and the Assyrians were a particularly cruel people to their enemies. Jonah did not want to go there, so he fled the opposite direction on a ship toward Tarshish, which was probably in the area of what is now Spain. At the time it was the other side of the known world. However, God sent a storm and prepared a great fish for Jonah. After the sailors threw Jonah overboard, the fish swallowed Jonah and he spent three days inside the fish. We can only imagine what those three days were like. In our minds, the storm and the fish were judgments of God; but in God’s mind, they were His way of turning Jonah from his error back to God’s purpose for him. It took Jonah three days to do it, but he finally prayed to God. His prayer contains some powerful things for us to learn. It is recorded in Jonah chapter 2.

He said, “I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the LORD”. Affliction is not always just a punishment. It is also God turning us back to Himself. The psalmist said, “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word (Ps 119:67).” The love of God makes the effort to save us and does not just let us go our own sinful way. Our heavenly Father chastens those He loves (Heb 12:5-13). If God rejected us, He would just let us go. Conviction of sin is not the curse. It is reprobation. The next part of Jonah’s first sentence is “and he heard me”. There is no greater gift God can give us than His ear. For the Creator and Lord of the universe, the Holy One, to bow down to listen to the likes of me is a miracle in itself. “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him (Ps 8:4)?” Jonah continued, “out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice.” Jonah was not literally in hell yet. The word could also be translated the grave, but when we die in our sins that is where we go. Jonah was in a very dangerous place spiritually and physically. His next statement, “For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me.” is echoed in Psalm 42:7: “Deep calleth unto deep at the noise of thy waterspouts: all thy waves and thy billows are gone over me.”

Jonah then said, “Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight; yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.” When Solomon dedicated the temple, he prayed, “And hearken thou to the supplication of thy servant, and of thy people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place: and hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place: and when thou hearest, forgive (1Ki 8:30).” From that day to this, Jews have always tried to pray toward the place of the temple, even though the building has been gone for almost 2,000 years. Then Jonah makes a statement of faith. “The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O LORD my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the LORD: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. (Jon 2:5-7).” He was still in the whale’s belly, but he was professing God’s deliverance. Then he made a powerful acknowledgement. “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.” Lying vanities are empty, meaningless things that lie to us about their value. They promise us substance but do not deliver. They that observe them forsake their own mercy. As long as we try to live life our own way and be our own lord like Jonah had tried to do, we forfeit the blessings of being in covenant with God. Jonah concluded his prayer with, “But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD.” Jonah thanked God even in his predicament. It was not God’s fault. It was Jonah’s. He took responsibility for his actions, did not blame God for their results, thanked God, and acknowledged Him as the only source of salvation. The result was that the fish vomited Jonah onto the shore, and he went to Nineveh to carry out the mission God gave him (Jon 3-4). Jonah was still not perfect, but at least he was not on his way to hell. He got another chance.

We can learn much from Jonah. We sometimes make the same mistake he did in avoiding the will of God in disobedience and have to learn the hard way. Yet we can also find restoration in honest confession and repentance like he did. When we too take responsibility for our wrong choices, decline to blame God and others for them, make amends, and get back on the right path, our “whale” can vomit us up so we can go where God wants us. Thank God for His grace and mercy.

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