Originally published in Disciple Magazine, January 2014. Part 2 of 5
In the last post, we began looking at the book of Jonah in the larger context of the Old and New Testaments and the grand sweep of God’s plan to purchase by Christ’s blood “men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). We examined the prophetic symbolism in Jonah’s heritage, call, and actions that Christ claimed as the “sign of Jonah” (Matt. 12; 16; Luke 11). Even in the midst of Jonah’s great disobedience, God’s hand of redemption was at work, as evidenced in Jonah’s eventual repentance and writing of his story as a testimony to God’s love, faithfulness, and sovereignty. Now, we zoom in to examine the text itself, reviewing a well-known story with an eye toward the details.
After “the word of the Lord came to Jonah” (1:1) to prophesy against “Nineveh the great city,” Jonah ran the opposite direction from God and His plan. As we are told later (4:2), this was not out of fear, but hatred of Nineveh and all it stood for, and hard-hearted refusal to be the instrument of God’s grace to them. Almost immediately, however, Jonah’s planned flight from the will of the Lord goes awry (from his perspective, at least). “The Lord hurled a great wind on the sea and there was a great storm on the sea so that the ship was about to break up” (1:4). God blocked the way of Jonah’s escape, sending a violent, impossible-to-ignore storm that caused the ship’s crew (most of whom were not Jews) to cry out to their various false gods and frantically dump the ship’s cargo in order to weather the gale (1:5a).
This was all apparently lost on Jonah, who was down below “sound asleep” (1:5b). Though he was untroubled by his disobedience to God’s clear command, that was soon to change. The captain woke him up, asking him to join in the cacophony of desperate pantheistic prayers emanating from the ship (1:6), but the crew by then had moved on from pleading, determining to find out who had displeased the gods and brought this calamity. They cast lots. The dice (likely just as directed by God’s hand as the storm was) pointed to Jonah as the source of trouble, and the crew lit into him, interrogating with terrified fury (1:7-8).
It seems at this point that Jonah grasped that the “jig was up” and began to explain himself: “He said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land’” (1:9). He knew that it was no coincidence that the sea was furious—the Lord had made it so. He also explained to the crew that he was in the process of fleeing from the Most High. At that point, these crewmen, as yet unbelievers to a man, trembled in recognition that this was no mere storm or even the petty meddling of their objects of superstition. “How could you do this?” they demanded of Jonah, and pinned on him the responsibility of assuaging the storm’s swelling frenzy (1:10-11).
Jonah, perhaps out of resignation at his inability to thwart God, perhaps out of compassion for the crew suffering on his account, responded with a gruesome solution: “He said to them, ‘Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you’” (1:12). The crew, not yet willing to resort to human sacrifice (even a willing one), tried anew to outlast the storm by rowing back to land. The sea responded by increasing its rage (1:13).
At last, however, the crew laid down their oars in growing awareness of the power of Jonah’s God and prepared to follow his wishes. They were ready to appease Him, but not without concern for their own judgment at His hand if they acted wrongly, so they called upon the Lord (by His covenant name, Yahweh) in prayer: “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Lord, have done as You have pleased” (1:14). Not understanding fully, but trusting in the terrifying power and fierce justice of this God who (in their still-pagan mindset) clearly “outranked” their preferred idols, they carried out Jonah’s plan, picking him up and hurling him into the sea. Immediately, “the sea stopped its raging” (1:15).
Dumbstruck at the miracle, they “feared the Lord (Yahweh) greatly.” No acceptable action remained for them but to worship Him, so “they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (1:16). We are not told if the Lord accepted their sacrifice, what the content of their vows was, or how their lives changed after this event. The attitude conveyed, though, is one of reverent worship to the Most High God, Maker of heaven and earth.
In the midst of his arrogant disobedience, Jonah was still being used by the Lord. God was weaving a story of His sovereignty and love to be a part of Scripture for the instruction of generations. He sent a storm not only to arrange for Jonah’s discipline and return to obedience, but to force Jonah to testify about Him before another group of pagans—the ship’s crew. Just as the Ninevites would later repent and believe at the proclamation of God’s judgment, so these crew members bowed to the Lord. God, who is “gracious and compassionate…slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness and one who relents concerning calamity” (4:2), works even the evil intentions of men’s hearts to His glory and (as they repent) to their own ultimate good (cf. Gen. 50:20).
And what of Jonah? There is no indication in the text that he had yet repented and returned to obedience when he was tossed overboard. Most likely, he was sorry that he had been found out by God (as though a prophet should’ve ever expected God not to know all things), but content to be put to death rather than to fulfill his calling (cf. 4:3, 8). The Lord was not finished, though. As Jonah hit the water and begin to sink, “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah” (1:17). What must’ve been going through his mind at that moment! Now his death was to be stripped of the air of self-sacrifice he had probably assigned to it in his mind and turned into the horrifying spectacle of becoming just another meal for a beast of the deep. But he did not pass into eternity, finding his way to the stomach of the fish alive and breathing, and remaining there for three days and three nights. As we will see in chapter two, the Lord had finally arrested his full attention—Jonah could hardly ignore Him in his condition.
Even tainted by the shadow of Jonah’s disobedience, the events on the ship point to the coming rescue of mankind from the storm of sin by the “one greater than Jonah” (Matt. 12:41). Jonah was anything but innocent, his “death” in the sea did not pay the debt of sin for the ship’s crew, and his “resurrection” after three days in the fish (2:10) did not bring new life, but the picture (like so many others in the Old Testament) dimly sketched the blinding reality to come.
Just like the crew, we are helpless to escape from God’s wrath under our own strength, and all our veneration of the idols of our heart comes to nothing. It is only through the sacrifice of Christ that the storm is quelled, and the only right response to the holy love of God in redeeming us is to accept His gift with worship and thanksgiving.