Jonah 1:4-10

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.” 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 lost 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 1:4-10

Jonah had found his way to Joppa, there to find a ship going to Tarshish, as far away from the special presence of the LORD as he thought he could get. He had refused to be the mouthpiece of the LORD by which He spoke a message of judgment to the Assyrians at Nineveh in order to lead them to repent and be spared; in other words, Jonah had relinquished his vocation as a prophet of the LORD and was seeking to flee from his duty. In God’s providence, Jonah found a ship in Joppa headed for Tarshish, and the LORD allowed him to gain passage aboard the merchant ship. It would seem that Jonah’s plan to run away had worked… but the LORD our God is not the God of the land only, but He is “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” The stormy Mediterranean was God’s obedient servant, even if Jonah was not. And stormy it certainly was. Josephus, writing in the late first century AD, says of Joppa (and another maritime city called Dora, on the coast north of Joppa), that they are “not fit for havens, on account of impetuous south winds that beat upon them, which, rolling the sands that come from the sea against the shores, do not admit of ships lying in their station; but the merchants are generally there forced to ride at their anchors in the sea itself.”[1] The winds were one thing; it also had a semicircular reef 300 feet off-shore, making entrance from the south impossible. Despite its reef and weather, and though once belonging to the Philistines, Joppa had become the main port for Israel during the time of Solomon, as we’ve seen. However, when the Assyrian king Sennacherib came to put down a revolt in 701 BC,[2] he records that he destroyed the city and that it belonged at the time to the Philistines. It would later pass to the Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, etc. It is here in Joppa that Jonah successfully boarded a ship to Tarshish… a victory he would soon regret.

The prophet writes, 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. It’s unclear how far the ship had made it before the winds picked up, and with the winds came a tempest so terrible that it was like to break the ship apart. Usually, when we think of hurricanes, we tend to think of the Caribbean; but, Mediterranean tropical-like cyclones, sometimes known as Medicanes, have been known to occur. It’s not that the storm that was now destroying the ship to Tarshish was a medicane (though it’s possible), but the weather of that sea can be extremely treacherous. Consider the storm at sea in Acts 27. Luke writes, “Soon a tempestuous wind, called the northeaster (sometimes called the Euroclydon), struck down from the land. And when the ship was caught and could not face the wind, we gave way to it and were driven along. Running under the lee of a small island called Cauda, we managed with difficulty to secure the ship’s boat. After hoisting it up, they used supports to undergird the ship. Then, fearing that they would run aground on the Syrtis, they lowered the gear, and thus they were driven along. Since we were violently storm-tossed, they began next day to jettison the cargo. And on the third day they threw the ship’s tackle overboard with their own hands. When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest lay on us, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”[3] Jonah and the mariners are sailing the same sea as would Paul and Luke so many centuries later, and it was just as tempestuous in Jonah’s time as it would be in the time of the Apostles. In both instances, though, we see that the storm is not outside the sovereign control of the LORD. Jonah’s storm has been hurled upon him by the LORD he is seeking to flee; Paul’s storm will be used by God to display God’s sovereignty over the sea and the lives of 276 men.[4] The storm, as are all things else, is directed by “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” He Who created the universe, providentially controls the universe.

Psalm 107 relates: “Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters; they saw the deeds of the LORD, his wondrous works in the deep. For he commanded and raised the stormy wind, which lifted up the waves of the sea. They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths; their courage melted away in their evil plight; they reeled and staggered like drunken men and were at their wits’ end. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed. Then they were glad that the waters were quiet, and he brought them to their desired haven.”[5] But the frightened mariners do not call upon Him, at least, not at first. 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. So deluded are these pagans, that they cry out to gods that are no gods at all; for the LORD our God is one![6] They put out their hands to save themselves; but salvation belongs to the LORD![7] There is one aboard whose prayers would be answered by the living God, but where is he? But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. On deck the men were scrambling for their lives, and for Jonah’s; but the disgraced prophet was nestled below, asleep. Though the mariners were pagans, they were more pious than Jonah, for they were at least awake and praying to their abominations. But Jonah, who knew the living God and had sought to escape His presence, was peacefully slumbering. Matthew Henry writes, “Sin is stupefying, and we are to take heed lest at any time our hearts are hardened by the deceitfulness of it. What do men mean by sleeping on in sin, when the word of God and the convictions of their own consciences, warn them to arise and call on the Lord, if they would escape everlasting misery? Should not we warn each other to awake, to arise, to call upon our God, if so be he will deliver us?”[8] Indeed, this is precisely what the terrified captain does when he finds that Jonah is below decks and sound 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.” How shameful that a prophet of God should have to be reminded of his duty by a pagan sea captain!

The prophet continues, 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. Solomon writes in the Proverbs, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”[9] The mariners would have been unlikely to know of this proverb, and were relying on their false gods, or perhaps on some fatalistic philosophy; yet it was the LORD Who manifested the culprit through their use of lots. Just as He is the God of heaven, the God of the sea, and the God of the land, so He is the God of the lot. 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?” That which is translated here “on whose account” is more literally, though idiomatically, “for what to whom”; thus, they are asking Jonah what he has done, and to whom he has done it. At this point it would also be expedient to know that the word that is translated “evil” can also be translated “disaster”.[10] Earlier, when the LORD commissioned Jonah to go to Nineveh, He had told Jonah that “their evil has come up before me.”[11] There it had born an ethical connotation; that is, the wickedness of Nineveh was going to result in the disaster that was to come upon them unless they repented at Jonah’s preaching. Here, the disaster that had befallen Jonah and the mariners was the result of the wickedness of Jonah perpetrated against the LORD and against the people of Nineveh, whom the LORD pitied.[12] The mariners ask Jonah of his occupation; one wonders if this was not a prick to the prophet’s conscience. They also ask concerning his nationality and ethnicity, lest he be of a people particularly hated of their gods. 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. That he had told them, probably means that he told them then, and that this was an abridged version of the actual relation. We’re told that the men were exceedingly afraid. Note that LORD is in all-caps in your English Bible, thus denoting the covenant name of the God of Israel. Apparently, these mariners were not ignorant, nor were they obtuse; they had likely heard of the God Who had brought His people out of Egypt with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm”.[13] He is not some tribal deity like their pathetic chunks of wood and stone;[14] rather, He is the God of heaven, Who made the land and the sea! In the frightened voice of the mariners one can hear the devastated din of despair. “Jonah, you’ve doomed us all.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does the LORD sometimes allow our folly to succeed?
  2. For Paul, God’s providential control over the storm was a comfort; for Jonah and the mariners, it spelled disaster. What’s the difference?
  3. Jonah is reminded by the pagan captain to arise and do his duty. What implications does this have for a slumbering church?

[1] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 15.9.6.

[2] Isaiah 36-38; 2 Kings 18-19

[3] Acts 27:14-20

[4] Acts 27:38

[5] Psalm 107:23-30

[6] Deuteronomy 6:4

[7] Jonah 2:9

[8] Matthew Henry, Concise Commentary, Jonah 1:4-7

[9] Proverbs 16:33

[10] רַע

[11] Jonah 1:2

[12] Jonah 4:11

[13] Deuteronomy 4:34; Psalm 136:7

[14] Isaiah 44:9-20

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