By Michael Smith
Reading from Jonah, 1:17-2:10
17 But the Lord provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, 2saying, “I called to the Lord out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. 3You cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. 4Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; how shall I look again upon your holy temple?’ 5The waters closed in over me; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped around my head 6at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the Pit, O Lord my God. 7As my life was ebbing away, I remembered the Lord; and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. 8Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty. 9But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Deliverance belongs to the Lord!”
10 Then the Lord spoke to the fish, and it spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.
Jonah is in trouble and he knows it. He has no one else to blame but himself for his disobedience to God and the predicament he now finds himself in: in the belly of a fish at the bottom of the sea! Here Jonah does what most of us do when we get into trouble: he cries out to God for help. What words of prayer come to him in this moment of terror?
Jonah begins to quote the psalter, the hymnal and prayer book of his people. He prays the psalms from memory: “When I was in trouble, I called to the LORD” (Ps. 120:1). “Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD” (Ps. 130:1). “I said in my alarm, ‘I have been cut off from the sight of your eyes’” (Ps. 31:22). “As for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house” (Ps. 5:7). “Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck” (Ps. 69:1). “You brought me up, O LORD, from the dead” (Ps. 30:3). “For you will not abandon me to the grave, nor let your holy one see the Pit” (Ps. 16:10). “I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people” (Ps. 116:16). “Deliverance belongs to the LORD” (Ps. 3:8).
As with Jonah, perhaps the memorization of verses from the psalter would be helpful to us as we struggle for words to address God during these dark days. Here is one that has become particularly meaningful to me during the pandemic: “You shall not be afraid of any terror by night, nor of the arrow that flies by day; of the plague that stalks in the darkness, nor of the sickness that lays waste at mid-day” (Ps. 91:5-6).
What psalm could you memorize for your time of distress?
The Rt. Rev. Michael G. Smith served as Bishop of North Dakota for fifteen years and is the Assistant Bishop of Dallas. He is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. He and his wife, the Rev. Lisa White Smith, are the parents of three and grandparents of nine.
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