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Background Considerations:

  • Poetry in the Old Testament. A high percentage of the Hebrew Bible comes to us in the form of poetry. The most important feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism, which defines the way usually two lines of poetry relate to one another: parallel with the same meaning in the second line; parallel with the opposite meaning; parallel with developing thought; and parallel in an a, b, c, c’, b’, a’ pattern. How does this kind of structure and repetition affect interpretation? The other major element of Hebrew poetry one finds in the depth and richness of its imagery: heart of the seas, into the deep, down to the land whose bars, bring my life up from the Pit, etc. A good commentary on the book of Jonah will point to these special features.
  • Individual Song of Thanksgiving. One of the major categories of psalm (along with individual and communal laments, hymns, communal songs of thanksgiving, royal psalms) is the individual song of thanksgiving. Jonah 2 falls into this category, along with Psalms like 16, 18, 27, 30 (most like Jonah), 46, 47, 91, 103, 116, 131, 138. It is not something invented on the spot, but clearly the use of a type of song long in vogue within the worshiping community of ancient Israel, as well as among other groups around the ancient Near East. The normal structure: invitation to sing to God; worshiper praises God for deliverance and announces a sacrifice; priest pronounces a blessing; hymnic praise. What does all of this mean for Jonah 2? For understanding its origin? For interpreting it? For celebrating deliverance?

Relevant Biblical Passages

  • Read through the entire book of Jonah.
  • Jonah 1:17. Two major issues have been raised regarding the story of Jonah which appear quite well beyond the realm of possibility: the fish/whale and the incredible evangelistic success in Nineveh. Although there are documented accounts (extremely limited in number of course!) of human survival following time in a fish, we probably should not be distracted by too much debate in this matter. Whether everything really happened as portrayed may be more a modern question than what mattered most from the story about God’s persistence and God’s saving grace.This verse also begins a series of divine “appointments.” God “appoints” a big fish (1:17); a castor-oil plant (4:6); a worm (4:7); a sultry east wind (4:8). Think about the purpose of each of these natural appointments, including the irony tied to some.
  • Jonah 2. Consider the forcefulness and impact of the flow and poetic imagery of this song: ocean depths and danger (especially in the context of what we have said earlier about the fear and chaos signified by the ocean), waves and breakers, absence from the temple, rescue (not destruction) by the fish, the foolishness of idolatry, vows and sacrifices, deliverance at the hand of the Lord. Who else has made vows to God? How did circumstances vary between the two groups? Is there something ironic about this comparison with the mariners?

Contributions to the study of Jonah

  • Some have thought the poetry of Jonah 2 somewhat intrusive in the story. But what would we miss without it? Without the sense of danger and disaster? Without the grand celebration of deliverance?

Lessons for Life

  • Songs of thanksgiving speak profoundly of the joy of deliverance. How do/should we relate to evidence of God’s deliverance in our lives? Could we write up some psalms? People who study spirituality often address the significant results to faith growing out of our writing down our feelings in prose or poetry.

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