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Jonah’s Prayers and Ours

When deciding to blog through Jonah, it is easy to forget about Jonah 2. The chapter is a beautiful, poetic version of the prayer Jonah prayed while he was in the belly of the fish.

I remember when we read and translated Jonah in my Hebrew class, one thing became very clear: No one knows what the heck parts of Jonah two mean. Seriously. And those people who talk about how you should read one translation instead of another because it is ‘more literal’ have no idea what they are talking about (A ‘literal’ translation of Jonah 2 would say things like, “The earth wrapped its bars around me.”). You have the right to disregard them and feel comfortable with whatever translation you have.

Because it is hard to translate, it is hard to know exactly what to say about it. I thought about using Jonah 2 as a chance to talk about how Jonah is a picture of Jesus’ resurrection.

Then I realized I did that already.

So I’m stuck. I gotta talk about Jonah 2. And, despite all the trouble understanding everything in the chapter one thing rings clear.

Jonah knew God responded to prayers.

He was so sure that he made a vow that he would have to repay, even while in the belly of a fish (2.9).

I love how the Hebrew poets prayed. They prayed with an overwhelming confidence that God would respond to their prayers. They had such faith in God’s response that they would often ‘sweeten the pot.’ They would promise to praise God publicly if he fulfilled their requests and saved their lives.

Psalm 6 is a good example of one of those prayers. The Psalmist sweetens the pot for God. He asks God to save his life, because people don’t praise God when they’re dead (Ps 6.5). It is as if he’s saying, “God you should save my life because it will result in you having more praise and glory.”

Psalm 30 is an example of how they would praise God after He answered their prayers. The poet clearly believes that God moved in response to his prayers, and that He is therefore entitled to praise and worship. As the psalmist promised, God is getting praise after saving his life.

Jonah did the same thing in Jonah 2. He made a vow to God. If God would save his life, Jonah would be indebted to God, owing him public praise.

You know what happens next? God does what Jonah asks (2.10).

Have you ever prayed this way? Have you ever prayed with such an expectation that God would answer that you could be accused of bargaining with Him? That is what Jonah does. That is what the Hebrew poets do.

We’re way too sophisticated to pray this way now. We have rules that govern God’s behavior. We would rather dissect God and develop systems of theology than pray. We prefer to come up with trite sayings like, “Prayer isn’t about changing God. It is about changing me.” That is much easier than the intellectual scandal we have to deal with if we actually believe God responds to our prayers.

Funny. It doesn’t seem that the Psalmists cared about that scandal. They prayed, hoping to change a lot more than their hearts. They hoped to change the course of history. They prayed, knowing that God was a God who responded to prayer. They prayed, believing that God would change their circumstances precisely because they prayed.

They had a reason to believe it. God had showed himself to be that way (Gen 18.22-33; Ex 32.1-14; 2 Kings 20.1-6). They read their Torah, and all over it they saw a God who responded to prayers, even changing his mind because His people prayed.

If you learn anything from Jonah 2, learn how to pray. Learn how to pray with expectation that God will move. Learn how to pray like the Hebrew poets, who would expect dramatic responses to their prayers.

I wouldn’t be a good preacher if I couldn’t boil this down to three points and a poem. Well, I’ll do everything but the poem: Pray to God. Expect changes. Praise him publicly. There’s the formula. Go at it.

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