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Almost the entity of Jonah, chapter 2 is a prayer to God:

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.

...

But I, with loud thanksgiving,
Will sacrifice to You;
What I have vowed I will perform.
Deliverance is the Lord’s!—Jonah 2:2-3,10 (NJPS)

The simplest explanation is that this prayer is what he prayed while he was in the fish/whale/leviathan. But it seems unlikely that he would have composed such a moving, rich, and poetic prayer while in such a terrible situation. Perhaps he wrote the prayer later based on his experience at sea and informed by God's miraculous rescue. Another theory could hold that the prayer was actually inserted into the text by the author of the story, who might not have been Jonah at all.

So how did Jonah's prayer come to be written?

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Inspired by another question and conforming to the current challenge. –  Jon Ericson Nov 22 '11 at 20:56
    
This is a good question. One could argue that he had three days and inspiration from God, but that's just a hunch. –  Gone Quiet Nov 22 '11 at 23:39
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@Monica: Good point. Here's how it would go if I had been in Jonah's sandals: Day 1: What the...? Day 2: It's really disgusting in here! Day 3: HELP! (There are textual reasons to suppose it was composed sometime later, but that will have to wait for my formal answer when I have time. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Nov 22 '11 at 23:52
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I'm not sure it would take me an entire day to get to "eww, yuck!". :-) –  Gone Quiet Nov 23 '11 at 1:00
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@H3br3wHamm3r81: Right. More to the point, the question is along the lines of: Does the prayer accurately reflect Jonah's thoughts and feelings during the time he spent underwater or was is imaginative/revisionist in some fashion? –  Jon Ericson Dec 17 '12 at 9:08
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3 Answers 3

First, I think it obvious that Jonah did not put this prayer to paper inside the leviathan, but wrote these words sometime later. Second, it isn't obvious who the author of the book itself is. Perhaps Jonah himself wrote it, but we really don't know. Third, it's unavoidable to notice that the book includes details that smack of hyperbole1:

  1. Jonah sleeping through the storm
  2. The sailor's response to Jonah's confession
  3. The big fish that swallows Jonah (of course)
  4. The king ordering even the animals to be dressed in sackcloth
  5. Nineveh is said to be "an enormously large city a three days’ walk across."2
  6. And most amazing of all, the people of Nineveh repent!

I don't bring these up to cast doubt on the historical veracity3 of the story, but to point out that something extraordinary is going on. What is happening is that God seems intent on pushing the boundaries of His mercy beyond the borders and people of Israel and miraculously pulls Jonah (kicking and screaming) to Nineveh to do it.

From the perspective of the Ninevites (to this day), Jonah's miraculous rescue from the depths of the sea could be seen as almost the inverse of the Exodus. Instead of God passing an entire people through the parted sea to make them His people, God passes one man to offer mercy and salvation to an entire city. What's most critical to this question is that Jonah always resists God's intentions at every turn—even when his life is sustained in the belly of the fish.

Within the prayer itself, Jonah is totally focused on his salvation due to his status as a Jew. So verse 5, Jonah laments never being able to see the Temple:

I thought I was driven away
Out of Your sight:
Would I ever gaze again
Upon Your holy Temple?

Verse 8, Jonah emphasizes the Lord's dwelling in Jerusalem:

When my life was ebbing away,
I called the Lord to mind;
And my prayer came before You,
Into Your holy Temple.

Verses 9 and 10, Jonah contrasts the hope of idolaters to the hope of those who sacrifice to the Lord:

They who cling to empty folly
Forsake their own welfare,

But I, with loud thanksgiving,
Will sacrifice to You;
What I have vowed I will perform.
Deliverance is the Lord’s!

The tone of his prayer is so out of step with what God is trying to do, it just begs to be seen as irony: Jonah isn't going to be rescued in order to make sacrifices at the temple but to rescue those "who cling to empty folly". And look again at the final line: Jonah has been delivered from one type of death (the sea) but still faces digestion in the fish. Later, he will face a fate he would prefer death over: bringing about the repentance of Nineveh.

As a literary device, the prayer becomes most powerful when we hear God's final word:

Then the Lord said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight. And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”—Jonah 4:10-11 (NJPS)

God doesn't want sacrifice at the expense of obedience to His command and mercy toward His living creatures. (See for instance 1st Samuel 15:22, Proverbs 21:3, Isaiah 1 etc.)

Summary

Assuming the author of Jonah is Jonah himself, his prayer functions perfectly to highlight the main theme of the book as a whole. It would not be unreasonable to imagine that Jonah composed the prayer sometime after the events of the book. It was informed by his actual thoughts and experience when he was waiting to be vomited out of the leviathan, yet also with the knowledge of the Lord's purpose in Nineveh.


Footnotes:

  1. I'm grateful to Amichai for his helpful comments in chat where he provided this list.
  2. Although it could be read as taking three days to go up and down each street. I don't know if the Hebrew grammar could allow for that interpretation.
  3. It's a very close thing in my mind whether we are intended to read Jonah as a historical account or as a complex parable or allegory. I lean ever so slightly toward the story being historically accurate, but I believe my interpretation works either way.
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Jonah 2:1 is clear that Jonah prayed his prayer from the belly of the fish. So the real question is, do we accept God's Word as true?

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I strongly disagree with a black-and-white notion of truth and falsehood. It isn't useful, enlightening or edifying to think about the Bible's narrative history in these terms. A Bible story, or some detail of a story may be intended as a metaphor, exaggeration, allegory or literary invention without disaffirming the word of God or minimizing the importance of that text. IMO, a text that is informative, meaningful and religiously significant is more "true" than an exact transcription of past events. –  Amichai Nov 24 '11 at 6:34
    
You may very well be correct in your reading of Jonah, I just don't think these are simple issues. –  Amichai Nov 24 '11 at 14:38
    
Pilate also asked the question "What is truth?" (Jn. 18:38) Jesus has answered that question for us when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." (Jn. 14:6) –  astay13 Nov 24 '11 at 19:48
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Well, the previously given answer makes the point very well that the text informs us that Jonah "prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish. He said:"

Now you seem to be struggling with the idea that he could have composed this in the fish's belly. I can understand that.

You say it is "unlikely", but that of course is impossible to say since we don't know that much about Jonah, his poetic competence or even the fish.

We can ask a million questions. Did Jonah compose the prayer before he was swallowed, while in the fish, or after? Was it written by someone else? Was it embellished? Polished? Re-interpreted?

But these questions don't help you much. A better focus is on what the story is telling us, what it means, what its message is. Then, an excellent question would be "do I trust this story?" and that brings us back to how we view the Bible and the trustworthiness of its authors.

The Church has accepted the Gospels as trustworthy, and there we see that Jesus presents this book of Jonah as trustworthy and true (e.g. Matt. 12:40). So we accept it as trustworthy and true.

If you decide not to trust it then you can question any point of it. But then the question becomes, apart from a general mistrust, what makes us think that it's not true? What evidence do we have to assume that Jonah 2:1 isn't entirely true?

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Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! I appreciate this answer, but we aren't a "Christian" site, so not all of us take Jesus as our final authority. In addition, Jonah could be purely allegorical and yet Jesus could be right in saying that it is trustworthy and true. (I usually vote up answers to my questions, I find I can't on this answer since it didn't engage my question exactly. Don't be discouraged!) –  Jon Ericson Nov 25 '11 at 17:58
    
Turns out it was difficult to answer without a fullish interpretation. If you just read the immediate context, there is not a lot of reason to doubt Jonah wrote his prayer as he prayed it. –  Jon Ericson Nov 27 '11 at 1:26
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