The great storm

Little is revealed about Jonah in Scripture outside the book that bears his name and the historical accounts and inferences meagrely scattered throughout the record. Jonah means ‘a dove’ and his father, Amittai, means ‘truth.’ He is ‘a dove, the son of truth’ and this very name illustrates Jonah’s challenge. Will he be a ‘son of truth?’ Will he be honest and truthful with himself and others?

Jonah’s village, Gath-hepher, was a frontier town just west of the Lake of Galilee and living there he understood the threat Syria and Assyria posed to the fragile security of the northern kingdom. The valley between the two mountain ranges in Lebanon funnels invading forces into Galilee first—a fact demonstrating the magnitude of territorial gains made under Jeroboam II when he restored Israel’s borders to those of David and Solomon (2 Kings 14:25).

We can imagine how Jonah was thunderstruck on receiving his commission. He is to “cry against” Nineveh because of their wickedness. He knows what these people are like; he knows the geo-political environment (see details in the previous article). By the time Jonah was called, Assyrian success against Urartu and its eastern allies and Babylon would have been widely known. But weren’t the Assyrians part of Nimrod’s kingdom—the archenemy of the truth, the great opponent of God—and the cruellest nation on earth? This is the last place Jonah could imagine being sent, especially since it seemed to interfere with his great work with the northern tribes.

Jonah was called to denounce Assyrian wickedness, but in doing so he had a big problem. He knows that God was merciful and will respond to their repentance (4:2) and he also believed that, if he doesn’t preach, they couldn’t turn to God. He may have reasoned that though the probability of their response was small, it did still exist and since Assyria was Israel’s greatest threat, preventing that repentance would give Israel more time to respond. Jonah’s issue was that he believed Israel was exclusively God’s people and should always receive God’s mercy, even at the expense of others who may repent.

Jonah decided not to risk this outcome, choosing to flee (‘to bolt’) from God’s presence (1:3) rather than provide any opportunity for Nineveh to change. Chapter 4:1-2 reveals Jonah’s fury when he saw that Assyria listened, repented, and was forgiven in contrast to his own people, Israel, who would not listen, nor repent, nor continue to receive mercy.

God asked Jonah to go east, but he chose Tarshish, the farthest point west known to the then-known world. This journey would take him out of the Mediterranean through the pillars of Hercules (The Straits of Gibraltar) and onwards to the ends of the earth (Britain). Jonah had thought this through; this was calculated, deliberate disobedience, not impetuosity or cowardice. Jonah “rose up to flee…from the presence of Yahweh.”

He knew he couldn’t escape from God, so what does this phrase mean? God’s commissioned prophets operated in His presence. Elijah used this phrase to describe his work (1 Kings 17:1; 18:15 “presence” same word as “before”). Jonah’s passionate commitment to Israel caused him to make the deliberate choice to resign his commission as a prophet of Yahweh, with the expectation that he would die as a result (1 Kings 13:20-24).

Jonah might even have been literally in God’s presence, praying and interceding for Israel in the temple when he received his commission. This is because Joppa was the closest port to Jerusalem (70kms away). If he was living in Galilee he would have chosen Tyre, which was the closest port to Gath-hepher (65km away).

The ship had just left port when God intervened (1:4). Yahweh “cast forth” (1 Sam 18:11; 20:33) a “mighty tempest” (hurricane) like a javelin. An unusually powerful storm, seemingly out of nowhere, struck the ship with supernatural speed and force! Imagine the scene: shredded sails, parted sheets, stinging spray, shrieking wind, gear swept away; the mind-numbing ferocity of the noise, the ship labouring up mountains of water, briefly glimpsing the sky and then sliding down into the dark abyss between. The Oxford margin accurately ascribes the fear of being broken up to the ship herself. Here was a storm so ferocious that an inanimate ship was scared!

No wonder the “mariners” were completely terrified (1:5). They considered it to be no normal storm and therefore must be punishment from angering a god. They “cry out” (‘to shriek’) to their favourite deity, not caring which god answers so long as they were saved. When there was no answer, they lighten the ship in an attempt to relieve the burden this danger of death laid upon them. Preservation of life and ultimately salvation depends on us ridding our lives of all that weighs us down (Heb 12:1).

Through all of this, Jonah was asleep (‘to stun, stupefy’) in his cabin, unaware of the drama. Physically exhausted by a long journey, emotionally spent by disobedience and mentally distressed, he believed he would never worship in the temple again. Having a godly conscience will often make disobedience to God’s commandments more difficult than the alternative.

The ‘shipmaster’ goes to wake Jonah: “Arise, call upon thy God” (1:6). He was effectively asking ‘don’t you care we’re about to die?’ The use of the word “arise” is a connection back to verse 2. Jonah thought he was on his way to death, but was jerked out of sleep by the same word God used to him before: “Arise!” The captain wanted Jonah to cry to his favourite god like everyone else. The second occurrence of the word, “God” uses the definite article—“the Elohim.” The captain desperately hopes Jonah’s god would be the god that can control the storm.

This was awkward. Jonah boarded this ship to avoid his responsibilities as a prophet, now a pagan sea captain was pleading with him to call on his god, using God’s very words. We’re not told Jonah prayed, but in the face of a deteriorating situation, the sailors cast lots (1:7) to ascertain who was responsible for the storm. Jonah knows casting the lot will inevitably bring him into the open (Prov 16:33), but despite this he behaves like Achan (Josh 7:1,16-19). He knew what caused the problem, but refused to confess his sin and glorify God. Confession and honesty could have come at any time, but he hoped the lot would not fall on him. The deceitfulness of sin caused both Jonah and Achan to hope that God would not find them out—something we all may feel from time to time.

The sailors showed great restraint when the lot falls on Jonah. They hold a committee of inquiry asking four personal questions, covering all aspects of life: job, journey’s purpose, where he lived and nationality. Jonah’s response to question four reveals a change (1:9). He is a Hebrew, separate and distinct from the ship’s company, openly declaring his allegiance to God. In a similar way, we are to be lights for God in a dark, hopeless world—but are we distinct from the world? Do we openly declare our allegiance to God, or do we hang back waiting to see if the lot falls on us?

Jonah differentiates between “Yahweh, the Elohim of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land” and the sailors’ pagan gods. The God of the Hebrews is effective everywhere—heaven, sea, or dry land—unlimited in His jurisdiction in contrast to the sailors’ pagan deities (1 Kings 20:22-23,28).

The sailors become “exceedingly afraid” (1:10). They’re horrified by Jonah’s revelation. Most translations exclaim, “What is this you have done!” The unnatural storm confirms Jonah’s story. By unwittingly assisting Jonah’s flight, they consider themselves to have offended God and became personally responsible for this storm. Jonah said, “I fear Yahweh, the God of heaven and earth,” but his hypocrisy was unveiled by his actions. These ignorant Gentile sailors displayed far greater reverence for God than he had done.

The storm had been growing worse (1:11, Oxford mg) and the urgent issue facing the sailors was what to do to Jonah to calm the sea and save their lives. Jonah was the key to their salvation, so they ask, “What shall we do unto thee?”

As an aside it was a similar question asked by the Jews after hearing Peter’s speech on the day of Pentecost, “What shall we do?” As a nation they had ignored the sign of the prophet Jonah, and had refused Jesus as their Messiah (Acts 2:22). The answer to their question was to undertake a faithful identification with Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism (v37-40) and this “promise is unto…all that are afar off” (Joel 2:32, Eph 2:13-19). Peter was showing God had always intended Gentiles would share salvation through identification with His Son in faith—a principle Jonah seemed to have understood, but actively resisted.

Jonah confessed his guilt, accepting responsibility for the storm (1:12). He could have told them to return to land so he could fulfil God’s commission, but doesn’t. He had no intention of doing this; he preferred death so that his people would be spared a little longer.

The expression “take me up” (‘to lift up’) is referenced by Jesus three times (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32), each occasion being linked with his title “the Son of Man.” Jesus, speaking to Greeks at Bethsaida (‘House of Fish’) said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32). Both Jonah and Christ needed to die so that the Gentiles who depended on them for salvation could live.

Jonah’s confession and courage impressed the sailors, but instead of throwing him overboard, they tried desperately to save him (1:13). They “rowed” (‘to force a passage’) desperately trying to drive a passage through the waves and make shore. They were in effect declaring, ‘surely salvation is achievable another way.’ They tried to save themselves using the might of the flesh, human ingenuity, personal endeavour; but to no avail, and hence the sea wrought and was tempestuous “against them.” God’s storm actively thwarted every desperate move and they realised they had set themselves against the very will of God.

The sailors cry in humble faith for mercy and salvation to Yahweh, the true God they had just learned about, acknowledging their lives were subject to His sovereign control (1:14). They called Jonah innocent, though he was not, because they considered him to be a man of God in the same way that Pilate had (Matt 27:24-25). They concluded, “for thou O Yahweh hath done as it pleaseth thee” (1:14). They had tried every other way to save themselves, but in the end they realised that they must surrender themselves to God’s sovereignty. They were brought to the realisation that Yahweh is the mighty one of both sea and dry land.

Having expressed their faith in Israel’s God, the sailors lifted Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea. The record emphasises the sailors’ humility and trust in this new God they were beginning to appreciate. At the same time, we know Jonah would have most likely felt shame for his hypocrisy and for his callous indifference to their fate. This is a warning to us to ensure we do not treat others in the same way. How awful it would be to discover that we were the cause of someone stumbling now.

As Jonah went under the surface, the sea miraculously transformed from pandemonium to a dead calm in an instant (1:15). Yahweh is confirmed to be Elohim of the sea and the mariners tasted “the peace of God.” This peace comes with the realisation of the futility in relying on human strength and ingenuity as we submit to the Father’s will and sovereign control in our lives.

The sailors were converted, and using the covenant name, they reverenced Yahweh “greatly” (1:16 NIV). We have seen these men progress from abject terror of death at the hand of an angry god to faith, love, and great reverence for Yahweh their saviour. Now, understanding God’s character and purpose, they respond and sacrifice to Yahweh and make vows. These men were serious-minded, showing immediate devotion to their new God and committing themselves to future acts of service. In addition to their devotion, the sailors also celebrate the joy of fellowship they now have with the God of sea and dry land and vow to maintain it (note: ‘offered’ and ‘vow’ are related to the peace offering).

It was plausible they went to Jerusalem to sacrifice and learn more about Yahweh. The story of the great storm and Jonah the prophet who fled from Yahweh’s presence would have spread rapidly, first to Jerusalem and Judah, then to Samaria and Israel and then beyond. The sailors would have testified to Jonah’s death and disappearance beneath the waves. We can imagine how amazed they would have been to later learn of his salvation three days later. News spreads fast along the trade routes and would soon make its way over to Nineveh, just in time to coincide with Jonah’s new preaching commission.

Jonah is an imperfect type of Christ because he initially disobeyed the will of God. Despite this, however, God is going to use him further so that his willing sacrifice at the hands of the sailors would not be a sacrifice offered in vain.