So the captain went down after him. “How can you sleep at a time like this?” he shouted. “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.”
Then the crew cast lots to see which of them had offended the gods and caused the terrible storm. When they did this, the lots identified Jonah as the culprit. “Why has this awful storm come down on us?” they demanded. “Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?”
Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the Lord. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned. And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?”
“Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.” – Jonah 1:6-12 ESV
Jonah was a prophet. Well, it might be safer to say that he was a reluctant, runaway prophet. At this point in the story, there is no indication that Jonah had ever been a prophet of God before. It seems from the opening verses of the book, that he had just received His prophet’s commission from God and, rather than accept it, Jonah decided to make a run for it. Jonah knew exactly what God was commanding him to do and he was well aware of what the job of a prophet entailed. He just didn’t consider himself to the be right man for the job. And it would appear that he considered the Ninevites the wrong people to be given a chance to repent and gain the favor and forgiveness of God.
But Jonah was not the first man to be a reluctant prophet. When God approached Jeremiah and told him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5 ESV), Jeremiah responded, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6 ESV). He didn’t feel qualified or equipped for the job either. But Jonah’s reluctance was based on more than fear. He had a hatred for the people of Nineveh, because they were Assyrians and enemies of the Jews. It will not be until the last chapter of the book that Jonah will confess the true cause of his attempted escape to Tarshish. When he sees that God has extended mercy to the people of Nineveh, he will say, “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen” (Jonah 4:2-3 ESV). He would rather die than see the people of Nineveh spared by God. And his initial attempt to run from God was a sign that he would rather die as a rebel than play a part in God’s redemption of the people of Nineveh.
So when the ship in which Jonah sailed encountered the storm, he remained asleep in the hold. He most likely had resigned himself to his fate. He knew God was not going to let him get away with his rebellion. But the sailors on the ship were in a panic. They knew their lives were in danger, which had prompted them to call out to their various gods, in an attempt to gain some kind of divine help. So, the captain woke Jonah up and confronted him, saying, “How can you sleep at a time like this? Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives” (Jonah 1:6 NLT). The sailors even cast lots in order to determine who might be the one who was responsible for this obvious divinely ordained disaster. And the lot fell to Jonah. And this should not surprise us. We read in the book of Proverbs: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Proverbs 16:33 ESV).
When the sailors saw that Jonah was somehow responsible, they peppered him with questions: “Why has this awful storm come down on us? Who are you? What is your line of work? What country are you from? What is your nationality?” (Jonah 1:8 NLT). And Jonah revealed that he was a Hebrew, a worshiper of Yahweh, the creator of the sea and the land. That bit of news terrified the sailors. In their minds, they were dealing with some sort of water god. This could not be good. But what were they to do? How could the appease this god of the Hebrews? And when Jonah revealed that he had run away from his God, they only had two questions: “Why did you do it?” and “What are we going to do about it?”
And Jonah knew exactly what needed to happen. He was the cause of the problem and his death was the only cure. Or so he thought. His response to the sailors’ questions reveals that he would rather face death at the hands of God than go to Nineveh and face the prospect of seeing the people repent and be spared by God.
“Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.” – Jonah 1:12 NLT
Jonah accepted responsibility for the storm, but refused to confess his sin to God. He would rather die than obey God. For whatever reason, Jonah held a deep and bitter hatred for the people of Nineveh. As we saw earlier, when God eventually spared the people of Nineveh, Jonah had the temerity to demand that God kill him. He preferred death at the hands of God over having to watch God show mercy to pagans.
There is no doubt that the city of Nineveh was inhabited by wicked people. The Assyrians were known for their barbarism and had proven to be a constant thorn in the side of the Israelites. So, it is not surprising that Jonah was repulsed by the idea of being God’s messenger to these people. He knew that God’s prophets were commissioned to carry His message of judgment, but with an underlying purpose of calling people to repentance. And God had been gracious enough to send prophet after prophet to the people of Israel, warning them of judgment and calling them to return to Him in repentance. So, Jonah knew that God was merciful and slow to anger. He had seen God’s patience with Israel. And the idea of God offering this same mercy and forgiveness to pagans was more than he could handle.
But we see in the early stages of this story, that God has a heart for all mankind. His love and affection were not limited to the people of Israel. Even the wicked people of Nineveh were going to be given a chance to repent of their sinful ways. We will see later on, that when Jonah finally makes it to Nineveh and preaches the message God had given him to preach, the people of Nineveh respond.
On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow. – Jonah 3:4-5 NLT
Even the king and his nobles will issue a decree, stating:
“No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us.” – Jonah 3:7-9 NLT
Jonah had been reluctant, but the people of Nineveh were not. He had initially refused to obey the word of God, but the people of Nineveh had not. He had done evil rather than obey God. They had agreed to turn from evil rather than face the judgment of God. Jonah had preferred being thrown into the stormy sea, while the people of Nineveh chose to throw themselves on the mercy of God. The pagan people of Nineveh proved to be more obedient, submissive, and repentant than the prophet of God. God was able to accomplish His divine will in spite of Jonah’s stubborn and resistant will. Not only could Jonah not run from God, he could not deter, delay or, in any way, derail the will of God.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.