The Storm | Jonah 1:4-16

Three times in the previous three verses, we were given reference to the presence of the LORD. First, the wickedness of Nineveh arose to His presence, and twice we are told that Jonah ran from God’s presence. The major problem with this action is that God is omnipresent, meaning that He is everywhere. Jonah’s plan to run away is undone by the fact that there is no getting away from God.

THE GREAT WIND // VERSES 4-6

Within verse 4, we find God throwing a storm at boat that Jonah was in to show that He cannot be escaped from. There are a few thoughts that we can take from this divine-ordained storm. First, we cause some of the storms in our lives. In last few verses of Mark 4, Jesus and His disciples encounter a ferocious storm at sea. The storm came without warning and (seemingly) without reason, and often life’s troubles are similar. Just like we cannot predict or evade a storm, neither can we evade or predict most hardships. However, some of life’s storms happen because of our sin. God sent this storm to capture the attention of Jonah because of Jonah’s disobedience. Second, many have called God’s issuing this storm a miracle, but in reality, it is not. A miracle is an act of God that breaks free from the typically set laws of nature. Storms occur within the nature of reality, so there is no reason to say that this is a miracle of God. Instead, we must understand that all of nature is subject to the sovereignty of the LORD. Here, God is simply exercising the power and authority that He already has over the winds and the waters. Though many may believe that circumstances arise because of fate or fortune, we know that God alone holds supreme sovereignty over all things.

In order for hardened and rugged sailors to become afraid as we find them in verse 5, the storm must have been mighty indeed. We also find here a glimpse into the heart of the pagan. As soon as they realize that this is no ordinary storm, they begin to call upon their own gods. Each man began to pray to his respective deity for salvation; however, none answered. The despair is truly seen when the men begin to throw their cargo into the sea. As sailors, their job was transport cargo; thus, the storm was violent enough to cause them to throw away their earnings in order to simply survive. So we have the pagan sailors in fearful dread for their lives, calling upon any known deity for help, and we have the prophet of the only true God asleep.

The picture presented is almost unbelievable. The storm is raging so that the ship was even breaking apart, yet Jonah is fast asleep. How can this be? The scenario seems slightly similar to Jesus’ sleeping in the midst of the storm; however, there is a key difference between Jonah’s sleep and Jesus’ sleep. Jesus was asleep because He knew that His Father controlled the winds and seas (and so did He). Jonah’s slumber though comes from an uncaring and apathetic heart. Jonah is only asleep through this tumult because he is doing his best to sear his conscience, so that he could truly run away from God. There is nothing more unnerving than the believer who is actively trying to harden his heart in order to escape the will of God!

Finally, in verse 6, the captain of the ship arouses Jonah, ordering him to call out to his God. It is no mistake or accident that the captain uses very similar words to God’s word to Jonah in verse two. God told Jonah to arise and call out against Nineveh. Now the captain tells him to arise and call out to his God for salvation. Though this captain was the very definition of a pagan, God used his words. Surely at that moment, Jonah realized that he could not escape his God. First, the storm came, now the captain was using some of the same wording of God’s message. Indeed, Jonah could not outrun God.

THE PROPHET EXPOSED // VERSES 7-10

The sailors cast lots in order to determine who was responsible for this storm. It is interesting to note that the sailors believed that they were being punished by association. Today, it seems that this idea is completely foreign to us. We expect for each person to pay the penalty for their own wrongdoing without any implications or ramifications upon the rest of us. However, these sailors understood that life does not work that way. No one ever sins in isolation. Our sins always impact those around us. True, the sailors had nothing to do with Jonah’s flight from God’s presence, but Jonah’s sin caused them grief, nonetheless. Because of that truth, we can conclude that sin is the most selfish act that can be done. Sin kills us but also those around us.

Casting lots was similar to our practice of drawing straws. In this case, the sailors used it to discover the source of their present circumstances. Their assumption with casting lots was that the deities (whoever might exist) would guide the seemingly random act toward the correct person. Though the sailors did not know that the LORD is the only true God, He did influence the lots so that it fell upon Jonah. Not only is God sovereign over nature and creation, He is also in control over that which we know to be random. God can easily rig any gamble. With the lot landing upon Jonah, the sailors began their process of interrogation. Like anyone in this circumstance, the sailors wanted to know what Jonah did to cause this great storm. They knew that they were suffering because of something that he had done; therefore, they sought to discover his sin so that they could respond appropriately.

Like a murderer caught red-handed or a thief with the goods in hand, Jonah makes no protest. He simply tells the men of his ethnicity and his God. He states that he is a Hebrew, which is the Jewish ethnic term used in international affairs. Next, he claims to fear the God of the Hebrews, the LORD. It is interesting that Jonah mentions heaven, sea, and dry land because we have seen how the pagans called upon all of their gods. Most of the ancient gods were thought to be over certain aspects of nature. In Greek mythology for instance, Poseidon was the god of the seas, and Zeus was the ruler of the heavens. Jonah states a key characteristic of his God that separates the LORD from all other gods: Jonah’s God made everything. The LORD is not simply in control of the seas or the land; He made the seas and the land. Jonah’s God is the Creator of all things in existence, which makes Him therefore the ultimate and supreme deity. However, it is rather difficult to believe that Jonah truly feared God. Indeed, it seems that Jonah’s religious devotion at this point is nothing more than words that he is used to repeating.

Verse 10 presents more of the sharp irony that so riddles the book of Jonah. The prophet of God showed little fear of the LORD, while the pagan sailors became exceedingly afraid of the awesome power of Jonah’s God. They immediately understood the dangerous severity of Jonah’s fleeing from the presence of the all-powerful God. Sadly, it appears that in this moment Jonah is living as a practical atheist. Yes, he claims to believe in and fear God, but his actions are showing something else entirely. It is not enough simply to believe in God, for even the demons believe in God—and at least they really do fear God (James 2:19). Good theology and correct answers does not make a Christian. Unless there is a fear of God in our hearts that leads us to worship Him in spirit and truth, our knowledge of the LORD does us no good.

Evidently, Jonah told the sailors beforehand that he was fleeing from his God; however, they would have thought little about this nugget of information. They must have assumed that the LORD was like their gods, powerless outside of their realm of authority. However, now they understand that Jonah’s God has authority over all things. Their surprised exclamation reflects the ridiculousness of Jonah’s sin. How could he possibly hope to escape from such a great God!

INTO THE SEA // VERSES 11-16

As the sea continues to grow increasingly violent, the sailors now ask Jonah what they must do to appease God. Because God is so vastly superior to their gods and Jonah’s crime was one of blatant disobedience, they did not know how to calm God’s wrath. The prophet of God tells them to hurl him into the sea (which is the same sort of language that describes God hurling the storm at the ship in verse four). Jonah’s response reveals much about his heart. First, Jonah is willing to sacrifice himself for the sake of the sailor’s survival. This is a pleasant change in Jonah. Perhaps he is finally beginning to understand the impact that his actions were having upon people who are mildly associated with him. However, we must not ascribe too much credit to Jonah yet. It seems to me that Jonah could have easily told the sailors to take him back to Joppa. He could have made a forward progress toward obedience of the LORD, but Jonah does not do that. Instead, Jonah urges the sailors to throw him into the ocean. Let us prevent ourselves from reading our knowledge of events into the text by remembering that Jonah did not know about the fish. Jonah did not know that God was going to save him from drowning to death in the middle of the merciless sea. Therefore, Jonah is telling the sailors to cast him into death. I believe that we could naturally reason (from Jonah’s nature in the rest of the book) that the prophet would rather face death for his disobedience than to actually obey God by going to Nineveh.

Once more, however, we have the sailors showing more compassion than the prophet of God. Though dropping Jonah off on land might be a noble action on the part of the sailors, it does not work because it was against God. Jonah told them what they must do to survive the storm, but they decided to try it their own way. Needless to say, their efforts fail. We can, however, easily draw a couple of points for thought from verse 13.

First, even the best of intentions is not a sufficient excuse for disobedience. Yes, Jonah may have been a prophet that was knee-deep in his own disobedience, but it was still a prophet of God. The sailors ought to have listened to Jonah’s words immediately and thrown him from the ship. By not listening to Jonah, they wasted a great deal of energy and effort.

Second, like the sailors, we often try to survive the storm our way. Too often, because of our pride, we try to take situations into our own hands and only come to God whenever our methods have failed. We see this no place more clearly than in the work of salvation. We will try our hand at all forms of religion and good works before we ever fall broken upon the grace of Christ. In a sermon on this verse, Spurgeon discusses five ways that try to perform salvation by our own works.

The first is moral reformation. This is when we grit our teeth and give our greatest effort to becoming more moral. The problem is that moral reformation is only washing the outside of the cup (Matt. 23:25). There is no internal transformation.

Next is religious observance. The monks of old could be accused of this strict asceticism. Grand vows of poverty, celibacy, or the like do not make one holy. Neither does daily reading of the Bible or weekly fasts. Only confidence can be placed in the transforming work of Christ.

Spurgeon then lists the reliance upon orthodox doctrine. In some ways, we still do not place high enough emphasis upon proper doctrine; however, if we are more excited about the teachings of Calvin than of Jesus, there is an issue in our hearts. 

Next are incessant prayers. Prayer is crucial. We are told to constantly do it (1 Thess. 5:17) and at all times in the Spirit (Eph. 6:18). However, Jesus also warned us about a kind of superfluous prayer that reveals a heart that relies more upon the prayer itself than God.

Finally, he lists mental torture. This is the constant act of bemoaning the hardness of our heart, our sluggishness towards repentance, or perhaps our lack of love towards Christ. And in fact, all of it might be true, but the problem is that this is the epitome of self-righteousness, with a heavy emphasis upon the self. True faith in Christ is not about us; it is about Jesus.

Now, my dear hearer, you will row very hard in this way before you will ever come to land, for self-righteousness lies at the bottom of all this. You want to save your heart from hardness and then come to Jesus; which is much as to say you wish to save yourself and then come to Him to put the finishing stroke upon you. You have a secret attachment to your own goodness or you would not be so eager to compass a fitness—you should at once do as you are bid, and rest alone on Jesus; your business is not with self, but with Jesus! With Jesus, just as you are. However hard your heart may be— however destitute of feeling you may have become—this, though it should be subject for lamentation, should never keep you from resting in Him who is able to save to the uttermost them who come unto God by Him. I tell you, your trying to get your heart into a right state, your trying to repent, your trying to be humble, is all labor in vain. It is all going the wrong way to work. Your business is with Christ! He can soften, cleanse, and sanctify, but you can do none of these, try as you will. Come as you are to my Lord Jesus, hard-heart and all, and the sea shall soon be calm for you; while you row with your own oars, the sea will only work and be the more tempestuous.[1]

Third, our greatest efforts will never be enough when they are contrary to God. Though the sailors rowed with all their might to reach the shore, God only increased the strength of the storm against them. They challenge was doomed from the beginning. They challenged God and lost. All of our efforts will likewise fail. Our greatest acts of moral reform will not save our souls. Our deepest sense of self-righteous guilt is nothing but a vanity. All is a striving after the wind unless we are obedient to God.

Finally, after much fruitless striving against God’s storm, the sailors elect to cast Jonah into the sea. In verse fourteen, we get a fuller view of why the sailors did not want to throw Jonah overboard. “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood.” They were afraid that by killing Jonah they would incur an even greater wrath of God. For most people, sins deserving of death are murder, rape, and atrocities like that, yet because of the marvelous supremacy of the LORD, each disobedience against Him brings deadly consequences. Though God’s severity made them marvel, this would not have been a completely foreign concept. They surely understood that punishment is directly correlated to the esteem of the offended party. For example, lying to a strange is rude but will likely bare little consequence. Lying to a spouse or close friend will yield a deep hurt and damage trust. Lying in court is called perjury, which is a felony. All three examples are the same offense, but when committed to different persons, the ramifications become drastically different. So it is with God. Any sin committed against God bears infinite punishment because He is an infinite God. Thus, the sailors did not know how (or even, if) Jonah was a going to be able to stay the anger of the LORD, but just as Jonah said, the storm calmed once Jonah was tossed to the waves.

When the storm settled just as Jonah promised, the sailors came to fear the LORD even more. Of course, we should be so naïve as to assume that these polytheistic sailors became followers of the one true God; however, it is worth noting that these “unbelievers” displayed a greater reverence toward God than the prophet did. The evidence of their fear of the LORD is their sacrificial offering to God. While Jonah claimed to fear God, his actions spoke contrary. The sailors did fear God, and their actions proved it. Works and actions are important because they reveal the true place of our heart. Now it is important that we do not forget the primary biblical truth of grace. Jonah was not justified for obeying the LORD nor was he forsaken by God for his disobedience. God does not let go of Jonah, even when Jonah would rather die than obey. Such is the grace of God, a gift of God that is not dependent upon our own works or actions. Amen! Thank God for His wondrous grace! Nevertheless, we must never forget that a transformed heart will perform good works. Our works are not the means of salvation, but they are the evidence of salvation. If we truly believe the glorious gospel of Christ, how can we not respond in gratitude toward Him by strive hard for His kingdom.

THE END OF THE MATTER

Ultimately, there is a great truth to be learned from Jonah and the storm of God’s wrath: Jonah is a type of Christ. Since in Hebrew culture the seas are the embodiment of chaos, it is fitting that the waves would represent God’s wrath. Jonah, by being cast into the heart of God’s anger, saved the sailors from destruction. Jesus is a better Jonah. Like Jonah, Jesus was hurled into the epicenter of God’s righteous indignation; however, unlike Jonah, Jesus did not deserve that indignation.


[1] Charles Spurgeon, Labour in Vain, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/labour-in-vain/#flipbook/

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