Like so many other passages in the Bible, the book of Jonah gives us a sobering reflection of our own hearts, and a thrilling glimpse into God’s heart. Consider the first chapter of Jonah – the story of the storm. It begins with Jonah receiving three instructions from God: get up, get going, and get preaching to Nineveh. To actually go to Nineveh and preach for God there was a unique and even bizarre commission. Why would God ask him to do that? Unlike some prophets who hesitated or questioned God’s call, Jonah just flat-out rebelled against it. He got up, and got going in the opposite direction. Maybe he felt that he could put himself out of the reach of God’s calling, or maybe he felt that Tarshish was a better alternative to this horrifying calling to Nineveh. But what Jonah discovered is that going away from God is always going in the direction of disaster and death.
The rest of the chapter tells the story of the storm. God doesn’t just let Jonah run away. There is something about God’s relentlessness that should cause us to pause and praise God for his determination in the pursuit of his people.
God hurled a storm at the ship, and in response the sailors frantically hurled their cargo overboard while crying out to their own gods. Maybe it was in that cargo-dispatching exercise that Jonah came to light, sleeping in the hold of the ship. His sleep is described as a deep sleep, but that does not mean it was not tormented. I can imagine him hearing God’s call in his sleep: “Rise…go…call out!” Next thing he knows, the ship’s captain is shaking him awake with almost identical words: “Rise…call out!”
The rest of the narrative is wrapped around an exchange between the sailors and Jonah. They cast lots and find out that Jonah is the key to understanding this terrifying storm.
Who are you, Jonah? So they ask him about his God, and then they ask what they should do for that God. They actually start by asking a series of questions about his occupation, his hometown, his nation and his ethnic heritage. It sounds like an invitation to give a self-introduction, but really they are asking about the spheres where Jonah would be expected to have gods. These sailors were pagans, and they wanted to know which of Jonah’s gods was upset with them – was it the god of his occupation, or the local god of his hometown, etc. But Jonah finally speaks and says, “I fear the LORD.” He goes on to explain that the LORD is the God of heaven, the creator of the sea and dry land. This is no local deity in the playground of the pantheon of local deities. This is the ultimate cosmic God over all.
Did Jonah fear the LORD? He was running away from the LORD’s calling. He was sleeping when everyone else was trying to save the ship. He was silent as they were trying to discern the source of the terrifying storm. And even after this moment of revealing his God’s identity, Jonah doesn’t ask for a moment to repent of his sin – he merely instructs the sailors to throw him overboard. He is more committed to dying than he is to honouring the LORD’s calling on his life.
Jonah feared the LORD with his lips, but apparently not with his life. He cuts a deeply forlorn figure in this chapter.
Who are you, sailors? The writer wants us to contrast Jonah with the pagan sailors on the ship. Jonah used the word “fear” to describe his relationship with God, but the writer tells us multiple times that these sailors were afraid too. They feared the storm (v5) and so cried out to their individual gods. Perhaps their hurling of cargo included a sense of making sacrifices to their gods – but nevertheless, their gods remained mute and unresponsive. Then, when they hear about the LORD from Jonah, they are exceedingly afraid. These hardened pagan sailors show a startling “godliness” when Jonah tells them to throw him overboard. First, they try to dig through the waves and row to dry land, but they are unsuccessful. Then they demonstrate their fear of the LORD as they cry out to him (something Jonah never does in this chapter). Then, after they throw Jonah overboard, we are told they feared the LORD exceedingly (v16) and offered sacrifices and vows to him.
Did these pagans become fearers of the LORD? In some way, they clearly did. They seem to be responsive to what they learn about him. They try not to throw Jonah into the sea, perhaps recognizing that this God could genuinely judge them for it, and they cry out to the LORD when they finally feel forced to into it (notice the use of God’s name!) And then, once the instant calm descends, instead of laughing off the whole situation, they are then deliberate about making a sacrifice to this God, and they make vows for the future too!
These sailors went from fearing a storm to fearing the LORD with their lives, as well as their lips. They offer a stark contrast to Jonah in this chapter.
Who are you, God? Perhaps this storm-at- sea narrative touches a nerve for some of us. First, even for the hardened pagan sailors who did not know God at all, there was hope. They were introduced to him and responded beautifully. There is nobody in our continent today that is so hardened and so distant from God that they cannot come to know him. God could have simply sunk the ship, but he spared these sailors. As soon as Jonah made a splash, the sea ceased from its raging. The mercy of God.
Second, and perhaps more relevantly for many of us: even if we are running from God in some way; even if we should know better; even if our claim to fear the LORD is clear from our lips, but hard to discern in our lives – there is hope. Jonah knew God and responded terribly. Perhaps you feel that, of all God’s people in this continent, you are the most like Jonah at this time. You should know better, but you’ve drifted too far. God could simply give up on us, but he doesn’t. Jonah hit the water anticipating that when he gasped for his next breath, he would fill his lungs with seawater and perish. But God appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah. The mercy of God.
At the end of Jonah chapter 1 there are many questions left unanswered. Why was Jonah so determined not to go to Nineveh and preach God’s message? Why was he so willing to die rather than preach? And so on. But one thing is clear, and this one thing is good for us to ponder for our continent and for ourselves: our God is fiercely merciful. He is determined. He does not give up. He will come after us.
Praise God for his fierce mercy. Praise God for the hope that his Word can stir in us.