Saturday 20 August 2011

The man who ran from God (Jonah 1)

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD.
Jonah 1:1-3

I have always admired my uncle, who as a young man having grown up all his life in sunny Malaysia on the sleepy island of Penang, one day got on a boat and set sail for Europe, to pursue a career as a musician. This was in the 70s, back in the day when musicians wore white bell-bottoms pants and unbuttoned shirts baring their hairy chests (well, it probably wasn’t so hairy in my uncle’s case, him being a typical Chinaman). Most of all, I admired him for his guts. It takes some nerve to leave everything familiar behind, travel thousands of miles to a new country, learn a new language and start a brand new life. Many dream of it, of course. Few dare to follow that dream.

Still, in the case of the story of the prophet Jonah, it isn’t so much guts that sets him off on a boat bound for Tarshish, but rather cowardice, rebellion and foolishness. Jonah is a man running away from God.

What he runs away from is God’s word. Verse 1: "The word of the LORD came to Jonah”. This was a message that God gave the prophet Jonah to deliver to the people living in the city of Nineveh (a city, you will notice, which God considers “great”). Moreover, notice that this is a message of judgement. God tells Jonah to preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah’s response is to run away.

His destination is Tarshish (It is actually mentioned three times in verse 3. Where the NIV has “a ship bound for that port”, the ESV reads, “a ship going to Tarshish”). God tells Jonah to head east towards Nineveh. Instead, Jonah sets off towards Tarshish in the west.

That is, in running away, Jonah isn’t simply trying to hide from God. That would be silly enough: to think that God is bound by geography. No, what Jonah is doing is rebelling against God’s word. God says “Do this.” Jonah responds, “No, I will do the exact opposite instead.”

If you had a friend like Jonah, what would you say to him? Would you rebuke him - warning him of God’s judgement? Or perhaps you might try to appealing to his conscience - reminding him of God’s goodness?

What we read next is something I find truly amazing. Jonah displays no guilt nor anxiety at all - neither in the face of God’s judgement, nor in response to the appeal of non-believers - non-Christians - around him. Jonah sleeps through it all.

Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish.”
Jonah 1:4-6

Jonah isn’t oblivious to the circumstances around him. He is a prophet of God. He has heard the voice of God. To these pagan sailors, Jonah could even preach the sovereignty of God: I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land. (verse 9)

Then the sailors said to each other, “Come, let us cast lots to find out who is responsible for this calamity.” They cast lots and the lot fell on Jonah.

So they asked him, “Tell us, who is responsible for making all this trouble for us? What do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” He answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”
Jonah 1:7-9

You see, Jonah knows exactly what is going on. They don’t. He can say calmly and confidently to these non-believers: God has done this. This is God’s judgement. Notice their response.

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the LORD, because he had already told them so.) The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried to the LORD, “O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. At this the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.
Jonah 1:10-16

How do the non-believing pagan sailors respond? In fear and repentance.
Jonah says to them, “Throw me into the sea. That will solve this mess. That’s all you need to do. Sacrifice me and save yourselves.” And the remarkable thing is, these pagan sailors who do not know God, do everything they can to save both themselves and Jonah. They try rowing back. They dump all their cargo. But it was useless. “The sea grew even wilder than before.” (verse 13)

Finally, they do as Jonah says. They obey God’s word in fear and repentance. It is remarkable what they say: “O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, O LORD, have done as you pleased.”

Here are non-Christians, men who do not know God, pagans who worship other gods who respond in faith towards the God of the bible when they hear the message of judgement.

You see, earlier on God sends his word to Jonah and it was a message of judgement upon the city of Nineveh. But Jonah runs; and I wonder if some of us might empathise with him. We might say, “Who really needs to hear this hell and brimstone nonsense? After all, we don’t want to scare our friends into being Christians, do we?” But that is not the reason Jonah runs away. Jonah knows that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Jonah knows that these sailors need to know the real danger they are in - not just from the storm, but from the God of heaven, who is behind the storm. Jonah knows that salvation only makes sense to those who understand God’s judgement.

And Jonah runs.

He doesn’t want Nineveh to hear of God’s judgement because he doesn’t want Nineveh to hear of God. Nineveh was a city of the kingdom of Assyria - a kingdom which had attacked and occupied his own country, Israel. It was an enemy nation of the people of God. Deep in Jonah’s heart, Nineveh deserved God’s judgement. God himself says in verse 1, “Their wickedness has come up before me.”

But Jonah also knows the God of the bible - a God of compassion; a God who saves.

But the LORD provided a great fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was inside the fish three days and three nights.
Jonah 1:17

I like how the ESV says, “The LORD appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah”. God sent the storm. God appointed the fish. That is: God uses means and we are meant to see the hand of God in miraculous means. But in the end, it is God’s word that clarifies how and why God uses means. He appointed the fish (verse 17). He is Lord over the sea (verse 9).

The sailors get this. By the end of Chapter 1, they offer a sacrifice and make vows to the Lord. Not simply because of the storm. Rather it was the fulfilment of God’s word that throwing Jonah into the sea would calm the storm. At this the men greatly feared the LORD” (verse 16). Or earlier in verse 10, after Jonah tells them of the LORD, the God of heaven, This terrified them.”

The sailors hear the word of God and respond to the God of the Word. Yet sadly, Jonah does not.

You see, Jonah’s response to the storm is, “Throw me in.” The sailors instinct all the while was to turn back. They see the storm and they tremble. They beg for God’s forgiveness and offer sacrifices. It doesn’t remotely occur to Jonah to do the same. He sleeps. He talks the talk. But he refuses to turn back.

In fact, Jonah would rather face God’s wrath and judgement in the storm. He would rather be thrown into the sea than face up to the fact that all he needed to do was turn back.

And that is sad, isn’t it. To have preached to others and to have been lost yourself.

Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.
1 Corinthians 9:27

How are you running from God’s word? It may be that you have heard the gospel again and again every week. It may even be that you have told others about Jesus, and others have responded in faith and repentance. The question is: have you?

O great God of highest heaven
Occupy my lowly heart
Own it all and reign supreme
Conquer every rebel power
Let no vice or sin remain
That resists Your holy war
You have loved and purchased me
Make me Yours forevermore
(“O Great God”, Bob Kauflin, Sovereign Grace Ministries)

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