02 Jonah: The Strom-Tossed Prophet
Jonah: The Storm-Tossed Prophet
It is not difficult to see in the early verses of Chapter 1 and now as we continue further, that Jonah’s mess was of his own making. Rebellion always leads us into a storm.
And Jonah was in one. A GREAT storm, the Bible calls it. Jonah, you remember, was running from the clearly revealed and spoken will of God. Jonah was sent by God to bring light and hope to a GREAT city. Jonah went the other way and found himself in the middle of a GREAT storm. Few of us receive as clear an assignment as Jonah received.
But to Jonah, this assignment seemed impossible. It was impossible first, because Nineveh was a GREAT city. I’m sure most reading this have been in some of our national urban centers like New York, or LA, or Miami. The sheer number of people are overwhelming and intimidating if you don’t live around it.
Growing up in a city with a population of about 38,000 even Jacksonville is an overwhelmingly large city. It is the second metropolitan location I have lived near, including Louisville, Ky. But neither Jacksonville or Louisville look large next to Manhattan, or Dubai, or Dallas or Guatemala City.
Jonah lived in a very parochial setting, surrounded by people like him and people he liked. He knew many of them and if not, they probably knew him. Going to Nineveh was way out of Jonah’s comfort zone.
But not only did it seem an impossible assignment from God to go and preach in such a large city, but it seemed an implausible one as well. Jonah was being asked to go and offer grace and an opportunity for repentance to some of Israel’s most hated enemies! They likely didn’t even speak the same language.
It would be like a Jewish rabbi being sent to talk about the God of Israel in Tehran! “I can’t go there! They hate Jewish people there!” And that was Jonah’s conundrum. He hated the Assyrian people. And they reciprocated their hatred.
But Jonah had forgotten the forbearance and mercy of God. When Moses saw the back of God’s glory as he was hidden in the cleft of a rock in the wilderness, the word he heard as the Lord passed by was,
“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” (Exodus 34:6)
God’s nature had not changed since that proclamation. And it still has not changed! God loves your enemies as much as He loves you! Jonah was to be an emissary carrying that message to an idolatrous people.
The Fleeing Prophet
But Jonah ran from that opportunity. He fled west when God clearly told him to go east. Jonah’s intention was to book passage on a ship carrying him, literally, to the end of the world as far as the Jewish thought of that day was concerned. He was going to Tarshish, and probably bought a one-way ticket.
With this act, Jonah was retiring from the vocation of prophet. He quit. It was too hard, too unreasonable, too confusing. He hung up his prophetic mantle and ran.
Jonah is about God shaping a prophet. The story ends in Chapter 4 without a concluding word. We leave Jonah stewing on a hillside under a withered castor oil plant. We don’t know if he re-embraced his calling or not. Jonah may have been finished with God, but God was not yet finished with Jonah! Romans 11 tells us “the gifts and the calling of God are without repentance.” When God calls, God never changes His mind…even if we change ours.
Before we get there, however, we go on an incredible journey with Jonah. And that’s where our present text finds us.
Jonah had found a boat. Again, in his effort to escape from “the Presence of the Lord,” Jonah saw his ability to book passage on a ship out of Joppa that just “happened” to be going to Tarshish as good fortune to him. “You’re lucky: There’s one boat left and it’s going to Tarshish!”
It’s interesting, when we find ourselves in rebellion and disobedience, and we seem to “get lucky” and take a job we shouldn’t have, or leave our family for another person (“surely God must have sent this person to me”), that we see these as signs of our good fortune.
The Proverbs tell us “there is a way that seems right to a man, but the end are the ways of death.” The Tarshish-bound vessel seemed “right” to Jonah, but it was about to transport him into the middle of a fight for his life!
The Sleeping Prophet
Jonah was sleeping when he should have been praying. It took a frightened ship’s captain shaking him awake in the hold of the vessel during a “great” storm. Jonah was physically exhausted, no doubt to sleep through a storm like this.
But more than that, Jonah was spiritually asleep. Here is a word for the church in a fearful time. The men on this vessel were terrified, out of control, and frightened for their life.
And in the bottom of their vessel lay a man, sound asleep, who should have been awake, and on the deck, and telling these sailors to call out to the Lord of the heaven, sea, and earth.
One of the influential voices from the Jesus movement in the 1970s was Brooklyn-born Keith Green. His prophetic songs still haunt me today. One song, called “Asleep in the Light” has a refrain which says
The world is sleeping in the dark,
which the church just can’t fight
Cause it’s asleep in the light.
The sailors on the deck above were living in spiritual darkness. They were crying out to non-existent pagan gods which could offer no relief for their situation. Jonah meanwhile slept through his opportunity to be light in the darkness of their situation.
Before we start throwing stones at Jonah, however, we need to take a look in the mirror. We are living through a time, in this generation, that will define the human race from this time forward.
In the midst of the craziness of people’s responses in this fearful, anxious time…what will history say the church did? The sailors on the deck of Jonah’s ocean-going vessel were terrified for their lives. They were ready to try anything, and more receptive to truth than they had ever been.
And yet, the church’s voice is ominously silent. Are we fearful of the storm? Do we not know the God of the virus? Are we beholding to human definitions and limitations and the rebuke and fear of “political correctness?”
Or is this our hour to wake up? We’ve been “asleep in the light” for longer than I can remember. Our message no longer has relevance to a broken world. They think we have nothing to say that must be heard.
I wonder if it’s possible that, like the frightened sailors, the world is now searching for a true word, a hopeful word in this storm? And if they are, can we rouse ourselves from our slumber?
I find myself convicted by this passage. I see myself in Jonah’s face, wrinkled by blankets of self-righteousness and an unwillingness to be inconvenienced by the cries of despair around me. More often than I’d like to admit, I hear the cries and roll over and go back to sleep…always wrapped in the comfort of my excuses.
When will we stop dickering over our petty political posturing and step up to be the church? When will we prioritize the message of the cross over any other message? When will we rouse from our sleep and ask the Lord of Heaven and Earth to still the storm and show His power to the fear-blinded world around us?
A fearful, sin-blinded, and storm-tossed world is waiting for a word from the sleeping church. If God has truly placed us here “for such a time as this…” isn’t now the time to rouse from our slumber and speak and live for Jesus?
Jonah never found his identity, never let the sailors know who he was as a prophet. He never embraced his identity as God’s man in that situation. He hid in fear…in apathy…and turned a deaf ear to the despairing cries of the sailors on the ship.
The Hiding Prophet
When Jonah was awakened in the belly of the ship, not by the storm but by an insistent, pagan ship’s captain. I don’t know how it goes for you, but there have been times that I have been awakened and didn’t know I had been asleep!
The problem today with the church is, we think we are awake.
But in reality, we are asleep.
The Waking Prophet
Whether or not Jonah knew the despair of his situation was unclear. He had slept through the storm. Jesus did the same in the Gospels. When Jesus was awakened tough, He calmed the storm.
When Jonah awakened, he did the same, though in a different way. Jonah had already missed a lot of the action:
“But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So, the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” Jonah 1:4-6
Jonah was awakened by a pagan sailor throwing question after question at his passenger:
“How can you sleep through this?”
“Get up and call out to your god.”
One of the awkward moments for a backslidden, disobedient Christian is having someone ask him to pray for them. “Everyone on this ship is calling out to their god, Jonah. Why won’t you?”
Jonah could have honestly responded, “My God and I aren’t on Speaking terms at this time.” But he climbed wearily to the deck and saw the peril of the storm.
“And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So, they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” And he said to them, “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, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.” (Jonah 1:7-10)
The men in desperation did the best they could spiritually. They knew they were at the mercy of a power greater than they themselves could control.
And so, they cast lots. This was a common way of seeking answers and solving problems in that day. They were superstitious, like most people are who reject the truth of the Living God.
We may not resort to “casting lots” per se but a world that flounders spiritually will consult fortune tellers, Ouija boards, palm readers, horoscopes and other occult and voodoo and Wiccan approaches to try and find answers for life.
Paul tells us in the New Testament that when we reject the truth, we are susceptible to believe any lie. The more we push the truth back, the more appealing a lie will seem to us. We see it happening all the time in the media, and in entertainment, and even in politics and government.
These men were doing all that they knew to do. And the lot, interestingly, fell to Jonah. He was the problem. He was the reason for the storm.
Immediately questions began to come:
“Who are you?”
“Where are you from”
“What is your nationality?”
“Who is your god?”
“What did you do to make him angry?”
When he answered their questions, they were terrified! “What is this you have done?” He had already told them that he was running away from the presence of the Lord.
And so now, they are left with a quandary. They know who is to blame for the storm. They know he is from the Hebrew people and they had obviously heard of the God of Israel and were terrified by that knowledge!
What are we to do to stop this storm? The answer surprises them.
And repels them. Jonah said, “Throw me overboard and the storm will stop.”
The Sinking Prophet
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the Lord, “O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” So, they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
Jonah’s suggestion that they throw him in the raging waves did not appeal to the men. As desperate as they were, they still sought to escape the tempest by their own strength. The men “rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not…”
They feared the Lord of the storm. They were afraid of what His wrath might do if they injured one of His prophets. Their confession and their statement “…for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you” was an expression of theological confidence that Jonah should have demonstrated.
It’s an embarrassment to Christian people at times when the world speaks more truth about God than we do. Certainly, it seems at times that unsaved, worldly people have a more certain moral compass than those who claim to know the Lord.
These things are cause for embarrassment for those who named the name of the Lord as their God. We should be proclaiming truth to a lost world, not the world repeating things to us about God. We should be shining out in our lifestyles and moral choices, reflecting God’s light to the world.
And yet far too often it is the case that we are outlived and sometimes, out-thought spiritually by a world that has no access to the Holy Spirit. These things should not be true of us.
After praying to the God of Jonah to forgive them for casting His prophet into the stormy waters, they threw Jonah overboard. Immediately, the waters calmed…the winds ceased…the boat returned to normal…the skies cleared.
And they did the unlikely…the unexpected. They worshiped. They truly worshiped the Lord of Heaven and Earth and the sea and offered sacrifices. Once again, these are things Jonah should have done, but would not do.
In his backslidden, disobedient state Jonah bore witness to the greatness of God in spite of himself! God accomplished His greater purpose even without the positive help of Jonah, and even more in spite of Jonah’s efforts to frustrate God’s will!
But now, Jonah was adrift in an ocean, and truly in the hands of God.
A Concluding Application
All of the little Book of Jonah is an incredible well-told, artfully written literary work. It takes on so many themes and so many important subjects that one time reading it will lead to many others.
But a question that arises time after time is this: Did this really happen? Is this (as some have said to me) a “preacher story?” In other words, is it some made-up or hyperbolized anecdote or is this a recounting of an actual event with a real person?
It is certainly a true story (actual event, historical rooting) as far as the Lord Jesus was concerned. He referred, not only to the Jonah account, but read Himself into it!
In Matthew 12:39-40, Jesus spoke of being “three days and three nights” in the ground as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish. Jesus saw Himself as the fulfillment of Jonah and of Jonah’s ministry.
Now there are certainly some hard things in that to understand. Jesus was not comparing Himself with a disobedient, fleeing prophet. By no means. But there are two things we need to pay attention to in what Jesus said.
First, Jonah was cast into the sea as a means of appeasing the wrath of God being demonstrated in the storm. His sacrifice saved the ship and the men aboard from perishing. He allowed them to offer his body as a sacrifice for the sake of their salvation.
Like us, the men sought first, in vain, to save themselves. They worked. They tried hard. They were genuine and sincere in their effort, but without the sacrifice of another their efforts were in vain.
Second, Jonah was swallowed (next chapter) by a “gedola” or great fish. Not necessarily a whale, though it could have been. The question that lingers in the Jonah story, especially since Jesus points to it as a type of His coming death and resurrection, is “did Jonah die?” We will come back to that in the next session.
But clearly, we see in Jonah an Old Testament telling of the Gospel that would not be preached by the church for many years after Jonah walked on the earth. How beautiful that, even before Jesus was born to Mary in Bethlehem, the Gospel story was being outlined and told by a soggy, Old Testament prophet named Jonah.