Though we modern people laugh at the idea of worshipping a statue, we often have idols in our lives without knowing about it. Sometimes we think, “If I only had [fill in this space] then I know everything would be fine.” Or, when we are in trouble, we run to [fill in this space] for comfort. Anything in which we place our hope (other than God) is an idol. Anything we feel we must have (other than God) is an idol. Anything we look to in crisis (other than God) is an idol. One of the messages of Jonah is that idols will always fail us, and our only true hope must be in God alone.
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Jonah #2. Jonah 1:1-17
Last time in the book of Jonah we learned a bit about Jonah, and what motivated him to run away when God told him to go to the capital city of Israel’s enemies.
At that point in history, like every time in history, people had certain assumptions about religious things. In those days, each nation or people-group worshipped their own gods. So the Ammonites worshipped Molech, and the Canaanites bowed to Baal, and the Philistines had a god called Dagon. Everyone assumed that there were many gods, and they assumed also that each god was in charge of certain people, and not others. In other words, the Ammonites would have utterly rejected the idea that they should worship Dagon, because Dagon was the god of the Philistines, not the Ammonites.
When nations fought one another, most people also thought of it as also a contest between the gods of the two peoples. So if the Ammonites fought the Canaanites and won, they would take this to mean that Molech was stronger than Baal, at least on that occasion. To put it another way, they believed in territorial gods.
If we are to understand the book of Jonah, it is very important for us to realize that this was how almost everyone in the world thought. No one even argued about it – they thought that this was obviously the way things were. People believed in territorial gods in those days the same way we believe that the world is a sphere. Almost no one has actually been far enough into space to actually see that the world is spherical (fewer than 600, out of almost 8 billion people). But we trust that scientists have discovered it. We take it for granted. So too, in Jonah’s time, they took for granted the existence of territorial gods.
However, from the beginning, the God of the Bible insisted that He was the only actual God, and that his God-ship was over the entire world, not just the Israelites. This was the official doctrinal position of the people of Israel. Even so, the people of Israel were deeply affected by the cultures that surrounded them. To believe in just one god felt a little silly. It was like being the only people today who believe the world is flat. So, although officially they believed God was the God of the entire earth, practically speaking, what they really felt was something more like this: “Our God is the best god of them all.” Again, they did know what they were supposed to believe: that God is the only God. But the history recorded in the Bible shows that again and again, they failed to act like that is what they believed.
Jonah is a perfect example. As a prophet, of course he knew the right doctrine. God is the only God in the universe. Even so, when push came to shove, he acted on his real belief. Deep in his heart, he wondered, maybe if he ran far enough, he might be able to get out of God’s “territory.”
Remember, in verse 1,God said, “Get up,” and Jonah started “getting down.” He went down from the mountains to the sea, and then down onto a ship, and then down into the deeper parts of the ship. He was clearly trying to hide from God. The ship left port with Jonah sleeping in the lowest part of the vessel.
Have you ever wondered why God waited until Jonah was on the ship and out at sea to try and stop him? If God could send a horrific storm onto the ship at sea, certainly he could have stopped Jonah in some way before he even reached the coast. So, why wait?
For reasons we shall soon see, God did indeed wait until the ship was far from land to send a storm. It was one that threatened to destroy the ship. The text says:
“The sailors were afraid, and each cried out to his god. They threw the ship’s cargo into the sea to lighten the load. Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down to the lowest part of the vessel and had stretched out and fallen into a deep sleep (Jonah 1:5, CSB).”
“Each cried out to his god.” This is an important detail. Only someone from that time in history would write that without explaining further. But, as I detailed earlier, everyone took it for granted that each nation had its own god. Also, this has another subtle ring of truth. Throughout history, sailors have tended to be an international bunch, with each ship employing mariners from various nations. Even today, on any given cargo ship you will find people from several different countries. So, the book of Jonah also takes it for granted that the sailors would be from several different nations, having several different gods. If someone was making up the story of Jonah, this detail would probably have been overlooked.
The sailors started throwing cargo overboard. This means that the ship was in danger of sinking, and they were trying to lighten the load. Since their cargo was the basis for how they got paid, the sailors would not have done this unless they were in extreme danger. Next, the crosshairs line up on Jonah:
6 The captain approached him and said, “What are you doing sound asleep? Get up! Call to your god. Maybe this god will consider us, and we won’t perish.”
7 “Come on!” the sailors said to each other. “Let’s cast lots. Then we’ll know who is to blame for this trouble we’re in.” So they cast lots, and the lot singled out Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we’re in. What is your business, and where are you from? What is your country, and what people are you from?” Jonah 1:6-8
The captain found Jonah belowdecks, sleeping. He woke him and urged Jonah to add his God to the list of those receiving petitions for help. In the meantime, the sailors decided that the storm must be supernatural. They cast lots to determine who was at fault. Casting lots was a bit like drawing straws, throwing dice, or flipping a coin. Basically, they would ask a question, and then, in essence, throw special dice to determine the answer. In our “scientific” viewpoint today, the answer should be determined by pure chance. But the people then believed that the gods would determine what happened when they cast lots. In either case, what happened is that that the lot pointed to Jonah.
Once Jonah was identified as the problem, they started questioning him closely. They didn’t start out assuming that he himself was the problem, only that he knew what the issue was. Notice that the questions about where he is from were connected to which God he worships.
9 He answered them, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the LORD, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.”
10 Then the men were seized by a great fear and said to him, “What have you done?” The men knew he was fleeing from the LORD’s presence because he had told them. 11 So they said to him, “What should we do to you so that the sea will calm down for us?” For the sea was getting worse and worse. Jonah 1:9-11
Jonah’s answer would have been stunning to the sailors. Many of them had never heard of such a thing as a God of everything. Yet, that is what Jonah meant: God was in charge in the heavens, which were, at the moment, blasting them with a great storm. He was in charge of the sea, which was endangering their lives more and more while they shouted at one another through the raging wind. He was in charge of the dry land, which was the place of safety they all wanted to reach. I can see the sailors saying to Jonah: “You mean, there’s a God who is in charge of the atmosphere, the sea and the land – in other words, everything? And you’re telling me that you have provoked that God to anger? Are you nuts? What have you gotten us into?!”
It’s interesting to note that Jonah’s experience has now become aligned with his official theology. Before, though he technically believed God was the ruler of all things, practically speaking, he thought maybe that was a stretch. The Israelites had never, since before Abraham, been involved much with the sea. Jonah probably thought, “In our history, I never hear about God at work out in the ocean. Chances are, if I get out to sea, I’ll be out of his territory.” But now he is realizing, in a very concrete way, that God is indeed Lord of all things.
12 He answered them, “Pick me up and throw me into the sea so that it will calm down for you, for I know that I’m to blame for this great storm that is against you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they couldn’t because the sea was raging against them more and more.
14 So they called out to the LORD, “Please, LORD, don’t let us perish because of this man’s life, and don’t charge us with innocent blood! For you, LORD, have done just as you pleased.” 15 Then they picked up Jonah and threw him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 16 The men were seized by great fear of the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.
17 The LORD appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Jonah 1:11-17
Another reason I think it would be wrong to read the book of Jonah as if it was a parable or allegory is because Jonah is clearly portrayed like a real human being. In some moments, he is a coward, running from God, rather than losing his standing as a hero in his own country. Later on, we’ll see him act like a spoiled child. But here, he has a moment of heroism. Jonah is a complex person, as most real people are. Once he realizes his mistake, he faces the consequences of his actions with true courage – at least this time. He could have lied to the sailors about what was going on between him and the Lord. He could have threatened to them that God would be even more angry if they threw him overboard (which they were inclined to think anyway). Instead, he calmly accepts the blame, and tells them that they must throw him into the raging sea.
The sailors decide to try and make it back to land, rather than do what Jonah says. Before we think too highly of them, verse 14 makes it obvious that at least part of their motivation is that they didn’t want to make God even angrier. Even so, they can’t get to safety. So, with a prayer to God, trying to exonerate themselves, they throw Jonah overboard. Very shortly after, the waves become calm and the wind dies down.
Now we get the next lesson from the book of Jonah: God is indeed Lord of all things, and he desires that all people, not just the Israelites, know who he is, and come into right relationship with himself. The result of the storm and then the calm is that the sailors recognize the God of Israel as the God of all things, and they begin to worship him.
Meanwhile, Jonah is swallowed by a fish. It does say “fish,” not whale. On the other hand, ancient Hebrew had no word for “whale,” so who really knows? The main fact is this: the Lord was the one who directed the fish to be there, and to save Jonah. Now, obviously this was a miracle. The text does not present it as something that happens to people from time to time. The whole incident was arranged and carried out by God’s intervention. If someone were to say: “No one can survive being swallowed by a fish or whale,” I would agree entirely. The only reason Jonah survived is because God superseded the normal laws of nature to make it happen. That is what a miracle is.
In fact, the entire first chapter of Jonah is presenting one major theme: God is in control of everything that happens. That is why he let Jonah get out to sea before stopping him. By allowing Jonah to get to sea, God could show that he can control the weather, the outcome of throwing a pair of dice (casting lots), the movements of living creatures, and the very laws of nature. There is nothing that is outside of God’s control.
I think we have enough to begin to apply to our own lives right now. When we read about the people having different gods, and turning to those “gods” for help, we might be inclined to laugh at them, and consider them ignorant and foolish. But the truth is, people still have many gods today; it is just that they don’t call them “gods” anymore.
Think about the following questions:
“If only I could have _______, then I know everything will be fine.”
“If only [some set of circumstances] were true, I could be at peace.”
“If I could just achieve ____________, then everything would be all right.”
For instance, you might think like this: “If only I had a million dollars in investments returning 10% income, then everything would be fine.”
Or, “If only my daughter married the right kind of man, I could be at peace.”
Or, “If only I could own my own business, then I wouldn’t worry.”
Anything that we put in those “blanks,” other than God, is a false god. Anything that we think of as ultimately good; any person, thing or achievement that we would give up anything that was asked of us in order to have, is a god to us. The message of Jonah is that all such gods are false. There is only one true God, and even if you somehow manage to get that thing or situation you think you need, it won’t save you when the big storm comes. So, what are the false gods that tempt you? Use the “fill in the blank” questions above to think about that.
Second, Jonah was learning that God really is in control of everything. God sent the storm. Nowadays, now that we know how complex weather patterns truly are, it is even more amazing to realize that God sent that storm to that place, and ended it right after Jonah was tossed overboard. His power is truly awesome and incredible.
Yet today, this is a lesson we often forget. On Wednesday, August 19th 2009, at 2:00pm, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA, which is not really evangelical, or Lutheran…) was voting to overturn a historic Christian, Biblical understanding of human sexuality. At that exact time, a tornado ripped through downtown Minneapolis, where they were meeting. Their main meeting place was across the street from Central Lutheran Church, a large ELCA congregation, playing host to the conference. The metal cross on top of the church steeple was wrenched downwards by the wind. You can see a picture of it here: https://fratres.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/central_mpls_081809_02.jpg
Now for a loaded question: Did God do that? According to the book of Jonah, we ought to say yes. He is God of sky, wind, earth and sea. Nothing happens that he does not allow. Yet most of the ELCA conference members scoffed at the idea that God sent the storm. No wonder they did not have enough faith to trust what the Bible says about human sexuality.
This doctrine, sometimes called “The Providence and Sovereignty of God,” comes from more places in the bible than just the book of Jonah. It can be difficult to think that God is in control of everything when much of what happens appears to be terrible, tragic, and evil. There is room for complexity here. The biggest thing to realize is that we can’t understand how it all works. We will never truly be able to comprehend how God can be good, and yet allow some terrible things. However, God is not asking us to understand it all, but rather to trust him, and trust that He is in control, even when it doesn’t look like it.
Spend a few moments during the next day or two, asking God where he would like you to give up your need to understand, and instead, to trust him.
Remember Jonah had an “official belief” but practically speaking, he had embraced the belief system of everyone around him. Are there any areas where your Christian belief has given way to the sort of things everyone around believes?
Are there any “false gods” in your life that the Holy Spirit is bringing to your mind? If so, reject them in the name of Jesus, and turn to Him alone.