Prayer in the Fish’s Belly
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today I’d like to talk with you about the prophet Jonah, who was quite a character. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Most of us know Jonah as the fellow in the Old Testament who is swallowed up alive by a huge fish. This story appears in the biblical book that bears his name. Although the book is short, there’s much more to it than that a huge fish swallowed him. The Book of Jonah is a perennial favorite, and in its four short chapters there’s to be found both an entertaining story and a great deal for us to reflect upon.
Here are some questions to consider.
• What was going on with Jonah before the fish episode?
• What happens after the huge creature coughs him up?
• What does Jonah do during his time inside the fish?
• And finally, what can we learn from this wonderful, comic, very human story?
Let’s begin at the beginning. What was going on with Jonah before the fish episode?
The Lord calls Jonah to go to the vast city of Ninevah and announce its doom, but Jonah heads off in the opposite direction, trying to travel as far from Ninevah as possible. He gets on a ship bound for Tarshish. Not only is he attempting to get away from Ninevah, he wants to escape from the presence of the Lord.
But the Lord doesn’t take “no” for an answer. He sends a storm so severe that the ship is in danger of breaking up. The sailors, men of different nationalities, pray to their various gods. The captain awakens Jonah and tells him to pray to his god.
The sailors then cast lots in an effort to find out who on board is to blame for this calamity. The lot falls on Jonah. He explains who he is and that he’s fleeing from the presence of his God. He also volunteers to save the ship by allowing himself to be thrown into the sea. Reluctantly the sailors do so, and the storm disappears.
The Lord appoints a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and inside the fish Jonah remains for three days and three nights. It must have seemed forever.
Next question: What happens after the huge creature coughs him up? Jonah finds himself back on dry land. Again the Lord calls him to go to Ninevah and announce its destruction.
It seems Jonah has learned his lesson. He travels to Ninevah, a city so huge it would take three days to walk from one end to the other. In the midst of that vast city, Jonah announces his message. He doesn’t mince words and he doesn’t waste time: Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be destroyed!
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There’s an old saying that a preacher should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Jonah does his own take on that. He doesn’t comfort anybody. What he does is afflict everybody. Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be destroyed.
The funny thing is, his preaching works. In terms of getting his listeners on board, Jonah does better than all the other prophets in the Bible rolled into one. Now these Ninevites aren’t Jewish and don’t have a religious or ethnic obligation to heed this Jewish prophet from far away. But when it comes to the Word of the Lord, they apparently can recognize the real article when it’s spoken to them. Heed him they do. It’s repentance time in Ninevah. Sackcloth and ashes, fasting and prayer for everybody, even the animals. The entire city repents.
And God himself gets in on the act. Seeing the repentance of Ninevah, their decision to live their lives differently, God repents of the evil he said he would do to them. Yes, that’s what the story says: God repents.
Now God’s happy and much relieved, the Ninevites are happy and much relieved, but guess who’s not happy and not much relieved: Jonah!
His brief career as a prophet has gone to his head. He had said that Ninevah would be destroyed There was nothing conditional about this. But then the Ninevites repented, and God repented, and well, things did not go as Jonah had announced. No fire and brimstone. Not a bit.
Jonah has his angry little prayer session with God, and God says something very pastoral. He asks Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry?” Jonah responds by stomping out, and he sits outside the city in a snit, waiting to see what will happen.
God gets concerned for Jonah sitting out there in the hot sun, and so he orders a plant to grow up at a miraculous rate and provide him with shade. Then, just as quickly, God arranges for the plan to wither and die, depriving Jonah of shade, and making him, well, more hot-headed than ever.
Jonah prays to God. He throws another tantrum. Now he’s mad about the plant. The Lord gets the last laugh when he says that if Jonah’s concerned about one little plant, he, the Lord, has every right to have mercy upon Ninevah, a city whose population includes not only morally suspect adults, but lots of innocent children and animals.
On to our next question: What does Jonah do during his time inside the fish? Within the dark, dank belly of the fish, he spends three long days and three long nights. It must have seemed forever. What does he do?
All we know is that he prayed. Maybe he didn’t pray all that time, but prayer seems to sum up his experience in the belly of his fish. We even have the words of his prayer in the book named for him.
Jonah’s involuntary sojourn inside the fish’s belly is the point in the story where he hits bottom, both literally and figuratively. Things don’t get any worse for him than this solitary confinement there in the pitch black innards of a huge sea creature.
Yet Jonah is there by his own choice and by God’s choice; the two of them are working together somehow. It’s Jonah, after all, who insists the sailors toss him over the side. And it’s God who arranges for the fish to swallow him and save his life.
Jonah calls out to God in prayer, there inside the belly of the fish. It’s prayer of a different character than the obnoxious-brat prayer we hear him tossing at God once he gets to Nineveh.
The prayer from inside the sea creature is not self-centered. It is trusting, hopeful, and thankful. This prayer celebrates Jonah’s release even before it happens! There inside the fish’s belly, when things are at their worst, Jonah is at his best, a true person of prayer.
Something else about what Jonah says from the fish’s belly deserves our attention. This prayer is not original. Careful study reveals that these verses are in fact a compilation of many phrases taken from the Book of Psalms. Material from at least nine different psalms has been woven together to form this prayer.
What Jonah speaks inside the sea creature is his best prayer, yet there is nothing original about it. It is the voice of someone who has learned to pray by taking the words of others and making them his own. Long before Jonah was soaked to the skin by sea water, he was soaked down to the heart by that ocean of prayer we call the Book of Psalms.
We have before us not only Jonah’s story, but a portrait of the man. Like us, Jonah contradicts himself. He’s both brave and cowardly. Honest and deceitful. Devout and selfish. The man Jonah remains a work in progress, even at the end of the book that bears his name. We’ve seen God approach him with a storm at sea and a still, small voice, and this God is not finished with him yet.
Jonah is a man of prayer, sometimes thrashing around in utter anger and selfishness, at times bubbling over with praise and hope. Yes, in many ways he’s like us, and we often resemble him.
His best prayer is at his worst moment, and moreover, this best prayer is nothing original, but phrases so familiar to him that they seem like second nature. The use of these phrases helps transform his nature. During his sojourn in the fish’s belly, this crank gives praise to God.
The belly of the fish takes different forms for different people. In her book, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, Marva Dawn recalls his ministry with residents of convalescent homes. She writes: “Several Alzheimer’s patients resided in these homes, some whose minds were totally gone. Yet among those patients were some who, as soon as I began to sing “‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus,’ would join in and sing all three verses without a missed word. They could pray the Lord’s Prayer, say the Apostles’ Creed, and sing other hymns with me, before their minds wandered off.” [Marva J. Dawn, Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for the Turn-of-the-Century Culture (Eerdmans, 1995), p. 120.]
The prayer of these Alzheimer’s patients in their disorientation. The prayer of Jonah in his deep sea distress. Building prayer from familiar pieces, well-worn words we have made our own. We don’t have to wait until disaster strikes to use such patterns of prayer, and we don’t have to wait until some indefinite future to stock our hearts with materials for these prayers.
The single book of the Bible which Christians have resorted to most often down through the ages is the Book of Psalms. It is the Church’s best and oldest hymnal. Absorbing its words and spirit has been a preoccupation of Christian devotion from the earliest days of the Church. The Psalms are full of laments and cries and praises. They are real enough, honest enough, to give material for prayer even to a brave and cowardly, honest and deceitful, devout and selfish character like Jonah. The Psalms are full of laments and cries and praises; they are real enough, honest enough, to give material for prayer even to characters like us, material enough for a lifetime.
Don’t waste time bemoaning what you believe to be your lack of familiarity with the Psalms. Take on some pattern of reading them, praying them, on a daily basis. Talk with me about ways you can do this.
The Psalms will confuse, console, and challenge you. Sometimes they will not speak to you, but many, many times they will speak with surprising clarity to your feelings and circumstances that day. You will discover Christ present in your life, dressed in the language of the Psalms.
Here’s a specific invitation. Read two psalms each day throughout the next month. I believe you will sense a change in your life, an expansion, during that time, and at the end you will want to continue this practice.
Prayer from the belly of the fish must have substance and strength. We can learn this prayer the way Jonah did, through nourishing ourselves on the Book of Psalms. There’s no better time to begin than today.
I have spoken to you in the name of the God who hears us always, even when we call from the belly of the fish: the God known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
––Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.