Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Fish-belly prayer

Jonah cast forth from the whale by Gustave Dore
TODAY'S SPECIAL: Jonah 2:1-10

TO CHEW ON: "'But I will sacrifice to You
With the voice of thanksgiving;
I will pay what I have vowed.
Salvation is of the Lord.'" Jonah 2:9

Our reading today is Jonah's desperate prayer for help from the belly of the fish. Interesting, isn't it, how he plotted to "flee...from the presence of the Lord" but now he begs for God's intervention, talking to Him as if He were very much present!

This is another of the great prayers of the Old Testament. Walter Brueggemann in his chapter on Jonah's prayer (Great Prayers of the Old Testament), points out several interesting things about it:

1. Jonah recognizes that even before his actual return to dry land the fish belly is part of his rescue and he thanks God for that - Jonah 2:2: "...the fish functions in the narrative as a liminal 'middle zone' between the great threat of the sea and the equally great safety of the dry land" - Walter Brueggemann, Great Prayers of the Old Testament, Kindle edition p. 60.

2. Despite his grim situation, Jonah seems unwilling to completely acknowledge his own responsibility for being there. He says, "'For You cast me into the deep..." (Jonah 2:3). Ahem, Jonah, wasn't it you who ran away from God, got on the ship and suggested the sailors throw you overboard? "To credit YHWH with the distress serves to exempt Jonah himself from responsibility..." Brueggemann, p. 62.

3. Jonah's poetic description of his plight (Jonah 2:4-6a) is an example of exaggeration—hyperbole: "The language of prayer is free to employ such hyperbole; it is the sort of regressive speech that we may use in contexts of acute danger and pain" - Brueggemann, 62.

4. Jonah acknowledges his "fox-hole religion": "When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord" (Jonah 2:7).

5. He promises to do what God has asked and with a good attitude: "I will sacrifice to You / With the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed" - Jonah 2:9

6. Despite his little side trips into self-justification (Jonah 2:3) and preachiness (Jonah 2:8), his main focus is God (Jonah 2:2-4, 6-7,9) and his prayer ends in thankfulness for his rescue before it is ever accomplished.

Let's gather a few principles for our own praying from Jonah's example:

  • Our present setting—a hospital bed, a time of unemployment, a difficult season with a family member or whatever—may be a 'middle zone' for us too, i.e. part of God's rescue plan.
  • We do well to ask ourselves, is there any self-deception in our attitudes or prayers?
  • It's okay to tell God exactly how we feel.
  • If we make promises in our fox-hole, let's keep them!
  • Above all, let's focus on God who is greater than any pickle in which we'll ever find ourselves. As we do this our prayers will shift from reciting trouble to praise and thanksgiving for His rescue even before we actually reach "...dry land" - Jonah 2:10.

PRAYER: Dear God, thank You for very human Jonah and his prayer. Help me to be honest with You and myself, and to call out to You when I'm in trouble with the faith and God-focus Jonah showed. Amen.

MORE: Questions we can ask ourselves

I really like the three questions with which Walter Brueggemann ends this chapter—questions which warrant honest consideration within the privacy of our own hearts.

1. How can we pray in the midst of our disobedience?
2. From what will God deliver and rescue us?
3. How can we pray past our own self-deception?
- Brueggemann, p. 67.

Unless otherwise noted all Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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