This post was first published in March, 2015. —ed.
The sea is no place to go for peace and quiet. Modern meteorology has documented the destructive power rogue waves, tropical cyclones, microbursts, and other weather phenomena that pose unique threats to ships at sea. But the storm described in the first chapter of Jonah was different. It was personal.
While the Gentile sailors frantically scurried about, bailing water and tossing any unnecessary cargo overboard, a seemingly oblivious Hebrew prophet was sound asleep in the hold of the ship. The boat may have been tossing and turning, but, incredibly, Jonah was not. It was only the ship’s captain waking him that brought Jonah to conscious awareness of the chaos and deadly danger of the storm.
Once awake, however, Jonah soon found himself in even greater danger. When the crew cast lots to find who was to blame for angering the gods, Jonah was singled out and his suspicions were confirmed—he was God’s target in the tempest. This storm, in fact, had been sent by the Lord both to chastise him for his flagrant disobedience and to halt him from running farther away. With bewildered and anxious faces, the pagan sailors looked to Jonah for an explanation.
Then they said to him, “Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. (Jonah 1:8–10)
A short time earlier, perhaps only a few weeks or even days, the Lord had come to Jonah with a simple command, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2). The mandate was clear and direct: Preach a message of repentance or judgment to the Assyrians in their capital city of Nineveh.
For Jonah, however, submitting to that directive proved to be inordinately difficult. Instead of heading east toward Assyria, the reluctant prophet fled in the opposite direction. He boarded a ship bound for Tarshish—the westernmost port on the Mediterranean Sea, near modern-day Gibraltar in Spain. But he would soon learn in an astounding way that it is dangerous to try to outrun God (cf. Psalm 139:7–12).
Why Did He Run?
Jonah had his reasons for fleeing in the direction away from Nineveh. The Assyrian capital was situated along the Tigris River (in modern-day Iraq) and boasted a population of six hundred thousand—making it an exceptionally large metropolis for that time. The city was originally built by Nimrod, the great-grandson of Noah, who was likely in charge of the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 10:8–11, 11:1–9). It had become the capital city of a pagan enemy nation and represented everything evil that the Israelites hated.
Nineveh was as wicked as it was impressive. The Assyrians were a notoriously brutal and wicked people. Assyrian kings boasted of the horrific ways in which they massacred their enemies and mutilated their captives—from dismemberment to decapitation to burning prisoners alive to other indescribably gory forms of torture. They posed a clear and present danger to the national security of Israel. Only a few decades after Jonah’s mission, the Assyrians would conquer the northern tribes of Israel and take them into a captivity (in 722 B.C.) from which they would never return.
Jonah, who ministered in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II (ca. 793–758 B.C.), had prophesied that the borders of Israel would be restored through the military victories of their king (2 Kings 14:25). To subsequently take a message of repentance and hope to Israel’s hated pagan enemies was unthinkable. The Assyrians were a civilization of murderous terrorists bent on the violent annihilation of all who stood in their path. If anyone deserved God’s judgment, thought Jonah and the Israelites, it was the Ninevites. They were not worthy of divine compassion and forgiveness.
Of course, God was fully aware of Nineveh’s iniquity. In fact, a century after Jonah and the repentance of the Ninevites, the Lord would condemn a subsequent generation in that same city through the prophet Nahum for its arrogance, deception, idolatry, sensuality, and violence. But before dispensing His wrath on that future generation, God determined to first offer the people of Nineveh mercy and forgiveness through repentance and trust in Him. Jonah was commissioned to deliver that message.
But the rebellious prophet did not want to see Israel’s enemies receive mercy. He knew the Lord would forgive the Ninevites if they repented. And he hated that thought (cf. Jonah 4:2). So he determined not to offer that message to them and boarded a boat heading west.
Jonah’s hatred of sinners, regardless of how he rationalized it, put him in a dangerous position. As a prophet of God, he surely knew his duty—but he would rather take the chastening of the Lord (seeing it as the lesser evil) than be instrumental in Gentile conversions. That is a bizarre perspective for a preacher! Perhaps he also thought that by going far enough away, in the opposite direction, he would no longer be available for the task, and God would have to find someone else to go to Nineveh. He could not have been more wrong.
Jonah’s attempt to run from God did not end well for the recalcitrant missionary. Spiritual rebellion reaps what it sows, as God reproves and corrects those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6). In Jonah’s case, that correction came swiftly and in dramatic fashion—as his Tarshish-bound vessel was suddenly engulfed by a furious storm.
After identifying Jonah as the target of the storm, the frightened sailors looked to him for a way to appease his angry God.
So they said to him, “What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?”—for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy. He said to them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea. Then the sea will become calm for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:11–12)
God would have been pleased if the prophet had fallen to his knees in repentance and promised to head back to Nineveh. Such a response surely would have stopped the waves. Jonah, however, stubbornly demanded to be thrown into the sea. In effect, he was saying he would rather die than fulfill his mission to the Ninevites. Sadly, the pagan sailors showed a lot more compassion to Jonah than he displayed toward the Assyrians. Rather than immediately tossing him overboard in hope of ending the danger, they attempted to fight the waves and row the ship to shore. Though kindly motivated, their efforts failed. With no other options, they submitted to Jonah’s request and
. . . called on the Lord and said, “We earnestly pray, O Lord, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Lord, have done as You have pleased.” So they picked up Jonah, threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. (Jonah 1:14–15)
The supernatural character of the raging storm became immediately apparent as soon as Jonah hit the water—the wind instantly stopped and the massive waves flattened! The astonished sailors responded in reverent awe and repentant faith, “Then the men feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and took vows” (Jonah 1:16).
Despite Jonah’s determined disobedience, God used him to display His power to a crew of Gentiles. The Lord would do the same for Nineveh—reaching that pagan population and bringing them to penitent faith by the same reluctant preacher.
Jonah was gone, and so was the storm. As he slipped beneath the ocean’s surface, the suicidal castaway surely thought he had escaped his unwanted mission. But the Lord was not done with him yet. Rather than allowing him to drown, “the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the stomach of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1:17).
(Adapted from Twelve Unlikely Heroes.)