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Prayer from a Fish's Belly

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Spirit Lake Baptist Church  Sunday, February 15, 2009

Series: Jonah

God’s Reluctant Messenger # 6

Prayer from a Fish’s Belly

Jonah 2:1-10


Have you ever given much thought to the notable prayers of the Bible? Here are a few examples:

  • Abraham’s Prayer – He prayed for Sodom – Gen. 18  
  • Jabez Prayer – “Bless me indeed” – I Chron. 4:10
  • Zacharis Prayer – Prayer in the temple – Luke 1:13
  • Mary’s Prayer – Her prayer song – Luke 1:46ff
  • Peter’s prayer – “Lord, save me” – Matt. 14:30
  • Christ’s Prayer – His High Priestly prayer - John 17

      William Law (1686-1714) once wrote, “He who has learned to pray has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life.”

   As we come to the second chapter of Jonah we are going to learn about prayer, and there are three facts that I want to bring to your attention regarding prayer. We are going to learn that prayer is important (v. 1), that prayer is always answered (v. 2), and finally that prayer is open transparency (v. 3-10). As we study the prayer of Jonah we are going to discover what it was like to be inside the belly of a great fish. Jonah becomes an open book. His prayer is his story. Jonah’s prayer is one of dependency upon the LORD.

   1. Prayer is important – v. 1

   “Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the fish's belly.”


   How many of us are guilty of praying when we are “down in the mouth?” Did you get the pun here? “Down in the mouth!” Jonah found himself down in the mouth of a great fish.

   You and I may chuckle at this. A wayward prophet praying to God from the belly of a great fish, but if the truth be known we have all probably all at one time or another prayed in some very obscure places.

   This reminds me of the following poem about prayer. It is entitled:

How To Pray

   “The proper way for a man to pray,”

   Said Deacon Lemuel Keys,

   “This only proper attitude

   Is down upon his knees.”

   “No, I should say, the way to pray,”

   Said the Reverend Doctor Wise,

   ‘Is standing straight with outstretched arms

   And rapturous upturned eyes.”

   ‘It seems to me his hands should be

   Devoutly clasped in front;

   With both thumbs pointing t’ward the dround,”

   Said the Reverend Doctor Blunt.

   ‘Last year, I fell in Hodkin’s well –

   Head first,” said Cyrus Brown,

   “With both my heels a-sticken’ up,

   My head a-pointin’s down;

   “And I made a prayer right then and there,

   Best prayer I ever said,

   The keenest prayer I ever prayed

   Was standin’ on my head.”[1]

   Why is it that it often takes trying circumstances to get us to pray? Someone wrote,

There is no place like a fish's belly,

under three or four hundred feet of water,

that so calls for prayer.

   2. Prayer is always answered – v. 2

   “And he said: "I cried out to the LORD because of my affliction, And He answered me.”Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, And You heard my voice.”

      Here again we see that prayer is often the results of times of affliction. As believers we need to be aware that affliction is permitted in our lives from a God that is full of affection for us. God loves us, and He will not leave us in our waywardness. The Bible reminds us,

“Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)

   It is when hard times hit Main Street that we cry out to God in prayer. This is a fact about human nature.

   Where is Jonah? He is in the belly of a fish. And in the belly of this fish Jonah prayed. Paul R. Van Gorder in his booklet, Jonah: Prophet and Pouter wrote, “Out of the belly of sheol cried I” (2:2). The literal meaning is, “out of the depths” or “out of the innermost part” of sheol. The Hebrew word sheol always refers the netherworld, the place of departed spirits. The Greek equivalent of sheol is the word hades. Neither word has reference to a grave, but instead speaks of the place where souls of the dead go.”

   Bible Scholars are not in agreement as to whether Jonah lived for three days and three nights in the belly of this great fish, or whether Jonah died shortly after he was swallowed. Two of my very favorite Bible teachers disagree. Warren W. Wiersbe believes that Jonah was preserved alive in the belly of the great fish. I greatly admire Dr. Wiersbe. Whereas the late Dr. J. Vernon McGee believes that Jonah actually died. If we take the information that I shared with you from Paul R. Van Gorder it would naturally lead us to believe that Jonah died. He prayed to the LORD from the “netherworld, the place of departed spirits.”

   As I read this second chapter of Jonah, and as I studied its content I have come to the conclusion that Jonah died, and that in the place of the dead he prayed, and God heard him. In the New Testament we see the possibility of this in the account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16). The rich man died and went to Hades. Hades is the New Testament word for Old Testament word, Sheol. Without getting into a whole study on this topic alone allow me to say that there are two compartments – one for the unrighteous dead, and one for the righteous dead. Jonah is praying from the place of the righteous dead.

   The point here is that God answered him. God answers prayer.

   3. Prayer is open transparency – v. 3-7


   As we read the prayer of Jonah we see his open transparency. Jonah didn’t seek to impress God with his Bible knowledge (although he quotes at length from the Psalms – see notes in additional information), nor with his theological understanding (which he knew well), nor with his eloquence as so many seek to do today. Jonah provides us the “low down” (get the pun). As readers we receive a true evaluation of all that he faced. We must remember that prayer is simply talking with God.

The Simple Prayers Of Betty Erdhal


   Years ago there were two sisters that attended church here at SLBC. Both have since graduated into glory. Their names were, Betty and Bonnie. There were many times that I would stop in and visit these two ladies. They lived over in the apartments across from the old Catholic Church on Fifth Street. I would always conclude my visit with them with prayer. Betty would always pray after me. Betty had a very simple and uncomplicated way of talking with God. Here is an example: “God, this is Betty Erdahl, you know, the Betty who lives in Spirit Lake. I want to talk with you about my son. He hasn’t called his mother. Would you please tell him to call me? I want to know how he is doing.” Now that is what I call conversational prayer. Betty would talk with God the same way she talked with me.

   Note: Prayer doesn’t have to be complicated!

   One thing we need to keep in mind about prayer is that nothing that we talk to God about catches Him by surprise. Let’s look at what Jonah included in his prayer.


   A. Jonah confessed that it was God who brought him to where he was – v. 3


   “For You cast me into the deep, Into the heart of the seas, And the floods surrounded me;


   The words, “cast me into the deep” may be translated, “hurled me into the deep.” It was God who was disciplining Jonah. Often times it is God who disciplines us. How well do we handle the discipline of our heavenly Father?

   By the way, discipline tells us that we belong to God. It’s the indication that we have truly been born-again.

God’s Discipline And Our Response

   Warren Wiersbe in his book, Be Amazed: Restoring An Attitude Of Wonder And Worship has some great insight to God’s discipline. He writes, “How we respond to discipline determines how much benefit we receive from it. According to Hebrews 12:5-11, we have several options: we can despise God’s discipline and fight (v. 5); we can be discouraged and faint (v. 5); we can resist discipline and invite strong discipline, possibly even death (v. 9), or we can submit to the Father and mature in faith and love (v. 7). Discipline is to the believer what exercise and training are to an athlete (v. 11); it enables us to run the race with endurance and reach the assigned goal (v. 1-2).[2]

   Do we ever realize that it is God who permits us, and who may even take us through the hard, difficult times of life?

   B. Jonah realized that he must look to God even during times of discipline – v. 4

   “All Your billows and Your waves passed over me. Then I said, 'I have been cast out of Your sight; Yet I will look again toward Your holy temple.”


  Please note carefully the words, “All Your billows and Your waves passed over me.” Jonah was fully aware that he was being disciplined by God. One author I was reading called the “billows” and the “waves” - waters of affliction. It surely wasn’t a health spa Jonah was visiting.

   The Bible says,

   “Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Heb. 12:11)

   How did Jonah feel? Jonah felt as if he had been cast out of God’s sight. This is exactly how it feels when we are living in open sin and rebellion, and when we are receiving the discipline of God.

Quite Strange Thinking

   How is it possible that Christians can be wayward, live in open rebellion, and then find it strange when they feel the separation that occurs from their bad choices? Do we really believe that we can sin, and God not discipline us? Is God a bad God because He disciplines us? Not at all. He is your Father, and He disciplines you because He loves you.

   The Bible says,

   “For whom the LORD loves He corrects, Just as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Prov. 3:12)

   It is natural to feel as if God has forsaken us, and that we are separated from God. The fellowship link has been broken. This feeling ought to be the tool to turn us around. It was for Jonah.

   I want us to also notice that as soon as Jonah began to feel the separation that he turned his eyes heavenward. That’s SMART! When you and I feel God is far away, guessed who moved? We did, and we need to begin to look heavenward. Turn our eyes back to the God of our Salvation.


   C. Jonah shares what he went through, and his hope – v. 5-7

    “The waters surrounded me, even to my soul; The deep closed around me; Weeds were wrapped around my head. I went down to the moorings of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed behind me forever; Yet You have brought up my life from the pit, O LORD, my God. When my soul fainted within me, I remembered the LORD; And my prayer went up to You, Into Your holy temple.”

   What we are reading here is what Jonah went through inside the belly of this great fish. He is giving us his take on what he experienced. As one reads this it would surely lead one to believe that Jonah died. Look closely at his statements:

  • Waters surrounded me, even to my soul.
  • The deep closed around me.
  • Weeds were wrapped around my head.
  • I went down to the mooring of the mountains (lowest depths of the sea).
  • The earth with its bars closed behind me forever (age-lasting).

   Sure sounds awful to me as I read what he went through. Doesn’t sound like a pleasure cruise to me! Nothing fun in what Jonah experienced being inside the belly of a great fish.

Up From The Pit

   Jonah also tells us that God didn’t leave him in that situation. No, we read that God brought Jonah up “from the pit,” (v. 6b). By the way, the word “pit” is equivalent to “sheol,” which if you remember is the unseen world.

   As Christians looking back on the life-adventures of Jonah the Prophet we need to see that God answers prayer. God answered Jonah from the belly of the fish. God answers our requests and cries to Him as well. Again, it is from those words that we can come to the conclusion that Jonah probably expired inside the belly of the great fish. However, if that isn’t enough evidence, then take a look at verse 7,

   “When my soul fainted within me,”


   I don’t believe that I am stretching the text when I say that Jonah came to the point of death, and then he prayed. Again, why does it often take something like this to get us to pray?

My Own Story

   When I was a teenager I almost died from an overdose of LSD. At least that is what I believed was going to happen. LSD is a hallucinogenic. On the drug induced trip that I was having I was falling into a dark pit (a cavern, a huge hole in the ground). My body was free falling, spiraling down into this black pit. I knew that if I hit the bottom that I was going to be dead. I began to cry (literally in tears) out to God. I asked Him to spare my life. I told Him that I didn’t want to die. I told Him that I didn’t want my parents to face the death of another child. I told God that if He let me live that I would go where He wanted me to go and that I would do what He wanted me to do. No sooner had I prayed that prayer that a hand came down faster than lightening, passed me, and I fell into the palm of that hand. As quick as the hand came had come and rescued me, so I was drawn up out of that dark pit.

  Like Jonah, when death knocked, I prayed! Like Jonah, I remembered the LORD. I shot my prayer up to God of heaven; into the holy temple. Into the place where God dwells.

   D. Jonah talks about where he was and where he wants to go – v. 8-9


   "Those who regard worthless idols Forsake their own Mercy.”


   Here I believe is the heart of Jonah’s problem. Jonah doesn’t go into detail, but it is obvious that Jonah allowed idols into his life. The KJV uses the words, “lying vanities.” An idol is anything that takes away from God the affection and obedience that rightfully belongs only to Him. Jonah had allowed something to come between him and God. What a mistake. Go back and read that line again. It is to our determent to allow anything more prominence in our life than God. Anything else is “lying vanities.”

   Take a look at the word, “mercy.” This word has been defined as: That which keeps us from getting what we deserve.

   Jonah ended up in the drink and in the belly of a great fish because he allowed something to become more important than his relationship with God. Jonah practiced idolatry.

   There is a lesson here! Let Jonah be your teacher.

   Now, we have looked at where Jonah was, but where did he want to go? In verse 9, we read,


   “But I will sacrifice to You With the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay what I have vowed. Salvation is of the LORD."


   Sacrifice belongs to God. Jonah tells God that he will stop sacrificing to the idols (giving them time, talents, and treasury), and will give to God what rightfully belongs to God, and that he will do it with a voice of thanksgiving.

   We often make a lot of promises when we are going through times of discipline (Go back and reread my story). Note what Jonah says to God,

   “I will pay what I have vowed.”


   We could spend a lot of time looking at this idea of making and paying vows. The Bible says it best in Ecclesiastes 5:4-5,

   “When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; For He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed- Better not to vow than to vow and not pay.”


   The text doesn’t tell us but I believe that Jonah was vowing to be obedient to God’s call and commission to go to Nineveh.


   I want to have us focus for just a moment on the last line of verse 9. We read,

   “Salvation is of the LORD.”

  I am sure that we as Christians know this to be true. As a matter of fact this statement here is the central declaration of the book of Jonah. It is also the central theme of both the Old and New Testaments. “Salvation is of the LORD.” Only God could save Jonah from the fish’s belly, and only God can save each one of us. There is salvation is no one else (See Acts 4:12).

   Let’s wrap this all up. In verse 1, “Jonah prayed to the LORD…”, and in verse 10, we see that God answered his prayer. The LORD provided salvation for Jonah. We read,    

   “So the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.”


   Here the LORD spoke to His creation, and it obeyed. It obeyed when it swallowed Jonah (1:17), and it obeyed when God said it was time to up-chuck his cargo (2:10).

   Now we find Jonah exactly where God wants him.

   May I remind us that there is only one lesson in this second chapter? It is a lesson on prayer. And what have we learned? We have learned that prayer is important, that all prayer is answered, and prayer is open transparency. It is talking to God about everything we are going through. For Jonah it meant talking to God while being inside the belly of a great fish. Wow! You and I get to talk with God in the comfortableness of this beautiful sanctuary while seated on padded chairs. No water, no seaweed, no death.

   Surely you would agree that Jonah’s prayer is a notable prayer.    

Additional Research:

   Jonah prayed. It is vital here to understand WHAT Jonah prayed. As I studied his prayer, I made an amazing discovery. This is fantastic! As far as I can tell, Jonah did not use one original thought or one original request in his whole prayer. Jonah simply prayed the Word of God! He prayed the scriptures. Almost a dozen times in these 8 verses he quotes from the book of Psalms.

  • Psalm 120:1-I called on the Lord in my distress
  • Psalm 86:13-you have delivered my soul from the depths...
  • Psalm 88:6- You cast me into the darkest depths
  • Psalm 42:7- The roar of your waves has swept over me
  • Psalm 31:22-I am cut off from your sight
  • Psalm 69:1-The waters have come up to my neck
  • Psalm 69:2-I am in deep waters, the floods engulf me
  • Psalm 30:3-You brought me up from the pit[3]


   Scholars offer seven lines of proof to support that Jonah died in the belly of the great fish. They are as follows:

   1. Christ used Jonah as a sign of His death and resurrection (Mt. 12:40). The parallel would be incomplete if Jonah had not actually died.

   2. The time in which Jonah prayed – if he remained alive throughout his imprisonment in the fish’s stomach, then he prayed on the second or third day. If he died, then he probably prayed in the early moments of his difficulty. He probably had three to five minutes to pray in the fish’s belley before death.

   3.  Jonah cries out of the belly of Sheol (2:2). This term has the primary meaning of being a grave (cf. Gen. 42:38; Ps. 88:3) thus he considered the fish to be his grave.

   4. The expression floods compassed me about (vs. 3) describes a man who is drowning, not living.

   5. The expression I am cast out of thy sight (vs. 4) only has adequate meaning if it indicates physical death.

   6. The expression the weeds were wrapped about my head (vs. 5) better describes a dead man than one who simply has temporary  living accommodations inside the belly of a fish.

   7. The word corruption (vs. 6) describes death and perfectly parallels Jonah’s circumstances with Christ.

  Those who hold to this view say that the emphasis of this prayer and incident is Jonah’s resurrection, not the fish or Jonah’s preservation in it.

Liberty Bible Commentary Vol. 1 Old Testament


[1] Author Unknown

[2] Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Amazed, Chariot-Victor Publishing, P. 78

[3] I found this information on the web. Very insightful indeed.

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