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HYMN 309 Jonah and the Whale

Text and tune: African American Spiritual

Text: Dorothe Engelbretsdatter (1634-1716) Tune: Wolfgang Dachstein (1487-1553)

The Prophet Jonah Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo 1512

1. When Jonah came to Nineveh

And spoke about God’s anger,

The people all fell to their knees

And learned to pray for mercy

And fled unto God’s mercy seat

And in their ashes they sat down;

With prayers and tears they fasted;

They feared the might and power of God,

And rent their gaudy clothes of sin

And dressed themselves in ash cloth.

2. When Nathan told a parable

About King David’s ruin,

His rue and sorrow filled with woe,

It moved his heart to weeping.

When God once looked at Peter’s face,

It moved his heart to bitter tears

And right away repented.

But I, a disobedient Bride,

So often hear my Lord’s commands

And still I stumble on them.

3. Now I who often grieve my Lord

To terrible fits of anger

Will now just like a Ninevite

Again for grace be praying.

With David I will now repent

And fall before the Savior’s feet,

Like Peter weep in sorrow

And leave the scornful company

That sits beside me fraud’lently

With evil in their being.

4. I am with Manasseh prepared

To bow my heart to Jesus.

Now sin cuts deeply through my heart;

I fall onto the pavement

And with Maria I’m prepared

To cast myself before Christ’s feet

Like a repentant sinner

And wet his feet with my salt tears

And dry them with my haughty hair

That I know he will favor.

5. And so just like the Prodigal

Who turned to see his father,

I go to Jesus with my prayers

To say I am a sinner;

Just like the needy publican

I’ll pound my breast in great regret

And yearn for your great mercy;

And like the thief I’ll cry to you,

O Jesus Lord, remember me,

And take me home to heaven.

6. For when one sinner does convert,

The angels break out singing,

And Jesus who is mild and good

Is filled with grace inviting.

He went to find the only one

The little lamb that had been lost

And left the nine and ninety

Who trusted in themselves alone

And were not ready to repent;

His word can never save them.

7. I do not think it is a shame

Acknowledging my evil

To flee to Christ, God’s precious Lamb

With penitence to find him.

If I could not depend on grace,

I’d fall to pieces suddenly.

And die in pain and sorrow.

Now that I’ve sent my heart to him

With tears upspringing from my faith,

The world may want to question.

8. If Satan prosecutes me now,

My Savior will defend me;

The law may press down hard on me,

My Lord will always clear me.

The world will always bear a grudge,

Cause pain and trouble in my heart

But death will never move me,

Should hell then open up its mouth

And swallow me into the ground,

God’s power can overcome it.

9. O Jesse’s branch, O David’s root,

O heaven’s highest regent,

The whole world worships at your feet

And all of God’s creation.

I bow before your mercy’s door,

With hope and bowed head I now come,

I know you’ll not despise me.

Take me unto yourself with love;

My eyes brim up with pain and tears,

O my heart’s dear ransacker!

Tr. Gracia Grindal


Jonah and the Whale. William Taverner 1745-1770

The Old Testament lesson for Sunday is the story of Jonah, the reluctant missionary. It is a wonderful account of God’s persistence despite the lack of persistence from one he has called to serve him. Jonah does what most of us have done once or twice: we have heard a call to serve the Lord and fled as fast as we could in the other direction.

As Jonah is fleeing to the other side of the world, God raises up a storm. Finally, to save the them, Jonah lets them cast him into the water as a sacrifice. A whale swallows him and there he sits for three days.

When he is cast up onto dry land, he goes to Nineveh and preaches, very successfully. The people, on hearing his message, repent. This upsets Jonah who goes and pouts outside the city until God comes to him again for a talk.

There are not a lot of hymns on this subject, but there should be some. This spiritual, and a kids’ song, plus this very serious hymn by Norway’s first woman hymn writer. She uses Nineveh as a beginning example of repentance and follows the story a bit in her long text on the nature of repentance, referencing repentant sinners through the Bible, some fairly obscure, but Dorothe’s readers did know Scripture well enough to get the allusions.

Although Dorothe reads the story of Jonah very seriously, there is a bit of humor in it. Brit G. Hallqvist, Sweden’s favorite hymn writer of the last half of the last century, wrote many little poems on biblical characters for children. My favorite is one she wrote for her children as they were on the ferry between the continent and Sweden. Being cooped up in the car reminded her of Jonah and she wrote this delightful little rhyme:

In the darkness of the whale’s belly,

The prophet Jonah sat,

Completely doubled over

He sighed and then he wept.

He blew his nose, and wrote a postcard

Telling his old aunts not to fear,

“Having a wonderful time,” he wrote,

“I wish that you were here!”

Hallqvist, “Vykort,” Vers på resa 1969. Tr. Gracia Grindal

I love the way she used Scripture to describe their time on the ferry. And the fact that she found it funny. We should teach children to describe their lives in the language and stories of Scripture. Like my nephew when he was four standing by the glass cage at the zoo where lions were pacing back and forth. I asked him what he was thinking, "Daniel!" he said.

Maybe this Sunday as we hear the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, we might smile and see ourselves in him while praising God for the alacrity with which Andrew, Peter, James and John answered the call.

HYMN INFO Dorothe’s hymn was the first hymn in her first book, a collection of hymns on the church year, The Soul’s Song Offering 1678. (For more on her work see Hymn 141).

The text can be sung to a venerable hymn tune, An Wasserflüssen Babylon. The tune by Wolfgang Dachstein originally went with his paraphrase of Psalm 137. It was well known in its time. Dachstein worked with Luther on his liturgy, and became organist in Strasbourg, serving first at St. Thomas church and then the Cathedral. He was the first well known organist of the Reforatmion.


Jonah/the Spiritual

A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth

Soprano Solo and Organist Bálint Karosi

Bach's BWV 653 Organ Prelude to the tune An Wasserflüssen Babylon

NB: Lent is less than a month away. A wonderful Lenten discipline is reading the Passion hymns, one for every day of Lent. Follow the link to buy it and receive it in time.

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