Jonah 1 ~ “Boat Stories: You Can’t Outrun God”
INTRODUCTION: A PLACE FULL OF CHARACTERS
It’s been said that Wilson is a town full of characters: colorful, unique characters. So is the Book of Jonah: unique, colorful, as. The book was placed among the prophets in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), but actually the book doesn’t have a lot of prophecy. Instead, Jonah has a lot of satire and comedy and parable and commentary. And Jonah the person is very un-prophet-like. He is, shall we say, a character. And there are other characters in this first chapter.
THE CHARACTER OF THE SHIP
One of the other characters is the boat! Look at verse four:
But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and such a mighty storm came upon the sea that the ship threatened to break up.
Sailors always refer to ships as “she,” and this ship is a “she.” A literal translation tells this from the ship’s point of view: “And when such a mighty storm came up against her, the ship felt that she was about to break apart.” Just like those Disney movies that give personalities to cars and planes, this ship has a personality. And when the wind and the waves crash against her until her poor hull creaks and cracks, the old ship is afraid she’s about to come apart.
THE CHARACTER OF THE CAPTAIN AND CREW
Another set of characters in Jonah is the captain and his crew. They were foreigners from somewhere faraway west called Tarshish. When the storm came up, they started praying, not to the God of Israel called Yahweh, but each to his own god. Evidently it was an “all pray-ers on deck” situation, because the captain (literally “the commander of the ropes”) searched for Jonah, and when he found Jonah asleep in the hold, pleaded with Jonah to pray to his god too.
But the storm got worse. The crew cast lots to find out “on whose account this evil has come,” and they found out it was Jonah. Jonah had a lot of explaining to do. He revealed that he was a worshiper of Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. This terrified the sailors. But when Jonah proposed that they throw him overboard, the sailors just couldn’t bring themselves to do that. They rowed all the harder toward land, their oars literally digging into the water, says the text. But “the sea grew more stormy against them.” The captain and crew were stuck with a terrible choice. They prayed about it. Then…
…they picked Jonah up and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord even more, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord, and made vows. (1:15-16)
The captain and his men are impressive characters. The captain is a man of hope, even saying to Jonah, “Perhaps the god will spare us a thought so that we do not perish.” The crew are men of integrity. They are reluctant to throw a man overboard, even to save their own lives. And when Jonah’s promise came true and the sea became calm, they all became worshipers of the Lord.
THE CHARACTER OF THE GREAT FISH
But you all are waiting for one more character, the great fish! Note that the Lord appointed the fish to this rescue mission and the fish obeyed, which is more than we can say for Jonah. We tend to pity Jonah for spending three days in the belly of that fish. But think about it from the fish’s point of view, who had to stomach such a sour and distasteful fellow like Jonah! It probably gave the fish indigestion, but it kept Jonah down until “the Lord spoke to the fish.” And once the Lord spoke, that fish “spewed Jonah out upon the dry land.” (2:10) In other words, the fish hurled. There’s a lot of hurling going on in this story. The text says that the Lord had “hurled a great wind upon the sea.” (1:4) And then the mariners hurled their cargo into the sea. And now this fish hurls Jonah “out upon the dry land.” It was the wonderful Frederick Buechner who wrote, “Jonah’s relief at being delivered from the whale can hardly have been any greater than the whale’s at being delivered from Jonah.” (Peculiar Treasures, p. 171)
THE CHARACTERS IN NATURE
There are other notable characters in Jonah. If you read the rest of the story, which doesn’t take long, you’ll see that the Lord called upon more creatures and forces of nature to participate in the education of Jonah. Besides the wind that blew upon the sea and the fish that swallowed Jonah, there were also the animals that repented in Nineveh, a bush that gave Jonah shelter, a worm that ate up the bush, and the sun that then beat down on Jonah — all of them were appointed by the Lord at various parts of the story, all of them obeyed the Lord’s call to do their part. Which, as I’ve said before, is more than we can say about Jonah.
THE CHARACTER OF JONAH
What a character Jonah was, this reluctant un-prophet, always fleeing from God. He fled in every possible way he could flee: physically, psychically, and absolutely.
He fled physically. God said “rise up and go at once to Nineveh.” And Jonah at once rose up and went…in the opposite direction! He found a ship and paid his fare and went on board to go “away from the presence of the Lord.”
Jonah also fled psychically. Look at Jonah in the ship in the middle of the storm. Where was he? He “had gone down into the hold of the ship and had lain down, and was fast asleep.” (1:5) Jonah had checked out. He had tuned out from the storm, from the world, from life, from God.
And Jonah wished to flee absolutely, by death. He asked the crew to throw him overboard. He promised that the storm would cease, but that’s not why Jonah wanted to go overboard. He wanted to end it all. If he couldn’t get away from God by going to Tarshish, then he would get away from God by drowning in the deep.
But after the fish swallowed Jonah and then spewed him onto land, Jonah still wanted to die. What was going on to make Jonah so depressed? Whatever it was, Jonah has not told us yet.
THE MOST IMPORTANT CHARACTER: THE LORD GOD, YAHWEH
Eventually he does tell someone, someone who is the most important character of this story: the Lord God called Yahweh, who made the sea and the dry land, who appointed the fish to swallow Jonah, and who called Jonah to do something he did not want to do.
After the fish hurled Jonah back onto land, Jonah gave in and went to Nineveh. Jonah wanted nothing to do with the people of Nineveh. They were heathens who did not know the Lord. They were savage enemies. Maybe some of Jonah’s own family had been killed in the raids of the Ninevites. Jonah didn’t want to go. He’d just as soon they all died and went to utter destruction.
But God had chased him down, so he gave in and went to Nineveh with God’s message: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” His message was so short, you could tell that his heart wasn’t in it. But lo and behold, the whole city repented. Even the animals wore sackcloth and ashes. And then the very thing Jonah feared most happened:
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
This was what made Jonah so angry. This was the anger that had turned inward into depression. At last, he told the Lord what he had not told any other living soul:
That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. Jonah 4:2b-3
Jonah could not bear to live in a world in which his Lord would forgive his worst enemy. And the root cause of all of this was nothing other than the character of God: gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.
You see, Jonah was not running from the Lord’s judgment. Jonah was running from the Lord’s grace – the Lord’s grace to Jonah’s enemies. Jonah held onto his nationalism, his exclusivism, and his anger. So Jonah said to God, “If you’re like that, I’d rather be dead.”
Jonah went out of the city and pouted. While he pouted under the burning sun, the Lord appointed a bush to grow and provide shade for Jonah. Jonah became rather fond of that bush. But then the Lord appointed a worm to chew on the bush until it died. And then the sun beat down again on Jonah. Again he said to God, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
The Lord said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?”
“Yes, angry enough to die.”
Then the Lord said, “If you are so concerned about this bush, HOW MUCH MORE should I be concerned about Nineveh, about the hundred and twenty thousand people in it, not to mention the animals?
And that’s how the book ends, with a question – a question we don’t know how Jonah answered. It ends something like the way Jesus ended his Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15) You know the parable: the younger son wasted his inheritance, but repented and came home to the waiting father, who welcomed him and threw a feast for him. But the older brother would not come in, angry that his father had welcomed the pathetic younger son. That parable ended with a question too, as the father invited the older son to join the celebration, “for this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was lost and has been found.” We don’t know what the elder brother answered. We don’t know what Jonah answered, either. But what we do know is that in both stories, the character of God shines, the merciful, gracious, quick to forgive character of God.
So what are we to make of this Jonah story, so full of colorful characters, especially the character of God?
For one thing, we know that you can’t outrun God. God will pursue you like the hound of heaven. God will find you in the depths of the deep. God will surround you wherever you are.
And God will call you to go and declare the gracious mercy of God, even to your worst enemies. And, if you’d rather die than to bring grace and mercy to your enemies, God will find you again and challenge you to face your anger.
If you think that you are the kind of character that can outrun God, you will find that God is more of a character than you!
- Douglas E. Murray