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the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14
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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 2

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-10


Jonah 2:1-10

AT this point in the tale appears the Great Fish. "And Jehovah prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights."

After the very natural story which we have followed, this verse obtrudes itself with a shock of unreality and grotesqueness. What an anticlimax! say some; what a clumsy intrusion! So it is if Jonah be taken as an individual. But if we keep in mind that he stands here, not for himself, but for his nation, the difficulty and the grotesqueness disappear. It is Israel’s ill-will to the heathen, Israel’s refusal of her mission, Israel’s embarkation on the stormy sea of the world’s politics, which we have had described as Jonah’s. Upon her flight from God’s will there followed her Exile, and from her Exile, which was for a set period, she came back to her own land, a people still, and still God’s servant to the heathen. How was the author to express this national death and resurrection? In conformity with the popular language of his time, he had described Israel’s turning from God’s will by her embarkation on a stormy sea, always the symbol of the prophets for the tossing heathen world that was ready to engulf her; and now to express her exile and return he sought metaphors in the same rich poetry of the popular imagination.

To the Israelite who watched from his hills that stormy coast on which the waves hardly ever cease to break in their impotent restlessness, the sea was a symbol of arrogance and futile defiance to the will of God. The popular mythology of the Semites had filled it with turbulent monsters, snakes, and dragons who wallowed like its own waves, helpless against the bounds set to them, or rose to wage war against the gods in heaven and the great lights which they had created; but a god slays them and casts their carcasses for meat and drink to the thirsty people of the desert. It is a symbol of the perpetual war between light and darkness; the dragons are the clouds, the slayer the sun. A variant form, which approaches closely to that of Jonah’s great fish, is still found in Palestine. In May, 1891, I witnessed at Hasbeya, on the western skirts of Hermon, an eclipse of the moon.

When the shadow began to creep across her disc there rose from the village a hideous din of drums, metal pots, and planks of wood beaten together; guns were fired, and there was much shouting. I was told that this was done to terrify the great fish which was swallowing the moon, and to make him disgorge her. Now these purely natural myths were applied by the prophets and poets of the Old Testament to the illustration, not only of Jehovah’s sovereignty over the storm and the night, but of His conquest of the heathen powers who had enslaved His people. Isaiah had heard in the sea the confusion and rage of the peoples against the bulwark which Jehovah set around Israel, {Isaiah 17:12-14} but it is chiefly from the time of the Exile onward that the myths themselves, with their cruel monsters and the prey of these, are applied to the great heathen powers and their captive, Israel. One prophet explicitly describes the Exile of Israel as the swallowing of the nation by the monster, the Babylonian tyrant, whom God forces at last to disgorge his prey. Israel says: {Jeremiah 51:34} "Nebuchadrezzar the king of Babylon hath devoured me and crushed me, he hath swallowed me up like the Dragon, filling his belly, from my delights he hath cast me out." But Jehovah replies: {Jeremiah 51:44-45} "I will punish Bel in Babylon, and I will bring out of his mouth that which he hath swallowed My people, go ye out of the midst of her."

It has been justly remarked by Canon Cheyne that this passage may be considered as the intervening link between the original form of the myth and the application of it made in the story of Jonah. To this the objection might be offered that in the story of Jonah "the great fish" is not actually represented as the means of the prophet’s temporary destruction, like the monster in Jeremiah 51:1-64, but rather as the vessel of his deliverance. This is true, yet it only means that our author has still further adapted the very plastic material offered him by this much-transformed myth. But we do not depend for our proof upon the comparison of a single passage. Let the student of the Book of Jonah read carefully the many passages of the Old Testament, in which the sea or its monsters rage in vain against Jehovah, or are harnessed and led about by Him; or still more those passages in which His conquest of these monsters is made to figure His conquest of the heathen powers-and the conclusion will appear irresistible that the story of the "great fish" and of Jonah the type of Israel is drawn from the same source. Such a solution of the problem has one great advantage. It relieves us of the grotesqueness which attaches to the literal conception of the story, and of the necessity of those painful efforts for accounting for a miracle which have distorted the common-sense and even the orthodoxy of so many commentators of the book. We are dealing, let us remember, with poetry-a poetry inspired by one of the most sublime truths of the Old Testament, but whose figures are drawn from the legends and myths of the people to whom it is addressed. To treat this as prose is not only to sin against the commonsense which God has given us, but against the simple and obvious intention of the author. It is blindness both to reason and to Scripture.

These views are confirmed by an examination of the Psalm or Prayer which is put into Jonah’s mouth while he is yet in the fish. We have already seen what grounds there are for believing that the Psalm belongs to the author’s own plan, and from the beginning appeared just where it does now. But we may also point out how, in consistence with its context, this is a Psalm, not of an individual Israelite, but of the nation as a whole. It is largely drawn from the national liturgy. It is full of cries which we know, though they are expressed in the singular number, to have been used of the whole people, or at least of that pious portion of them, who were Israel indeed. True that in the original portion of the Psalm, and by far its most beautiful verses, we seem to have the description of a drowning man swept to the bottom of the sea. But even here, the colossal scenery and the magnificent hyperbole of the language suit not the experience of an individual, but the extremities of that vast gulf of exile into which a whole nation was plunged. It is a nation’s carcass which rolls upon those infernal tides that swirl among the roots of mountains and behind the barred gates of earth. Finally, Jonah 2:9-10 are obviously a contrast, not between the individual prophet and the heathen, but between the true Israel, who in exile preserve their loyalty to Jehovah, and those Jews who, forsaking their "covenant-love," lapse to idolatry. We find many parallels to this in exilic and post-exilic literature.

"And Jonah prayed to Jehovah his God from the belly of the fish, and said:"-

"I cried out of my anguish to Jehovah, and He answered me; From the belly of Inferno I sought help-Thou heardest my voice. For Thou hadst cast me into the depth, to the heart of the seas, and the flood rolled around me; All Thy breakers and billows went over me. Then I said I am hurled from Thy sight: shall I ever again look towards Thy holy temple? Waters enwrapped me to the soul; the Deep rolled around me";

"The tangle was bound about my head. I was gone down to the roots of the hills; Earth and her bars were behind me forever. But Thou broughtest my life up from destruction, Jehovah my God! When my soul fainted upon me, I remembered Jehovah, And my prayer came in unto Thee, to Thy holy temple. They that observe the idols of vanity, They forsake their covenant-love. But to the sound of praise I will sacrifice to Thee; What I have vowed I will perform. Salvation is Jehovah’s."

"And Jehovah spake to the fish, and it threw up Jonah on the dry land."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jonah 2". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/jonah-2.html.
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