Saturday, November 28, 2020

Mining the Minors: Jonah (10)

If you are in the habit of praying regularly, especially in the privacy of your own heart, you will surely have noticed that some of your prayers are more coherent and composed than others, depending on circumstances, distractions and the level of distress you are experiencing at the time.

This is fairly normal, I think, and gives us cause to be thankful for the Spirit of God, who helps us in our weakness.

Given his circumstances, Jonah’s prayer in chapter 2 appears to be composed with unusual care, building to its conclusion logically and even drawing on the Davidic psalms for much of its imagery.

I don’t think we need to assume that these were precisely the words Jonah spoke to the Lord in the order he spoke them from the belly of the great fish where he was captive, and neither do many commentators. Benson, for example, says, “several of David’s Psalms were probably composed after his trouble was over; but in a manner suitable to the thoughts he had at the time of his affliction.” That something similar occurred with the prayer in chapter 2 of Jonah sounds like a reasonable supposition to me, though it is certainly not impossible that the prophet spent parts of three days and nights in the belly of the great fish pondering how to express himself to his God, and then gave voice to his thoughts as articulately as we see here.

Jonah 2:4-10 — Jonah’s Prayer (cont.)
“ ‘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!’

And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.”
Your Holy Temple

Almost half of Jonah’s prayer is given over to describing the awful experience of drowning from which God has recently saved him, but the other thought that recurs in these verses is Jonah’s love for the holy temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, his desire to see it again and his conviction that he will.

Like much of Jonah’s prayer, the words “holy temple” are most frequently used in the Psalms to describe the dwelling place of God among men, the word “holy” signifying that the temple in Jerusalem was uniquely set apart to God in a way no other building on earth could claim. Local deities were common among the nations of that period, but in associating God’s face or presence with an earthly location, Jonah is not in the least claiming to serve the same sort of limited, local deity the nations believed in. These same psalms of David which Jonah is referencing in his prayer say things like this:
“The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord’s throne is in heaven.”
The ancient Israelites well understood that the temple in which their priests and Levites ministered to the God of heaven and everything within it were only copies or shadows of the corresponding heavenly realities. In preparing to build the tabernacle, Moses was repeatedly told to ensure that he followed the pattern shown to him on the mountain. So while it could truly be said that the Lord was to be found and worshiped in his holy temple in Jerusalem in a unique way, that same God remained simultaneously enthroned in heaven.

Jonah understood this too. He declared it to the mariners in chapter 1 when he referred to “the Lord, the God of heaven”, and it is only because his God is no mere local deity that he can speak here of a prayer made from the depths of the ocean coming “to you, into your holy temple”. This is manifestly not the “holy temple” in Jerusalem of which he is speaking the second time he uses the phrase.

It’s a reminder to the Christian reader of something we know very well but often fail to reflect in our language and behavior when we gather: that our God is both specially present with us when we gather and at the same time gloriously enthroned in the heavens. The building in which we worship is quite irrelevant.

Regarding Vain Idols

One blog writer critiques Jonah’s prayer for referring to “those pagan people” without apparent empathy. While it is evident Jonah still didn’t share his God’s compassion for the idol worshipers in Nineveh and would go on wrestle further with his bitterness against the Assyrian people in chapter 4, what he says in here is perfectly true: those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. Salvation belongs to the Lord, and to nobody else. In choosing to venerate objects of wood and stone rather than the Living God, the pagans are willfully rejecting the love of God and all opportunity of relating to him personally.

Let’s suppose for a moment that Jonah had served the same sort of ineffectual local fiction his fellow mariners worshiped. If so, he would have perished in the ocean and been forgotten. Instead, he recognizes he has experienced the “steadfast love” of the Lord, the love that, as the hymnwriter put it, “will not let me go”. Jonah has come to the place of recognizing the futility of running from God.

What I Have Vowed I Will Pay

In the process of repenting, Jonah makes the statement that he intends to pay “what I have vowed”. That wording may seem a little peculiar since the book has so far made no mention of a vow. Again, we have the apparent association with the temple in Jerusalem, where solemn promises to YHWH were generally made and the fulfillment of them consummated.

So then, on the one hand Jonah may be speaking of fulfilling a vow he had previously made (and violated by his rebellion) to obey the Lord and carry out his mission to Nineveh. More likely, he may be saying that he vows to journey to the temple in Jerusalem to offer a public sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord there for the salvation he has received.

Either way, the prophet’s will is broken. Emphasizing the difference between his God and all other false gods, Jonah determines to obey the God he has professed to serve.

Back to Dry Land

The Lord responds to Jonah’s prayer by speaking to the fish, causing it to vomit Jonah out “upon the dry land”. Talk about door-to-door service! Not to read too much into this statement, but its placement directly after the prayer suggests it is a responsive action: that is to say, Jonah voices his repentance and thanksgiving, and God immediately releases him. Apparently during the time Jonah was working himself up to offering his prayer, God had been undoing the results of his rebellion. However far the ship may have brought Jonah out into the sea, the fish had brought him back, something Jonah could never have accomplished on his own.

There is maybe a reminder here that only God can truly restore the failed servant. Salvation of any sort is not accomplished by human works. If it was, it would not be called salvation. So then, it is not a matter of us mustering the effort of will to bring ourselves back to the place we should always have been. Rather, God himself must take us up and restore us if we are to be truly useful to him.

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