The most perplexing and least satisfying part of the Book of Jonah, is the main character’s prayer “to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish.”

Jonah began his prayer,

‘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.

The Jewish Study Bible of The Jewish Publication Society suggests that “The verbs translated here in the past tense are probably better translated in the present.” So, the text here would read,

I call to the Lord out of my distress,
and he answers me; out of the belly of Sheol I cry, and you hear my voice.

This makes vastly more sense than the past tense. Jonah is praying from the belly of the whale, acknowledging God’s deliverance from immediate death by drowning, but acknowledging that he is not quite out of trouble yet.

But, even in the present tense, the prayer remains a self-indulgent, insincere, hypocritical and dishonest mishmash of religious sentiment. In the NRSV translation of the nine verses of Jonah’s prayer the words “I”, “me”, “my” appear twenty-four times. Jonah is deeply preoccupied with and predominantly concerned about himself.

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.

As already pointed out in a previous post, verse 3 is an almost incomprehensible claim on Jonah’s part. God did not “cast” Jonah “into the deep.” The mariners threw him overboard at his own instruction.  Jonah seems to be intent on blaming God for his misfortune. This attack on God is fallowed by a complete distortion of Jonah’s situation.

4 Then I said, “I am driven away
   from your sight;

No one drove Jonah “away from God’s sight.” Jonah chose to attempt to

flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1:3),

because he thought he could escape God’s unpalatable instruction to preach to Nineveh.

Jonah understood and has acknowledged this intent to flee from the presence of the Lord and that it was this action that caused his problem –

the men knew that Jonah was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so. (Jonah 1:10)

The Jewish Study Bible calls Jonah’s prayer “a pastiche of different verses taken from Psalms,” and points out that Jonah is “thereby presented as a person well versed in the language of the Psalms.” Jonah would have known Psalm 139. He would have heard the Psalmist’s question,

Where can I go from your spirit?
   Or where can I flee from your presence?(Psalm 139:7)

Jonah would have been familiar with the Psalmist’s answer.

If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
   if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.(Psalm 139:8)

And yet, Jonah seems determined to cling to his vision of “the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land,” as a localized geographically bound deity who dwells in certain places and is absent from other locations. For Jonah God remains locked up in his “holy temple.” So, Jonah asks God from the belly of the fish,

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 for ever;
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.

Having acknowledged God’s sovereign deliverance, Jonah again goes on the attack hurling insults against those who Jonah assumes, unlike himself, are beyond God’s deliverance.

8 Those who worship vain idols
   forsake their true loyalty.

Jonah separates himself from “those who worship vain idols” as if somehow he is pure and faithful to the God he has done nothing but seek to avoid, until in desperation he was forced to cry out to God for his own self-serving motives.

9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
   will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
   Deliverance belongs to the Lord!’

Jonah’s vision is myopic, self-serving, dishonest, and delusional. It is clear by the end of the book that Jonah has learned nothing from his journey and has not moved an inch closer to the expansive merciful compassionate grace characteristic of the Lord who, despite Jonah’s unworthiness, has delivered the prophet from the depths.

If I am to avoid being Jonah, I must begin with the kind of self-awareness and honesty, that seems to have been a skill completely lacking in the reluctant prophet to Nineveh.