A School of Prayer

Under the Unpredictable Plant
Eugene Peterson

[1] Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, [2] saying,

“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
[3] For you 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.
[4] Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
[5] The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
[6] at 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.
[7] When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
[8] Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
[9] But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”

– Jonah 2:1-9

That Jonah prayed is not remarkable; we commonly pray when we are in desperate circumstances.  But there is something very remarkable about the way Jonah prayed.  He prayed a “set” prayer.  Jonah’s prayer is not spontaneously original self-expression.  It is totally derivative.  Jonah had been to school to learn to pray, and he prayed as he had been taught.  His school was the Psalms.

JOnah-620x335Line by line Jonah’s prayer is furnished with the stock vocabulary of the Psalms:

  • “my distress” from 18:6 and 120:1
  • “Sheol” from 18:4-5
  • “all thy waves and thy billows passed over me” from 42:7
  • “from thy presence” from 139:7
  • “upon thy holy temple” from 5:7
  • “the waters closed in over me” from 69:2
  • “my life from the Pit” from 30:3
  • “my soul fainted within me” from 142:3
  • “into thy holy temple” from 18:6
  • “deliverance belongs to the Lord” from 3:8

And more.  Not a word in the prayer is original.  Jonah got every word – lock, stock, and barrel – out of his Psalms book.

But it is not only a matter of vocabulary, having words at hand for prayer.  The form is also derivative.  For the last hundred years scholars have given careful attention to the particular form that the psalms take (form criticism) and have arranged them in two large categories, laments and thanksgivings.  The categories correspond to the two large conditions in which we humans find ourselves, distress and well-being.  Depending on circumstance and the state of our soul, we cry out in pain or burst forth with praise.  The categories have subdivisions, each form identifiable by its stock opening, middle, and ending.  The rhythms are set.  The vocabulary is assigned.

This is amazing.  Prayer, which we often suppose is truest when most spontaneous – the raw expression of our human condition without contrivance or artifice – shows up in Jonah when he is in the rarest condition imaginable as learned.  Our surprise lessens when we consider language itself: we begin with inarticulate cries and coos, but after years of learning we become capable of crafting sonnets.  Are infant sounds more honest than Shakespeare’s sonnets?  They are both honest, but the sonnets have far more experience in them.  Honesty is essential in prayer, but we are after more.  We are after as much of life as possible – all of life if possible – brought to expression in answering God.  That means learning a form of prayer adequate to the complexity of our lives.

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