Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly, and said, I cried by reason of mine affliction unto the Lord, and he heard me; out of the belly of hell cried I, and thou heardest my voice. For thou hadst cast me into the deep, in the midst of the seas; and the floods compassed me about: all thy billows and thy waves passed over me. Then I said, I am cast out of thy sight: yet I will look again toward thy holy temple. The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottoms of the mountain; the earth with her bars was about me for ever: yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God. When my soul fainted within me I remembered the Lord: and my prayer came in unto thee, into thine holy temple. They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy. But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord. And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

Jonah 2:1-10

In Jonah 2:1 and for the first time in the book, God is called Jonah’s God: “Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord his God out of the fish’s belly.” Even when finally confronted by the sailors in the middle of the great storm God sent, Jonah had only spoken of God as “the Lord, the God of heaven.” He had not confessed any love for God but only that he feared God. Jonah himself calls God his God in verse 6, “yet hast thou brought up my life from corruption, O Lord my God.”

We know that by election and by the promised sacrifice of Christ, as well as by the work of the Holy Spirit, Jonah was one of God’s children and God his God but, having rejected God’s commission and having attempted to forsake God, that was not what he experienced. Having disobeyed God, he tasted something of the consequences of disobedience and, having forsaken God, Jonah learned something of what it is like to be forsaken of Him.

Disobedience cannot find any comfort in God or experience the lovingkindness of God. David, having sinned, says: “When I kept silence, my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me: my moisture is turned into the drought of summer” (Ps. 32:3, 4); and “Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit” (Ps. 51:11, 12). John says: “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (I John 1:6). Living disobediently, we experience God’s hatred of sin and His anger with us.

The Canons of Dordt sum up the teaching of the Word: “By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor, for a time, until on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them” (V.5). Such are the consequences of unrepented sin.

This is the first theme of Jonah’s prayer. He speaks not only of the horror of being thrown into the sea and drowning, but also of the horror of being separated from God. He mentions not only the belly of the fish, but also the belly of hell. He talks about God’s waves and billows, not only the waves of the sea but also of God’s anger (cf. Ps. 42:7). He was, he says, cast into the deep, but it made him say that he was cast out of God’s sight: the waters compassed not only his body but his soul. Still in the belly of the fish with no hope of rescue, he confessed that God had already rescued his life from corruption.

It needs emphasis that a believer can suffer the consequences of his sin, not only in suffering physical consequences such as health problems that are the result of drunkenness or sexual immorality, but also in suffering spiritually. The great Calvinist and biblical doctrine of perseverance does not mean that God’s grace preserves His people from all the consequences of their sin. They cannot perish but they can suffer both physically and spiritually, and suffer a great deal when they fall into sin. Witness David’s loss of a child and his bringing the Angel of judgment on Israel, or Peter’s pangs of conscience, his tears, and his reluctance to say that he loved Jesus.

The child of God can, in suffering the consequences of his sin, find himself “in the belly of hell,” tasting something of the horror of being away from God and from His holy temple, for that is the real horror of hell: “to live apart from God is death.” The writer of Psalm 116 says: “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow” (v. 3). That was Jonah’s experience and it is, sadly, sometimes ours also, the result of our own folly and sin.

There are those who deny that the word Sheol (translated “hell” in Jonah 2:2) ever means hell. Many of the modern Bible versions either do not translate the word (NKJV, ESV, NASB) or translate it differently. The New International Version, for example, translates the word in Jonah 2:2 as “the realm of the dead.” This is a concession to the idea that the people of God in the Old Testament knew nothing either of heaven or hell, but believed only in a “realm of the dead,” a place like the Roman Catholic Limbo. It is also a concession to the recent tendency among evangelicals to deny eternal suffering and a place of eternal suffering.

The word can be variously translated, but there are passages in the Old Testament where the word must be translated “hell.” One of them is Psalm 16:10, “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” That verse is quoted in the New Testament in Acts 2:27 and the Greek word used there always refers to the place of eternal punishment. Here in Jonah 2:2 it makes no sense to translate the word as “grave” or as “realm of the dead.” Indeed, Jonah 2:6 uses another word that is often a name for hell in the Old Testament. The word is translated “corruption” in Jonah, but is often translated as “pit” (Job 33:18ff.; Ps. 28:1; Is. 14:15ff.). Jonah experienced something of the terrors of hell.

This is the intent of his words, “the earth with her bars was about me for ever” (v. 6). He felt the pit as a prison to which he was confined by the just judgment of God, with the land of the living barred to him forever. This was not only the result of nearly drowning and being swallowed by the fish, but was far more horrible than either, for not only was he in danger of dying but his soul fainted within him (v. 7).

All this leads to his acknowledgment in verse 8 that he had observed lying vanities and forsaken his own mercy. True, he states that as a general principle, but for him it was a very personal matter. Like ourselves, he had always confessed that idolatry, serving lying vanities, was sin and a repudiation of the one, true God. He had preached that in Israel, but now he had discovered that it was possible for a child of God to fall into the sin of idolatry and to forsake the God of all mercy. He now knew better than ever before that “they that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.”

Lying vanities are more often than not a reference to idols in Scripture (Deut. 32:21; Jer. 14:22; Acts 14:15). Jonah was guilty of serving lying vanities when, attempting to flee from God, he thought that he could escape his commission and the Word of God to him by leaving the land of Israel. He was guilty of idolatry in thinking that the mercy of God could not be wider than the land of Israel. He was as much an idolater as the heathen sailors before their salvation in thinking that he could sin against God with impunity.

He had done that as one who knew, at least in theory, the mercy of God to Israel through many generations, in taking them as His own, in delivering them from bondage, in giving them the promised land, and in forgiving their sin uncounted times. He had done that as one who had himself been shown mercy in that he was in Israel part of the remnant according to election, the seven thousand who did not bow to Baal or worship at the golden calves. He had indeed forsaken his own mercy.

So do we all when, though believers and children of God, we wander from the right way, fall into sin, and refuse to acknowledge our wrong. We forsake our own mercy, the pity and compassion that God shows to sinners when He saves them by His grace and makes them His own. In doing that we do also as Jonah did and serve lying vanities. We set up and serve gods who are not the great God, making idols of pleasure, wealth, sexual perversities, careers, feelings, family, work, hobbies, whatever promises us satisfaction. And so we forsake God and sink spiritually under the waves and billows of His anger against our sins, even to the point where we say, “I am cast out of thy presence.” We are no less foolish than Jonah.

As the Canons say, “But God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people, even in their melancholy falls; nor suffers them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption, and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit sins unto death; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction” (V.6). His eternal love, the blood of Christ, and the work of the Spirit guarantee our rescue, as they did Jonah’s. God cannot deny Himself, no more than He can deny the saving death of His Son or the sovereign operations of the Spirit.

Jonah’s prayer is not only a recognition of his sin but also his repentance. He speaks of looking again to God’s holy temple (v. 4), of remembering God (v. 7), and acknowledges that he had served lying vanities and forsaken his mercy. That is repentance! Repentance is always an acknowledgment of sin (Ps. 51:3) and a turning from sin to God.

God’s preserving grace is evident in many ways in Jonah’s prayer and not just in his repentance and renewed trust in God. The storm and the fish were prepared by grace and swallowed Jonah that he might not perish in his sin. Jonah’s near-death experience was used by God to bring him to his spiritual senses. His three days in the fish’s belly was God’s mercy, giving him time to reflect and repent. Especially his experience of hell and of being separated from God were used for his salvation. God uses any necessary means to bring His own back to Himself, but especially their experience of the spiritual consequences of sin. So keenly do they begin to feel the horror of being separated from God that when their sin is finally discovered, it is, in spite of their shame and sorrow, a relief to them that they no longer need to try to hide their sin.

The story of Jonah, too, is a reminder that repentance is a gift of God, purchased by the blood of Christ and worked by the Spirit of Christ. Never have any tears been shed for sin that were not purchased by blood sacrifice! Never will anyone repent of any sin except it be given him! Jonah acknowledged that in his confession that salvation is of the Lord. His own repentance and salvation were entirely of the Lord, for without God’s grace he would have been in Tarshish instead of in the place of repentance, though that was a fish’s belly; far better to be there than in Tarshish where he would never again hear the name of God.

So, for the first time in the history recorded here Jonah prays. He had not prayed when sent to Nineveh, nor when fleeing from the Lord, nor in the storm, nor when wakened by the sailors, not even when thrown into the sea. As Fairbairn says, “in nothing does backsliding more readily discover itself than in the loss of familiarity with Heaven; consciousness of sin excludes nearness and freedom of communion…he has wandered as a lost child, but says, ‘I will arise and go to my Father.’” 1

Surely Jonah’s prayer was on his part an act of desperation, but it was also proof of what the Canons say in Head V, Article 7: “For…in these falls He preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing, or being totally lost; and again, by His Word and Spirit, certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.”

In the confidence that salvation is of the Lord, Jonah could pray to God believing that the Lord was still his God (v. 1). That he could still pray and dared to pray was proof of God’s grace. That he had the assurance his prayer was heard from the fish’s belly was sovereign, saving grace (vv. 3, 7). Even his acknowledgment that God had cast him into the deep (v. 4) was a recognition of God’s grace to him, an erring and wandering sinner. He had seen in his “affliction” the saving grace of God and, if God was for him in afflicting him, what could possibly be against him?

1 Patrick Fairbairn, Jonah: His Life, Character and Mission (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1964), 69.