God Appointed a Storm (Jonah 1:4-16)

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Introduction

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to Jonah chapter 1. We will pick up this week in verse 4 and conclude with verse 16. Jonah 1:4–16.

In our sermon last week we discussed God’s appointment of Jonah as a prophet to the people of Nineveh. God called Jonah to arise and go to the great city of Nineveh and preach to the people there. But instead of obeying the LORD, we saw in the verse 2 that Jonah arose and fled from that calling. He set out not for Nineveh, but for Tarshish, a place that was in the exact opposite direction of the location God had called him to. And verse 3 said that not only was Jonah fleeing from Nineveh, but primarily Jonah was fleeing away from the presence of the LORD.

Now I did not stop last week to discuss the foolishness of that, but I suspect some of you picked up on it. How in the world is someone going to flee from the presence of the LORD? The psalmist reminds us in Psalm 139 that even if we should “dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,” the LORD’s hand will even be there to lead us and hold us. Did Jonah think he was going to sneak away from the LORD who we are also told in Psalm 139 knows when we sit down and rise up? The LORD who knows our thoughts from afar. The LORD who knows the words that our going to come out of our mouths before we speak them. Does Jonah think he is going to be able to escape the LORD about whom the psalmist says: “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me”? Does Jonah think he is going to be able to escape the LORD about whom the psalmist asked: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” Jonah is about to find out what the psalmist knew. Even if “I dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”

Brothers and sisters there is no running from the presence of the LORD. Last week God appointed a prophet, this week God is going to appoint a storm to stop that prophet from fleeing. Follow along with me as I read verses 4–16 of Jonah chapter 1.

4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.” 7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them. 11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to the LORD, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. (Jonah 1:4–16 ESV)

Jonah’s Arrest (vv. 4–6)

Let’s begin by looking closely at verses 4–6 this morning. These verses describe for us what I am going to call Jonah’s Arrest. Jonah is like a criminal who has committed a crime and trying to get out of town before the authorities catch up with him. He has run down to the travel agency and booked a trip to Tarshish and is in a big hurry to get out of town. But very soon Jonah is going to find out, in the same way most fleeing criminals find out, you cannot run forever. You will eventually get caught.

The LORD places Jonah under arrest through the power of a tremendous storm. Verse 4 says: “But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.” And Jonah finds himself placed in a floating holding cell in the middle of the sea somewhere between Joppa and Tarshish. He is reminded that it is impossible to flee from the presence of the LORD.

And this storm the LORD appointed, was a terrible storm. A storm that brought the experienced mariners to their knees in fear. Though they were crying out to gods who were impotent to help them, their theology was not entirely wrong. At least they knew to pray. They recognized that this was no ordinary storm. This storm had a divine force behind it. And these pagan sailors were more sensitive to that than Jonah.

Actually, one of the main goals of the Jonah story is to contrast the prophet of God with the pagan sailors and the repentant Ninevites so that we can see what a villain Jonah really is. The only person to resist God in this story is God’s prophet. That is meant to be scandalous to the readers of this book. While these pagan sailors are up on deck fearing for their lives, praying for mercy to false gods, Jonah, the prophet of the one true God, is out of the storm, below the deck, sleeping and completely ignorant of their cries for help.

And unfortunately, many times the church is not much different than Jonah. There are people all around us, in dire situations, crying out to any god who they think might be able to help. And so often the people of Jesus Christ sit in their comfy pews Sunday after Sunday ignorant to the misguided cries for help that are going on all around them. Are we like Jonah and dodging the mission God has called us to? That is a question we should consider as individuals and as a church.

Receiving no answer from the false gods they are crying out to, the gods of their native lands and their people, who are not gods, but only demons at best, the sailors take matters into their own hands. They take the cargo from the ship and throw it overboard in an effort to lighten the ship so that it could handle the storm better. Probably during this frantic effort to remove the cargo, the captain of the ship runs across Jonah who is fast asleep, oblivious to the desperate situation they are all in. And again, the captain demonstrates his understanding of the divine source of this storm. He orders Jonah to call out to his god in hopes that the god will have mercy and save the ship.

Jonah lived in a time where people still believed in regional and national gods and in gods who reigned over specific forces of nature like storms and the sea. And so in the captain’s mind, the sailors simply had not prayed to the right god yet. And so the captain hopes that maybe Jonah’s god is the one responsible for this storm and praying to him is the key to stopping it. So he issues a command to Jonah to “Arise” and “call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

But there is no indication that Jonah does any such thing. Jonah knows full well what is going on. The LORD is placing him under arrest. His attempt to flee from the presence of the LORD is over, and as he walks on the deck of the ship he is confronted with the wild fury of the storm God has appointed to stop Jonah dead in his tracks.

And in the next 4 verses, the sailors are going to find out what Jonah, and we as the readers, already know. Jonah is the one to blame for this storm. You see, we often fool ourselves into believing that our sin affects no one but ourself. Our sin is private, it is between me and God. But that is not the case at all and this story is a reminder of that. Jonah’s rebellion against God has brought a storm into his life that has an effect on everyone around him. This is a good reminder for us today.

Jonah’s Trial (vv. 7–10)

After an arrest, there is always a trial. In verses 7–10 we are going to see Jonah on trial. The sailors having cried out to their gods and having thrown the cargo overboard have done nothing to remove the ever present danger of this storm. And the sailors become sure that there is some guilty individual on board this ship who has brought this storm upon them all. And so they begin their efforts to discern who this guilty individual is by using a common method in that day. They cast lots. Sort of like rolling dice. And though that may seem to be a strange way to go about this sort of business today, it was a common method used to discern God’s will in the ancient world. And though something like casting lots seems arbitrary and random, Proverbs 16:33 tells us that even the outcome of casting lots is under the control of God. Proverbs 16:33 says:

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. (Proverbs 16:33)

In other words, God is in control, even when these sailors cast their lots. Even in the smallest things, God is in control. God brought about a storm and now he intervenes in the casting of lots so that Jonah is singled out as the guilty party. And so now the trial begins and God is in control.

Seeing the result of the lots, the sailors turn to Jonah and begin to quiz him: “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?”

Their first question is intended to get Jonah to admit his guilt. The remaining questions are to find out what god is responsible for the storm. In the ancient, pagan world, knowing what country someone was from and what their nationality was, also told you what god or gods they worshipped. That is what the sailors were interested in finding out.

The reply Jonah gives them in verse 9 casts them into an even greater state of fear. “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” The humor in this statement is that Jonah is confessing to fear the God who made the sea and at the same time he is trying to use that sea to flee from the presence of that God. The sailors knew this was a ridiculous idea and thus sunk deeper into their despair. These pagans knew enough of the Hebrew God, Yahweh, to know that this was no mere local god they were dealing with. And by describing his God as “the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land,” Jonah makes it very clear to the sailors that his God is responsible for their present situation.

And so now we see in verse 10, that the men were “exceedingly afraid.” And it is easy to picture them crying out to Jonah, “What is this you have done!” after hearing Jonah explain to them that he is fleeing from the presence of the LORD. And now they must figure out what they are going to do with Jonah. Jonah has been arrested, he has been tried and found guilty, and now he must be sentenced.

Jonah’s Sentence (vv. 11–16)

At the conclusion of every trial the judge always pronounces a sentence. And we will soon see that the sentence Jonah receives is the sentence of death.

The sentencing of Jonah begins in verse 11 with the sailors asking Jonah another question. “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” In other words, “Jonah, you know your God better than we do, what must happen with you for him to quiet down this storm that he has brought against us?” The fact was the longer they remained on the sea, the more and more serious the storm became.

In verse 12 Jonah accepts the verdict rendered by the makeshift trial on the floating courtroom being tossed to and fro by the waves. And he knows that his sentence is death. He has rebelled against the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land, and for that he deserves nothing but death. And he is convinced that putting him to death will satisfy the wrath of God that is being poured out on the ship.

Jonah’s answer: “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you” (Jonah 1:12 ESV). But the sailors, being more concerned about Jonah’s life than Jonah was concerned about the lives of thousands of Ninevites, tried to avoid carrying out Jonah’s command. They believed him, that he was the reason why their ship was being bombarded by wind and waves, but they thought they could calm the storm by taking him back to dry land where God could deal with him there.

But God was not going to allow that. We see in verse 13 that the harder the men rowed, the more and more tempestuous the sea became, and the more impossible it became for the sailors to get Jonah back to shore. And in the midst of their struggle they realized there was no hope. Their manmade solutions were not going to solve the divinely orchestrated mess they found themselves in. God wanted Jonah cast into the sea and they would not be released from the storm’s fury until he was.

And in the same way that people often do today, people who are at the end of their line, who are out of man-made solutions to their situation, these sailors turn toward the LORD and plead to him for the first time. Their prayer is that the LORD will not hold them guilty for what they are about to do. They realize that they cannot avoid doing what Jonah has prescribed, but having seen the power of Jonah’s God, and having seen his reaction to those who disobey him, they are terrified about what they are about to do.

Their prayer is recorded in verse 14, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” The sailors have all prayed to their own gods, and now for the first time they pray to the one true God. In their prayer they acknowledge that Yahweh is sovereign and that he is in control and that they are but instruments in his hand as they carry out this sentence upon Jonah. “For you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” You appointed a prophet. He rebelled. You appointed a storm and you have found him guilty and we are doing only as it pleases you.

And then, in the same way God hurled the wind onto the sea to start the storm, the men hurl Jonah onto the sea to end the storm. And in a moment, the sea ceased from its raging. God’s purpose for bringing the storm upon the ship had been realized. The sailors were free to go about their business. But it seems they do so no longer as pagans, but as worshippers of the one true God. Verse 16 describes the men as fearing the LORD exceedingly, which means they now worshipped him. I cannot help but think of Jesus’ disciples who watched him in amazement as he commanded the sea to be still. Mark 4:41 says:

And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

I cannot help but think this was the exact question running through all the sailors’ minds as they stopped and worshipped the LORD, Yahweh, the God of Israel and the God of the man they had just committed to the sea to die. Verse 16 says they offered a sacrifice and made vows to the LORD. Having encountered the one who commands the wind and the sea, they were no longer sailors lost at sea, but worshippers of Yahweh. And Jonah’s claim that he fears the LORD in verse 9 seems even more hollow now that we have seen the reactions of these pagan sailors.

So the author of Jonah has now successfully shattered the notion that God’s mercy is out of reach of pagan sailors and Ninevite savages. God does as he pleases and he is not afraid to use the strangest set of circumstances and people to bring about the salvation of the lost. Not that Jonah’s resistance is to be commended, but one cannot help but realize that if Jonah had not been resistant to God’s call that these sailors never would have encountered the one true God. God does as he pleases and he does all things well.

Conclusion

The LORD has been called the “Hound of Heaven” and in our passage for today, he hunts Jonah down like a beagle chasing a rabbit. But as we will see next week, he does not hunt him down to punish him, he hunts him down to save him.

Jonah’s sentence was death. He rebelled against the LORD and the price for that rebellion was death. That was the sentence for his crime. And that is the sentence for our crimes against the LORD. Apart from Jesus Christ we all need the Hound of Heaven to track us down and hem us in and save us in a way that is no less dramatic than the way he is going to save Jonah in our passage for next week.

What we will continue to see in the final three sermons of this series, is that the story of Jonah is not a story about Jonah’s resistance. This is a story about God’s persistence. God is persistent in his pursuit of those needing a Savior. That is true not only for the Ninevites, but it is also true for Jonah. And it has been true for everyone of us as well. Jonah will not thwart God’s plans to bring about repentance in Nineveh. Jonah might resist for a while, but the LORD is persistent. And he still has plans for Jonah and as we will learn next week, the sea will not end God’s plans for this reluctant prophet. God appointing a storm is not the end because God also appointed a great fish.

And so if you are here this morning fleeing from the presence of the LORD, if that is true of you, I ask you to stop and listen for the Hound of Heaven running you down from behind. And if you are in the midst of a terrible storm, I ask you to consider if this storm is a severe mercy of God designed to bring about something extraordinary in your life. Next week we will see that God sends a fish to save Jonah. But this week I want you to know that God has sent his Son to save you.

Jonah is a book about God’s mercy toward all people. And that mercy includes at its core Jesus Christ and his death on the cross. I don’t know for sure whether those pagan sailors became true believers that day. I don’t know whether they jettisoned their false gods into the sea along with Jonah and became part of God’s people who are now spending eternity with him. But I do know that if they did, they only did so because of the path Jesus would one day pave for them on the cross.

What path are you on today? Are you on the path God is calling you to or are you, like Jonah, on your own path which will only lead you away from the presence of the LORD?

Or maybe you have strayed off the path God has called you to. If so, there is hope for you. God is persistent. He did not give up on Jonah and he will not give up on you. God appointed a storm to arrest Jonah. Maybe he has appointed this sermon to arrest you.