The original Hebrew language says that Yahweh, The Lord; numbered or appointed or assigned or ordained; a great fish to swallow Jonah. This was a very unusual fish in that it could swallow and house a man, with enough air for three days. What is amazing and wonderful is that this was God's plan. God had a plan for Jonah, in Jonah's disobedience. God's plan defies human logic. A human plan might have had Jonah stay on the ship and repent there.
Maybe Jonah was not repentant on the ship. To me, repentance means to turn around and go the other way. To admit one's fault is only a step. Sometimes a person will admit fault, but not be willing to change their ways.
God selected a special vehicle to keep Jonah alive. God had an ordained plan for this large fish. The fish was numbered in that God had that fish's number, meaning that God always had this assignment on this fish's life. This fish would be born and grow to this huge size and end up crossing paths with Jonah at this very moment, swallow him, and save his life.
God knew beforehand that Jonah would be disobedient and planned for it. Isn't that good? Isn't that merciful? While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. All those Christians who are in Christ today: Christ died for them while they were being obstinate. God, who stands outside time, goes ahead of us and prepares things for us.
God's saving work is out of left field. God saves us in unexpected ways. God saves us in creative ways. God saves us in miraculous ways. His ways are not our ways. God has people or animals along our path that he will use to help us. I was in real trouble once in the ocean myself, due to a rip-tide. A life-guard named James rescued me. Many times in my life, when I was going through a disorienting time, a mentor would come into my life and help me. God placed someone in my life who interceded with tears when I needed prayers the most. I remember a day when I was in humiliation (which I needed), among a group of men who were rough, and the leader was a Jesus filled, gracious man, who God sent into that day to bless me and care for me.
Jonah's worst day, the day he thought he would die, and die a failure; ended up being the day God saved him. Prodigal followers of God will get disciplined, but they also get saved. When you are a prodigal and your life is going south and you feel the discipline of your being out of sync with God and out of sync with the world, you may think that either hiding or dying is your only hope; but God wants to save you. God wants to reveal himself to the prodigal and show that person mercy, so they can show the person who has no idea of God his mercy. God has a plan for his mercy to be revealed and given and to capture men and women from the devil. We're all a part of that plan and his-story is of that plan. God can use anything to help his chosen ones to see his mercy and to get in line with his mission of mercy.
He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea! Then the sea will become calm around you. I know it’s my fault that this great storm has come upon you.”
The men rowed to reach dry land, but they couldn’t manage it because the sea continued to rage against them. So they called on the LORD, saying, “Please, LORD, don’t let us perish on account of this man’s life, and don’t blame us for innocent blood! You are the LORD: whatever you want, you can do.” Then they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased its raging. The men worshipped the LORD with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made solemn promises. -Jonah 1:11-16 (CEB)
Jonah has been found out and he admits it is his fault. He has progressed from hider to confessor. Those found to be guilty do not always admit guilt. Jonah finds mercy for others in his own heart, and says, "cast me into the sea and you and your ship will be saved."
Jonah is now putting others before himself. The ship's men have been kind to him and he is now being kind to them. In return, the sailors did not follow Jonah's advice. They instead had more mercy on him and tried to remedy their situation through their own efforts by attempting to row the ship to shore. This did not work. Sometimes our mercy can go beyond God's. Sometimes we are willing to settle something with someone before God has completed that person's discipline. It is good that someone has finally fessed up and admitted their sin, but God may be after a larger change of heart in that person. Yes, the change has begun, but it is perhaps not nearly complete. You rejoice at the person's course correction, but God may want them to completely turn around one-hundred and eighty degrees and in fact give him the steering wheel of their lives; to die so that they may truly live.
The ship's men's over extenting of mercy was an enabling of Jonah rather than the help he needed. The Prophet discerned and declared that the only way out for them all was for him to be thrown overboard. The sailors doing something else to try to save themselves without obeying the directive was not helping them nor Jonah, but made things worse.
After their failure the men didn't stubbornly continue to resist the terrible and difficult direction given by Jonah, nor did they quickly just do it. Instead, they cried out to God in prayer, getting honest with God and laying out their fears. Then, perhaps in solemnity, they cast Jonah into the sea as he had told them to. These men who had previously been afraid, were now in great fear of God; reverential awe of God and worshiped him.
The sailors have met God in an unusual way. A man who has been a follower of God, the one God, the creator; has sinned by running from God. His sin has brought trouble upon people that don't yet know God. In the midst of this trouble, the storm, these pagan men gain a knowledge of the one God and the man who is actively sinning against God pays the price for his sin and thereby saves the others from the destruction.
We see here how one person's sin affects others, even strangers. The calamitous storm affected them and the judgement that was due for Jonah affected the men also. For some reason, Jonah did not say, "I need to jump into the ocean", but instead he said, "hurl me into the sea". There is a picture here of how sin and the price to pay for it is not purely individual, but communal. Even nature is negatively affected and the animals suffer because of Adam & Eve's sin. The sailors had to touch Jonah and physically send him to his fate which they assumed was a sure death. But they could only do it solemnly after solemn and ardent prayers to their new found God, the almighty God. They might have wept. There is nothing in the story about their desire for revenge of a desire to bring justice.
We have a picture in Jonah of the terrible price for sin that Jesus paid. Unlike Jonah, he was obeying God. But like Jonah, he died so that others could live. The penalty for sin is death. I love the song, "oh happy day, oh happy day, when Jesus washed my sins away...", but that day when Jesus suffered and died was not a happy day. John and the two Marys were not happy about it as they watched him die. It was a very horrible event. But, paradoxically, it gloriously paid the price for all of our sins. That's where the fear of God and awe inspiring worship come in. If you can connect your sins to Jesus suffering to pay the price for them, does it not make you want to stop sinning? If you willfully go against God in disobedience, there might be a lack in your revelation of Jesus' suffering on the cross. I believe that salvation is not just an event, but a process. Some would say that a sinning believer is not a believer, because believers do not sin. I would say that believers sin because they are immature and God wants us all to grow to in Christ which is a partnering between us and God's Spirit in us. Unbelieving believers will encounter discipline from God if they are God's children in order to teach them obedience.
Finally Jonah speaks. His self-disclosure goes straight to the point of why he is the cause of the storm. His 'people group' is Hebrew. He says that he fears the creator God. Most less literal Bible translations have Jonah instead saying that, "I worship the LORD". Jonah is saying that in the midst of this calamitous storm, in which you believe that someone has upset a god and the lots pointed to me as the one who has caused it; here is the information about me and my God.
But, the sailors had asked him, "what is your occupation, and where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" Jonah simply answers what people he is a part of, which tells you what religion he embraces, what God he worships, and the geographic area he is from. This is Jonah's identity, a God fearing Hebrew. That's who he is. What he is doing (running from God's presence) is the other important part of his disclosure. There is no mention of Jonah's occupation, line of work, or what he "does". We can imagine that in his homeland, he might have been known as a Prophet, but at this moment, he only identifies himself as a God fearing Hebrew. Prophets were perhaps know as such because of their prophetic ministries. Jonah is running from his calling, gift, function, role, and office of Prophet.
Jonah had just witnessed what we might call a pagan sailor's prayer meeting. We don't know if there were any other Hebrews in the group, but it was implied that they were calling out to a variety of gods other than the God of the Hebrews that Jonah worshiped. Jonah says, "this is who my God is and I'm running away from him."
Notice that Jonah did not say, "and I am afraid of God". Fear of God and afraid of God are different. Fear of the Lord or God has to do with reverence and awe, respect and a bowing down to worship. Reverential fear of God leads to a life of obedience and worship. Reverential fear of God comes from a belief in God's almighty power. Most people who have this experience also believe in God's goodness, His love and mercy. But to walk in reverential fear of the Lord is to always have in mind the almightyiness of God, that God is supreme; supremely to be loved and obeyed and served.
The problem with Jonah's story that does not add up is that if his modus operandi or way of life is that he is a God follower, a follower of the top God, the creator God; and he says that he is a follower of God in that he says he fears this God. Then why is he disobeying God? Jonah will go on to tell the sailors that he is on the run from God, but at the same time he says it is the capital "G" God who surely has the power to get him back. He believes in God, is a God tribe member, and fears God; but he is willfully disobeying God. What?
On hearing Jonah, the men become afraid and say, "what is this that you have done". Literally, they say, "how could you do this?" Edward B. Pusey, in The Minor Prophets, writes, "The inconsistency of believers is the marvel of the young Christian, the repulsion of those without, the hardening of the unbeliever... Faith without love, knowledge without obedience, conscious dependence and rebellion, to be favored by God yet despise His favor, are the strangest marvels of this mysterious world. All nature seems to cry out against the rebellious Christian, "why hast thou done this! ...But to know, to believe, and to disobey! To disobey God in the name of God!... Such unrealities and inconsistencies would be a sore trial of faith had it not Jesus, Who knew what was in man (John 2:25), forewarned us that it would be so."1.
So, what do we make of this paradox? What will Jonah's story tell us about the unbelieving believer? Even though the book of Jonah is named after this man who's name means "dove", he really is not the center of the book or the story. God is the central person in this story. So far, the story seems to be telling us that when we run from God, he pursues us. God's mercy is relentless. God acts with mercy toward the disobedient, unbelieving believer; but God does it with discipline that is firm but gentle.
There's a wideness in God's mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in His justice,
Which is more than liberty.
There is no place where earth’s sorrows
Are more felt than up in Heaven;
There is no place where earth’s failings
Have such kindly judgment given.
There is welcome for the sinner,
And more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Savior;
There is healing in His blood.
There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
There is plentiful redemption
In the blood that has been shed;
There is joy for all the members
In the sorrows of the Head.
’Tis not all we owe to Jesus;
It is something more than all;
Greater good because of evil,
Larger mercy through the fall.
If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.
Souls of men! why will ye scatter
Like a crowd of frightened sheep?
Foolish hearts! why will ye wander
From a love so true and deep?
It is God: His love looks mighty,
But is mightier than it seems;
’Tis our Father: and His fondness
Goes far out beyond our dreams.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us
Come and gather at His feet?
-Frederick William Faber, 1854
1. Pusey, The Minor Prophets, p. 404; Funk, 1885
The picture above is taken from the cover of Tara Soughers book Fleeing From God
The finger of God had pointed to Jonah in the lots and now the sailors gathered round him and began to question him. When we go on a journey in a vehicle with strangers, we don't always get the chance to become acquainted, but sometimes we do. In the story of Jonah, the other passengers and crew members were happy to let him remain anonymous. He was just "passenger x" to them. But, the crisis that arose and the determination of the lots that pointed to Jonah brought up the question of, "who are you?" "We would not have asked, we would have let you remain anonymous; but now your problems have become our problems", the sailors might have said.
The sailors and the author of Jonah are illustrating a communal cause and affect of sin. One person's sin or disobedience is affecting a whole group of people. The way we live today is with the notion that each individual lives their own separate life and we all have our little box we live in and we do not affect each other and our box is no body's business but our own. Husbands, for example, might have a separate life from their wives that is secret. In spiritual or religious fellowships, we may keep much of our lives and our selves secret. While we need privacy and we may not be ready to "tell all", it is possible that in our culture, rugged individualism has trumped self-disclosure and transparency. How can you walk with me if you don't know me?
The sailors have four questions for Jonah, in order to try to learn more about him and why he has invited this calamity. They don't judge him or jump to conclusions about him. While it's pretty obvious that he is in some kind of trouble and that his problem has become their problem, they remain compassionate or at least clinical. How often do we condemn someone before hearing their story? How often do we judge someone by appearances? Asking questions aimed at learning more about a person and nudging them towards self-disclosure is very different than just judging them. How many times when we find out the whole story, does our opinion about someone change. Suspending judgement is a very good default position to be in towards people. Isn't that why the Bible is so clear on the fact that we are not to judge or condemn people. Only God knows the whole story of a person and has the right to judge them.
We can break down judgements into two categories. The judgements of God are like when a judge makes a judgement. Only God is "the judge". We are not the judge. But we can make judgements or exclamatory evaluations. Unlike the evaluation that it is warm outside, when some one is talking too loud, I make that judgement and ask them to talk softer. When someone almost hits my car or is about to drive in front of me, I can make a judgement that they don't see me and that danger is imminent and honk my horn. When there are 12 pieces of chicken on a plate and we have 4 people at the table who all are sharing the chicken and someone takes 6 pieces, we have a right to judge that action and say "hey" to that person; but that isn't a final judgement or condemnation of them.
Rather than judge Jonah, the sailors sought to know who he was are where he was from. They didn't get him at all. They wanted to know his story because they have been thrust into the position of helping him get resolution. No shaming, or condemning; but just, "who art thou?"
-Jonah 1:7 (CEB)
Jonah was taken upside, to the prayer meeting. We don't know how much or if Jonah prayed, but we can be sure that he did not take the opportunity to tell the men that he had some issues with God, in that he was disobeying God. He did not confess his sins before the men aloud. I imagine that after some time, after they had all been calling out to the gods in prayer; that the storm had not let up. It was still very dangerous. At this point, they decided to take action before it was too late. they would cast lots to find out who's fault this was.
The casting of lots was not seen as magical or mechanical in it's ability to point, but it was believed that the divine would and could enter into the lots and make them point at the one chosen person. Proverbs 16:33 states that, "The dice (lots) are cast into the lap; all decisions are from the LORD." God can enter into casting lots and that is what happens here.
Casting lots is never a substitute for discerning God's will through knowing the revealed will of God already revealed in scripture or through common sense. Casting lots is only meant to be a means of last resort and should only be done by divine inspiration. Imagine a group of seven people, where the group agrees that one must be left to do a certain task and no one volunteers, no one "feels led" of God, and all other things are equal. In other words, no one is the obvious choice. They pray about it and no divine leading comes. Time is passing and a choice must be made, so they cast lots to make a decision. It's like drawing straws with one short one in the bunch.
The lot falls on Jonah. Spotlight time. Stand up and speak. What do you say? It's like suddenly having those red and blue flashing lights come on behind you that say, "pull over". Public humiliation and shame at being found out.
No one was preparing gallows for the one who's fault the storm was. They just wanted to know and then wanted that person to deal with whatever the cause was. These men were pious to some extent, evidenced by their ardent prayers.
So, Jonah is found out. He finds that he could not escape God incognito and start a new life. He might have said he's through with God, but God was not through with him. God had not given up on this man. Jonah probably did not have those insights at that time. As a child does not understand discipline in the midst of it, the loving parent is doing it with the maturing of the child in mind.
The storm was used by God to arrest Jonah. The storm was like God's military police who were sent to capture a man who was absent without leave. The sailors theorized this and were correct. God is good and wise and loving. God is doing this for Jonah's best. God is actually kind in the storm. There could have been a lighting bolt, splitting the boat in two or setting it on fire; but God only sent wind and waves that rocked the boat.
Jonah was found out. He hid and has been found. It's a good thing to be found out in your sin, because then you can openly confess it and get clean through God's forgiveness. You can ask forgiveness of the people you've hurt as well. You get to be redeemed, you get to be set free. You may have nothing, but you no longer have your sin and guilt and now you can embrace God. That's what Jonah was about to be given the opportunity to step into. Better to have failed and be stripped, but to be reconciled to God than to have success and be clothed in comfort with many friends and to be estranged from God.
Better to lose all and gain relationship with God than to attain all, but lose relationship with God. That is what God is after with you and me. I am Jonah and so are you. (Hat tip to Father Joseph of Redwood Valley, California; for that phrase and the graphic.)
Have you ever been depressed? Depressed people sometimes sleep a lot. Depressed people are people who are losing hope. Hopelessness is very different than conviction of sin leading to repentance. The depressed person has disqualified themselves from redemption. They are beyond saving, in their own minds. Depressed people are more pessimistic than optimistic. Depressed people are inward focused. They don't consider other people, nor consider God as much as outward focused people do.
The ship's officer does not ask why Jonah is sleeping and he does not shame or accuse him. He just observes Jonah's behavior as being completely out of line with the present circumstances and calls him to get with it. He says, "what is this?"and "get with it".
The officer's command to, "get up and call on your god", are very similar to God's call to Jonah to, "go to Ninevah and preach". It's a second call, similar to the first. He didn't get up and go speak the first time and now in different circumstances, the call to get up and speak, but to God this time, is repeated. It's ironic that he would not heed the call of God and now he will have to heed the call of a man. Wake up, get up, go up, and call out. Just do it. You didn't go when God called you and now a more brute force in a possibly pagan man is calling you a second time and he'll make you do it if you resist. Go!
Sometimes when we call upon a depressed person to get to work and join in, the depressed person may decline, saying that they are too weak, too broken, too sinful, or too wounded. This is the right thing to do. Joining in and being a part of the work is the best thing for the depressed person.
The ship's officer calling Jonah to duty is a picture of this. The "therapeutic approach" or sensitively noticing that this person is very dysfunctional in that they are asleep during a crisis, and letting them sleep or giving them talk therapy or a healing prayer session; would be all wrong. There's a phrase they say in the twelve step fellowships, "it works if you work it", that comes to my mind.
There is something powerful about getting up and doing something when you are depressed. In a fellowship setting, the depressed person who thinks they are of no value and are better off in bed or on the couch or in the recliner while all the "healthy people" do the "work", is better off working. Better to be a fellowship of the walking wounded.
The ship's captain enjoins Jonah to join the prayer meeting. It was "all hands on deck". What was the common prayer request? Mercy. In the desperate situation of the storm, they were calling out to every god they knew of for mercy. The captain said, "perhaps the god will give some thought to us so that we won't perish". Perhaps means we have to try, we have to ask.... It looks terrible, but perhaps. Just at least ask and perhaps we could be saved. Don't just assume we are doomed, but ask for mercy; for help or rescue. The captain is saying that, "we have not given up, but seeing that there is nothing more we can do to save ourselves, we are calling upon the gods, and I want you, Jonah, to call upon your god with us. Perhaps your god will hear and answer in saving us."
This is very good advice, to always pray no matter what and no matter how dire the circumstances are; to not stop praying. Perhaps God will intervene. Perseverance. Don't give up. Perhaps God will do something good. God is good. Persistence and perseverance in prayer are good Biblical ideas. The Bible says to do these things. Pray until something happens.
Perhaps is an attitude. Perhaps God will heal. Perhaps God will save. Perhaps God will deliver. Perhaps God will give you the desire of your heart that He perhaps put there. Perhaps God will bring revival. Perhaps God will save the most sinful people you can think of. People that say "perhaps" are people open to and desperate for the move of God.