Text: Jonah 1:3-17
But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. But the Lord sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up…
Have you ever experienced a time of hardship which you interpreted as God’s judgment in your life? What did you make of it? Did you know what it was for and what you were supposed to do about it? You might not think about it this way, but times of disaster tend to also be times when people draw nearer to God. This is true even for people who are not normally religious, as we saw in this country on September 11th. And while it is easy to dismiss a religious experience which is born out of fear, we need to be careful not to go too far. God does use disaster and temporal judgment to draw us to Himself, and very often He uses His judgment as the means of our salvation. This is what we see in our text today. Jonah brings judgment upon himself and the Gentile sailors, and yet God Himself is in the storm. God uses this frightening event to actually convert the Gentile sailors, and He also provides a means of deliverance to Jonah, even if it was a giant fishbelly.
Last week we mentioned how Jonah tried to run away from God, and today we see that, in the words of Blind Willie Johnson, “Can’t nobody hide from God.” Jonah “went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. But the Lord sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up” (Jonah 1:3-4). God caught up with Jonah, and He did so by sending a great storm. This storm was divine judgment, but more importantly it was divine presence. It was how God showed Himself to Jonah and the sailors. God was in the storm, and the people took notice.
Jonah and the Gentiles
Then the mariners were afraid; and every man cried out to his god, and threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten the load. But Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down, and was fast asleep. So the captain came to him, and said to him, “What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish.” (vs 5-6)
We can learn a few things from these sailors. The first is the fact of the situation. Jonah’s sin impacted them. Here we learn that none of us are true individuals. What we do, even in private, can affect other people, and Jonah’s personal sin brings immediate danger on these Gentile sailors. This remains true enough for us today. Our lives can be a blessing or a curse to our neighbors. The way we respond to God has public consequences.
Notice also the contrast between the attitude of Jonah and the attitude of the sailors. They are taking things very seriously, as they fear for their lives and frantically try to throw the cargo overboard to save the ship. What’s Jonah doing in all of this? Why he’s down below in what the text calls a “deep sleep.” This expressions is meant to show us that Jonah is totally disconnected from reality. Whether out of denial, fear, or overwhelming depression, Jonah has gone to sleep in order to hide from the severity of his situation. He must know that he can’t really get away from God. And now the Gentile captain wakes him up and commands Jonah to help by praying for all of their lives. The captain is something of a practical polytheist at this point, but he still comes out looking better than Jonah. His fear is driving him to God while Jonah’s is driving him away.
And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this trouble has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. (vs. 7)
Here we see the way men of this time in history looked for supernatural explanations. They cast lots to try to find spiritual guidance. Now what is this casting of lots, and was it a permissible thing to do? This is actually a bit of a complicated question. God’s own people do cast lots several times in the Bible (Lev. 16:8, Josh. 18:6, Acts 1:23-26). This was an ancient practice where sticks or stones marked with some symbol would be thrown, or sometimes drawn out from a bunch, and the result was interpreted as God’s answering some question for the people. It was similar to drawing the “shortest straw,” as you sometimes hear people doing today. Only in the context of the Hebrews, it was understood that God was directly working through this ritual. As Proverbs says, “The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:33).
In Jonah, however, the people casting lots are Gentiles and pagans. Therefore, they do not believe that Yahweh, the true God, is the One communicating. Instead they probably are thinking about some collection of other gods or maybe even just blind luck. This kind of superstition is always condemned in the Bible (Lev. 19:26, Deut. 18:10). The problem wasn’t the casting of the lot per se but rather who you thought was controlling the outcome. Anyone who relies on other gods commits idolatry. We shouldn’t try to communicate with spirits or to use “luck” to guide us today either. To do so is contrary to what we believe about God and His sovereignty.
Grace in Confusion
This action on the part of the sailors shows the fairly unthinking religious reaction that is common in times of disaster. And while we can criticize it, we should also be careful not to miss the fact that God does in fact hear them and respond. This means that God can and does hear superficial, immature, confused, and frightened prayers of people today, even of people who might not yet know Him truly. And so let us not despise religious reactions. They shouldn’t be our normal way of business, but they can often be very true times of spirituality. One of the most sincere and effective prayers I’ve ever heard is simply, “Oh God! Help.” There is, then, another lesson for us here. God can work through sinful people, and God can also work through sinful actions and plans. The falling of the lot wasn’t chance. It was God. God took advantage of this opportunity to reveal Himself.
When the sailors see that Jonah is to blame, they ask him what’s going on. Jonah replies:
“I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, “Why have you done this?” For the men knew that he fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. (Jonah 1:9-10)
Again we see that the pagans had a better religious mind about them than Jonah did at this time. Jonah says, apparently missing the irony, that he fears the Lord, “the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land.” If that’s really true, then why is he acting so foolishly? I think that it is true, that Jonah did fear the Lord, but his sin had allowed him to fall into a state of spiritual dullness. I think he is a believer, even in this rebellion, but his mind is very cloudy and he contradicts himself left and right. As we said last week, this is something that each of us can fall into if we are not self-critical about our own sin. We shouldn’t rush to judgment on people who are in rebellion, but we should also take care to guard our own hearts and minds lest we fall into confusion and spiritual contradiction as well.
The Gentiles seem to have a better understanding of the situation, and they know that Jonah’s sin has brought doom upon them. “What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?” they ask (vs. 11). They saw plainly that this was divine judgment. Jonah answers, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea; then the sea will become calm for you. For I know that this great tempest is because of me” (vs. 12).
Did Jonah know what would happen next? We can’t say. He may have thought that he needed to actually be sacrificed to an angry God. He may not have had any plan at all. He may have just given up. We don’t know. The sailors still show some virtue in that they do not want to go along with this plan. They try everything they can to save the ship before finally agreeing to Jonah’s plan:
Therefore they cried out to the Lord and said, “We pray, O Lord, please do not let us perish for this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O Lord, have done as it pleased You.” So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. (vs. 14-15)
Notice how they ask for mercy. They don’t know what all is going on, and they do not know very much about this God to whom they are now praying. But they know one thing. They know that He is in charge. Jonah’s God is powerful. Jonah’s God commands the sea. And they call Him by His name, Yahweh. This cry of confusion and despair is actually the first step in their salvation.
God Saves Through the Storm
“Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows” (vs. 16). Here we see that the sailors have come around to actually worshipping the true God. They witnessed His power and His fury, and rather than driving them away from Him, it drove them to their knees in repentance. This is how they were saved. Let this too be a lesson. Despite what the world may say, fear is a necessary part of religion, and displays of God’s awful power do bring men to faith. They understand that powers are bigger than they are. They know that they are guilty and need to repent. They cry out for mercy. God uses the storm, not to destroy but to save. He even provided a means of rescue for Jonah. It was more judgment for a time but it proved to also be more grace. “Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (vs. 17). Every bit of this was a part of God’s plan to bring about His purposes, to show His glory, and to save sinners.
What sort of storms have come into your life? What sort of opportunities did they present? The way we carry ourselves through times of opposition, judgment, and affliction is our clearest testimony. And even if it is confused and partially self-contradictory, as Jonah’s was, it is still a witness to those around us. Jonah’s sin and rebellion actually became a means of salvation for those Gentile sailors.Think about that. God used Jonah’s sin to save others. And He can do that with us today. With us, against us, because of us, despite us—God is in the storm.
There are few more chapters left in Jonah, and there are a few more things he must go through before God finally gets the message across to him, and to us. Today, however, we conclude with Jonah in the belly of the great fish and those Gentile sailors alive and worshipping the true God, the God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land. Jonah’s sin did indeed bring about judgment, but it also brought salvation as he ended up preaching despite his will. God used His prophet even when His prophet did not want to be used, and God used this time of judgment and affliction as a means of salvation.
Remember this in your life. God will use you to preach His word, and He’ll do it one way or another. God will bring judgment on you if you seek to avoid His will, but that judgment is not an end in itself but a means to call you to your senses, to show God’s glory, and even to save the people in your life who see and experience it. Can you see this happening, or are you still asleep? In the words of Jonah’s captain, “Wake up! Call upon your God! Perhaps He will consider us.” And we know that He will. Believe.
Let us pray.