God’s Plan of Deliverance

1 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!” Jonah 2:1-9 ESV

Does the story of Jonah contain allegorical elements? It seems quite clear that the author is attempting to convey more than just a historical recounting of Jonah’s life. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he has recorded the details concerning Jonah’s ordeal in order to convey an important message to his primary audience: The chosen people of God. He reveals distinct and not-so-subtle parallels between Jonah’s life and the descendants of Abraham: The Hebrew nation. But this allegorical connection does not in any way diminish or dismiss the historical nature of the book’s content. If anything, it reinforces it. The real-life experiences of Jonah are meant to be a powerful reminder of God’s sovereignty, power, grace, mercy, and love. And the fact that these events really did take place would have provided the book’s original readers with a sense of God’s control over all things.

This relatively short book is packed with Old Testament scriptural references that its original readers would have quickly recognized. There are allusions to the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, two renowned prophets of God. Its narrative style brings to mind the stories of Ruth and Esther, two other Old Testament books that convey powerful messages concerning God’s sovereignty and power. Both are stories about individuals that carry much broader truths concerning God’s interactions with His chosen people. And the book of Jonah contains countless references to the Psalms. In today’s passage alone, there are at least 21 direct links.

These Old Testament references are intended to provide an indisputable connection between Jonah’s current circumstances and the historical record of Israel. This one man’s ordeal is meant to reflect the corporate experience of the entire nation. And through it all, the reader is encouraged to recognize the sovereign hand of God working behind the scenes to accomplish His divine will – not just for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. And they were intended to apply this powerful truth to their own lives. God was in full control and had a plan in place that would bring about His will concerning the redemption of the world through His chosen instrument.

So, as the Jewish audience read of Jonah’s flight from God, the ensuing storm, and his eventual imprisonment in the belly of the great fish, they were meant to see themselves in the story. If the book of Jonah has a post-exilic date of authorship, as many scholars believe, then the people of Israel would have been reading its content while living as slaves in Assyria. The conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel began in 740 BC and culminated nearly 20 years later when the capital city, Samaria, was overtaken by the Assyrians under Shalmaneser V. This devastating defeat resulted in the deportation of thousands of Israelites to Assyria. And this terrible plight could have been avoided had the people listened to the calls of Elijah and Elisha to repent and return to Yahweh.

So, reading of Jonah being trapped in the belly of the fish would have had a particularly powerful impact on these exiles. They were in a similar predicament. But what did Jonah do? How did he respond? Chapter two provides us with the answer.

Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish – Jonah 2:1 ESV

And it’s important to recognize that it was only when he found himself confined to the fish’s stomach that Jonah cried out to God. Earlier, when the storm was raging and the sailors were desperately calling on their various gods to save them, Jonah had been sleeping like a baby. The ship’s captain even chastised Jonah for his lack of concern, shouting, “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives” (Jonah 1:6 NLT). But there is no indication that Jonah ever uttered a single word to Yahweh on their behalf. 

But now, in the darkness and dampness of his aquatic prison, Jonah cried out to God. And the record of his prayer provides a glimpse into Jonah’s knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and his basic understanding of Yahweh. He begins by quoting Psalm 120:1:

In my distress I called to the Lord,
    and he answered me.

Jonah is clearly referencing one of the songs of ascent, psalms that were sung by the people of Israel as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual feasts established by God. These were songs of thanksgiving that celebrated God’s many acts of deliverance. Jonah, in the midst of his predicament, is thanking God for what He is about to do. He expresses confidence in God’s compassion and willingness to deliver the repentant. And clearly referencing Psalm 30, Jonah speaks in the past tense, reflecting his belief that God will hear his prayer and respond.

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
    and you have healed me.
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” – Psalm 30:1-2 ESV

Like King David, Jonah cries out to God from the literal depths of his despair.

“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.” – Psalm 69:1-12 ESV

Jonah finds himself in a hopeless situation, unable to save himself and forced to call out to God for deliverance. He is surrounded by darkness and sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean, further and further away from God. And yet, even in this dire circumstance, his mind recalls the words of King David.

I had said in my alarm,
    “I am cut off from your sight.”
But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy
    when I cried to you for help. – Psalm31:22 ESV

The man who had attempted to “flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV), is now feeling cut off from God. Yet, he is able to express his confidence that God will deliver him. “I shall again look upon your holy temple” (Jonah 2:4 ESV). This is a direct reference to another psalm of David: Psalm 5, verse 7. Jonah is attempting to keep his focus on the faithfulness of God by recalling the many psalms that reflect God’s goodness and past acts of divine deliverance. And he speaks in terms that project hope in the face of adversity.

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. – Jonah 2:5-6 ESV

Once again, Jonah finds comfort in the psalms of David, reminding himself that God is far greater than his worst predicament.

O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit. – Psalm 30:3 ESV

As Jonah sank deeper and deeper into the sea, he cried out louder and louder, believing that his God could and would hear him from His holy temple. Distance and darkness are no problem for God. As King David said:

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. – Psalm 139:9-12 ESV

But Jonah ends his prayer in a somewhat prideful and arrogant tone, seemingly comparing himself to the pagan sailors who had tossed him overboard.

Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love. – Jonah 2:8 ESV

What Jonah didn’t know was what had happened to those men when they threw him overboard and the storm subsided.

Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. – Jonah 1:16 ESV

These former idolaters believed in Yahweh and expressed their gratitude for His goodness by offering sacrifices and making vows. But Jonah assumes that these men remained worshipers of false gods. He viewed them as pagan Gentiles who would never understand or experience the steadfast love of Yahweh. But he was wrong. And he arrogantly bragged about how he would pay God back for His deliverance.

“But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – Jonah 2:9 ESV

Notice that nowhere in his prayer does Jonah mention Nineveh or the people who live there. He offers up no prayer of intercession on their behalf. Instead, he seems to echo the words of the self-righteous Pharisee from the story told by Jesus in Luke’s gospel.

“I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

Jonah shows no regard for the nations of the earth. He had been more than willing to sleep while the Gentile sailors went to their deaths. And he had chosen to disobey God rather than deliver His message to the wicked citizens of Nineveh. Yet, when he found himself in desperate circumstances, Jonah called upon his gracious and merciful God. As a Jew, he believed he somehow deserved to be saved. And his self-consumed prayer seems to reflect the hearts of the people living in exile. They too had come to believe that they were deserving of God’s deliverance. Even their prophets were prophesying falsehoods, proclaiming that their days in exile would be few. These men were guilty of leading the people astray, allowing them to think that, despite their captivity, all was well between them and God.

After Jonah completed his prayer to God, the author records, “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10 ESV). Don’t miss the significance of that statement. It says that God spoke to the fish, but not to Jonah. Yahweh does not respond to Jonah’s pious-sounding words. Instead, He speaks to the fish and commands that it deliver Jonah to dry land. The fish in which Jonah had been imprisoned suddenly became God’s instrument of deliverance. And not only for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. God would use the fish to accomplish His divine plan of redemption, and God would use His reluctant and rebellious prophet as well. The sovereign will of God would be done.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson