It’s been a good season for commissions, with hymns, choral anthems, and orchestral compositions waiting to be written. But first, this setting of the biblical Song of Jonah. You’ll remember that Jonah was a runaway prophet who was swallowed by a big fish sent from God. You may not remember that once Jonah was firmly lodged inside this enormous fish’s gut, he began praying to God (in song form).
Every year, Western Seminary students perform a scriptural drama in the original Hebrew as the culmination of their language studies. This year, retiring Hebrew professor Tom Boogaart and professor of worship/chapel Ron Rienstra decided to try something different: The Book of Jonah in a new English translation and with a new musical rendition of the Prayer of Jonah, composed by yours truly.
As I began to work on the song, I was struck by the water imagery that echoes Genesis 1 and Psalms 29, 42, 69, and 130. What better way to express this “out of the depths” prayer than the thundering tones of the bass? And thus the project morphed into a song with an accompaniment of five electric basses. (Yes, that is off-the-hook awesome.)
Musically, the song uses a good deal of word painting. The first phrase, “out of the depths,” is a pentatonic melody that quickly swells from lowest range of the voice to more than an octave up. I love the way this gives a musical sense of the depths, the waves, and the turbulence of Jonah’s situation. The pre-chorus (“Baptized into the cold water”) is “adrift” melodically, with a B in the melody floating on top of the Am chord, and the heavy downbeat F# crashing against the Em chord. At the chorus, there’s a sudden lift to E major. It really feels like a ray of sunlight, doesn’t it? More word painting ensues, with “You have raised me up” leaping up and “from the pit” sinking down.
1. Out of the depths of my deep distress
I cried to you, my Lord.
Swallowed up whole in the belly of death,
yet still you heard my voice.
Baptized into the cold water,
into the heart of the sea.
The deep was surging, surrounding;
wave after wave drowning me.
You have raised me up, O Lord,
from the pit I’d sunken in.
Gasping for my final breath,
you breathed me to life again.
2. I was resolved to a watery grave
as the waves rose to my neck.
Eyelids closed to the undertow,
garland of seaweed around my head.
My final thought while descending
into the cold arms of death
was of your glorious temple.
Then I slipped into the abyss. [CHORUS]
3. Out of the depths of my deep distress
I remembered you, my God.
From the abyss my prayer was heard
at your holy temple, Lord.
Some waste their prayers on deaf idols.
Some run when hearing God’s call.
I raise a voice of thanksgiving
unto the Lord, God of all. [CHORUS]