Jonah: Jonah’s Prayer (2:1-10)
What we are going to study tonight may be the theologically richest part of the book of Jonah. The amazing context of this poetic prayer is Jonah’s gratitude while inside the fish. He fully expected to die in the water. His thanksgiving within the belly of a fish is a proclamation of joy, with the realization that God has delivered him in spite of his running. Though he is not yet on dry land, his faith reaches a new dimension of understanding. He seems to have no doubt that, as he was delivered from drowning, he will also eventually be delivered safely to the shore. In chapter 2 of Jonah we are able to understand Jonah’s point of view, as he speaks in the first person. It also offers a window into the nature and circumstances of true gratitude.
Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish, 2 saying,
“I called out to the LORD, out of my distress,
and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
3 For you cast me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas,
and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
passed over me.
4 Then I said, ‘I am driven away
from your sight;
yet I shall again look
upon your holy temple.’
5 The waters closed in over me to take my life;
the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
6 at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
O LORD my God.
7 When my life was fainting away,
I remembered the LORD,
and my prayer came to you,
into your holy temple.
8 Those who pay regard to vain idols
forsake their hope of steadfast love.
9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
10 And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.
Inside the Fish
“Then Jonah prayed to the LORD his God from the belly of the fish” (v. 1). The author tells us in the first verse what we are about to read. There is a prayer that follows. And Jonah prayed these things while he was in the belly of the fish. We know that this account is still a miracle—but it is interesting that Jonah actually prays while inside the fish. It’s important to notice here that his is the first time that Jonah speaks directly to God. In all this account and all we’ve experienced with him, he was not spoken to God until now. Remember however, Jonah is still in danger. He is still at sea, inside the fish—but still in danger. He doesn’t have a living room built inside that fish.
But here’s what he prays: “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice” (v. 2). This is the beginning of the prayer of Jonah. Jonah says that he “called out to” God out of his distress. He says that God answered him. But Jonah says something interesting here: “out of the belly of Sheol I cried.” What does Sheol mean? It’s a term used most often in the Old Testament to mean the place of death. Sometimes it means separation from God. Jonah did not literally pray from Sheol but describes his near-death experience. He says that God heard his voice.
“For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me” (v. 3). Jonah is describing his experience being thrown overboard with vivid imagery: “into the deep,” “the heart of the seas,” “your billows passed over me.” Just for clarification, billows are great waves or surging masses of water. Though it was the sailors who had hurled Jonah into the sea (1:15), he knows that God was working sovereignly through them, and so he can say that God cast him into the sea.
Jonah expresses, however that he will see dry land again: “Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple’” (v. 4). Here Jonah demonstrates his understanding of the power of simply turning again toward the presence of God. Next Jonah gives a very visual description of coming close to death. In vv. 5-6, “The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my heard at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever, yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God.” He says that the waters closed in on him to take his life—he was probably drowning at this point. The deep surrounded him, and he was definitely at the bottom of the sea because he states that seaweed was “wrapped about” his head. He even went down to the “land whose bars closed upon [him] forever.” Departure into Sheol was to go through gates made of “bars.” Job 17:16 says, “Will it go down to the bars of Sheol?” (emphasis mine) See also Psalm 9:13. But regardless, God brought up Jonah’s life from the “pit.” Jonah also says that “When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple” (v. 7).
Saved but Not Completely Delivered
What is interesting to see throughout this entire account of Jonah’s prayer is this: He has been rescued from death by God’s sending of the fish (1:17), but he has not been delivered to dry land just yet (2:10). He has not drowned, but he was unexpectedly saved from death by the “great fish,” but he isn’t completely safe—he is still in danger.
Our lives are very similar to this story—our lives as believers. When we are converted, when we are saved, we are delivered from death and saved from judgment: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). But, we are not immediately taken to the place where there is no sin, no evil, no suffering, and no pain (Rev. 21:4). We are saved in this life, but we are not completely delivered from the ailments of living in this present world. You probably know all too well, that your struggles do not end once you are saved. Struggles continue. In fact, some struggles happen more often because you are saved (ex. persecution). Remember that salvation is in three tenses:
1) Past: You were saved. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Once we had repentance and faith toward Christ, we were saved. That’s a secured deal.
2) Present: You are being saved. “Therefore, by beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13, emphasis mine). We are daily being delivered from the presence and power of sin through the Holy Spirit.
3) Future: You will be saved; “Training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:12-13, emphasis mine). One glorious day we will finally be delivered from the presence and power of sin forever.
This is what we share with Jonah: We have been delivered from death and the penalty of sin, but we are not yet completely free from sin. One day we will be in complete safety (“dry land”), but until then we must do what is necessary to fight sin daily (Rom. 7).
The Real Miracle
Another thing that is interesting to note here (that we tend to look over) is that Jonah should have died. Listen again to this dreadful description of what is was like to nearly drown at sea: “The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever. . .” (vv. 5-6). The real miracle here is that what should have been a place of death for Jonah became the place of deliverance and life! What does he say God did? “Yet you brought up my life from the pit, O LORD my God” (v. 6b).
Remember the “sign of Jonah” expression used by Jesus? “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40). Jesus used Jonah’s experience to refer to His own death. The apostle Paul states, “he was raised on the third day” (1 Cor. 15:4). But the wonder of the sign of Jesus’ death and of Jonah’s experience is that a place that ought to have been a place of death became a place of deliverance and life. What do you think of when you see a cross? Jesus death? Addition? We have beautified the cross so much that we have a tendency to forget what a cross actually was in Jesus’ day. We have jewelry, t-shirts, rings, pendants, and various things that may have crosses on them, but in Jesus’ day a cross carried a much different meaning. The crucifix was a torture device. The Romans wanted to state their authority loud and clear to criminals, so they devised this form of punishment known as crucifixion. The cross was a symbol of death—the most humiliating form of death.
But because of Christ’s death and resurrection, the cross is a symbol of victory over death and reminds us that at the cross, we were given deliverance from sin and death. So what should have been a place of death has become they symbol for the Christian faith that has stood the test of time. Christ’s descent to earth and His willing humility even to death on a cross brought redemption to all (Phil. 2:5-11).
A Strange Statement
Jonah has described his experience in his prayer to God and utters something rather abstract: “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (v. 8). It’s a true statement—but it’s strange because it has nothing to do with Jonah’s experience. Does it say anything about him drowning or struggling on the ship? No. Jonah has been describing his experience in the waters as he comes close to death—and he expresses thankfulness for God’s sending of the great fish, but here he states something like a proverb. It’s an interesting part of Jonah’s prayer because it expresses something about his relationship with God.
He was truly grateful to God for saving him through this fish. He has truly praised God for rescuing him in this miraculous way. But Jonah is here referring back again to these sailors and the Ninevites and says that “Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love” (v. 8). He doesn’t pray for them, but states this truth about them. So in the midst of Jonah’s prayer (and after all he has been through!) he is still protesting the idea that God should offer forgiveness to the Ninevites. Remember, why did Jonah run from God’s call in the first place? Because he didn’t believe that God should have compassion and forgiveness for sinners. He knew that if he preached to the Ninevites, that there could be a possibility of them repenting from sin and obtaining forgiveness from God. “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (4:2).
A Strange Struggle
He was praying, but still protesting. We like Jonah may disagree with God for different reasons—but that shouldn’t stop us from praising Him. And God doesn’t expect everyone who praises Him to always have all their questions answered or all of their doubts erased. We will always have questions—but we shouldn’t stop praising God and giving Him thanks. Satan will always use our weaknesses against us. One of our weaknesses is a limited, finite mind. Satan sees an open door there to stumble us and turn our hearts away from God. So when we have questions or doubts about God, we should read the Bible with all our might—listen where God has spoken, but restrain our curiosity beyond His Word. God knows we have struggles and difficulties understanding Him sometimes, but He still welcomes our praise even when we don’t understand or are confused. “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33).
Jonah here, gives thanks to God even when he disagrees with Him concerning the Ninevites. Why is it important to have faith in God when you don’t understand His ways, or you don’t understand your circumstances? Because we have the assurance that God is sovereign, God knows what He is doing, God wants for us what we would want for ourselves (if we had the sense enough to want it), and God calls us to trust Him because of it.
There are numerous biblical examples of this trust that God calls for. One of the greatest is found in Lamentations 3:21-24. This book is a despairing poem about the destruction of Jerusalem. In the midst of the unbearable sorrow, Jeremiah cries out, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him” (ESV). Another example is when the psalmist asks, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1), but expresses in v. 5, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”
We continue to trust God in our difficulties and in our confusions, because we know who He is. Our faith in God is not blind. We know that He is a God “who never lies” (Titus 1:2), and “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19) Therefore, when God makes a promise like “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28), we know that He means what He says.
Salvation Belongs to the LORD!
We have come to the end of Jonah’s prayer and his last statement is this: “But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (v. 9). Jonah says that with thanksgiving he will sacrifice to God, and says that he will return to do what he originally was called to do. And he utters a statement that is absolutely foundational to the overarching message of the Bible: “Salvation belongs to the LORD!”
Do you think Jonah expected to be saved when thrown into the raging sea? Of course not. He thought he would surely die. If he didn’t he would have described his experience as going down to the land “whose bars closed upon [him] forever” (v. 6). God was at work to save Jonah even before he was fleeing from Him. Think about your own salvation. Think about that day. Did you expect to be saved? Did you expect it to happen? Did you know any point in your life prior that that day would come? Of course you didn’t. That’s what Jonah expresses here. Salvation belongs to the LORD. It is and was God’s plan, God’s work, God’s way, for God’s glory. It wasn’t your plan (Eph. 1:4), and it was not your way. Jesus’ work of salvation through His death and victory over death was even done while the world was still at odds with God. God is indeed the author of our faith, and Jonah here is a key witness. This shines light on the fact that God has been at work to save you (His enemy; Rom. 5:10) ever since before you were born. And Christ died for broken sinners long before they would ever converted. God alone is deserving of full credit for your salvation.
Plainly put, Jonah has looked toward God. It is enough for his deliverance. God will deal with his protest and running issues later. God answers those who call out in distress whether their issues of protest are resolved or not. He delivers those who call out in times of trouble. He accepts Jonah’s thanks and his lack of repentance because he accepts Jonah’s protest, not as sin but as a welcome dialogue. When Jonah concludes his prayer, God answers this way: “And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (v. 10). God has not given up on His prophet, and will continue to relentlessly pursue him.
Jonah: Something Fishy (1:13-17)
“13 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. 14 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.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. 17 And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:13-17, ESV).
Out of Options
We now read about what these sailors do as a result of their deadly situation. Even though Jonah asks them to throw him overboard (1:12), they do not want to kill God’s prophet so they attempt to get back to dry land. “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” (v. 13). They know Jonah is a serious problem, but they do not want to be held responsible for killing the prophet of such a powerful God (1:14). Dry land is where they want to be, and you can visualize the back-breaking, vein-pumping rowing of the sailors as they try to fight against God’s storm. But does that work? No because, “the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them.” This storm was growing more violent, more dangerous, and more terrifying. So what happens next?
“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” (v. 14). They do not want to die simply because they have taken on a passenger with a pursuing God. They have run out of other options. They have tried calling on other gods and lightening the ship (1:5), asking Jonah to pray (1:6), casting lots (1:7), interrogating Jonah (1:8), and rowing (v. 13). Their fear is that they will die for doing something they really don’t want to do: participating in God’s judgment on Jonah.
Realizing that they are out of options, they reluctantly proceed with Jonah’s request: “So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging” (v. 15). You can picture it, about three or four strong-armed sailors picking up the prophet and throwing him into sharp waves—and after that, hearing sigh of relief as they see that the waters are now calm. And in v. 16 we read an amazing statement: “Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows” (v. 16). They fear God exceedingly. These men aren’t terrified of dying like before (1:5), they are no longer afraid of a God they don’t know (1:10). This is a different type of fear. Because this fear results in that they “offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” This fear was a reverence for a sovereign God that resulted in their changed lives. Now this text does not tell us whether this new appreciation for the Lord of heaven, land and sea is lasting (whether they keep their “vows”). Nonetheless, this passage describes something new for the sailors in relationship to Yahweh, Jonah’s God. They fear God because they have witnessed His power over creation and because He has honored their prayer for deliverance. Even in Jonah’s disobedience, God has made him effective in his calling as a prophet: bringing people to faith in God.
Readiness to Receive
These sailors provide us an excellent example by their readiness to acknowledge their helplessness, hear Jonah’s witness, act on it , and worship the true God. They hear Jonah’s witness to Yahweh and believe his witness. They, like Jonah, run from the difficult action required of them (throwing Jonah overboard) but realize the futility of rowing against God’s storm. They surrender, believing a seemingly impossible word from God, that God’s appointed man will actually die for their salvation. They believe and worship God.
When we acknowledge that we are helpless without God (Rom. 5:6), hear the gospel witness (Eph. 1:13), and act on that gospel witness—our lives will be changed forever. But will we? Apart from the grace of God we won’t, according the the Bible. The Scriptures teach that our rebellion against God is total, and we are unable to submit to God and do good to His honor. “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). We have deceitful hearts (Jer. 17:9), and “we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of [our] evil heart[s]” (Jer. 18:12).
Who can surrender to such difficult demands in faith? Indeed, we cannot. But God in His mercy calls us by His Spirit. Martin Luther writes, “I believe that I cannot, by my own understanding or effort, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called be by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. . .” Similarly Basil of Caesarea says, “You have not known God by reason of your righteousness, but God has known you by reason of His goodness.”
The Great Fish
The pagan sailors have experienced salvation under difficult demands and this is great for the sailors, but we are left asking, what happens to Jonah? Is this the end of the story for God’s prophet? In v. 17, the author concludes this chapter and says, “And the LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.” Jonah was in the sea, and God saved him from death by appointing a great fish to swallow him. Was it a whale? Probably, but we cannot be dogmatic and say that it was, even if a large sperm whale would’ve had no struggle swallowing a man of Jonah’s size. The point here is that God appointed it to happen and it was a miracle.
Was Jonah Really Swallowed by a Great Fish?
There are many skeptics who say that this story is fictional because that could never happen. Some people conclude, then, that the account of Jonah isn’t really historically true. Some say that this event wasn’t literal. That’s what I want to examine briefly. Can this event be logically true?
First, many just do not believe that miracles happen. Some reject all supernatural claims and so when they read an account like this, they feel justified in thinking that the story of Jonah is a made-up story. Don’t be surprised when you encounter people who are naturalists and reject all supernatural.
Secondly, miracles are not common things. We shouldn’t expect to find too many other people (if any) surviving being fish food. But just because something happens rarely or only once in history is not reason to reject that it ever happened. After all, how many times was Abraham Lincoln assassinated? Exactly as many times as we know of people being swallowed by a fish and surviving.
Thirdly, 2 Kings 14:25, which is clearly a history book, mentions Jonah as a prophet who really existed. Since there are no reasons to think 2 Kings mixes real history with characters from fanciful tales, we have good reason to think Jonah was a real person.
Finally, the best reason for believing that Jonah’s being swallowed was actual history is because Jesus believed it to be true. In Matthew 12:39-41, Jesus used Jonah’s entombment in the fish as a way of verifying His own authority and teaching. “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (v. 40, ESV). If Jesus’ genuine bodily resurrection is to be understood in light of Jonah, then Jonah’s experience must have also been genuinely historical. If Jonah’s story is not real history, then Jesus’ reference to it makes no sense. Of course, those who reject Jonah as real history most likely reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus for the same anti-supernatural reasons. But the evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection powerfully supports it as real history. So for Jesus’ parallel work, Jonah’s experience must also be real history.
Also, Jesus said that the men of Nineveh, who repented at Jonah’s message, would stand up and judge the current generation for not repenting at Jesus’ proclamation (Luke 11:32). This is an empty threat unless the people of Nineveh did in fact repent. Here again, the non-historical view falls apart. So we have good reasons to accept Jonah being swallowed by a “great fish” as real history. The rejection of this account as history is the real fish story (for further scientific study see Jonah and the Great Fish)
Don’t Get Distracted
The focus however, should not be on Jonah’s miraculous residence inside the fish. The focus of the author here is on the fact that God delivered Jonah from death in this way. God rescued Jonah from drowning. Through the agency of this big fish, Jonah is forgiven and saved (Jonah 2). Also, the storm is stilled and the sailors worship the true God, and eventually the Ninevites receive the message from Jonah, repent, and are saved. In this way the bigness of the “unbelievable” fish is finally about God’s saving way in the world. The great fish makes a specific point of God’s extravagant, unrelenting, pursuing, and saving love.
Conclusion: God’s Mercy
The storm is God’s severe mercy for Jonah and the sailors; it is necessary in order to deliver them from their own lives. I say that God’s mercy here is severe because God will wreck your plans when he sees that your plans are about to wreck you. And that is for your good and for His glory. God does not let Jonah go or leave him to wallow in his rebellion, but He quickly brings him to repentance. He pursues him through the storm and gives him an opportunity to fulfill his prophetic calling before the sailors, to good effect. God assigns a fish to rescue Jonah from drowning, saving both Jonah and his aborted mission.
Jonah: Storm and Sacrifice (1:4-12)
“You can run but you cannot hide.”—American Boxer, Joe Louis.
Boxer Joe (not Joe Boxer) probably hadn’t read the story of Jonah, but what he said makes for a great summary statement about this passage of Scripture, and the book of Jonah as a whole. There is no escape from Almighty God.
In the previous section (1:1-3), the author set the tone of an interaction between God and Jonah. God called Jonah to preach to the Ninevites, and he boarded a ship to Tarshish to get away from “the presence of the LORD” (1:3). Now the author has set the tone for this part of the story by telling us about the sailors’ involvement with Jonah and his God.
“4 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. 5 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. 6 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.” 7 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. 8 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?” 9 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.” 10 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. 11 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. 12 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.”
God Can Do That
Jonah had boarded this ship to get away from God’s presence, 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” (v. 4). In this verse, you can almost hear the creaking of timbers as waves pound the sides of the ship. You can visualize a ship being tossed back and forth on sharp, unforgiving waves, while lightning strikes the sail. You can feel as if you are being tossed with Jonah and the crew.
So Jonah’s running from God has now caused problems for other people. He has put the sailors in a lot of danger. Now, while it is true that your disobedience to God can cause problems for those around you, there is a grander truth to be seen in this verse as it relates to the entire book. Note, God sent this storm. In fact, he “hurled a great wind upon the sea.” God can do that. And God used this storm to bring about His purposes—the salvation of the Ninevites, in this case. God sovereignly worked through this storm to bring about salvation for these sailors (1:16), Jonah’s repentance (chapter 2), and the salvation of the Ninevites (3:6-10). And so, the glorious truth to be observed here is the sovereignty of God.
The Sovereignty of God
What does it mean to say that God is sovereign? It means that God has unlimited rule of and control over His creation. He is free from outward restraint. Psalm 115 reads, “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (v. 3). Job confesses, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). Similarly, in Daniel the prophet says, “All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”” (Daniel 4:35). And in the New Testament, “Which he will display at the proper time—he who is blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). There are scores of other passages that affirm God’s sovereignty, but the point is, the Bible teaches the doctrine of the sovereignty of God.
God is sovereign over everything, but from this storm and the results, we can note two things that God is sovereign over:
1) Suffering. The storm they experienced brought them face to face with death. They were struggling to survive. God used this storm to bring about His own good purposes. Surely they didn’t think they were going to survive, but God was in control the whole time. Trials in our lives today happen unexpected, like this storm. The struggles we face today may make us feel like we aren’t going to survive, but “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
In addition, sometimes we may suffer as a direct result of our sin. When we feel remorse, guilt, and shame after we sin, the suffering we are experiencing is what the Bible calls discipline. You think God was disciplining Jonah? Of course. One of the reasons God sent that storm was so Jonah could face his calling and be obedient to God. God disciplines us when we sin: “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” (Hebrews 12:7).
2) Salvation. God was using not only the storm, but many other elements in creation to bring about salvation to the sailors and the Ninevites. Did they expect to be saved? No. But God brought salvation to them, and sovereignly. The New Testament teaches also that God is sovereign in your salvation:
- God initiates your salvation and plans for you to be saved in eternity past (Acts 13:48; Ephesians 1:4).
- God carries out your salvation. He sends Jesus to accomplish the mission (John 3:16; Romans 5:8).
- God applies your salvation through the Holy Spirit (John 6:44; Titus 3:5).
- God secures your salvation and keeps you to the end (John 10:29; Romans 8:30).
Now which one of those are you responsible for? None. That’s why God is sovereign. Because He is sovereign in our salvation, that takes away from us any right to take credit. God gets the credit and God gets the glory, because God makes all moves.
Jonah in a Dream State
The ship is threatening to fall apart because of the great storm, so we read “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” (v. 5). So all of those on board are searching for every possible way to end their deadly situation. . . except for Jonah. These sailors cry out to their gods. They throw the cargo overboard. The question I know you are asking is, “How can Jonah sleep through all this?” The captain asks the same question in the next verse. The author of the book of Jonah intends for you to ask that question. That’s the way the author crafted this book. Because asking that question reveals an important truth about Jonah’s character—he was careless. His deep sleep reveals his carelessness about his own life and the lives of others.
Like Jonah, sometimes we are careless about other people’s lives. Perhaps we are careless about their needs or their struggles. Perhaps we are careless about their salvation. Maybe you know someone living in deep sin, but do not believe they deserve God’s grace. You might think they are so wicked that they are beyond forgiveness, so you go your own way thinking that “God’s gonna get ’em one day!” It is right to understand that we will all face the judgment of God (Hebrews 9:27), but it is not right to be careless about someones salvation. “If you have no desire for others to be saved, then you are not saved yourself”—C. H. Spurgeon. And still, while it is true that no one deserves salvation, we shouldn’t be careless about their eternity if we truly care about them.
Jonah—Prophet in Disguise
Sleeping through a mighty storm is quite foolish, so we read in the next verse, “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” (v. 6). You can hear the accusation language here: “How can you sleep at at time like this?” (NLT). The captain tells Jonah to call out to his god. For these sailors, one god is as good as any as long as it saves them. The captain hopes what Jonah already knows—that Jonah’s God is a God of compassion: “Perhaps the god will give a thought to us. . .” Even more, the literal rendition of this phrase really means, “It may be that haelohim will take notice.” Haelohim in Hebrew here means “the true God.” So the captain acknowledges the possibility that Jonah’s God is the true God.
Why doesn’t Jonah reply to this captain? Why doesn’t he say anything? He doesn’t even bother to help the crew until verse 9. The captain’s request for Jonah to pray to his god was an incredible opportunity for Jonah to give witness to God’s power, but he remains silent. Jonah knew God was sovereign. He knew that God was present. He knew God could have calmed the storm. But he keeps his mouth shut instead.
Making Much of God
Jonah swept this opportunity to glorify God right under the ship. Like Jonah, sometimes we do the same thing. God gives us situations every day where we have the opportunity to put in a good word for Jesus. Your house. Your workplace. Your classroom. Your gas station. Are you making much of God in those aspects of your life? Live in a way that makes much of God. Live and act in a way that draws peoples’ attention to Him. Don’t hide your faith like Jonah did here. Jesus talks about how ridiculous it is to keep your faith hidden: “Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:15-16).
Searching For a Solution
The sailors want to know who is responsible for this storm so, “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” (v. 7). Casting lots was a way of decision making in Bible times. This is similar to drawing straws or casting a pair of dice to determine who goes first, or what direction to follow. So these sailors cast lots, and the lot falls on Jonah. Did the lot just coincidentally fall on Jonah? Of course not! We know it was God’s sovereign hand in the process. The random process of casting lots. God would not let Jonah go. God has used the storm, these sailors, and now lot-casting, to expose Jonah to these sailors and bring him to face his calling as a prophet. All of these things are being used by God as agents for this purpose.
“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?”” (v. 8). You can hear these rapid fire questions that the sailors are asking Jonah. They want to know more. Again, Jonah is given the chance to be a witness of faith to these sailors. First when the captain told him to cry out to his god. And here, he has another chance to be a witness of faith to the one true God. Jonah’s reply catches us by surprise: “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”” (v. 9). He confesses boldly. This confession itself is a fulfillment of his calling as a prophet. He testifies that God is.
However, it probably sounds a little absurd to these sailors. You fear the God who controls the sea, but you are on that sea running from that God? Jonah recognized the sovereignty of God and knew that He was the “God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land,” but still makes the choice to flee from Him. That sounds foolish because it is. But we do the same thing: we know God is watching our every move, but we like to think, “God can you turn Your head a minute, while I have premarital sex?” or “God close your eyes a second so I can watch this dirty movie” or “God can you look away while I hold back my tithe?” But we know that God is ever present but we continue to declare our independence by sinning. When we sin, we say to God’s face: “I don’t need You to satisfy me. What sin has to offer is greater. I am fine on my own.” But we know in reality that we need Him for our very existence; He is sustaining us, and giving us life every day. It is a struggle, but we must fight sin daily (Romans 7:15-25).
Death or Death Decision
“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”” (v. 10). Now that Jonah has told them who his God is, they are exceedingly afraid. This tremendous storm is the primary evidence that Jonah’s God is powerful. They then ask the equivalent of “Are you crazy!?” Who runs away from the God of the sea. . . on the sea? It’s like running from the cops on foot, while they are tracking you down in their squad cars. They’re going to catch you bro.
Now knowing that Jonah is responsible for this, and because the storm was getting worse, the crew asks Jonah, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous”” (v. 11). Jonah is now at an interesting point in this story: whatever happens, he will die. If he says nothing to these sailors, the storm will eventually kill them all (Jonah knows that he is responsible for this great storm). If he confesses, he knows that he alone will die. They will throw him overboard. God has done something amazing here. Jonah is again faced with the same decision he faced when God called him in the first place: Will your life/death save the lives of others? In the case of preaching to the Ninevites, Will you go to save their lives by preaching repentance? Jonah makes the decision to run. In the case of this storm and the deathly fate of these sailors, Will you sacrifice to save their lives? This question is put to him so close this time, that Jonah cannot help but notice. He knows this is God again. He knew God had called him to preach to the Ninevites. And he knows that this is the same God that is calling him to do the same thing—sacrifice himself to save others. Except this time, God doesn’t speak directly, but uses elements of creation to get His point across.
Jonah doesn’t have the will to jump himself, so “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”” (v. 12). Why doesn’t Jonah just seek forgiveness from God and ask Him to calm the storm? He could have made things right with God and committed himself to go to Nineveh. But he doesn’t. Maybe Jonah believes that he has messed up too much already—and forgiveness isn’t going to happen for him. Maybe he is not sure if God can forgive him. Jonah prefers to believe in a God who only judges. Not in a God who also forgives (that’s why he ran in the first place). He would rather die in the sea than to suggest to the sailors that they turn around and return him to Joppa so he can fulfill his call to Nineveh. Yet, Jonah does have compassion on the innocent sailors. He does not want them to die. He will accept death for them, not in obedience to God but, as it was—an act of heroism born from a desperate situation.
Maybe you are like Jonah. Maybe you believe that you have gone too far for God to forgive you. But God has something to say about that. “Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). God’s love is not based on what you are, or what you have done. There is nothing you have done that makes God love you any less, and there is nothing you can do to make Him love you more than He already does. If you believe that God can forgive you, what should you do now? “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).
Jonah: On the Run (1:1-3)
The book of Jonah contains only fifty-eight verses, but those few verses include a storm at sea, the conversion of sailors, a miraculous rescue, a song of praise, the repentance of Israel’s archenemy, and an intensely honest dialogue between the Lord and Israel’s most reluctant prophet.
The author, who is most likely Jonah, sets the tone in this passage to focus on God and Jonah.
“1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.”
In the first verse, the author begins this story by saying that “the word of the LORD came to Jonah. . .” (v. 1). This phrase is used when God speaks directly to someone who is asked to participate in God’s mission in a special way. God spoke personally to Jonah. Often times, we look down on him because he ran from God. Despite that, God loved him and favored him. If God didn’t favor Jonah, He wouldn’t have spoken to him in such a personal way.
In the Bible, a person’s name was the description of their character. This is true for the many names given to God in the Bible, and also for the various people in the Scriptures. Take Genesis 25 for example, where we read about the birth of Jacob: “Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob” (25:26). So his name means, “he takes by the heel” or “he cheats.” With that in mind, what is the meaning of the name “Jonah?”
His name means “dove.” Do you recall what Noah did with the dove? Of course you do. It’s found in one of the most beloved Bible stories. In Genesis 8:10-11, Noah sends out a dove from the ark and it returns with the branch of an olive tree, symbolizing peace and compassion. Similarly, God sent out Jonah to be a symbol of peace to the Ninevites. God wanted to rescue the Ninevites from destruction and judgment by His wrath so that they could have peace, forgiveness and mercy.
Furthermore, the Old Testament describes doves as birds who moan and lament (Isaiah 38:14; 59:11). And Jonah moans and cries in chapter 4. Leviticus describes doves as birds of sacrifice, similarly Jonah sacrifices himself to save the sailors in chapter 1. Lastly, in Psalm 55, the psalmist longs to be like a dove to flee from the terrors of death. Jonah also, flees like a dove in chapter 1 from the terror of Nineveh. That’s not why he flees, but he does flee from that.
A Symbol of Peace
As indicated by our text, God sent Jonah to be a messenger of peace to the wicked Ninevites. God desired to rescue them from destruction. We are to be symbols and messengers of peace in our world today. The Bible gives us certain commands concerning peace: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), and in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). And Paul in Romans 12:18, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (NLT).
So we are commanded to be symbols of peace in our world today, and even more, to follow the example of Jesus. He is the very embodiment of peace. Paul describes Jesus in an unusual way: “He himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14a), unusual because, nowhere else in the New Testament is Christ portrayed this way—as the very embodiment of peace. We Christians today should follow Christ’s example of peace. In fact, we should follow the example of Jesus in everything. Jesus is our perfect example of obedience to the Father, even to the point of death (Philippians 2:8).
“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (v. 2). This statement is of course from God. This is that word of the Lord that came to Jonah. God tells Jonah to “call out against” the Ninevites. To call them to repent and seek God. Why? “For their evil has come up before me.” Their evil has been done in plain sight of God. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, and they were Israel’s worst enemy and a source of harm and violence to the ancient world. They were especially known for their brutal and grisly treatment of their enemies. Jonah, being an Israelite, was not interested in taking part in the redemption of this particular enemy. He wasn’t interested in going there and giving them any chance to repent and turn from their ways—they were one of Israel’s enemies.
So what did Jonah do in response to God’s call? “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them into Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD” (v. 3). He flees to Tarshish. He goes down to Joppa and finds a ship going to Tarishish. He pays the fare (the cost to ride) and goes with the crew. The author, who is most likely Jonah, tells this story in a remarkable way. The details mentioned in this passage help you to feel like you are actually going on this trip with Jonah, wondering what will happen next. Something worth noting is the repeated phrase, “away from the presence of the LORD,” which occurs twice in this verse. The various authors of the Bible will often times use repetition to help illustrate an important point. In this case, to help us understand what Jonah was fleeing from: the presence of the Lord. He was fleeing from God’s presence. He runs to Tarshish to avoid two places associated with God’s word: the temple, and Nineveh. Jonah was a prophet, so he would often hear the word of God read in the temple, and he knew if he went to Nineveh, then he would have to preach the word. So he heads to Tarshish, hoping to get away from God’s voice. He knows God is everywhere (1:9), but he thinks that going to Tarshish will drown out God’s voice.
Naturally Running From God
Jonah’s running from God is a great example of a larger theme taught in the Bible—we naturally run from God. We do not naturally run after God or seek Him. “10 as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12, emphasis mine). We are born haters of God and lovers of darkness. “19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:19-20). There is nothing good in us and nothing in us that desires God or naturally delights in Him. Even after we are believers, we continue to struggle with sin daily (Rom. 7:22-26).
But the glorious flip-side of it is this: Though we are on a pursuit away from God, He is running after us, because of His great love. In fact, God has been running after you since before you were born—before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). God even loved you before time began and God is pursuing you like He pursued Jonah. And that pursuit from God is our only hope.
Why Did Jonah Run?
Jonah is certainly rebelling against God by running from God’s call on his life. He does get to a low point. His running was a refusal to obey God’s call to “go to Nineveh,” but it was more than that. To see the whole picture, we need to ask ‘Why did Jonah run from God?’ Many scholars have given a number of creative answers to this question:
1) Jonah ran because the Ninevites were not Jews. The text does not indicate that Jonah was racist against the Ninevites. This conclusion is weak, even though the Ninevites were Israel’s cruel enemies.
2) Jonah ran because he did not want to be known as a false prophet. God says in Deuteronomy, “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken” (18:22). As you know, when Jonah preached, the people repented and the judgment was avoided. But would that make Jonah a false prophet? No. God says in Jeremiah 18:7-8, “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (emphasis mine).
3) Jonah ran because he feared death at the hands of the cruel Ninevites. This conclusion is also weak because Jonah wasn’t afraid to die (1:15). He readily offered himself to be tossed overboard to save the sailors.
The true reason Jonah ran was this: He knew that if he preached judgment, there would be a possibility of forgiveness if they turned from their ways. He knew God was like that: “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). And he didn’t agree. Jonah thought God was making a mistake and a dangerous theological move by offering forgiveness to these wicked Ninevites. Jonah didn’t agree with the way God was going to deal with the Ninevites. Jonah couldn’t swallow (pun intended) the truth that God is both judging and forgiving. Full of both grace and truth. Wrath and compassion.
Taking the Gospel to Haters
Jonah was called to take the message of repentance to his enemies. In the New Testament, we find out that Jesus actually brought the gospel to His enemies (Romans 5:10). You and I. Now, you are called to take the gospel to your enemies. To those who hate you. Jesus, again in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Peter in his first epistle, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9).
Think about who your greatest enemy is. Maybe someone at work who always gives you a hard time. Maybe someone at your school who always rejects you. Maybe a parent who you cannot please. Maybe a cousin or someone in your neighbor hood. Think about the person who gives you the hardest time. That person needs the gospel. You need to take the gospel to them. That’s a risky mission. It might mean inviting them to eat lunch with you. It might mean buying them a Coke after school. It might mean resisting their constant attacks. It might mean doing more work around the house. It might mean talking with them on a personal level.
You may say, “They won’t care. They won’t care about Jesus or the gospel.” You’re right. All who are unsaved do not give the least rip about the gospel. It is foolishness to them (1 Cor. 1:18). But we have the promise that God can save anyone. God must enlighten someone to the worth of the gospel. When He does, all they can do is run to God. There is not another possibility. You can’t be enlightened to the worth of God through the gospel and then make a choice to go the other way (Hebrews 6:4-6). It is impossible. It’s a miracle of God. He enlightens you, grants you faith and repentance and He gives you spiritual life, all in one moment. So don’t believe that God can’t save someone because they count the gospel as worthlessness.
A prime example of this is the conversion story of Paul. He hated the Christian church. He persecuted and killed Christians. He watched Stephen, one of the most courageous believers who ever lived, be stoned to death. And the Bible says that Paul “approved of his execution,” or was pleased (Acts 8:1). Paul was saved soon after this and now look at what God did through him. The gospel spread throughout the entire Mediterranean world because of Paul’s efforts. And half of our New Testament consists of Paul’s writings.
We have enemies like Jonah and we are called to take the message of the gospel to them whether or not we believe they deserve it.