Jonah’s experience reveals God’s love for us, God’s pursuit of us when we go astray, and God’s desire for us to enjoy the blessings of obedience. It also teaches us the utter foolishness of seeking our own will and way in defiance of the sovereign Lord.
The prophet Jonah has become the prodigal prophet—the runaway prophet who has decided to turn in his prophet’s badge and leave the ministry. He wants nothing to do with the brutal, immoral, demon-worshiping Assyrians or going to their great city of Nineveh. Indeed, the last thing he wants to do is offer them the mercy of God.
So, Jonah buys a ticket for the coast of Spain—the exact opposite direction from Nineveh. But he is about to discover that God has not accepted his resignation.
What happens next in chapter 1 is recorded in three dramatic scenes. The first scene opens in verse 4:
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. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god.
These are veteran sailors; they have experienced storms before. But this storm is so severe they assume it is going to take one of their gods to save them. And, in a way, they are absolutely right.
But Jonah is not joining in their prayer meeting. Verse 5 tells us, “Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.” The pagans are praying, and the prophet is sleeping. It’s as if Jonah has hung a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his door for these sailors to see. Actually, he has a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging on his heart for God to see.
In verse 6 we read that the captain wakes up Jonah and tells him to start praying to his God. By the way, have you noticed how quickly pagans start praying whenever a fearful event or a natural disaster takes place?
Jonah immediately knows what is happening—he knows God is behind this storm. He also now realizes that although he has run away from God, God had not run away from him. In fact, God has been waiting for him to arrive at this very spot.
Jonah is the only one on board the ship who knows the true and living God, but he is not praying. There is no mention here that Jonah started praying at all.
The second scene shifts back to the sailors. Their prayer meeting is not working at all, so they start doing something they are more familiar with:
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. (verse 7)
They know this is some kind of supernatural storm, so they throw dice to try to figure out whose god is responsible. God uses their superstition to point them to Jonah. So, the sailors turn to Jonah with some questions:
“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?” (verse 8)
Jonah realizes that God has refused to accept his retirement as a prophet. God simply will not leave him alone. When these sailors learn that Jonah is running from his God—whom Jonah actually describes in verse 9 as “the God of heaven, who made the sea”—they cannot believe Jonah would then have set sail on the sea. Isn’t it tragic when unbelievers seem to have more insight than believers?
With that, the third scene opens with the sailors asking Jonah in verse 11, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?”
Jonah surprises them with his solution:
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.” (verse 12)
Now don’t forget that at this point Jonah does not know anything about a great fish and free transportation back to land. He just knows he would rather die at sea than go to Nineveh as God commanded. What a stubborn man he is.
You might expect these pagan sailors to pick up Jonah and immediately toss him into the waves. After all, they want to live to sail another day. Instead, we read in verse 13, “The men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not.”
Don’t miss the convicting irony in this scene; Jonah will not lift a finger to save the lives of the unbelieving Ninevites, but these unbelieving sailors are trying to save his.
When it is clear that rowing this ship is not going to help, the sailors actually start praying to Jonah’s God 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.”
Wow, where did that come from? Something is happening in their hearts—we will come back to that in a moment.
But first, notice that Jonah does not repent. There is no prayer of confession, no request that the ship be turned around so he can go back and obey God. Jonah leaves this crew with no other option; they reluctantly toss him into the sea, and verse 15 tells us, “The sea ceased from its raging.”
What a tragic, downward spiral in this prophet’s life. Rather than surrender to God, he would rather end his own life. The Ninevites are drowning in their sin; Jonah assumes he is going to drown in the Mediterranean Sea.
As soon as Jonah’s body hits the water, the sea becomes calm (verse 15). Then, verse 16 tells us, these sailors “feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”
This can be translated to mean they “vowed to serve the Lord,” indicating genuine conversion to the God of Israel.Keep in mind that these vows are not made to God if the storm ends but after the storm ends. It is after the storm has ceased that these sailors promise to serve God and God alone.
So, what has just happened? There has been a revival right here on the deck of the ship. God has used even a disobedient prophet as His messenger, and these hardened sailors are now going to live for the Lord.
But as far as Jonah is concerned, he is now alone. I imagine as he hits that cold water of the Mediterranean Sea, he is probably thinking, So this is how it ends; I’ve ruined everything; there is no hope for me now. I really cannot blame God for turning His back on me—a runaway, prodigal prophet.
Then suddenly, the lights go out; Jonah feels his body pulled downward in a strange current. Then in a matter of moments, the water recedes, and his body lands on some strange, slippery surface. He knows he is alive because his heart is beating and he is breathing. But he cannot see a thing. What in the world has happened? Where in the world is he?
Well, Jonah has abandoned God, but God has not abandoned him. He is about to be surprised by a gracious God who faithfully pursues runaways—even prodigal prophets who defy the living God.
Where are you, right now? Perhaps this lesson is a reminder that no matter how far you run from God, He is already there. He is waiting for you, even today. Maybe you are like these sailors; you need to repent and give your life to the Lord. Maybe you are like this runaway prophet, a disobedient believer who needs transportation back to God. God will provide the transportation; you just need to offer Him the prayer of confession.
Don’t wait another moment to ask Him to forgive you, rescue you, and surprise you with His love and grace.