Prayer is often an act of penitence, an acknowledgment that “I am not who I want to be.” Through prayer, one asks for the capacity to change, to improve, and to grow in virtue.
When the prophet Jonah is stuck in a large fish, he finally allows words to bubble to the surface after his wordless flight from God. Jonah’s prayer is unstudied. Some scholars believe it to be a later addition, written in the style of the psalms. Theodore Gaster, in Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament, suggests that the prayer is a pause in the story’s narration to invite “audience participation” in the singing of a hymn.
Father Mapple, in Melville’s Moby-Dick, recites a hymn that links Jonah's prayer to his escape from the fish:
In black distress, I called my God,
When I could scarce believe him mine,
He bowed his ear to my complaints—
No more the whale did me confine.
But both Gaster and Father Mapple's hymn seem to miss the seriousness of Jonah’s prayer. They see it as merely a means to move the plot forward. But understanding the prayer is key to unlocking Jonah’s internal struggles—and perhaps our own.
Jonah, ignoring God’s call for the prophet to rehabilitate Nineveh, goes down to Jaffa, down into a ship, and finally down into a deep sleep. This downward movement, represented in the Bible by the drumbeat of the Hebrew root yarad (“to descend”), demonstrates Jonah’s withdrawal from the world into himself. He ignores God's command, the storm raging around him, the sailors he imperiled, and the captain's plea to pray. Unresponsive and unwilling to save himself, Jonah is equally unwilling to jump off the boat to save the lives of others. In his anguish and passivity, Jonah asks to be thrown overboard.
Jonah’s descent continues. Once thrown overboard, he sinks into the sea, until he finds himself on the ocean floor. He is unable to die, and also unable to live . . . until the great sea monster appears with its unexpected salvific powers. In the belly of the whale, Jonah’s prayer begins in earnest:
Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish. He said: “In my trouble I called to the Lord, and He answered me. From the belly of Sheol, I cried out, and You heard my voice. You cast me into the depths, into the heart of the sea. The floods engulfed me. All Your breakers and billows swept over me. I thought I was driven away out of Your sight. Would I ever gaze again upon Your holy Temple? The waters closed in over me. The deep engulfed me. Weeds twined around my head. I sank to the base of the mountains. The bars of the earth closed upon me forever (Jonah 2:2-7).
At the lowest point in his life, at the lowest point of the earth—only then does Jonah understand all that he is about to forfeit. If engulfed by the deep, he would never be able to serve God again.
The very act of prayer, the attempt to close the abyss between himself and God, helped Jonah recognize this. Our capacity to ascend often only becomes apparent after we have traced our descent in prayer. “When my life was ebbing away, I called the Lord to mind, and my prayer came before You” (Jonah 2:8). Prayer ascends to God, and by it, we are lifted up.
Some ancient and modern biblical commentators note that Jonah did not seek forgiveness through his prayer. He merely expressed his gratitude: “I, with loud thanksgiving, will sacrifice to You. What I have vowed I will perform. Deliverance is the Lord’s!” (Jonah 2:9). But this interpretation ignores Jonah’s promise to tackle his commitments—“What I vowed, I will perform.” Renewing one’s promises is itself a form of penitence, a recognition that God’s grace has allowed one to keep them anew.
Spiritual memoirs, narratives of addiction and recovery, and rags-to-riches stories take us through arcs of descent and ascent. They fascinate us because they give us hope that the monsters inside of us—and, in the case of Jonah’s fish, outside of us—need not imprison us. They can become the means by which we change and grow. In the words of the Jewish mystics, the descent is for the sake of ascent.
Jonah’s prayer is read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. Its verses are read to congregations tired from a long day of fasting, praying, and confessing. Our admissions of wrongdoing on this day represent a personal descent from which we can seemingly never recover. But then, as we reach the very bottom of our internal oceans, we hear Jonah’s prayer.
Erica Brown is an associate professor at The George Washington University, where she also directs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership.
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