Jonah’s Ridiculously Serious Song
So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
It seems like most people have an opinion about when Saturday Night Live was at its peak. For some people it was the Will Ferrell era. For others the era of Adam Sander and Chris Farley. Still for others it will never top the early years of Chevy Chase or Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray.
But we all know when SNL was at its peak… whenever Steve Martin was hosting. I mean, Theodoric of York… the Medieval Barber… you come in for a neat trim and a nice bleeding? Any one? You gotta see it. It’s closest I’ve ever seen to SNL approaching Monty Python-kind-of-funny. Because Monty Python—we can all agree—that’s where the funny this.
Well, if there’s a book of the Bible that most resembles a Monty Python Sketch or something like Saturday Night Live, it’s the book of Jonah. Jonah is full of carefully crafted silliness. It’s a funny story.
It started last week as we would expect: The word of the LORD—of Yahweh—comes to the prophet… to Jonah son of Amittai. Now Jonah son of Amittai is mentioned in 2 Kings 14 (v25), so we know—at bottom—we’re talking about a figure rooted in history. But the story being told about Jonah here in the middle of The Book of the Twelve—what we often call the “Minor Prophets”—this is a wild story. Everything is over-the-top. Everyone is acting weird. Nobody is behaving the way they should.
The Word of the Yahweh comes to the prophet of Yahweh who immediately runs away from Yahweh. He ends up meeting pagan sailors don’t swear like sailors—in fact, they’re swearing allegiance to Yahweh before they depart the story. They’re making vows to the God of Israel (1v16).
Even the ship itself is over-the-top. Most translations say the ship “threatened to” or “was about to” break apart. But—in Hebrew—the word used about the ship is “to think.” It’s a word almost always used for something with a brain. It’s a bizarre expression in Hebrew: the ship is thinking—considering—making up its mind about breaking apart.
So the total effect—when you read Jonah chapter one—is wild: Jonah runs from Yahweh, so Yahweh hurls (tuwls) a storm onto the sea (1v4)… so the sailors start hurling (tuwl-ing) cargo off this boat trying to make up its mind. It’s like everything is awake—sailors are scrambling, ship is thinking. Everything in the story is awake to God except the prophet of God.
Jonah is asleep in the (another weird word) “depths” of the ship. He had been told to “arise” (1v2)—to get up—and go to Nineveh—those hateful Assyrians, those trained terrorists. We’re told that he rises but then he yarads—he descends—to Joppa (1v3). And then he yarads into the ship (1v3). And finally we’re told that Jonah had yarad-ed into the “depths” of the ship asleep. And when he finally is shaken awake (1v6) and asked about everything happening, he throws his hands up and says: “You should just go ahead and tuwl me—hurl me—into the sea” (1v12).
It’s an intricate—meticulously crafted—story. It’s a funny story. But what is Jonah 2 doing in it?
Next week, in chapter 3, the absurdity will continue when Jonah delivers a five-word-sermon to Nineveh and causes a repentance stampede. The king of Nineveh is going to decree that even the livestock and cattle need to fast from food and need to be dressed in sackcloth. (I kid you not, look it up… chapter 3, verse 7-8.)
And then the silly keeps going in chapter 4—in the story’s surreal, haunting ending—where we’ll see God grow some sort of tree or leafy plant to give shade to Jonah. But then God sends some kind of grub—a worm, a maggot—to devour the plant. And then Jonah is gonna get suicidal about it. About a plant.
It’s all wild—all over-the-top. It’s all quite silly. But as we’re going to keep seeing: There’s serious substance behind Jonah’s silly story. Jonah is telling a very serious story in a very silly way.
When we see something modern doing this, we call it “satire.” We’ve all seen it… when you’re watching something very silly—Monty Python or Saturday Night Live—but we know there’s a serious substance behind the silliness. The silliness is saying something serious.
Every chapter of this short book has a silly over-the-top-ness on the surface… except for Jonah 2. Aside from the fact that he’s singing this prayer from the stomach of a giant fish (and let’s be honest, that is a bit silly), Jonah 2 looks like a straight-faced psalm. What’s going on here?
Let’s read it.
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,
“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.
For 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.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
at 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.
When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
(Jonah 2, ESV)
Whenever I’ve read Jonah, this song—just stuck into the story—has seemed so strange. I mean it sounds like any old psalm, doesn’t it? When you look at it—like, on the page—it just looks like one. It looks like a serious song of devotion inserted here in the middle of a silly story. Why is it here? The rest of the book is so over-the-top, a psalm in the middle looks out of place.
But I’m convinced it’s actually exactly where it’s supposed to be. And I’m convinced it’s just like the rest of Jonah. Jonah 2 is a very silly song with very serious substance.
So let’s talk about the silliness, then we’ll talk about the seriousness, and then we’ll celebrate as we come to the table.
It doesn’t look silly… does it?
I like to understand the Bible. And the longer I sit with the Bible, the more I realize its intricacy and subtlety and sophistication. So we need to just name this: The Bible is genius literature. Christians trust it to be more, but it’s demonstrably not less.
What we have here in the middle of a very silly story is the equivalent of a Weird Al song. Weird Al takes a familiar tune—it’s carefully crafted—it sounds like a serious song everyone knows—and yet it’s actually absurd. So Weird Al turns Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”—a very familiar and famous song—into Eat It. He turns Coolio’s Gangster’s Paradise into Amish Paradise. It’s all super silly. The melody is familiar—we’re well acquainted with the rhymes, the rhythms, the movement of the song—but his music is meant to make you laugh.
Something similar is going on here.
“I’ve been cast into the deep….you cast me into the heart of the seas… waves and billows are passing over me.” These are familiar words from the psalms. “The waters closed in over me… the deep is surrounding me.” The images sound familiar because they are. It all sounds like a psalm.
Let’s get specific. There are literally a couple dozen examples that we could choose from… so let’s pick one. For example, it sounds like Psalm 69:
Save me, O God!
For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
Jonah 2 sounds serious—like the sacred songs we call “the psalms.” In fact, there’s almost nothing original in Jonah 2. It’s a meticulous mishmash—a carefully crafted grab bag—of lines and images from various other psalms. He’s in a dark season, but Jonah is singing like a bird—he’s singing praise songs.
But here these lyrics are utterly absurd.
Think about it. When David wrote lyrics like this in the midst of his trouble and heartache—the words are stunning. There’s nothing silly about it. We don’t know what Psalm 69 was about, other psalms we do. In other psalms David uses these types of images to process the guilt of grossly abusing his royal authority or the heartache of losing his newborn or the betrayal of his grown son wanting him dead. David uses an image like an ocean riptide—getting viciously sucked under the water—because it’s the only metaphor that can communicate the surprise, danger, and anxiety he is experiencing. And his lyrics—his words about sinking in the ocean—sounds beautiful in the psalms because they are metaphor.
Art works precisely because it’s not literal… it’s an image.
But when you use music to describe what is literally happening to you, that’s absurdity… not art. It would be like if Saturday Night Live borrowed lyrics from a song about experiencing guilt—about feeling guilty—I feel so guilty, in fact, that it feels like I’m being eaten alive. And then imagine SNL put those lyrics on the lips of someone being getting eaten by a tiger: “Being eaten alive is so awful, it’s like I’m being eaten alive.” Absurdity.
A song about sinking in the ocean sounds ridiculous right here because there’s no metaphor, no image, no art. Jonah has sunk in the ocean… and is singing about… sinking in the ocean. At first it was Jonah choosing to yarad—to go down. He went down to Jappa, down to the ship, down into the deep of the ship. At first it was his choice, but now (2v6) he’s lost control of the situation. He’s sinking—yarad-ing—going down—into the ocean depths.
There are seven watery references in this song—clustered in verses 2-3 and verses 5-6—and every reference has the effect of ladling more and more silliness onto what’s going on. By the time you get to the seaweed turban of verse 5—“seaweed wrapped around my head” (v5)—we’ve reached maximum levels of slapstick absurdity.
When Monty Python sings “I’m a Lumberjack”or SNL sings about being on a boat, they’re not wearing shirts that say, “Oh and—by the way—we’re being silly here.” Maybe people 2,500 years from now will think they were being serious, but—for all of us—the silliness is obvious. Jonah 2 is the serious words of the psalms turned very silly.
But there’s serious substance behind the silliness.
So now… THE SERIOUS.
I might feel differently about it in 10 years, but best I can tell right now, Jonah 2 seems to function like the Bible’s bright red, flashing warning against spiritual self-deception.
Did anyone notice what’s missing from Jonah’s song? “I’m sorry.” He never confesses. Jonah never repents. Jonah never apologizes. There are plenty of places he could have pulled lyrics from.
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.
(Psalm 32v5 )
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
There are plenty of places in Psalms he could have gone for repentance—for confession—for vulnerability—for “God I’m sorry”—but he doesn’t. And with as carefully as the book is constructed, this lack of “I’m sorry” is no accident.
Jonah singing like a particular kind of bird—a parrot. He’s parroting praise. And he’s avoiding confession. You can see a tight cluster of how his spirituality is deceiving him in the final stanzas in verses 8-9.
Verse 8- Jonah is looking down his nose on who devote themselves to idols. Those idolators—those nations—those pagan sailors—those worthless Ninevites—they’re awful. Umm… Jonah… can you hear yourself? Can you see yourself? Maybe you should—how would Jesus say it?—maybe remove the branch from your eye before you worry about the bit in their eye. Those sailors aren’t stuck in a fish stomach.
Verse 9- Jonah is saying that he’s going to sacrifice to Yahweh… with his “a voice of thanksgiving.” With my voice. With my words. With the service of my lips—with my lip service—I will sacrifice. Um… so far, Jonah, that’s what it’s all been. Lip service.
Middle of Verse 9- Jonah says, I’m making a promise—“what I vowed I will pay”—and he’s finally catching up with those pagan sailors at the end of chapter 1. He’s finally catching up with those people that Jonah writes off as idolators:
Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
Chapter 1 ended with vows, and now Chapter 2 is ending with vows. But at this point, your promises, Jonah, are just that: promises. The pagan sailors made literal sacrifices on the deck of their ship—it cost them something. It remains to be seen whether your vow is anything more than an empty promise.
End of Verse 9- And then Jonah ends his song by belting out the brilliant lyrics of Psalm 3: “Salvation belongs to Yahweh” (Psalm 3:8). The LORD—Yahweh—God of Israel—he is the owner of salvation—of deliverance, of rescue. Well… if salvation belongs to God, Jonah, can’t God give it to whomever he pleases? Jonah is in the belly of Sheol (v2)—the stomach of a fish—precisely because he doesn’t want God to be generous with salvation.
How do we know that? Well, when we get to chapter 4, Jonah himself finally tells us. Jonah 4 is the moment when all posturing and pretense and performance and parroting finally, finally, finally, stop.
When God saw what the Ninevites did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
(Jonah 3v10 – 4v3)
This is a perfect example of how brilliant the Bible is. We read Jonah 2 its surface, and we’re think: “Ok. This is weird. I guess Jonah kinda had a change of heart inside the fish.” But the Bible is meditation literature. This story is designed to be read and reread—thought about and talked about. It’s designed to be prayed through over a lifetime.
Jonah 4 is where we finally understand Jonah 2. This will be the moment of the story when all the silliness stops, when Jonah is out of the darkness, when Jonah is finally in the bright sunlight, and we finally see what’s going on in Jonah.
Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.
Finally we’re getting somewhere. THAT is what you needed to say. You’re full of hate. You hate those idolaters. It’s rotting you from the inside. You’re being eaten alive. That’s why you’re running, why you’re so angry, why you want to die. I’m sorry you’re hurting. You’ve got this festering ball of darkness within you… and you’re finally getting it out.
Jonah 2 shows us the tragic silliness of parroting praise from a rotting heart. God prefers our festering depths to our surface praise.
God always wants our depths, because God always wants us. He wants us—all of us—our hearts—our lives—no matter what condition we’re in. Because we are loved. Jonah is loved. Nineveh is loved. You are loved.
The love of God is chasing all of us down. At bottom of things, Jonah got confined to the darkness of a fish because Jonah was already confined in his own hatred. And God—well, God is doing whatever needs to be done for both Nineveh and Jonah to be saved. Nineveh needs to turn from its evil. And so does Jonah. He needs to finally get honest about his anger, about his despair, about his hate.
It takes Jonah a long time. It takes all of us a long time. Salvation belongs to God; and God is giving it to us. The questions is whether we’ll get real and receive it. How often do our prayers sound like Jonah 2? How often do our conversations with each other sound like Jonah 2? We talk about spiritual sounding things, we borrow phrases and lyrics right out of Scripture, but the source of our running—our pain and ugliness—never comes to light? Our anger. Our lust Our hate. Our fear.
Our hearts only get unchained when they get unearthed; God can only cleanse the heart that confesses.
Until we finally get real with God, we’re rotting in pit of darkness because we’ve got the pit of darkness rotting in us. We’re only cleansed when we confess.
This is what God is always inviting us into. A life where we’re not parroting what we’re supposed to say. A life where we’re not pretending to be what we’re supposed to be. A life that instead—before God, before others—says, “Here it is. This is what’s going on in me. This is what I’ve become. This is the hatred I have. Here is my sin. Here are my doubts.” It’s only when we say, “I’m rotting away,” that God says, “Now we’re getting somewhere.”
And the good news—the gospel—is that God is not far from us. He’s not far off—not aloof—not away in some high and lofty Temple (2v4 or 2v7). God is not calloused or cold or uncaring about our pit of darkness. No. The life and death and resurrection of Jesus tell us that the God of Love has gone to the deepest, darkest places. That the God of Love has suffered the worst for us and with us. And this God will never let us go.
God loves us too much to let us run away. God loves us too much to let us sleepwalk through life. Sometimes God will allow big scary to swallow us so that bigger Love can catch us. And make no mistake it will. Love will catch us—if need be, by giant fish or giant storm. Love will wait for us through our pretending and our performing. Love will save the universe one day. And Love will save us—will heal us—will rescue us—when we’re finally ready to get real.
When we finally get real, we’ll finally sing a new song.