Pause for some poetry or song lyrics. All the other prophets indulge in characteristic Hebrew rhythms of paired phrases and plays on words, most of which are lost in translation to English meter. This one echoes several Psalms, cries for help, as the waters are rising over our heads in adversity.
What do you pray for yourself? It’s easy to sound good and look good praying for others – though God would likely prefer our help informed by our prayer. Some will deny that they ever ask for special providence, accepting the laws of nature playing out as their clockmaker theist God made them, then left them.
My glib liberal affirmation of ‘general providence over special providence’ was corrected by a Winnipegger, Cal Peppler. He flew Spitfires and was shot down in Italy in WWII. Taught a dour Presbyterian creed, named ‘Calvin’ at birth – he pointed out that when they are shooting you down, you do ask for help!
We make deals with God in extremis and vow to live differently. This poetic prayer concludes with a promise to pay up in thanksgiving and gratefulness, not simply in a quid pro quo but in recollection of the hope of a God not benignly disengaged, but passionate and interventionist in intention.
Somewhere in this oracle, framed in the narrative as a prayer by Jonah in the belly of the whale, is one key to why this strange book is categorized as one of the Twelve, despite being so distinctive in form and content from the others. It offers a way to apply prophets beyond historicity to construe or shape a world.
Jonah 2 (NRSV)
1 Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish,
2saying, ‘I called to the LORD out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice.
3 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.
4 Then I said, “I am driven away from your sight; how* shall I look again upon your holy temple?”
5 The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head
6 at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me for ever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O LORD my God.
7 As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the LORD; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple.
8 Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the LORD!’ 10Then the LORD spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.