God’s Word for You
Jonah 2:3 whitecaps and waves
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, September 22, 2018
3 You threw me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the current swirled around me.
All your whitecaps and waves passed over me.
This is the second of seven or eight thoughts in Jonah’s song. The whole poem really divides into two parts: (1) verses 2-7 where the prophet is drowning, and (2) verses 8-9, a preaching of law (idolatry is condemned) and gospel (salvation is from the Lord). The first part of the poem might be seen along these lines:
Vs. 2 I cried for help (and you listened)
Vs. 3 The water swirled around me
Vs. 4 Yet I will look again
Vs. 5 The water threatened me
Vs. 6a I sank down…
Vs. 6b the earth barred me in forever
Vs. 6c …but you brought me up
Vs. 7a My life was ebbing away…
Vs. 7b …but my prayer rose to you
With each thought of despair, Jonah adds a thought of hope. His fear is constantly met and countered by faith, either anticipating God’s mercy and love or actually experiencing it. For example, here in verse 3, he remembers Psalm 88. That Psalm begins with faith: “O Lord, the God who saves me” (88:1), and then says, “You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths” (88:6), and “You have overwhelmed me with all your waves” (88:7). Then later, “Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me” (88:16-17). Of all of these watery comparisons, Jonah has chosen verse 6 to adapt to his present trouble. His cry, matsulah “into the deep” is the same as the Psalm’s matsoloth “in the darkest depths.” He is referring to the grave, and he knows that he would surely have died in the sea if God had not spared his life. His death would have been the earthly consequence of his sinful act of running from the Lord’s command. All sins have the spiritual consequence of damaging our relationship with God, and even sins that seem to have no punishment on earth nevertheless gnaw away and erode the inner workings of our consciences.
“The current” that “swirled around me” is our translation of nahar, usually a word for river or stream, whether streams in general (Nahum 1:4), the Nile (Isaiah 19:5), or the Euphrates (Micah 7:12). Here it is the central current or channel of the sea, something like the Gulf Stream that passes along the Eastern Seaboard of the US. In the Mediterranean, the main currents run counter-clockwise around the coastline, with the water traveling to the east on the African coastline, and generally westward along the European coastline. There are some circular patterns to the east and west of the Italian peninsula. Perhaps it was one of these main currents which Jonah felt as he tried to tread water.
I have translated the final two nouns as “whitecaps and waves,” a phrase Jonah borrows from Psalm 42:7. The first word, mishbar “breakers,” are the waves as they burst into foam when they strike the shore, or a rock, or the bow of a ship. Luther calls them Wogen in German. The second word is the plural of gal “roller” (Luther: Wellen), the big rolling waves of the open sea. “Every storm and every movement of the sea covered me” (Luther). More than that, it wasn’t just “whitecaps and waves” that slammed the prophet’s body, it was “your” whitecaps and waves—the swirling servants of “the God who made the sea” (Jonah 1:9). Everything and everyone is truly in God’s service, whether they recognize it or not, and when we fail to remember that, we get ourselves deeper and deeper into trouble, temptation, and sin.
The physical and eternal consequences of our sins lead us to despair. Physical death is only one part of the future; eternal death awaits all who are trapped in their sins. We are frightened by every aspect of God’s anger, so that even a windblown leaf can cause us to panic (Leviticus 26:36). Only through the grace of God can we be spared, and so we pray that God would have mercy on us. The blood of Jesus covers over all our sins, and his mercy has lifted us out of the pit of despair and into everlasting life.
Pastor Timothy Smith
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