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A Fishy Prayer

by Mark Yarbrough

(Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of Jonah – Lesson 1 – as seen in the January Web Edition of Word & Work.org)

(Jonah 2)

When I was twelve years old, I had a great opportunity to work at a ranch in South Central Texas. A teacher in the school where my father was the Principal had a ranch there; and she invited me to go with her and her husband for the summers to help with chores, etc. It was 1400 acres in the middle of nowhere. For a twelve year old boy it was absolutely wonderful, because they had cows, goats, and sheep. There were rattlesnakes, and other varmints, trees to climb, and water tanks for swimming. They even had an old pickup truck that they let me drive, but there wasn’t anything to hit except mesquite trees and cactus. Other young men who were more experienced than I worked the ranch; but nonetheless, I was convinced that the Lord had called me to be an official ‘boot-scootin’ cowboy. I had the hat, I had the look, I had the straw between my teeth; and I looked forward to the day these young men would invite me to come and work cattle with them. The invitation finally came when I turned fourteen, but the more experienced cowboys were probably 18 or 19. They knew all about cows, and they asked me to go and work cattle with them. They said, “Mark, you’re going to be the chalk boy.” That meant that when the cows had been given their worming medicine, my one duty was to put a chalk mark on their back end to identify the cows that had received their medication. I was simply thrilled that I was going to be with them in that cattle pen. They said, “Mark, we’ll pick you up in the morning; and Oh, by the way, wear your steel-toed boots, and whatever happens, don’t get stuck in the corner of the pen.”

The next morning I put on my overalls – without a T-shirt underneath so I could look “cool.” I had the look, I had the hat, but my boots were not steel toed – they were too clunky for me. Steel-toed boots were too heavy; a “professional” cowboy like me did not need them. When they came, I jumped into the back of the truck and off we went. The cows were in the pen so I jumped in there with my piece of chalk ready to do my job with pride. There had never been a better chalk boy on the face of the planet. Well, we were working our way around the cattle in the pen; and I don’t know to this day what happened, or why it happened. But somehow, that whole group of cows began to back up, and all the other cowboys were on the other side of the pen, and I was stuck – in the corner! I’m not a big guy now, and I was less of a big guy then, when suddenly something happened. There was a cow on my left foot, the foot that didn’t have a steel-toed boot on it. And I realized that this was a big cow, and I remembered those immortal words, “Wear your steel-toed boots.” It was a real bad moment in my life, but it was about to get a whole lot worse. I couldn’t move to my right or my left because I was in the corner of a metal pen. The cow’s back end was against me. I was but a small boy, and the cow was much taller. Then the worst thing ever happened to me. That cow backed up and let loose. It was the ugliest moment in my life. She unloaded, and I passed out. I was wearing overalls with no shirt. Guess where some of it went? As I was falling, I hit my head against the metal pen. It was ugly in every sense of the word. When I came to, there were six young men looking down on me laughing their heads off. As I crawled out of the pen, they said in unison, “Don’t get stuck in the corner!”

Have you ever been there? Not physically in a cow pen (I hope); but have you ever been there in your spiritual walk with the Lord? You wake up and realize that you are covered with the muck of the world. You have not obeyed the Word of the Lord, nor the advice given you by godly people. Then when you come to your senses – there you are in the muck. You have paid an incredible price for your disobedience and lack of attention to others. I think that is what’s going on with the prophet Jonah. At the end of Chapter 1 he was in a terrible predicament. He had been thrown overboard because of his disobedience, and because he was running from the presence of God – the very Maker of the sea in which he tried to escape. Look again: “But the Lord provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights”(1:17). There’s a simple lesson in this verse. Aren’t you thankful that the Lord has not quit on you, even though you may have quit on Him? Here is the prophet of God who should know better, running from the Lord. Although he has been thrown overboard, God doesn’t quit! God provided a great fish. Now we should not presume to be amateur ichthyologists – persons who know and study fish. Yes we have read about the sperm whale and the size of its stomach. We have read the account of James Bartley, who in 1891, claimed to have been swallowed by a giant whale and lived to tell about it. If God, by the spoken word, can create the earth, the sea and the galaxies of the universe, then He can certainly provide whatever was necessary to swallow, incarcerate, and transport the prophet of God. Be assured that He is fully capable of orchestrating these events.

As we make the transition into chapter 2, we want to remind ourselves that Jonah, by definition, means “dove.” Ammati, his genealogical name tag, is a play on words meaning truth. The question that we must ask again is, “Will this individual whose very name means tranquility, peace, and truthfulness meet the standard of his own name?” The scripture records Jonah’s prayer:

“From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said: ‘In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From the depths of the grave, I called for help, and you listened to my cry. You hurled me into the deep, into the very heart of the seas, and the currents swirled about me, all your waves and breakers swept over me. I said I have been banished from your sight, yet I will look again toward your holy temple The engulfing waters threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head. To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever But you brought my life up from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was ebbing away, I remembered you, Lord, and my prayer rose to you, to your holy temple. Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs. But I, with a song of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you. What I have vowed I will make good. Salvation comes from the Lord’”(2:1-9).

Interestingly, if one were to go back in Israel’s history, many of the Psalms have this same style of presentation. There are different types of Psalms; psalms of assent, psalms of remorse, and psalms of thanksgiving. The psalm of thanksgiving has a simple type of structure which includes an introduction, a time of past distress, a recognition of the Lord, a cry for His help, and an acknowledgment of God’s gracious acts. Many of the Psalms are structured, or packaged, in this manner. When Jonah speaks from the belly of the fish, he speaks in the structure of a psalm of thanksgiving. By taking these particular verses and placing them on top of the template of a psalm of thanksgiving, we find that it fits exactly in the following manner:

In Jonah’s case, God’s gracious act in verses 8 and 9 is his own salvation by the fish that preserved his life when he was thrown into the sea. Literally, he was saved from drowning in the sea. However, there is something that is going on here. Check the following scriptures and we will see that Jonah 2 is not original wording from the prophet. As a matter of fact, Jonah utilized scripture familiar to him. Compare Jonah 2:2 with Psalm 18:4-6. Notice that the ideas and some of the wording are identical. Now look at Jonah 2:3 and compare this with Psalm 69:1-2. Again, notice the striking similarity. This same pattern is followed throughout the entire chapter. Every word, almost verbatim in the Hebrew text of Jonah 2, is found in other passages from the Psalms. In his greatest time of crisis, he recounts the very word of God that he knows. Most likely he had committed many of Israel’s teachings, history, and scripture to memory. He began to quote by heart from his hymnal, the psalms. He quotes the poetry of his people. And in a moment of distress he gave back to God what God had given to his prophet.

Now for the worst possible pun that could be used at this point: “Something is very fishy here!”

At the end of Jonah’s soliloquy, the narrative continues, “And the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land”(2:10). What an incredible commentary on what has occurred thus far! Jonah’s words sounded so good – so rich in meaning. We are prone to exclaim how repentant and pious Jonah is by quoting the Psalms that are so rich in Israel’s history. He has taken the very words of God. It is so good!” But something is so very “fishy” and tragic here. The Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah out of its belly. Perhaps we need to rethink our understanding of the book of Jonah at this point. Perhaps our answer has been, upon reading Jonah’s prayer, “Well, Jonah finally got it. Good boy, Jonah. God saved his life and now he is ready to go to Nineveh in wonderful obedience and preach the Lord’s message.”

Jonah 2:10 has been inserted strategically into the text by the writer for our understanding. Think of all of the ways that this rescue could have been described. After Jonah’s prayer, God could have taken him in other ways to transport him back to Nineveh. Remember, Enoch walked with God, and God took him. Elijah walked with God, and a fiery chariot picked him up and whisked him away to heaven while Elisha stood and watched. There are hundreds of Hebrew words that could have been used, but our text reads that God commanded the fish to vomit Jonah onto dry land. The Hebrew word for vomit carries with it the idea of projecting him onto dry land. In other words, it shot him out of the fish’s mouth. Two words are strategically used here, and to the Jewish ear they were very, very negative. In Leviticus 18:24-30 God talked to his people about what would happen to them in the land that He would give them if they did not follow Him with their whole heart. God said He would vomit them out of the land. It falls in line with Deuteronomy 28 and 29 where God said if Israel blessed Him, they would be blessed in their crops and their children. But if they did not follow Him, then He would vomit them out of the land. The second word in verse 10 states that Jonah was vomited out onto dry land. It is the exact same word that is used in Jonah 1:9. Remember, Jonah had made a very pious statement to the sailors when they asked,” Who are you?” He replied, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the God who created the sea and the dry land.” Jonah made the tragic mistake that we can make so easily. Sometimes we can regurgitate very pious words without a sincere heart. Perhaps verse 10 is an editorial comment by God concerning Jonah’s confession back in 1:9.

Now notice Jonah’s prayer in Jonah 2:9. Jonah said he would make promises, vows, and sacrifices to God. However, the only people who made sacrifices to God in the book of Jonah are the pagan sailors who came to know the living God of Israel. James Watts, in The Song of the Ancient Reader, phrases it this way: “The prayer ignores the essential issue between the prophet and God – Jonah’s refusal of a prophetic commission.” You see, Jonah said all the right words. He talked to God and said, “God you’re good, you’re great, you have saved my life.” But never once did he say to the living God, “God, forgive my rebellion! Forgive my sin! It is my sin of ignoring your call and command.” Did you notice how the text looked so good? So rich! However, it ignored the real issue of the heart. In Jonah’s case, it would have been better for him to pray with David, “Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin….Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me”(Psa. 51:2, 10). It’s time for the next growth indicator.

4. A life that is growing spiritually confesses sin – not pious words of religiosity.

God wants us to take our heart and deal with sin – not just say all of the right words, be at all the right places, and do all of the right things for show. Long ago, God told the prophet Samuel, “The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart”(1 Sam. 16:7). We are reminded in scripture to guard our heart, because it influences everything else in our life (Prov. 4:23). Don’t miss the incredible challenge in the text. One can have the outward façade, but if the heart is not openly and repentantly presented to God, the outward show means absolutely nothing. The Lord commanded the fish to vomit Jonah onto the dry land. I think about this growth indicator, and I realize that there have been many times when I found myself spiritually in the corner covered with all the muck of my mistakes. It is then I hear those haunting words echoing, “Don’t get stuck in the corner!” Are we growing?

-Dr. Mark Yarbrough lives in Forney, TX and is Vice President for Development at Dallas Theological Seminary




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That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:10