Saved from the Deep
Jonah 2 tells of God’s prophet being swallowed by a whale (or great fish) after disobeying the Lord’s command. This chapter is not precisely the prophet’s prayer, but rather his reflection on it afterwards. It begins, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me” (Jon. 2:1). With seaweed wrapped around his head—one can only imagine the inside of a whale!—he prayed, and Jonah recalls, “you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God” (Jon. 2:6). The key to this verse is to realize that Jonah was still inside the great fish; literally speaking, he had not yet been “brought up” from the deep.
So to what does he refer? The clear answer is that he is talking about God’s deliverance from his unbelief and despair. He says, “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you” (Jon. 2:7). How did Jonah know that his prayer was answered, when he was still deep in the ocean inside the whale? Because he “remembered the Lord.”
Perhaps you have likewise been in despair and distress, and when you prayed you realized that prayer itself is proof that God has not abandoned you. Dear friends, when you remember the Lord and pray, it is only because God is with you to uphold your spirit in order to pray. Prayer, then, is itself proof that God is saving us.
But why would God be so ready to hear our prayers, especially if we have been like Jonah, who had hardly been a paragon of faith? He answers that his prayer came “into your holy temple” (Jon. 2:7). The temple was the place where the atoning sacrifices were offered. To leap forward from Jonah to the Gospels, we understand that God heard Jonah’s prayer because Jesus was going to die for his sins. We, too, can know that our prayers are heard if offered in Jesus’ name; his atoning blood has secured our acceptance into the love and grace of the Father.
Finally, Jonah starts praising God even before he is released from his cold and wet prison. He realizes how blessed he is to have a God who answers prayer, and thinks with compassion on those who cannot pray: “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (Jon. 2:8). Simply by being able to pray, he wants to give thanks to God, before the results of his COVID-19 test have been learned or before the medicines have taken effect: “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you” (Jon. 2:9).
It was this experience that made Jonah into the evangelist God had wanted him to be all along. We may only wonder what transformation God is intending for us through the trial we now face. But, with Jonah, we know we have a message to share with others about the sovereign grace of a redeeming God. His final words form both his conviction and his testimony: “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jon. 2:9).
Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, South Carolina. He is a council member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology, and coeditor of the Reformed Expository Commentary series.
"Calvin's Four Rules of Prayer" by Carlton Wynne
"Faith, Feelings, and Facts" by Patrick Ramsey
Jonah and Micah (Reformed Expository Commentary) by Richard D. Phillips
The Prayer of Our Lord by Philip Graham Ryken
A Method for Prayer by Matthew Henry, ed. by J. Ligon Duncan