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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 2

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


All ten verses of this brief chapter relate almost entirely to the prayer uttered by Jonah from inside the fish. Jonah was a close student of the Holy Scriptures, especially of the Psalms, as indicated by his use of much terminology found also in them. Destructive critics have exercised the most valiant and persistent efforts to make this common terminology between Jonah and the Psalms a basis of their insistence upon a post-exilic date; but, as we shall more pointedly observe in the notes, below, such allegations are groundless. Many of the Psalms having words or clauses in common with Jonah were doubtless dated long before the prophet appeared; and in a very few cases where this is alleged not to be the case, the correspondence clearly indicated that the Psalmist was influenced by Jonah, and not the other way around. In addition to this, there is convincing evidence of the most positive nature found in the prayer itself which indicates a date long before that favored by Old Testament enemies.

Verse 1

“Then Jonah prayed unto Jehovah his God out of the fish’s belly.”

The first threat to Jonah’s life was, of course, that of drowning; and, for whatever period of time he might have been conscious inside the sea-monster, he was profoundly grateful for his being saved from drowning; and that salvation led him to believe that God would preserve him alive throughout the entire experience. This situation explains the double application of some of the expressions in the prayer. Critics like to complain that the passage (Jonah 2) “is not a prayer but a thanksgiving for deliverance.”(F1) However, in the words of Young who refuted such statements, “Is not thanksgiving of the very essence of prayer?”(F2)

“Such critical censure is pointless, displaying ignorance of the fact that thanksgiving is the very heart of prayer; but this is not a psalm of deliverance from the great fish. It is rather a psalm of deliverance from drowning.”(F3)


The fact of a number of words, phrases, and clauses from Jonah’s prayer (or psalm) resembling or corresponding rather closely to similar expressions in the Book of Psalms is a big point of contention to some. It is true that a number of parallels exist:(F4)

Jonah 2 Psalms
Jonah 2:3 bPsalms 18:7; Psalms 120:1
Jonah 2:4 bPsalms 18:6; Psalms 30:4
Jonah 2:5Psalms 42:8
Jonah 2:6Psalms 31:23; Psalms 5:8
Jonah 2:7Psalms 18:8; Psalms 69:2 f
Jonah 2:8Psalms 18:17; Psalms 30:4; Psalms 103:4
Jonah 2:9Psalms 142:4; Psalms 143:4; Psalms 18:7; Psalms 5:8
Jonah 2:10Psalms 88:3; Psalms 31:7; Psalms 26:7; Psalms 50:14; Psalms 50:23; Psalms 42:5; Psalms 116:7

All that is actually proved by these similarities is that Jonah was steeped in a thorough knowledge of the devotional language of God’s people. Keil was correct in his flat denial that Jonah’s prayer was in any way “compounded from passages in the Psalms.”(F5) Knobel and DeWette, as quoted by Keil, affirm that:

“Jonah’s prayer is the simple and natural utterance of a man versed in the holy Scripture and living in the Word of God, and is in perfect accordance with the prophet’s circumstances and the state of his mind.”(F6)

There are no quotations from the Psalms in Jonah’s words, but only the usage of certain words, phrases, etc., known to all faithful Hebrews.

“The words (in Jonah’s prayer) fit none (of the Psalms) well enough to conclude that they are specific quotations. More likely, many Psalms were in mind and freely paraphrased to fit the particular situation and in a manner which expressed Jonah’s appropriate emotions.”(F7)

Critics will have their way, however, and one of the strategies is to date all of the Psalms at a point long after Jonah lived, but we shall not play games with dating Old Testament Scriptures. If the Psalms are later than Jonah, then the Psalmist was influenced by the Prophet! And, as Deane said, “It is a matter of controversy, incapable of settlement, whether Jonah or the Psalmist is the original!”(F8)

Concerning the date of the Psalms, certainly,

“The most of these had then (in the times of Jonah) been written, and, as the Church Psalter, would be familiar to a prophet of God… and so in all times, all over the world, the saintly praise and pray `in the words of David.’“(F9)

The nobility and spiritual import of this matchless psalm-prayer were commented upon by Blaikie:

“Only tell us what a man says into the secret ear of God and you have told us all that is in his heart, have revealed what microscope could not detect, not scalpel lay bare… It shows Jonah at bottom, a regenerate and saintly man.”(F10)


Its brevity. One of the startling things about this remarkable utterance on the part of Jonah is the brevity of it, being easily read in less than sixty seconds! Hillis thought this suggested that Jonah “did not live long inside the fish.”(F11) There is no certain way by which this question may be dogmatically resolved; and we shall leave it open. Many, along with Banks, have observed that, “Conservative Bible scholars believe that he died and point out that this best typifies what happened to Christ.”(F12)

The use of the past tense. According to Matthew Henry:

“This indicates that he (Jonah) afterward recollected the substance of it, and left it upon record. He reflects upon the workings of his heart toward God when he was in his distress and danger, and the conflict that was then in his breast between faith and sense, between hope and fear.”(F13)


This psalm-prayer is alleged by some to be an ill-fitting addition to the narrative, thus compromising the unity of the Book of Jonah, and leading to the allegation that this chapter is not a part of the original record. This is false. As Young pointed out, “If Jonah 2:2-9 be removed, the symmetry of the book is most certainly destroyed.”(F14) Besides that, there is not the slightest historical or textual evidence that the 2nd chapter of this book is any less original than the rest of it. All of the objections to this prayer-psalm disappear upon a careful examination of the text itself.

Verse 2

“I called by reason of my affliction unto Jehovah, And he answered me; Out of the belly of Sheol cried I, And thou heardest my voice.”

This marvelous prayer which God heard and answered was not offered from any formal position such as kneeling, standing, etc. “The Bible shows by example that men may pray in any posture.”(F15) The Scriptures show that men prayed kneeling (1 Kings 8:54), standing (Nehemiah 9:5, Luke 18:13), bowing down on the earth with face between the knees (1 Kings 18:42), lying in a sickbed and turning the face to the wall (2 Kings 20:2), failing prostrate upon the ground (Matthew 26:39), and walking along or standing in public (John 11:41-42; John 12:28 f).

This prayer is totally unsuitable for an allegory, “And, as no one could have known its substance except Jonah, we have here an argument for his authorship of the book.”(F16)

“Out of the belly of Sheol” “Sheol means netherworld, or underworld, and is equivalent to Hades in the New Testament.”(F17) “It is the regular word in Semitic literature for the realm of the dead.”(F18) De Haan made a strong argument from this that Jonah actually died, basing it upon the contrast between the belly of the fish and the belly of Sheol, in which different words were used by the Holy Spirit;(F19) but it may very well be that Jonah meant, “That the Lord had snatched him from the Jaws of death, delivering him before the gates of Sheol closed upon him.”(F20) We remain uncertain whether or not Jonah actually died and was raised up from death. There was no problem at all for the Lord either way. It appears to this writer that the argument from the antitype to the effect that since Christ actually died, the type, Jonah, also, in all likelihood died, is more convincing than the argument from the use of Sheol in this passage; but as Banks pointed out “A type should never be unduly pressed; and there is no one else in the Bible who, having been brought to life again, gives a detailed account of his experience in death.”(F21)

Verse 3

“For thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas, And the flood was round about me; All thy waves and thy billows passed over me.”

“Thou didst cast me” Jonah here attributed to God the action of the mariners who cast him overboard, because it was upon God’s command as given through Jonah that they did this.

“And the flood was round about me” The Hebrew word here for flood means literally river.

“This may mean “the current” as in Psalms 24:2, which in the Mediterranean sea flows west to east, and, impinging on the Syrian coast, turns north; or it may have reference to the notion familiar to us in Homer, which regarded the ocean as a river.”(F22)

“Thy waves and thy billows” Thus Jonah acknowledged God’s hand in the dreadful punishment he received.

Verse 4

“And I said, I am cast out from before thine eyes; Yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.”

Apparently, Jonah, at the instant indicated by these words, had already been rescued from drowning by the great fish, encouraging him to believe that he would yet be spared alive to worship God in Jerusalem. Thus, in the last clause here, he envisions a deliverance which had not at that moment come to pass; but which the inspired prophet already considered as a reality.

“I will look again toward thy holy temple” “Thus, Jerusalem was not yet destroyed, for the temple was still standing.”(F23) Now the Babylonian army had completed the destruction of the temple in 586 B.C., after a siege of 18 months, consequent upon Zedekiah’s rebellion.”(F24) However, the moral and spiritual ruin of the temple had occurred much earlier under Rehoboam, Abijah, and Asa, in whose reigns the golden treasures of the temple had been robbed and all kinds of abominations introduced into its services,(F25) leaving us with the certainty that such an affectionate mention of the temple as that which occurs here could not have been made by a prophet like Jonah except about the approximate time we have assigned as the date of this book. This mention of the temple as still standing completely explodes the efforts to date this in the fifth century or in postexilic times. The critics know this, of course; so they insist that Jonah was not actually referring to the temple in Jerusalem, but to God’s eternal temple in heaven! However, the dual mention of God’s “holy temple” both here and in Jonah 2:7, below, has its most simple and obvious meanings a plain reference to the temple of Solomon then standing in Jerusalem. Denials of this are invariably grounded in a determination to deny the whole prophecy by late dating it.

Verse 5

“The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; The deep was round about me; The weeds were wrapped about my head.”

“Even to the soul” “The meaning is that the waters so press in that life itself is threatened.”(F26)

“The weeds were wrapped about my head” Some of the critics have really hooted at this, screaming that “weeds do not grow in a great fish’s belly!”(F27) Indeed, indeed! Neither did Jonah “grow in the belly of the big fish,” but there he was; and, of course, both Jonah and the sea weed got there in the same swallow. It is nothing short of amazing how commentators are intimidated by blatant assertion, risking all kinds of bizarre guesses as their answer to this phantom objection. Livingston supposed that, “Jonah had become entangled with other material within the fish”;(F28) and thought that maybe Jonah mistook “the whale’s viscera!”(F29) and merely thought it was seaweed! Blair stated the truth:

“Doubtless the fish had swallowed not only Jonah but considerable seaweed as well. There was Jonah floundering in the entangling mass, all adding to the confusion of his distressing dilemma.”(F30)

It seems hardly credible that intelligent men could find any kind of objection to this mention of the seaweed. This writer has seen accumulations of this weed so thick that one could almost be tempted to try walking on them in the open sea; and, especially off the coast of Nova Scotia, and following a storm, the accumulations of this material are very extensive. Remember that Jonah and his co-sailors were in a storm; and the presence of masses of seaweed at the place where Jonah was cast overboard would have made it absolutely impossible for a big fish to swallow him without taking on a substantial load of the seaweed at the same time, which, of course, is evidently what happened. Deane attempted an explanation of it by suggesting that, “Jonah sank to the bottom before he was swallowed by the fish.”(F31) Well, maybe he did; but none of this type of explanation is necessary. If the fish swallowed Jonah in three seconds after he hit the water, he would still have swallowed a lot of seaweed also. Dummelow understood the situation perfectly when he wrote, “Floating seaweed entangles him as he sinks.”(F32)

Verse 6

“I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed upon me forever; Yet hast thou brought up my life from the Pit, O Jehovah my God.”

“Bottoms of the mountains” The roots or foundations of earth’s mountains lie far beneath the sea, and this expression reveals the apparent hopelessness of Jonah’s situation.

“Earth with its bars closed upon me forever”

“The thought is that as he sinks he goes far from the earth, the home of the living, and its doors are closed and barred against him forever. No return to the light and sunshine seems possible.”(F33)

Verse 7

“When my soul fainted within me, I remembered Jehovah; and my prayer came in unto thee, into thy holy temple.”

See under Jonah 2:4 for the significance of this reference to the temple in Jerusalem as still standing. There is no dependability whatever in denials that this is a reference to that temple. Griffiths asserted that, “This is probably not the literal Jerusalem temple”;(F34) but that is the only temple that any of the Jews of that era knew. As Blaikie put it:

“Jonah thinks of the temple (the literal temple), the sacred ark, the mercy seat, the over-shadowing cherubim, the promise of Moses: “There will I meet with you, and I will commune with you from above the mercy seat.”(F35)

At first thought, it appears that Jonah was a bit late remembering God; but remember him he did and therefore received the blessing.

Verse 8

“They that regard lying vanities Forsake their own mercy.”

The prophet’s deep-seated hatred of idolatry appears in this. He had just observed the distressed mariners each appealing to his god; but, as yet, Jonah’s attitude toward them would appear to be colored by that detestation in which all the Jews held other peoples. That this was the case appears in Jonah’s displeasure when the Ninevites actually repented and were spared by the Lord.

“Lying vanities” Dummelow pointed out that this is in every way the equivalent of “idol gods”(F36) (Deuteronomy 32:21). The word “vanity” means literally “something evanescent and worthless.”(F37) It exemplifies a strange trait of human nature that Jonah who himself was not at that time out of danger should nevertheless have uttered these derogatory remarks about the pagan sailors (who seem to be in his thoughts), even addressing such remarks to God himself! Despite the fair and even magnanimous actions of the sailors toward himself, Jonah appears in this passage not to have entertained any generous thoughts concerning them.

Banks pointed out the relevance of the teaching against idolatry in this verse by affirming its relevance to our own times:

“We do not bow and scrape before heathen images, but we are also idolaters. Not in the crude way of Jonah’s time, but in a more subtle, sophisticated, and therefore a more sinister way. We have merely made some substitutions. In the place of Ashtaroth, Baal, Chemosh, Dagon, Diana, Isis, Mammon, Molech and Nebo we have put alcohol, ambition, automobiles, greed, Hollywood, jazz, money, nicotine, pleasure, science, sports and sex. Moreover, many in “Christian” America classify themselves as Buddhists, Muslims, etc.; and hundreds of millions in other lands still worship the heathen gods.”(F38)

Verse 9

“But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation is of Jehovah.”

“I will sacrifice” These are bold words indeed for one in the precarious situation of Jonah at the time he uttered this promise; and Deane must surely be correct in pointing out that “The Hebrew words here denote rather, `I would fain sacrifice,’ as it depended not on him but upon God whether or not he would be able to worship again in the Holy Land.”(F39)

Livingston commented that, “The true act of sacrifice is an expression of gratitude to God, rather than an effort to appease His wrath.”(F40) However, the experience through which Jonah had so immediately lived surely indicates that penalties exacted for sin and disobedience are directly connected with the appeasement of the wrath of God, as when Jonah’s being cast overboard was followed by the great calm. Thus, there is an element of propitiation, and not merely expiation alone, both in the experience of Jonah the type, and in the greater wonder of the atoning death of the Christ upon Calvary.

Verse 10

“And Jehovah spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.”

“Jonah’s deliverance is the only pleasant usage of the word vomit in the whole Bible.”(F41) We do not know, of course, exactly where Jonah was deposited on dry land; but Josephus stated that it was upon the shore of the Euxine sea.(F42) If that was true, the great fish passed through the Dardenelles before depositing him, thus following the strong current which is mentioned in Jonah’s prayer. Some have quibbled about how Jonah got his information about being in the fish “three days and three nights”; and we cannot give a positive answer to that either; however, as an inspired prophet of God he accurately foretold the calm that would follow his being thrown overboard; and it appears that this was a far more wonderful knowledge than that of the exact time he was inside the fish. We may therefore trust the holy record implicitly.

An ancient poem attributed to Tertullian describes Jonah’s deliverance thus:

“His sails… the intestines of a fish; Himself shut in by waters, yet untouched;
In the sea’s heart, and yet beyond its reach;
Mid wrecks of fleets
Half eaten, and men’s carcasses dissolved
In putrid disintegrity: in life
Learning the process of his death; but still-
To be a sign hereafter of the Lord,
To witness was he in his very self,
Not of destruction, but of death’s repulse!”(F43)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Jonah 2". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/jonah-2.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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