A Necessary Oddity
It is almost certainly not an understatement to say that the least discussed, preached on, mentioned or dealt-with portion of the book of Jonah (at least outside of commentaries) is chapter 2 – Jonah’s Psalm. I remember the first time I listened to Mark Driscoll preach. I chose his series on Jonah because I had just spent the summer studying the book in my seminary Hebrew class and wanted to get a take for Driscoll’s use of Scripture. I was genuinely impressed with his dealing of chapter 1 and was eager to listen to chapter 2. Low and behold, he had a guest speaker for that Sunday. I listened. I enjoyed the sermon, but the speaker really didn’t deal with chapter 2 as much as he did the concept of God’s sovereignty. In short, he preached about a common theme in Jonah and not chapter 2 in and of itself.
Who can blame him? The chapter doesn’t seem to fit, is filled with strange imagery, and to some degree doesn’t seem to make sense. Let’s just get back to the story in chapter 3!
Yet, the author didn’t switch to poetry for no good reason. As is the case in much of Old Testament Biblical studies, poetry and/or the most difficult part of the passage is often where the primary meaning resides. For example, it is the narrative of Genesis 1 that describes creation but the poetry of Genesis 1:27 that describes creations pinnacle, and in Genesis 3, it is narrative that describes the fall, but poetry predicts redemption (Gen. 3:16). We have such a case in Jonah. Narrative is moving the story along, but the poetry gives it a fuller meaning.
Because poetry in Hebrew is different, we will deal with chapter 2 in a slightly different manner. First we will deal with some of the issues related to the poem; does it belong to the original writing of Jonah?, what does it concern?, what is its structure? Then, based on the structure, we’ll dissect each section looking both at what is being said and what the psalm is alluding too. Let’s get started.
Is the Psalm Original to Jonah?
“The Jonah collection is a composite piece, made up of a short story and a psalm…” (Terrance Collins, The Mantle of Elijah, p. 71, JST 1993). The assertion of those like Dr. Collins is not uncommon. Many scholars believe the Jonah 2 was inserted to the story at a later date to add some artful elements to its meaning. These scholars are quick to point out that if you took the psalm out, you have no break in the story. Jonah 2:1 simply says, “And Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish.” This would be followed by Jonah 2:10, “And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited up Jonah out upon the dry land.” From a cursory view, it seems to make sense. We have, as Collins says, a nice “short story” and it flows beautifully.
However, while there is some credence to this observation, there is solid evidence to suggest that the psalm is not only original, but required for the story to make sense. Below are some reasons for my belief that the psalm is original to Jonah.
“I called out to the LORD…” – Jonah 2:2/3
Through the entirety of chapter one, the author has been playing with the disobedience of Jonah by demonstrating his unwillingness to follow the three fold command of God, “Arise, go… called out.” We have seen the sailors command Jonah to “arise, call out (v. 1:6), we have seen the sailors “call out” (v. 1:5), we have even seen the sailors “go” (v. 1:7), and at the end of the chapter the sailors even “call out to the LORD (v. 14).” Yet, in all of this, Jonah remains unwilling to change. He is stubbornly silent with regards to his communication with God.
However, amidst his distress he finally obeys and “calls out” to the LORD. Thus in one sense he finally obeys God (while not with regard to Nineveh), and in an actual sense, obeys the command and example of the sailors. Thus, verse 2/3 of Jonah 2 is in perfect harmony with the plot of the Jonah narrative.
“Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall look again to your holy temple… I remembered the LORD and my prayer came to you into your holy temple.’” – Jonah 2:4/5, 7/8
In Jonah 1 the issues of the “presence of the LORD” is a major theme is demonstrating the wickedness of Jonah’s actions. Nineveh is depicted as being in the “presence of the LORD” while Jonah is seen as being “away from the presence of the LORD.” Key in this theme is the author’s portrayal of Jonah as almost being ignorant of the consequences of being out of God’s presence.
With the writing of the psalm, Jonah is recognizing this evil. Both “away from your sight” and “your holy temple” are references to the presence of Yahweh. The phrase “in the presence of the LORD” literally means “before the LORD” and has the idea of being in front of God’s face. Thus, his “sight” is a direct connection to “presence.” And the temple was the location of the fullness of God’s presence. Jonah in his prayer is not literally looking at the temple, but rather praying to the place where God is in the hopes of experiencing a renewal of God’s presence in his life. This recognition of his distance from God perfectly fits the narrative of Jonah 1 and furthers the plot of the account.
“I went down…” – Jonah 2:6/7
In Jonah 1 the word “down” has been a way of emphasizing Jonah’s descent away from God. He goes “down” to Joppa, he goes “down” into the ship, he lays “down” to sleep. All of this while Nineveh is “up” in the presence of the LORD. The psalm furthers this decent both thematically and then with the statement of verse 2:6/7. Again, if fits perfectly within the narrative and furthers the plot of the account.
“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 2:8/9-10/11
This verse is a curious part of the psalm that is hard to see how it fits. However, in light of the narrative seems to fit the situation of Jonah perfectly. He has just seen pagan sailors who rejected their vain idols, found hope in Yahweh, experienced his salvation, and as a result made sacrifices and vows to him (Jonah 1:16). Even though this is a small and confusing detail, it serves to tie Jonah’s experiences together. Thus the psalm and the narrative of Jonah 1 are directly linked in these verses.
Then Jonah prayed… – Jonah 2:1/2
While scholars who believe that the psalm was inserted into Jonah will include Jonah 2:1/2 as original, there is an interesting link that makes verse 1/2 an argument for the entire psalm being original. Jonah prays twice in the book, in Jonah 2 and in Jonah 4. While the nature of the prayers are completely different, they have common themes. In Jonah 2, Jonah is asking God to spare his life. In Jonah 4, Jonah is asking God to take his life. In Jonah 2, Jonah is begging for and then thanking God for his steadfast love. In Jonah 4, Jonah is angry at God’s steadfast love. The content of the two prayers are paralleled with each other to, again, further the plot of the narrative. While it is true that if you take the psalm out of the story there are still two prayers by Jonah, without the psalm the parallels no longer exist and it leaves the story lacking.
You brought my life up from the grave… — Jonah 2:6/7
Perhaps this verse alone stands out as the reason that the psalm should be considered original to Jonah. Actually, it is one word in the verse – “up.” This is the first time that Jonah has gone a direction other than down in the entire book. Combined with his “calling out” in verse 2/3, these words mark the actual heart-change of Jonah. Now he has called out, he has gone upward, he has sought the presence of God and God, by the end of the psalm, has honored his repentance. Jonah has changed.
The compound effect of all of these elements of the psalm is critical to the story of Jonah. First of all, in chapter 3 we are going to see a dramatic change in Jonah’s behavior. The reluctant prophet who has completely disobeyed the commands of God, will now be obeying God down to the exactness of every phrase. A major shift! Without the psalm, we do not know why this shift has taken place. There would simply be a “prayer” and then a “vomit.” But the prayer fully explains Jonah’s new behavior; he has repented, he has sought God, he has seen salvation, and he is now ready to respond. The psalm fits the account and gives further credence to the narrative.
Therefore, it is my conclusion that the psalm was part of the literary strategy of the composition and is thus original to its writing. Just because an author changes the genre in which he writes does not automatically mean that they have to have two completely different sources.
What is the Psalm About?
In a word, “death.” There is no getting around this fact. While it does indeed describe Jonah’s plummet into the ocean, it does so with language that is overwhelmingly morbid in nature. It uses words like “Sheol”, “grave”, “deep”, “to take my life”, “roots of the mountains”, “bars closed on me forever”, and “fainting away” all point to a death-like experience.
This is part of the reason some scholars have suggested the story is mythological in nature. In addition to just wanting to reject the miracle of God providing a fish to save Jonah, the language of the psalm is filled with what is called “underworld” terminology. Some of this terminology is eerily similar to a number of pagan myths about the afterlife. So scholars suggest the whole story is a myth so that Jewish sacred writings can be similar to other religious stories being told at the time.
While I obviously reject the notion of Jonah being a myth, the observations are interesting. Why would Jonah want to talk about his ordeal is such dirge? Was he simply hyping his experience to equate a fish’s belly with Sheol? Or did he actually go to Sheol? These are questions we will explore as we interpret the psalm. However, as you will quickly see, I’m going to give the possibility of Jonah’s actual descent into the grave a lot of credence. I do in fact believe that he died and the miracle of Jonah, as well as the sign of Jonah, was God’s mercy to resurrect him so that he could continue his plight to preach the mercy of God to the Gentiles.
The Structure of the Psalm
There are many scholars who will do a much better job of analyzing the structure of the psalm in Jonah that I will. However, I will submit just a simple analysis of what I think is going on based on the structure I see in the psalm.
Verse 2/3 – The overview of the psalm
In my understanding of the psalm, verse 2/3 declares the overview of what is going on. It is the author telling us that the following verses describe Jonah’s journey to the “belly of Sheol” and God “answering” the voice of his “cry.” Thus the psalm is not meant to reflect a chronological happening, but a thematic happening.
Verses 2/3– 3/4 – The plight of descent and recognition of need
These verses of the psalm are Jonah recognizing that it is God’s doing that he is being “cast into the sea” and sinking and now he is recognizing his need for the presence of God (his “holy temple”).
Verses 4/5-7/8 – The plight of decent and the answer of help
These verses further describe Jonah’s descent literally into the “grave,” and also describes God’s rescue. Verse 6b/7b – 7/8 is the turning point of the psalm in which God’s rescue in final.
Verses 8/9-9/10 – Thanksgiving for salvation
This part of the psalm is Jonah’s statements of thanksgiving for God’s salvation and his dedication to the ways of God upon the final completion of his rescue.
A Final Note
As you can see by the strange way I’ve referenced the verses above, there is difference in the verse referenced between English Bibles and the Hebrew text. In the Hebrew Bible, Jonah 2 begins with chapter 1:17 in the English Bible. In the references above, I used both the English and the Hebrew verses. However, beginning below I will use only the Hebrew verse listings since it will be in agreement with my translation, which is from the Hebrew text. I will go through the chapter mostly according to the outline above, adding one section for the introduction phrases of the psalm and the concluding verse of chapter 2. Enjoy.