Debra Isenbletter, pastor
Jonah 1:5: “Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep.”
In this verse we see two different events: The Pagans Praying; and Jonah Sleeping. What a contrast, what a difference! This verse begins with their Fear: They were afraid and there was cause for their fear because “the ship was like to be broken [in pieces].” Fear is like a single coin that has two sides, two pictures, i.e. “heads” or “tails.” On one side is “reverence” and “awe” and on the other side “terror and dread.” One is positive, the other negative. They felt only the terror and the dread. They did not know the Lord but they understood His Power. They felt hopeless and helpless and this is the place the Lord must bring everyone before they cry out.
Following their Fear is their Cry: “every man unto his god.” That is the first step, a necessary step and there are two different cries. There is a cry of fear or there is a cry of faith. In this case they had both but they will find out that their faith in their gods will prove fruitless. But “every man” did cry out, “every man” did pray. All the men prayed and they were earnest and zealous in their prayers. Almost everyone will pray in a moment of crisis or fear or zeal. These were religious men, at least they were religious in a moment of crises. There were many gods that were prayed to that day because each man prayed to “his god” though the names of the gods are not mentioned. These could have been personal deities or national deities or even storm deities. The Canaanites and especially those that sailed had several storm gods that were both revered and feared. On land they were revered because they brought much needed rain and at sea they were feared because they brought destructive storms. The circumstances we find ourselves in determines the tone of the prayer, petition or praise. What is going on around us influences us. Like other pagans, they will find that fear and faith is not enough. The priests that prayed to Baal had both faith and zeal and yet nothing happened when they prayed and Elijah mocked them and their gods. (1King 18:26) They exhausted themselves and the sacrifice as not consumed by fire. Elijah prayed a simple prayer and the Lord answered in a mighty way. The point is that every nation worshiped gods, it is not enough to be religious. Only Israel knew and worshipped the true God. Not one sailor prayed to the God of Israel and not one sailor knew what Jonah knew. But Jonah hid who he was and he hid what he knew when the hid in the ship. It will take a terrible storm and desperate circumstances to cause the sailors to see their need.
Following their fear and their cry is their Loss. They “cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea.” They threw everything they could overboard. This was not a passenger ship, this was a ship with valuable cargo on board. We don’t know what the cargo was, it could have been grain, wine, oil, clothing, pottery, jewels, gold, silver—whatever the cargo was it was costly. The choice was, lose the ship, lose our lives or lose the cargo. They were forced by judgment to let go of everything to save their lives. They wanted to live at all costs. This is what every man must do, let go of everything and cry out to the Lord. Sometimes the Lord will forcibly strip those things from us.
Jesus taught about the greediness of man, that it easy to fix our eyes on those things and hard to let go of them. “And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry. But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?” (Luk.12:19-20). Paul learned to let go of those things willingly, joyfully. “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ)” (Phil.3:7-8). There comes a time when each man must choose between the World and the Word; a time to choose between the god of this world and the God of this world. The men on the ship are about to have an opportunity to choose and an unlikely man will show them the way—Jonah!
In the meantime, after praying, and receiving no answer, they begin. They threw everything they could overboard. This was a common practice among sailors, the sailors on the ship Paul was on did the same thing, “they lightened the ship” (Act.27:18-19). It was a last desperate effort to save themselves. What is so striking is that the Lord brings the ship to the very verge of destruction, yet keeps the ship from being destroyed. They need to be this desperate before they seek Jonah.
Where is Jonah’s Location? “But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship.” Again, we notice the word “down.” Jonah went “down” to Joppa (v3); he went “down” to the ship (v3) and he went “down” into the ship (v5). While all of this is going on, where do we find Jonah? Not where Paul was in the midst of the storm, not encouraging, not praying, he is hiding. Jonah keeps going down, thinks that he is hidden but the sailors are going to bring him up briefly and he will have to give an account of himself.
What is Jonah’s Condition? “and he lay, and was fast asleep.” He lay down in a dark place. He thought he was safe and secure, he thought he was hidden, he was wrong. Jonah “lay” down exhausted and he slept. He was probably exhausted physically from traveling, from searching, from trying to find a way to avoid God. He was probably exhausted spiritually because what he was trying to do was impossible. He was struggling against himself, against his calling, against his ministry. He was struggling against God and his exhaustion is a picture of no spiritual strength and no spiritual purpose. So, Jonah “lay” down to rest and the result is he “was fast asleep.” The phrase comes from “to stun (paralyze, knock out).” It speaks of a “deep sleep;” a “heavy sleep;” of being “unconscious.” Jonah was so deeply asleep that the storm did not wake him. He was impervious (unreceptive, unmoved) and he was oblivious (unconscious, responsive). There are examples of this condition in the Bible. Sisera was asleep when Jael slew him. (Judges 4:21). Samson was asleep when Delilah cut his hair (Judges 16:19). The disciples were asleep when Jesus prayed (Mat.26:40) and it makes you wonder what would have happened had they stayed awake. Saints today can be asleep to what is going on around them. We need to be awake to see how close is our deliverance (Rom.13:11). We need to “not sleep as do others,” we need to “watch and be sober” (1Th.5:6).
Jonah was asleep to God’s Word, God’s Voice, God’s Power. He was a prophet of God and yet he was asleep. It will take the pagan sailors to wake him, it will take judgment to wake him. The great contrast is that Jonah did not see the danger because he was asleep but the sailors did because they were awake. God will use the sailors to shame and to chastise Jonah, that is what the Church is doing with Israel, our faith should “provoke them to jealousy” (Rom.10:19; 11:11). The Lord set Paul “to be a light to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:47), that is what Israel should have been, could have been and one day will be. That is what God wanted Jonah to be.
God will use Jonah to preach to the sailors and in doing that Jonah is doing what he was running from. He will so this when he goes to Nineveh. He will preach to the pagan Gentiles and they repent. Whether he likes it or not, that is what he is forced to do by circumstances to the pagan sailors. What he says and does will cause them to glorify God, it may not be his intention, but it is God’s. I find it interesting that Jonah ends up doing what he didn’t want to do on the ship, he preached to Gentiles and they believed God. It foreshadows what he will do in Nineveh. The response of the sailors is the same response of the Ninevites. They acknowledge God and praise God. The Lord is teaching Jonah a practical, though painful lesson.