Saints Out of Sailors

Jonah 1:1-16

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

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. 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. 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.”

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.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?” 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.” 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.

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. 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.” 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. 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.” So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
The Old Testament is full of extraordinary stories of prophets with radical faith who follow God and faithfully obey him even into dire circumstances. This isn’t one of those stories. Jonah isn’t one of those prophets. The frequency of its telling in Sunday school classrooms may deceive you, but this is one of the strangest stories of the Bible. It has a good guy that doesn’t seem very good, bad guys that don’t seem very bad, and an ending that doesn’t seem like much of an ending at all. It’s easy to chalk it up as a fairy tale fit for little more than bedtime reading, but the truth is, all of the Bible is one united story that points to Jesus. So how does Jonah fit in?

Let’s start with that “good guy”. The only other time Jonah shows up in the Bible, we see him ever so briefly portrayed as a yes-man who tickles the ear of a wicked king, telling him that God is on his side for his military invasion plan when God has told another prophet just the opposite (2 Kings 14:23-25, Amos 6:13-14). From the start, the reader is wary of this son of Amittai, and then he receives his prophetic orders from the Lord and runs the other way. Although if you know anything about Nineveh, it’s hard to blame him. (Come back Thursday for more on that.)

God said arise, and Jonah rises. And heads as far in the wrong direction as he can, “away from the presence of the Lord,” or so he hopes. You know how it works out for him. But along the way we find the next group of characters in the story and they behave as unexpectedly as this prophet who runs from God. Sailors in the Bible had about the same reputation as they do today, or at least as we accuse them when someone uses certain choice language.

When the storm raged, and they looked for someone to blame, the sailors ask Jonah where he’s from. He answers with all the right, religious sounding stuff. “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” It’s curious that someone who serves the God who made the sea would try to run from him on a boat. It’s even more curious that these pagan sailors fear the Lord more than does his prophet.

When the sea grows more and more tempestuous, Jonah gives up, and it’s the sailors who cry out to God. When Jonah wants them to relieve him of his prophetic duty once and for all, it’s the sailors who are first too righteous to bloody their hands. After they fearfully submitted to Jonah’s suicidal demand and the sea ceased from its raging, the sailors feared the Lord all the more.

Jonah fled in disobedience because he feared the Ninevites he hated more than the God he professed to serve. He believed more faithfully in his enemy’s ability to harm him than in the Lord’s ability to protect him. But when a crew of pagan sailors feared the raging sea, they turned from their false gods and worshiped the Lord who calmed the sea, offering sacrifices and making vows to him. The sailors sailed on to Tarshish. Jonah went for a swim.

Where do you turn when you are afraid? Do you trust in the ability of your own hands to flee from danger, or do you turn to the one whose voice even the wind and the waves obey?


  1. What do you fear the most right now? If it’s true that God is sovereign, that he loves you, and that he has conquered death, what does that mean for your fear?
  2. The story of Jonah rebukes hypocrisy. In what areas of your life do you only give lip service to God, saying the right religious sounding things, instead of actually following him?


Father, save me from empty words that call you Lord and God when I fear the world more than its Maker. When I fear not having what I need, remind me that you are my Shepherd. When I fear sickness, remind me that you are my Healer. When I fear death and loss, remind me that Christ is risen from the dead. Teach me to trust you and to live in your perfect love that casts out all fear. Amen.

Taylor Whitson, May 11, 2020

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