Commentary on Jonah 2

English Translation

1Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2saying,

“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.
3For 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.
4Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
5The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6at 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.
7When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
9But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

10And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. (ESV)

Notes

1Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish,

Scholars are divided as to whether this psalm was originally part of the book of Jonah or whether it was added by a later editor. There is no manuscript evidence supporting a later addition to the text so good arguments are necessary to reach that conclusion. Let us address each argument against the psalm’s authenticity in turn:

  • Jonah shows a level of repentance and piety that he does not show in the rest of the book. This is a circular argument because it excludes the psalm from consideration. It also ignores the possibility that Jonah’s view of himself may not be realistic (cf. 1:9).

  • Jonah could not have composed a psalm in the belly of the fish. But if he could survive in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights (1:17) why is it any more absurd to believe he could compose a psalm in those three days?

  • The rest of the book is in prose. There are many biblical books that have both prose and poetry. An author is not restricted to one or the other.

  • The psalm is similar to other thanksgiving psalms and may have been taken from a collection of such psalms. But the narrative invoked cultic themes (1:16) so it is not inappropriate for Jonah’s psalm to invoke cultic themes. Moreover, “Jonah’s ‘Psalm’ differs significantly from others in the Psalter by maintaining the narrative form in the way it organizes the terminology of the ‘underworld,’ so that Jonah’s descent is presented as a geographical sequence”1.

None of the arguments against the psalm’s authenticity are persuasive. We have good reasons for believing the psalm was always part of the book:

  • The psalm repeats key words in a strategic manner (“surrounded” in verses 4 and 6 and “your holy temple” in verses 5 and 8). This repetition of key words is found in the narrative section of the book, suggesting that the psalm and the narrative was written by a single author.

  • Phrases from elsewhere in the Bible are used in both the psalm and the narrative portions of the book2.

  • The descent of Jonah in chapter 2, and which began in chapter 1, is a mirror image of the ascent of the Ninevites in chapter 3. Such structure suggests a common author to both parts of the book.

3For 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.

Jonah recognizes that the mariners were acting as God’s agents (1:15).

5The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head 6at 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 descended to the gates of death (Job 38:16-17; Psalms 9:13-14; 107:18).

9But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

The sailors above him have already offered sacrifices to the LORD (1:16).

Bibliography

ABD: D. N. Freedman, Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1992

1[ABD], vol. 6, p. 939

2Jonah 2:4 resembles Psalm 42:8; Jonah 3:9 resembles Jeremiah 18:7, 8, 11; 26:3, 13, 19; Jonah 4:2 resembles Exodus 14:12; 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; Psalm 103:8-13; Nahum 1:3; Joel 2:13-14; Jonah 4:5, 9 resemble Psalm 31:7, 23; Jonah 4:8 resembles 1 Kings 19:4

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