4. A Pitiful Prayer

A Journey with Jonah – 4
“Jonah’s Pitiful Prayer”
Jonah 2:1-10, Luke 18:9-14

There are times when a prayer is the most beautiful expression of the human spirit.  There are other times it approaches the diabolical.  Prayer can be a “thing of beauty and a joy forever”, or it can be as ugly as sin because it is precisely that.

In a New Testament story told by Jesus, these two kinds of prayer are placed side by side.  It is the parable of the Pharisee & the Publican.  It is found in  Luke 18:9-14:

 Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

One prays. “I thank you God I am not like other people!”  the other prays, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Prayers in the Book of Jonah

The book of Jonah in suffused with prayers. in chapter one, the sailors are seen praying first to their own gods, (1:5) then calling Jonah to prayer instead of sleep (1:6), and the last we see of them is as they are praying to the God of Israel (14-16).

In chapter 3 we hear praying again.  This time from the entire city of Nineveh.  From the smallest and youngest to the oldest and greatest, fasting and prayers accompany their crying to God for mercy. (3:8)

The prayers of the sailors and the city dwellers are genuine. Like the prayer of the publican in the parable, they are prayers for mercy and for forgiveness.

But Jonah too is a man of prayer.  His prayers are interleaved with the prayers of the gentiles.  Let us look first at his prayer in chapter 4.

4:1-3.  But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

This could be called a suicidal prayer. It is an angry accusing prayer. This is not a nice prayer.  He is not the renegade prophet in this passage, but the pouting prophet.  He repeats the bottom line of his prayer the next day, in verse 8. “It is better for me to die than to live.”  Both prayers are prayers of self pity.

The Pious Prayer of Jonah

But it is on the long prayer in chapter two that I want to focus our attention.  It seems to be such a nice prayer.  It seems on the surface to be so out of character for Jonah.  So out of character that some scholars think that it was added later to this book by another writer, who wants to clean up Jonah’s image.  But I have my doubts about that.  This prayer is intended to come back into focus as we end the book.  For it is the prayer of a deviant man.  Let us review the text.

2 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,

“I called to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3 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.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight,
how shall I look again
upon your holy temple?’
5 The waters closed in over me;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped around my head
6     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,7
As my life was ebbing away,

I remembered the Lord;
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who worship vain idols
forsake their true loyalty.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you
what I have vowed I will pay.
Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”

On the surface this prayer sounds like so very many of the songs from the book of Psalms.  It is a song of deliverance.  The writer is a poet of extra-ordinary gift.  His words are eloquent as he describes the process of his drowning.

But the beauty is only skin deep.  The beauty is in the poetry, but not in the one who prays.  Why do I say this?  This is a prayer of absolute selfishness.  Twenty five times he uses the first person pronouns, “I, me, and my” during the course of this prayer.   He is, like the sailors and like the Ninevites, scared for his own skin.

As he sinks he remembers the things he is going to miss:  Going to the temple (2:4).  This man is religious even in the moments of his dying.  He zips a prayer to God whom he sees as dwelling in that temple, and makes a vow.  And the God of mercy rescues him by means of that great fish and returns him to dry land.

But that is a legitimate prayer isn’t it?   It is OK to pray for oneself isn’t it?  Oh yes.  That is not the issue.  Many of our prayers are self-serving.  It is the three other things I see in this prayer that bother me more.

The Things Missing

The first thing that bothers me is what is missing from this prayer. There is no confession of sin evident anywhere.  There is no apology for his defection from God.  There are no words of sorrow over the damage done to the sailors on the ship.  There is no penitence for his hatred.  His prayer should have been a prayer of confession like that prayed by our publican friend.  But there is not one note of penitence coming from Jonah from the first word to the last verses of this book.  He is not sorry at all.

There is no intercession in this prayer either.  There is no prayer for the suffering sailors, that God would ensure their safety.   If the first task of the prophet is to declare the counsel of God, that is “preach”, the second task of the prophets of Israel was to intercede for people, to “pray”!

Hear the prophet Samuel speaking to the wayward nation of Israel in I Samuel 12:23.   “Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord  by ceasing to pray for you.”   But there comes that terrible tragic time, centuries later, when Jeremiah the prophet is told by God not to pray anymore for Judah.  Jeremiah is stunned by that astounding command, for it indicated that there was no hope left for Judah.  (Jeremiah 7:16, 11:14, 14:11, 15:1)  But Jonah is no true prophet.  There is still hope for Nineveh, but Jonah refuses to intercede on behalf of this people.

The Self-Righteousness of Jonah

The second thing that bothers me about this prayer is tucked away in verse 8.  The NIV reads, “Those who cling to worthless idols, forfeit the grace that could be theirs.”  What a self-righteous prig!  He believes that he deserves God’s grace, but idol worshippers like the sailors in the ship or the Ninevites out East do not, but have forfeited God’s grace altogether.   Jonah is convinced that such people do not deserve to be rescued.   Of course Jonah doesn’t know what has happened to the sailors, or what will happen to the people of Nineveh.  He doesn’t know that God has already granted his grace to those who may not deserve it, but desperately need it..  And God has already extended grace to Jonah, whom we know doesn’t deserve it.

But Jonah is trying to shoe horn God towards his own conviction about Gentiles.  Jonah believes that Gentiles should not be rescued, and this teacher of Israel wants to teach God how to act.  He is sure that God is way too soft on sinners.

The self righteousness continues. verse 9.  “But I, with the voice of thanksgiving, will sacrifice to you: and what I have vowed I will pay.”   He is educating God again saying in effect, “I will pay what I have vowed, but the others probably won’t, so don’t cut them any slack.  I sacrifice to you.  Pagans sacrifice to idols.  So don’t give them a break.

The failure to Learn

But there is a third thing about this prayer that bothers me, but that needs our attention.  We are meant to feel Jonah’s gladness about his rescue.  He was drowning. (3:6)  The weeds had trapped him on the floor of the sea.   He has gone down for the third time.  His lungs are filling with water.  The world is turning black around him as he loses consciousness.

Some time later he is awakened by his own coughing up of sea water and his lungs hungrily gasping for air.  In the next moments he finds that he has been rescued by this enormous fish.

The puzzlement and joy of being alive must have alternated within him over the next three days as the fish brings him from the somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea back to the Palestinian coast line.  If the air inside the fish had felt so good after near drowning, he must have been elated to be on dry land breathing air that was fresh.  He was so glad to have been saved.

But it is tragic in this story.  He was so glad to have been delivered from judgment, but now he wanted his enemies to be judged.  He was so delighted to be able to keep on living, but now he wanted 120,000 innocent people to perish.  Had he forgotten how terrible it was to be dying?  Surely he wouldn’t wish that fate on any one?  But, one who had received so much, now wanted to give so little!  How tragic.

God is trying to teach a lesson to Jonah.  He could have stopped Jonah before he got to the ship, like he stopped Moses on the way to Egypt (Exodus 4:24-26), or Balaam on the way to curse Israel (Numbers 22:21-35) .  But I suspect that God wants the prophet to experience the storm and to stare death in the face.  Perishing is a terrible experience.  To be rescued is so marvellous.  To be judged for our sins is so painful.  To be forgiven our sins, as Jonah was, and given a second chance, so wondrous.  Surely Jonah understands now that God has no desire to see the wicked perish?   But I am afraid not.  God may be pitching, but Jonah is not catching.  God may be teaching, but the lesson is not being learned.   How tragic.

The writer of this story believes that it is the story of his own nation.  The people of Judea were a religious people.   Worship was the focus in the newly constructed temple.  They were so glad to be home after being swallowed whole by Babylon.  But the newly returned nation was prone to self-righteousness, vindictiveness and ingratitude.  They received so much but wanted to give back so little.

It is a warning to the church.  We are to pray “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”   I hope that God does not keep us to that promise and prayer!  Do you remember that sad story of the servant who was forgiven so much then refused to forgive his neighbour. (Matthew 18:21-35)  That story is a terrible warning to us all. It infers that we can forfeit the gift of God by our unwillingness to forgive as we have been forgiven. God forgive us for our unforgiving spirits!


Prayer is a tricky thing.  It can be the very best use of human language, or it can be demonic and diabolical.   Prayer can bring us to God, or it can hide us from God.  Unhealthy praying can actually immunize us against Grace.

Listen to the words of Daniel Jenkins:
“Prayer is not necessarily a good thing.  Unless it is directed to the right person in the way he has laid down it can become a demonic thing and do untold damage to men and nations… It can be a highly dangerous thing, the most subtle and effective means of hiding man from the face of God… For natural, human prayer is always an attempt to have God on man’s terms, an attempt, sometimes crude and sometimes profound and refined, to “square” God, to avoid the responsible decision for God, the self-committal to God, the full conformity with the will of God, which true prayer always demands.  Human prayer, like human greatness and beauty and truth and indeed all human religion, needs itself to be redeemed before it can become a source of genuine blessing.”

Jonah’s prayer added to his guilt.  The prayers of the sailors and the people of Nineveh brought them grace in the eyes of Lord.

Prayers filled with selfishness and self-righteousness, prayers that have no penitence or compassion in them, will at best be ignored by God.  At their worst they will add to our damnation.

We need to pray, “Oh God, deliver me from my prayers.”  Make me like the Publican, not like the Pharisee.  Make me like the righteous Gentile, rather than like Jonah.

1 Response to 4. A Pitiful Prayer

  1. Stephen Merriman says:

    Great David, I’ll have to read again, and again…….stephen

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