Running From God
God chose Jonah the prophet to deliver a divine message of impending judgment to the city of Nineveh. Upon receiving this call, however, Jonah did not head toward Nineveh but immediately traveled in the opposite direction to Joppa where he quickly boarded a Phoenician ship bound for Tarshish, paid his fare, and set sail across the Mediterranean Sea. In so doing, he attempted to flee from his divine mission to Nineveh.
Chapter 1 reveals how God dealt with His disobedient prophet.
Facing the Storm
Soon after embarking from Joppa, the ship encountered a storm of hurricane force that threatened to destroy the ship and all on board. The storm came directly from the hand of the Lord:
But the Lᴏʀᴅ sent [hurled] 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. 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 (vv. 4–5).
The winds beat against the ship with such force it almost tore the ship apart. The well-seasoned sailors quickly surmised that this was no ordinary storm, and they were overcome with great fear. In a panic, each sailor cried out to his heathen god for help; but the prayers were to no avail. Next, the sailors hurriedly hurled the ship’s cargo overboard, hoping to lighten the vessel enough to ride out the storm.
Meanwhile, physically and emotionally exhausted from fleeing to Joppa, Jonah had fallen sound asleep in the lowest part of the vessel and was oblivious to the raging storm beating against the ship.
The ship’s captain, disturbed by Jonah’s indifference, found the sleeping prophet below deck. “What do you mean, sleeper? Arise, call on your God; perhaps your God will consider us, so that we may not perish,” he declared (v. 6).
Either the captain was awestruck that the prophet could sleep so soundly through such a life-threatening storm, or he was indignant that Jonah was asleep when he should have been praying to his God for survival. The captain’s rough words most likely startled Jonah awake. However, there is no indication the prophet was moved to respond in prayer, whereas the heathen sailors were praying fervently to their gods.
A number of observations can be made from Jonah’s disobedient response to God’s call. First, the Lord hurled the storm at the ship to get Jonah’s attention, but the prophet was insensitive to both God’s message and the danger that awaited him and the sailors. Second, Jonah’s rebellion not only affected him, but all those with whom he came in contact. Third, the need was so great that pagan sailors prayed, but Jonah did not. Fourth, ungodly men saw the need of the hour, but God’s prophet slept through the crisis.
Seeking a Solution
Although the desperate sailors offered up much prayer to their gods and jettisoned the cargo to save their vessel, their efforts were futile. The violent storm raged on. Upon reflection, the sailors concluded that someone on board was responsible for bringing divine wrath on them. 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” (v. 7).
Casting lots was an ancient custom in the Near East. Jews and Gentiles alike often cast lots to determine the divine will on an issue. Pebbles or pieces of wood were marked, put into a receptacle, and withdrawn randomly in an effort to make a fair decision. (See Leviticus 16:8, 10; Numbers 26:55; Joshua 7:14; 18:10; Esther 3:7; Proverbs 16:33; Nahum 3:10; Matthew 27:35; Luke 1:9; and Acts 1:26.)
So the sailors cast lots to see who was guilty, and the lot fell on Jonah. But they took no action until they received more information from the prophet. They interrogated him with five questions: “Please tell us!For whose cause is this trouble upon us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” (v. 8).
Jonah quickly divulged his identity: “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the Lᴏʀᴅ [Jehovah], the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land” (v. 9).
The prophet’s answers revealed a number of things. First, Jonah said he feared “the Lᴏʀᴅ.” He was being disingenuous, however, for if he really feared God he would not have rebelled against Him. Second, he made it clear that Jehovah was the true, sovereign God of heaven who ruled the universe. Third, he believed that his God created the sea and land and thus controlled the elements of the world. Fourth, Jonah told the mariners that he had fled from the Lord’s presence (v. 10).
Upon hearing Jonah’s answers, the sailors realized that Jonah’s God had brought the storm. “Then the men were exceedingly afraid, and said to him, ‘Why have you done this?’” (v. 10). The seamen became extremely frightened because they understood that God’s discipline of the prophet was threatening to destroy them. They were also angry with Jonah for putting them in such a situation.
Acting for Survival
Realizing the sea was growing more tempestuous, the terrified sailors cried out in great fear: “What shall we do to you that the sea may be calm for us?” (v. 11). Since Jonah’s God had caused the tempest, they logically asked the prophet how they could appease his God and thus bring calm to the sea.
Jonah did not hesitate to answer: “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” (v. 12).
Jonah knew in his heart that the storm had come because of his rebellion and disobedience, and he admitted his guilt to the sailors. Jonah believed that by sacrificing his own life, God would calm the sea and spare the innocent men. Whether God had told Jonah to take this action or he intuited that it would calm the sea is unknown. It is not unreasonable for Jonah to have believed that dying at sea would free him from his commission; and apparently he preferred perishing to preaching to the cruel and brutal heathens of Nineveh.
The sailors, however, did not immediately take Jonah up on his offer. Instead, they rowed harder, hoping to outride the storm. But the harder they rowed, the more turbulent the sea became (v. 13). Realizing their efforts were futile, they cried to Jehovah for survival: “We pray, O Lᴏʀᴅ, please do not let us perish for this man’s life, and do not charge us with innocent blood; for You, O Lᴏʀᴅ, have done as it pleased You” (v. 14).
The sailors’ extremely fervent prayer reveals that they recognized Jehovah was the true and living God—the only One who could save them. They also recognized that He alone created the land and sea and was sovereign over life. Furthermore, they prayed that God would not hold them accountable for taking Jonah’s life, an action they considered to be the shedding of innocent blood. Lastly, since God had acted out of the good pleasure of His own will and allowed the storm for His own purposes, the sailors prayed that Jehovah would spare their lives.
After praying, they were convinced that Jonah should be cast overboard: “So they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging” (v. 15).
The calming of the sea greatly affected the sailors. It revealed that the God of Israel was, indeed, the true and living God; that Jonah’s God heard and answered their prayers; that Jonah’s God was omnipotent, able to control the elements of earth; and that Jonah’s God could accomplish what their gods could not. Thus all the sailors understood that the raging sea was directly related to Jonah’s rebellion and disobedience to his divine commission.
Immediately the sailors made a commitment to the Lord: “Then the men feared the Lᴏʀᴅ exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice to the Lᴏʀᴅ and took vows” (v. 16). Filled with great awe and reverence for Jehovah, the sailors worshiped Him.
The text would lead one to believe that these sailors converted to God or possibly incorporated Jehovah into their polytheistic religion. In any case, they zealously made vows to worship Jehovah, who had spared them from death. Their vows were expressed by offering a sacrifice (literally, “they sacrificed sacrifices”). It is doubtful these were animal sacrifices because they were at sea and had thrown the cargo overboard. It is possible that the sailors vowed to offer sacrifices once they arrived on dry land or that they immediately made sacrificial vows to serve the Lord.
What a contrast between Jonah and the heathen sailors. The sailors believed the God of Israel and worshiped Him, but Jonah had become a spectacle of spiritual defeat. From the moment he decided to flee from his divine commission, the course of his life spiraled downward. Jonah went down to Joppa to flee from God’s presence, then down into a ship, down into the lowest part of the ship, and was thrown down into the sea where he sank like a rock toward the bottom.
Upon being cast into the sea, Jonah no doubt believed that death awaited him; but such was not the case. Jonah would not die: “Now the Lᴏʀᴅ had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (v. 17).
Jonah could not flee from the Lord’s presence, as we’ll see in the next chapter.
It is impossible to run from God. Jonah tried, and he paid more than the full price for his trip: He was chastened by God, suffered spiritual depression, had a near-death experience, and caused others around him much misery.
Like Jonah, all who are disobedient to the Lord will not only face severe storms in their lives, but also bring suffering to those around them. We need to run to God, not from Him!