Date: May 5, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Jonah 1:1–1:16
If you made a list of the most familiar Bible stories, surely Jonah would be in the top five. Most people have heard the account of Jonah’s life before, in part because it is so remarkable. Here we have the history of an eight-century prophet who defied God’s call to preach by running from the Lord, only to be tossed in the sea, swallowed by a fish, spat back out on dry land, and given the same call a second time. That’s remarkable. Not many people in the OT defy the Sovereign God and live to tell about it, but Jonah did. And if that wasn’t remarkable enough, this formerly disobedient prophet then has privilege of witnessing what can only be called a unexpected revival, in Nineveh of all places. It’s a remarkable account, a historical account that is rather familiar.
And yet, for all the familiarity, the book of Jonah is also frequently misunderstood. For example, did you know the revival in Nineveh is not the conclusion to the book? It’s not the climax. The actual conclusion is the tense exchange between Jonah and God in chapter 4, where the prophet has the audacity to talk back to God like some mouthy teenager. Again, not many people in the OT talk back to God the way Jonah does and live to tell about it. But what’s more, that tense exchange ends on something of a cliffhanger. As the book ends, we’re still not sure if Jonah has changed. Yes, he reluctantly preached to the Ninevites, but has he learned anything more about the character of God? Has Jonah seen that regardless of the people or the situation, God always remains true to his character?
And that is really the point of this remarkable OT book. The book of Jonah is about the unchanging character of the Sovereign God. In the midst of the astounding events of Jonah’s life – and they are astounding – in the midst of those events, it is actually God who stands center stage. In fact, Jonah’s life is the foil the highlights what God is like. Jonah is small, while God is sovereign. Jonah is mean-spirited and indifferent, while God is compassionate and merciful. Jonah is quick to doll out death and judgment, while God is slow to anger. We’re drawn to Jonah because his life is remarkable, but in seeing Jonah, we’re meant to behold Jonah’s God. He is the hero of this book, and Jonah’s life, including his rebellion and hard-heartedness, teaches us something about the character of God.
And that, in turn, brings the book to bear upon us. Jonah’s life not only reveals truth about God – it also convicts us of the truth about ourselves. We are far more similar to Jonah than we care to admit. Like Jonah, we delight in God’s mercy, as long as God shows it to the people we deem worthy, and that means primarily people like us. But as soon as God starts to show mercy to those other people, perhaps even our enemies – as soon as God does that, then we decide justice should override mercy. How dare God be merciful to that sinner, to those people? Doesn’t he know what they’ve done? Doesn’t he know what they deserve? That’s the piercing application of this book. It shows us more clearly what God is like, but it also confronts us with the ways we think we know better than God.
If we had to summarize the book, perhaps it would be best to say this. Jonah’s life is a living application of God’s declaration in Exodus 33 – “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and [I] will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” That’s the message of Jonah. God is not a God who delights in the death of the wicked. He is God who delights in mercy, and in that mercy, he calls sinner to repent and live. The question to us, then, is whose vision of mercy are we embracing – Jonah’s or God’s?
In light of that short overview, let’s consider the events of this opening chapter. Since God is the undoubtedly the focus of the book, we’ll consider chapter 1 from the perspective of what it reveals to us about God. To be sure, that revelation comes through Jonah’s harrowing experience at sea. But through it all, the Lord remains center stage. Specifically, it is how God acts that should get our attention here in chapter 1, and in three ways. In vv1-3, we see the God Who Calls. Vv4-10 show the God Who Pursues. And finally, vv11-16 picture the God Who Receives Glory.
The God Who Calls
We begin, then, in vv1-3 with the God Who Calls. Very quickly, v1 introduces us to the reality of God’s word. Notice again how the text begins – “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai.” On the one hand, this is standard prophetic language. Over a hundred times in the OT, you’ll read of the word of the Lord coming to one of God’s prophets. This is how God commissioned and authorized his messengers – he sent his word and called them into service. What’s more, v1 is not the only instance of Jonah serving as the Lord’s prophet. In 2 Kings 14, we read of Jonah prophesying during the reign of Jeroboam II, and in that context, Jonah’s words were fulfilled, just as the Lord intended them to be. On the one hand, v1 is standard prophetic language that calls Jonah to service.
But on the other hand, we shouldn’t miss the significance of this encounter. It should get your attention that God’s word initiates the action in this book. Jonah is a prophet, but he did not make himself a prophet. His ministry is not founded on his ideas or his word. No, Jonah’s ministry is called into being by the sovereign word of God. From the outset, it is God who calls and initiates the action.
And this emphasis on God’s sovereign word continues on in v2. Notice the message God sends Jonah to declare – “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” You may recall that Nineveh was one of the capital cities of the Assyrian empire, and the Assyrians, you may know, were not a warm and fuzzy people. The Assyrians were ruthless. They were notorious in the ancient Near East for their brutality. During Jonah’s lifetime, Assyrian power was a bit curtailed by internal problems, but it wouldn’t be long before these dreaded people were knocking on the door of the northern kingdom of Israel. In fact, if we place Jonah as ministering in the eight-century BC – which seems most likely – then it is only a matter of decades before God would use the Assyrians to destroy Israel’s northern kingdom and take the 10 northern tribes into captivity. All of that to say, being sent to Nineveh would have been a daunting task for Jonah.
But before we get to Jonah’s response, there is something else in God’s message that we should note. Did you catch how God sends Jonah to call out against Nineveh’s evil? That’s a word of warning. The Ninevites do not profess to follow the Lord God of Israel, and yet, the Lord God of Israel stands in judgment over the Ninevites. He is sovereign over all nations, not just Israel’s twelve tribes. God is the Creator, the Lord of all the earth, and therefore, even the wicked Ninevites stand accountable to him. God sends Jonah to Nineveh because God is the Lord of every person everywhere.
And it’s here that we get the first glimpse of the mercy that will mark this entire book. Understand, God did not have to send his word to Nineveh. As the Sovereign One, God could unleash judgment on the Ninevites any time he chooses. He has the right, the prerogative to do so, for even these Assyrians belong to him as the Creator. But that’s not what the Lord does, is it? Before unleashing his judgment, God sends his word. He warns them, and implicit in this warning is the call to repent, and through that repentance to live. Why should Ninevites hear such a call to repentance? Why do they deserve this life-saving warning? Because they deserve it? Hardly. They will hear it because God is merciful, even to wicked Ninevites.
In fact, this is always God’s reason for exposing and confronting humanity’s sin. This is always the reason for God’s warnings of judgment. It’s not merely to terrify or berate us. No, it’s to call us to turn from our sin and find life in his Word. It is God’s kindness that compels him to send his word to sinners, and that kindness, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 2, is meant to lead us where? To repentance, and through repentance, to life.
Is that how you hear God’s word even when it warns you about sin? Do you hear it as the expression of God’s mercy to you, as his calling you to turn from sin and find life in his name? That’s part of the takeaway at this point. Jonah’s mission is an expression God’s mercy to the undeserving, and while our situation is much different than Jonah’s, God’s mercy remains the same. He gives us his word – not because he has to, but because he is merciful, and in his mercy, he uses his word to call us to repentance.
But as we continue in the text, what happens next is both surprising and foolish. Jonah runs. Notice v3 – “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah rebels against the word of God. The call was clear – go to Nineveh – but Jonah responds by going the opposite direction – to Tarshish. And he does so because he wants to escape the presence of the Lord. Notice how v3 mentions that fact twice – at the beginning and. Jonah wants to escape God’s presence. He doesn’t want to hear God’s word, and he refuses to obey. Why, we must ask? Chapter 1 doesn’t tell us, and we have to wait for chapter 4 to get the concrete answer. But at this point, it’s enough to say that Jonah wants no part in proclaiming God’s word to Ninevites, and therefore, Jonah runs.
But where does Jonah think he can go? We read it in Psalm 139 earlier in the service – there is nowhere you can go to escape the presence of the Lord. And yet, that is what Jonah attempts to do. He tries to outrun the Sovereign God, which is utter foolishness. Understand that all of Jonah’s later troubles start right here – with his rebellion against God’s word.
This too is part of our takeaway from Jonah’s troubles. Through Jonah, God is warning us, just as he intended to warn the Ninevites. Do not think you can outrun God’s word. Disobedience to God’s word brings disastrous consequences. And listen, I know we’re not OT prophets. I know we’re not being sent to preach to Ninevites. Our situation is different. But do you know what? Our situation is actually more serious than Jonah’s. He had God’s revelation in part; we’ve received it in full. And therefore, the warning of Jonah’s life is one we must hear. Do not think you can outrun the word of God. Ask yourself this morning – “Is there a specific area of my life where I know I am rebelling against what God has said? Am I deliberately going against what God has spoken?” Maybe it’s a relationship where you know something needs to change – sin that needs to be confessed, conflict that needs to be resolved. Maybe it’s a habit you know doesn’t line up with Scripture but you are content to do it anyway. Maybe it’s something you’re neglecting to do, even though you know Scripture clearly calls you to obey. Whatever it is, I pray you listen to this warning from Jonah. Don’t miss the mercy of God. Even now, he is calling us to repent and submit to his Word. He is the God who Calls, and when we hear his word, we ought to do what Jonah would not. We ought to listen and respond.
The God Who Pursues
As the chapter continues, we find God still taking the initiative. V4, the Lord hurls a great wind upon the sea. He is the Sovereign God of all the earth. The wind obeys where the prophet would not, which means this is no ordinary storm. This is divine pursuit. And that’s the picture we have of God in this section – he is the God Who Pursues. The storm in v4 is the manifestation of God’s judgment. Remember, Jonah has disobeyed the Lord, and therefore, what Jonah deserves is the judgment of God. The Lord pursues his wayward prophet.
And yet, Jonah seems rather oblivious to God’s pursuit, at least at first. The storm is so violent, it threatens to tear the ship apart. Even the pagan sailors in v5 recognize the danger they are in. They begin hurling the cargo into the sea, but more than that, these pagans begin to pray. Now, of course, the sailors’ prayers are powerless because their gods are nothing. Idols cannot hear you when you pray, which means these so-called gods can do nothing to stop the storm.
But at the least the sailors are praying! What is Jonah doing? Notice v6 – he is asleep in the cargo hold. A violent storm is raging, men’s lives are at risk, and Jonah the wayward prophet sleeps. Why is he sleeping? Who knows? The text doesn’t tell us. Perhaps he is content to die, or perhaps his sleeping is a sign of spiritual dullness. Whatever the reason, Jonah sleeps. Think about that. Jonah is the one man on this ship who knows the truth. He’s the only man who would know to pray to the One, True, and Living God. And yet, Jonah sleeps.
But the picture of Jonah gets a bit worse in v6. The captain of the ship wakes him up, and notice what the captain tells him to do, v6 – “Arise, call out to your god!” That is a stinging rebuke for Jonah, and it comes from a pagan! At this point, the pagan has a better sense than Jonah of what needs to be done. In fact, since v3 Jonah has been on a downward spiral. You hear it in the text. V3, Jonah went down to Joppa, where he went down into a ship, and now v5, he has gone down to the inner part to sleep. Down, down, down – Jonah’s disobedience spirals downward. The captain of the ship does not know the Lord, but in some sense, he knows better than Jonah right now. The captain calls Jonah to pray.
But Jonah doesn’t pray, at least not yet. Jonah doesn’t pray until chapter 2 actually – which means, the situation on the ship is still perilous. The sailors are desperate, and in v7, they cast lots to determine who is to blame for the storm. That might sound a bit antiquated to us – why trust something so random to give insight? But remember that the OT clearly declares God to be sovereign over all things. Proverbs 16.33 – the lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision comes from the Lord. In his sovereignty, God chooses to reveal the truth through the casting of lots. The Lord will not let Jonah go. You cannot outrun the Lord.
The lot falls to Jonah, and it’s time for him to confess. Notice what he says v9 – “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Now, what is the significance of Jonah’s confession in v9? On the one hand, Jonah’s confession exposes the truth of what he has done. Notice Jonah says that he fears the LORD. The idea is worship or reverence. But if Jonah fears the LORD, why is he stuck in this storm? Because he did not fear the Lord. He chose instead to run. Do you see what God has done? He has used this storm to expose the truth about Jonah’s disobedience.
But at the same time, Jonah’s confession also exposes these pagan sailors to the truth. Remember, these sailors have been praying to their lifeless gods, but now in v9, they hear the truth that there is only One God – the LORD – and this One, True God is the Maker of the sea and the land. Now, imagine hearing that confession in the midst of a violent storm. It would have been gripping, would it not? As the waves crash down, Jonah confesses, “I serve the God who made those waves!” Again, do you see what God has done? He has used this storm to reveal who he is to these pagan sailors. He has used the storm to spread the truth of his Name, and mercifully, God has even used his wayward prophet to do so.
This is not the main takeaway of the passage, but it is one that should encourage us. Aren’t you glad that our stubbornness does not limit God’s commitment to spread his truth? Jonah didn’t want to make God known, so what does God do? He pursues Jonah and causes the prophet to make God’s truth known anyway. That should encourage us, brothers and sisters. By all means, we should never excuse our disobedience or apathy towards God. Those are reasons to repent, never reasons to rest easy. But at the same time, we should be encouraged that God’s commitment to his truth far outmatches our failings. God’s devotion to his own Name far surpasses our waywardness. What a mighty God we serve, and that truth should compel us to be faithful.
As we continue on in the chapter, we see that the situation is still perilous. Jonah has confessed the truth, but in v10, the sailors only grow more afraid. And rightfully so! The sailors recognize Jonah is trying to outrun the God who controls this very storm. If something doesn’t change, these men will perish. And in v11, something does begin to change, and it’s here we see our third picture of the Lord – he is the God Who Receives Glory.
The God Who Receives Glory
The sailors ask Jonah what they should do, and in v12, Jonah gives them the answer. Hurl me into the sea, Jonah says. Why does Jonah say this? Perhaps he recognizes his guilt in running from the Lord. Perhaps Jonah sees that this storm is God’s judgment meant for him, not the sailors. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Jonah connects the storm with his sin. He ran from God, God pursued with the storm, and now, Jonah must face God in the waves.
But this text is full of surprises, and in v13, we encounter another one. The sailors don’t immediately throw Jonah into the sea, which is what we might expect them to do. Instead, they try to row the ship back to shore. If they can survive without Jonah perishing, then surely that would be their preference. But it doesn’t work. You can’t outrun the Lord, and apparently you can’t outrow him either. The storm gets worse.
With no other option available, the sailors decide to act on Jonah’s plan – but not before they pray. Notice v14. These pagan sailors appeal to Jonah’s God – “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.’” I’ll point out to you that so far in chapter 1, these sailors are the only ones who have prayed to the Lord. Jonah still hasn’t prayed, but the pagans do.
And did you notice how their prayer to God is grounded in who God is? They actually appeal to God’s attributes – to his mercy and his sovereignty. They beg God not to allow them to perish for Jonah’s sin – that’s an appeal to mercy. And they acknowledge that God has brought about this entire episode – you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you, they confess. That’s an appeal to God’s sovereignty. They pray on the basis of God’s attributes.
Now, are these sailors full-fledged believers in the God of Israel? Is this a mature expression of faith in the Lord? We can’t say with any certainty, but we can say that at this moment, the sailors entrust their lives to the Lord. They confess that they are in God’s hands, and they appeal to God to spare their lives.
And in v15, the Lord God of heaven, the Maker of the sea and the land, hears their prayer. Notice v15 – “So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging.” And with that, the ordeal comes to an end, at least for the sailors. Jonah is tossed into the waves of God’s judgment, and with that judgment satisfied, the sailors are spared. Their lives are saved, while the last sight we have of Jonah, at least for now, is of him sinking further down into the abyss. In his mercy, God has spared their lives of the sailors, and it is only mercy that can reach Jonah’s life at this point.
The chapter concludes with one final surprise. Look at v16, and notice who it is that offers God praise and worship. It’s not the Israelite prophet. It’s the sailors, v16 – “Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” Think about what these men have witnessed. As soon as Jonah hits the water, the storm stops. It wasn’t those other so-called gods who saved them. It was Jonah’s God. It was the Lord of heaven and earth. What a clear and powerful contrast! The lifeless idols they prayed to in v5 – what did they do? Nothing, because those gods are nothing. But Jonah’s God, the Living God – he is worthy of worship. In fact, notice the progression of the sailors’ fear throughout this first chapter. V5, they were afraid and cried to their gods. V10, they were exceedingly afraid of the news about Jonah’s God. But now v16, they exceedingly fear the Lord himself. From terror to worship, the God of all the earth has made himself known.
That’s actually the final word of this opening chapter. Why has God done all of this? Why the pursuit, the storm, the sparing of these men’s lives? Why? So that these men would know there is a God in heaven who delights to show mercy. Please don’t miss this. For the sailors in the boat, there can be no doubt as to who is the One, True God. They just saw his power, both in judgment and in mercy! And in response, these sailors give to God what he deserves. They offer him their worship, and in this surprising close to a surprising chapter, God receives the glory that is due his name.
What about Jonah, you ask? The Lord’s not finished with him, not in the least. He’ll learn firsthand about God’s mercy in the next chapter. But for now, the focus is on the Lord. He uses the rebellion of the disobedient prophet to bring glory to his Name. And amazingly, the glory he reveals is the glory of his mercy that saves.
In that sense we’re not all that different from the sailors in v16. Our only hope is the mercy of God that saves the helpless in the face of judgment. The sailors saw a glimmer of that mercy in the storm; we have seen the full display of that mercy in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Unlike Jonah, Jesus did not deserve to be tossed into the waves of God’s judgment. Unlike Jonah, Jesus was obedient and faithful to his Father to the very end. The Father sent the Son, and the Son came to the wickedness of this earth in order to call sinners to repentance. Jesus was faithful to the end, and did not deserve to face the storm of God’s judgment.
And yet, that’s precisely where Jesus stood. No one had to hurl Jesus into the waves. He willingly took that judgment on himself. For the joy that was set before him, Jesus endured the cross so that helpless people like us might know the saving mercy of God.
Brothers and sisters, let’s not allow the sailors of v16 to be the only worshippers this morning. Let’s not miss the glimmer of mercy we see here in chapter 1, a glimmer that unfolds in the fullness of mercy we have received in Christ. Amen.