The story of Jonah and the whale may be one of the best-known stories from the Old Testament, delighting young Sunday School students around the world almost as much as Noah and his menagerie. Much is made in the lesson of the size of the fish – what kind of animal could it have been? – and how Jonah would have survived. Also, Jonah is an unlikely and wily hero, making him relatable and personable when others’ perfections may feel unreachable. But when I was reviewing these chapters this week, something stood out to me that I had never noticed before: Jonah 2 is a complete prayer, uttered in the first person while Jonah is actually in the belly of the fish. This is a part of the story that I have never dwelt on before and that, at this point in my life, feels more relevant to me than all the other aspects of this story.
How often do we wait until we are in the belly of the fish to utter our prayers of forgiveness and deliverance? It is interesting that at the very beginning of the prayer, Jonah describes his location not as the “fish’s belly” that had been used earlier, but as the “belly of hell”. This phrase seems both literal and figurative, describing the dark disgust that must have surrounded him physically but also the metaphorical darkness. It is in this belly of hell that many of us offer our most profound and sincere prayers, and certainly, we are not alone. Jonah, Joseph Smith (as recorded in Doctrine & Covenants 121’s prayer in Liberty Jail), and Jesus (in Gethsemane) all have prayers recorded from their moments of greatest need.
Jonah’s prayer is replete with language of darkness and bondage: In Chapter 2, verse 5, “The waters compassed me about, even to the soul: the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head.” And in verse 6, “I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; the earth with her bars was about me for ever.” The water and the elements of the earth play a lead role in this profoundly earth-bound prayer, as Jonah is almost destroyed in the most foreboding and unknowable of God’s creations: the ocean. Natural power is everywhere, ready to crash over him as waves and bury him as mountains.
And yet, there is a strikingly odd evocation in this prayer too, one seemingly out of line with the images of natural and organic power. In verse 4 and then again in 7, Jonah calls upon “thy holy temple,” an object which we in our modern minds imagine as a man-made, inorganic presence, but one imbued with enough divinity to suspend between heaven and earth. It is about as far away as seaweed wrapped around our heads as we can imagine.
The temple is a concept intimately connected to Jonah in biblical scholarship. “The sign of Jonah” is considered to be the metaphorical representation of the Savior’s burial for three days and His resurrection, but it also is applied to the rebuilding of the Hebrew temple after the Second Temple Period. Jonah was, in essence, dead while in the fish, consumed and bonded by the elements of flesh and the earth. But while he is in that death-like state, he looks to a resurrection, a rebuilding, that is embodied not only by the Savior but by the promise of a future temple too. It is in the temple we make the covenants that bind us, that tether us to commitments we make to God, but also His commitment to save us from the “belly of hell”.
I too often pray when I am in the belly of the fish. In praying for salvation, I would do well to look more often to the symbol of resurrection, rebirth and rebuilding: the temple. Jonah is a good reminder not to wait until we are consumed by the cares of our physical earth to look to that sacred redemption.