Yesterday morning, we left Jonah in the belly of the great fish. The fish was simultaneously the instrument of divine judgement and the provision of divine salvation. After three days in the fish’s belly, the prophet prayed to God in repentance and, ultimately, received deliverance.
We can highlight several lessons from this text, but the one I wish to focus on is the reality of lament. Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish (Jonah 2) teaches us some important lessons about lament. In essence, we learn here that biblical lament contains four elements.
First, lament contains a complaint. For Jonah, the complaint was simple: He had been confined for three days and three nights to the belly of a great fish. He prayed about his “distress” (v. 2), which is clearly defined in v. 1 as imprisonment in “the belly of the fish.” He recognised that he was in deep trouble and required divine deliverance. Verses 3–6 poetically describe the pathetically helpless situation in which he found himself.
If we will lament in a biblically helpful way, it will require us to recognise our distress and our need for divine help. If we insist that we have things under control, we will never lament as we ought. Lamentation necessarily requires us to bring our complaint before God.
Second, lament contains a call for help. Jonah “called out to the LORD” out of his distress (v. 2). Having recognised his plight, he pleaded for deliverance, knowing that only Yahweh could grant the deliverance he wanted.
We will never lament in a healthy way if we do not call out to the Lord for help. Lament is not about feeling sorry for oneself. Lament is not a pity party. Lament recognises the insurmountable trouble the lamenter faces and therefore calls out to someone who can do something about it. It recognises that God cares about the heartache of the lamenter and pleads with him to provide deliverance from the circumstances that have led to the lament.
Third, lament contains an affirmation of trust. Jonah’s cry for deliverance was not a shot in the dark. He was not laying out breadcrumbs in the empty hope that someone would follow them and provide the help he so desperately needed. His call for help was confident because he knew that the one to whom he cried was willing and able to provide the help he needed. Though he was still in the fish’s belly as he prayed, he said, “You heard my voice” (v. 2). Deep in the heart of the ocean, he confidently asserted, “My prayer came to you, into your holy temple” (v. 7).
Lament is deeply unchristian if it is divorced from trust. We admit our complaint and call out for hope because we trust the one to whom we pray. We trust his ability and willingness to deliver us from our affliction. We trust that he cares about us and therefore cast our cares upon him, knowing that he has the ability and the desire to help his people in their distress.
Fourth, lament contains a vow of praise. “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (vv. 8–9). Jonah had forsaken his allegiance to Yahweh and had run away from God’s calling on his life, but now he committed that he would both praise Yahweh and fulfil his vows to him. Lament moved him from pity to praise.
Lament is only helpfully biblical if it moves us to praise. Even if our circumstances don’t immediately change, the process of lament should move us to trust in God. Jonah was still in the fish’s belly when he prayed these words, but his prayer had moved him to praise.
We should not miss that Scripture is the essential ingredient in this process. If you have a study Bible, you will notice that almost every verse in chapter 2 can be cross-referenced with a verse from the Psalms. Jonah was praying Scripture. Because he knew the Scriptures, he was able to bring his complaint, call for help, affirm his trust, and vow his praise to the Lord.
As you meditate on Jonah 2 this morning, ask the Lord to help you embrace the biblical practice of lament. Learn to bring complaint. Learn to call for help. Learn to affirm trust. Learn to vow praise. May the practice of biblical lament help us in our walk with God.