Jonah 1:11-16

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 and made vows. Jonah 1:11-16

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”[1] These words were spoken by Moses in his last exposition of God’s Law to God’s people before they entered the Promised Land. The “Shema”, as it is called, named for the Hebrew imperative verb that begins it, has historically been recited by the Jews in both the morning and evening. “The LORD” – denoting the covenant name of God He had revealed to His people,[2] the God of the chosen covenant people – “the LORD is one.” That the LORD is one applies to both His unity and uniqueness. That the LORD is one God denotes His unity; though He is God in Trinity, the Trinity is one God in three Persons. That the LORD is one also denotes His uniqueness; there is none like Him, and thus He alone is God; the so-called gods of the nations are nothing. This truth, taught so many centuries before Jonah, would certainly have been well-known to the runaway prophet, just as it was known to his fellow prophets.  The LORD says through His prophet Isaiah, “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.”[3] The people of God have always been monotheistic; not only do we worship the God Who is one, but we also worship the only God. However, when the LORD hurled a storm upon the sea, sovereignly commanding the elements to pursue Jonah, the terrified mariners each cried to his god – his imaginary deity – unsurprisingly to no avail. Their gods could not help them, for their gods were nothing; “For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens.”[4] When the lot providentially fell on the finally awakened Jonah, the mariners questioned their passenger about his identity, to which he responded, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”[5] It’s likely that the mariners had heard of the LORD, the covenant God of Israel, from His mighty works on behalf of His people, especially what He had done to Egypt. Here and now in their boat was one who had brazenly disobeyed the God of heaven, He Who made the land and sea; he had told them he was running away from the LORD’s special presence in Israel, and they responded in great fear. Jonah would be the end of them, and their idols could do nothing to stop it.

The prophet writes, 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. Having determined that Jonah was not a common passenger, but a prophet of the LORD Who had hurled the storm upon them, the mariners seek from him instruction in the proper course they must take to assuage God’s wrath. Earlier, the LORD had made the offending Jonah known to the mariners through the use of lots. This was practiced on occasion among the Jews as well. For example, Joshua cast lots for the people in Shiloh to determine the LORD’s will as to the apportioning of the land to the tribes.[6] The LORD also made known His will through His prophets.[7] Jonah was the only Hebrew aboard, and would thus be the one most likely to know what the LORD required for appeasement. And, what is more, though he was a disobedient runaway, he was still a prophet of God. As the sea was already about to rend the ship apart, and was growing worse by the second, something had to be done or every man on the vessel would be drowned. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know that it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” To Jonah, there was no doubt – he knew that the storm was his fault. Though we are not told explicitly, it is likely that it was by divine revelation that Jonah pronounced this sentence upon himself. After all, he was a prophet of the LORD, though he had sinfully disobeyed God’s command to go to Nineveh. Just as the LORD had hurled the great wind and tempest upon the sea, Jonah was to be hurled into the sea, there to meet his death for his sinful disobedience. The storm had not been sent because of any of the mariners; it had been sent to punish their passenger, and with him thrown to the waves, they could be assured that the storm would cease. It was a terrible sentence indeed, but it was the will of the LORD. We will see this more clearly in a moment.

Interestingly, the mariners, pagans all, seek to show mercy to Jonah. 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. The English translation of the text doesn’t quite capture the Hebrew. Rendered more literally, the text tells us that “the men dug in” with their oars. Rather than throw this man into the sea, they sought with all their might to make it back to the safety of the land. Earlier, we saw that the pagans presented a contrast to Jonah in that they were up and praying (even though they were praying to idols) while the prophet of the LORD was fast asleep in the bowels of the ship. Here, we see another interesting contrast. Jonah, who was unwilling that the LORD should show mercy to the pagan Assyrians of Nineveh, received mercy from the pagan mariners who dug in their oars, straining against the angry sea with every fiber of their weary muscles, and that to save his life. But strain as they might, they were only delaying the inevitable. They already knew that the life of Jonah was forfeit; indeed, he had told them himself that he was the cause of the storm, and that his death would be the only atonement to appease God’s wrath. The mariners were essentially fighting against the will of God, like gnats trying to topple a mountain; it was to no avail. 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.” It is important to note that though these men were all Gentiles, the moral law of God written on their hearts had not been completely erased by the Fall.[8] To hurl Jonah into the sea meant committing the dreadful act of taking a human life. Calvin writes: “Now this place shows, that there is by nature implanted in all an abhorrence of cruelty; for however brutal and sanguinary men may be, they yet cannot divest themselves of this feeling – the effusion of human blood is hateful. Many, at the same time, harden themselves; but they apply a searing iron: they cannot shake off horror, nay, they feel they are detested by God and by men, when they thus shed innocent blood. Hence it was that the sailors, who in other respects hardly retained a drop of humanity, fled as suppliants to God, when the case was about the death of man; and they said, ‘O LORD’, and the expression is repeated; which shows that the sailors earnestly prayed that the LORD would not impute this sin to them.”[9] The mariners knew that the taking of an innocent life was a crime worthy of death.[10] One wonders if the Noahic command in Genesis 9 didn’t still ring in the ears of humanity: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.”[11] But Jonah was not innocent, and it would seem that the LORD had left the mariners no other choice but to act as the prophet’s executioners. Jonah had been providentially chosen by lot; the prophet himself had pronounced the verdict and the sentence upon himself; and the storm that battered them at the LORD’s command would not relent. God had made it clear to the mariners that Jonah must die; thus, in throwing Jonah into the sea, they were doing God’s will. So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. The fact that Jonah’s being hurled into the sea was the will of the LORD was confirmed in that the storm did not merely abate over time, but the sea ceased its raging as soon as Jonah was in the tumultuous waves.

What is the result of all of this? Jonah is in the Mediterranean; his narrative will continue in v.17. The ship and those aboard it are now sailing on smooth waters, the storm having ceased. But what of these pagan mariners? Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. The events that had transpired led these men to a firm realization of the truth. “The LORD is one.” The covenant God of the Hebrews Who had sent the storm upon the sea and just as quickly made it cease, He is the God of heaven, Who made the sea and the dry land. He is to be greatly revered and honored. Though their sacrifices were not according to the Levitical law, the men manifested their awe and thanksgiving as they knew how – through sacrifice and vows. We’re not told any more about the mariners, but what we’re told is enough. In their sacrifices and vows, they declared, “The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God!”[12]

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What does the fact that there is none like the LORD imply about other religions?
  2. Were the mariners misreading God’s providence? How could they know that throwing Jonah overboard was the right thing to do?
  3. Murder is forbidden in nearly every culture. Why is that?

[1] Deuteronomy 6:4

[2] Exodus 34:6

[3] Isaiah 44:6-8

[4] Psalm 96:5

[5] Jonah 1:9

[6] Joshua 18:10

[7] Hebrews 1:1

[8] Romans 2:14-16

[9] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, Vol. 3, trans. by John Owen (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 60.

[10] Romans 1:32

[11] Genesis 9:6

[12] 1 Kings 18:39

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s