The Flight of Jonah
Nick Esch, 1/6/2019 Cornerstone Baptist Church
The book of Jonah was written roughly 700 years before the birth of Christ, yet as we’ll see, Jonah points us to Christ. Jesus Himself said that this book was directly related to His person and work. Now, no doubt, when you think of Jonah you think of Jonah and the whale, or big fish; but, the book of Jonah has very little to do with a big fish, and far more to do with a big GOD. As I heard one pastor say recently, “The biggest word in the Bible is GOD” (Thabiti Anyabwile). And that holds true in Jonah as well. Jonah is not a cute children’s story, but a historic account of a disobedient prophet, and a sovereign and gracious God; that’s why I’ve entitled this sermon series Jonah and the Sovereign Grace of GOD. So with that in mind, let’s dive in…
Look at verses 1-3. In verse 1 we’re told the Word of the LORD came to Jonah, which is a typical beginning to a prophetic book. After all, what makes a prophet a prophet, is not that he can tell the future, but that he heralds the Word of God. Despite what we’ll see in this book, Jonah is indeed a prophet; you can read about him in 2 Kings 14:23-25, prophesying to Jeroboam II.
So Jonah is a prophet of the LORD. The word being translated LORD here is the word Yahweh; and what we see in verse 2 is that Yahweh is giving Jonah, His prophet, a word to deliver to Nineveh. And what this tells us is that Yahweh is not just the God of Israel, but the sovereign LORD of all. He is the Creator of all and He has sovereign rights over every nation, over every people of the earth, indeed over all of His creation. So, though God typically calls His prophets to prophesy to His people, it’s perfectly fine that He send Jonah to Nineveh. But, in verse 3 we see that Jonah has no intention of going to Nineveh.
Jonah’s name means dove, which sounds nice enough, but in the Old Testament, such as in Hosea 7:11, doves were seen as silly and senseless, which is a pretty good description of Jonah’s act of seeking to flee from the presence of the LORD. But Jonah’s father’s name, Amittai means faithful, or faithfulness. And this is telling us something; that even in all of Jonah’s silly and senseless disobedience, he remains a son of the faithful One; not just the son of Amittai, but a son of the One who is always faithful, a son of the very Author of faith, God Himself. He’s a child of God; indeed that is why God goes after him when he tries to flee.
So here we see God call Jonah to arise and go to Nineveh, but instead he rises and seeks to flee from the presence of the LORD. This is indeed senseless because this is an impossible quest. God is omnipresent; He’s everywhere, all of the time. There is no place you can go and hide from the LORD. He sees you every millisecond of every day. You may be able to hide from people, but God is always there, and He sees all. Let that be a warning to us; there’s no place we can go to hide from God. You cannot enter into a dark room and engage in some secret sin. While the sin may be secret from your fellow man, God sees you; He knows all…
Often my 4 year old son, Isaiah, will start to do something wrong, and I’ll get on to him and tell him not to do that. But, as soon as I walk out of the room he’s back at it again. He thinks he’s in secret and that he can engage in whatever act he wants to. But, I expect such behavior, and so I’ll often quickly walk back into the room. Every time I do that he jumps, because he knows he’s caught, and the first thing out of his mouth is, “I won’t do it again…” And many of us treat God like that. We think we can hide from Him and engage in whatever acts we want; but God never leaves the room. He sees us. That so, we should live every day as if Jesus is right there with us, because He is. It’s true in general that God is everywhere and knows everything, but it’s especially true for us Christians that God is with us always. There is no fleeing from His presence; therefore He knows our every action. Indeed He knows our deepest darkest secrets and desires. We would do well to live in light of that fact.
Now Jonah was a knowledgeable prophet, so he knew all of this; yet, though he knew this, he still sought to flee from God. But why? Why take on this senseless quest? Well, in Jonah 4:2, in a prayer to the LORD, he reveals why. There he says, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” The reason Jonah doesn’t want to go to Nineveh is because he knows that God is gracious, and in calling Nineveh out on their evil He’s actually granting them grace and leading them into repentance. And Jonah sees this coming; he knows God is loving and gracious, and he knows that Nineveh is wicked, and therefore he doesn’t want to go. He doesn’t want God to save Nineveh; he wants them to perish…
You see, Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and they were known for their brutality. Elsewhere in the Bible Nineveh is referred to as the city of blood, and this is an accurate description. They were the first ones to really begin crucifying people; and the way they did it was a lot bloodier than the Roman way. They were known for harsh injustice, and along with that they were pagan idol worshippers. They worshipped many different false gods. So it’s no surprise that God had taken notice of their evil; indeed, evil by definition is rebellion against God.
Now, Nineveh was located near where modern day Mosul is located in northern Iraq. And as you might recall, Mosul is where Isis decided to set up shop a few years back. And the Assyrians and Isis aren’t all that different. They’re both murderous and wicked. And the people of Nineveh had done much harm to Israel in the recent history leading up to God’s call on Jonah. No doubt, they had killed many of his countrymen. So with all of that in mind, it’s easy to see why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. Do you want to go and offer grace to Isis? This would’ve been like a Jewish refugee in WWII, who had come to know Christ, being called to be a missionary to the Nazis in Berlin. God’s call on Jonah is a call to love and serve his enemies. And in this call, as I alluded to earlier, we see God showing Himself to be the sovereign LORD of all. The culture around us would say, “Nineveh has their own gods; leave them be…” But God calls Jonah to go and tell—to go and tell them who the One True God is, and that they are guilty of sinning against Him, and unless they repent they will perish…
But here we see that Jonah is not willing to answer that call; Jonah enters into direct rebellion against God. In our passage Jonah’s rebellion is marked by telling us that he went down: he went down to Joppa… he went down into the ship… he went down into the inner part of the ship… and eventually, he went down into the sea… And this imagery of going down should bring to mind the image of death; with every rebellion he is taking steps closer and closer to death, and to God’s wrath and fury. Jonah thinks he can hide from God, but instead, with every sin he’s drawing closer to God’s wrath. But, as Jonah points out, God is gracious; and His sovereign grace is after Jonah.
This is what we see in verse 4. Verse 4 begins with the words, “But the LORD…” As Martyn Lloyd-Jones once pointed out, you can define the gospel with two words: but God… That’s what we see in Ephesians 2:3-5 for instance. There God’s Word says that we, “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace…” And that’s kind of what’s happening in Jonah. Jonah is rebelling against God and drawing nearer and nearer to wrath, but in His grace the LORD acts. Even when Jonah is senseless and disobedient, God is faithful. And in His faithful love He shows Jonah that there is no place he can go to flee from His presence. But also, in what happens next we see a picture of God’s wrath as God’s fury is let lose on the sea. So this act of God is an act of judgment, of discipline, and really an act of grace—as we’ll see by the result of this act.
In verses 4-6 we see the LORD bring a raging storm upon Jonah and these sailors, and the sailors become afraid and begin crying out to their gods; the captain even calls Jonah to cry out to his God, in hopes that He will give a thought to them, that they might not perish. Now God had already given a thought to them; for He’s the one who has brought this storm upon them. But clearly what the captain means is that God might show them mercy. These sailors were rough and tuff guys… Surely they had been through many storms before, and so it would’ve taken a lot for them to be afraid. But here they are terrified; without hesitation they’re throwing their cargo, their livelihood overboard in hopes of keeping the boat afloat and saving their lives. But their lives are in the hands of God; and though they don’t yet know God, they begin to see this reality. So they begin to pray to their false gods; and when that doesn’t do any good, they go after Jonah and call him to pray to his God.
What a sad sight, that pagans are calling a child of God to pray. Jonah should be a man of prayer, but instead he’s down in the depths of the ship, in the depths of his sin, fast asleep. And this too is a sad sight; though Jonah is in great sin, it seems as though his conscience is clear. I mean, he’s able to sleep even in the fury of a God hurled storm. And what this teaches us is that our conscience cannot always be trusted; we must weigh our conscience against the Word of God. There have been times where I’ve had to address someone caught in sin, and the first thing they told me was that they didn’t feel like they were in sin because their conscience was clear. They had no desire to repent, because they felt no conviction. But they were clearly going against God’s Word. And likewise here, Jonah is clearly disobeying God’s Word, yet his conscience seems to be clear. Friends, even as Christians we are still corrupted by sin; our feelings, our desires, and even our conscience cannot always be trusted. Our compass must always be God’s Word. I wonder, is there any area of your life that you are being disobedient to God in because you’re listening to yourself instead of God’s Word? I wonder, are you even seeking to engage with God’s Word that He might lead your life, instead of you? Friends, trust God, not yourself.
Here Jonah is completely in sin: he’s running from God and disobeying His Word; he’s asleep and having to be called to pray by a pagan; and here we see that these pagans are willing to sacrifice—throwing there very livelihood overboard—in order to keep people from perishing, yet Jonah doesn’t seem to care if they perish, nor does he care if all of Nineveh perishes. And that’s just the sins we can see externally. Jonah is in the depths of sin, yet somehow has a clear conscience. I wonder what sins we might be walking in that we are paying no mind to? Are we men and women of prayer? Do we care if the people around us perish? Do we care if our enemies perish? Beloved, we are called, like Jonah, to love our enemies, and to go and tell. We are to go and make disciples of all nations. God has sovereign rights over all, and as our sovereign LORD He has commanded us to go and share the gospel with all, and to call all to flee wrath and cling to Christ. But, do we do this? Do we care about those around us and those spread abroad who don’t know Jesus? Do we care enough to open our mouths and tell them of our loving and gracious God? Or are we more like Jonah?… sleeping our lives away, while the world around us perishes.
You see, Jonah didn’t need to pray here; he needed to repent. And I’m convinced that we do too. We may not be prophets, but we should be people who are saturated with the Word of God, and eager to tell any who will listen about our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. We may not be missionaries called to go to a foreign land with the gospel (though some us probably are), but we are all called to be disciples who make disciples. We should want all to come into saving grace, even our enemies… For just as Jonah is rebelling against God just like Nineveh, so too were we rebels and enemies of God, yet He loved us and saved us by His grace. And He calls us to have that same posture of love and grace towards the world around us. So look at God’s Word, and look at your life and repent accordingly.
Like I said, Jonah didn’t need to pray, but to repent; so it’s no surprise that prayer doesn’t cause the storm to relent. So at this point the sailors are really growing in their desperation, and they’re beginning to understand that someone is behind all of this and something needs to change if the storm is going to stop. In verses 7-10 we see that Someone is indeed behind all of this. We see that God is behind all of this; that God is completely sovereign over this whole scene.
In their desperation the sailors decide to cast lots (kind of like rolling dice) to see on whose account this storm had come upon them. And of course the lot fell on Jonah. This brings to mind Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” The idea here is that even something that we often refer to as being up to chance is controlled by God’s good sovereignty. The wind, the waves, even the dice obey the sovereign LORD of the universe. There is no such thing as chance or happenstance. God is the divine orchestrator of all things. He ordains it all, and whatever He ordains is right. The storm falling upon the boat and the lot falling upon Jonah is all a part of God’s sovereign plan.
When they see that the lot fell upon Jonah they question him; apparently he had already told them that he was fleeing the LORD. So Jonah tells them who he is; that he’s a Hebrew, an ethnic Jew, and that he fears the LORD, Yahweh, who is the God of heaven who made the sea and dry land, implying that He has complete control over them both. But what he says doesn’t match his actions. He confesses to know that God controls the sea, yet he’s fleeing from God on the sea. He confesses to fear the LORD, yet he’s covered in sin. His life does not match what he says he believes.
While I’m tempted to point out Jonah’s foolishness, I can’t help but think of my own. All too often my life does not match my beliefs. I say I believe that God is completely sovereign, yet I struggle with fear and anxiety. I confess to fear the LORD, yet I’m often controlled by the fear of man. I believe that true satisfaction and joy are found in Jesus alone, yet time and time again I look to the world—I look to sin for satisfaction and joy. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Do we not all struggle to live out our convictions? Beloved, this is yet another reason why we must look to God’s Word again and again. We must remind ourselves of the truth and align ourselves with it, and not merely say we believe it while we live contrary to it. This is also why we need the church; we are to be active members of a local church—a group of disciples that are committed to helping one another follow Christ, that are committed to reminding one another of the truth of God’s Word and helping each other live in line with it. We mustn’t merely confess faith, but we must live it out. That’s why here at Cornerstone we have a confession of faith and a church covenant; our confession is what we believe, and our covenant is how we live in view of those beliefs.
Though we are prone to wander, we must fight to not be like Jonah here. Here he claims to fear the Lord, but his life says otherwise. Yet, at the same time, the pagan sailors are beginning to enter into the fear of the Lord. Notice at first, in verse 5, they were afraid, but now in verse 10, after hearing of the sovereign LORD over all of creation, it says the men were exceedingly afraid. Jonah is not only living like the world while claiming to be a child of God, but the world is actually showing itself to be more godly than him. They’re growing in the fear of the LORD. Beloved, may this never be true of us. While we should strive to be used to lead people out of the world and into the fear of the LORD, we must also seek to be set apart from the world. We must be a church that is not only known for loving Jesus, but for living like Jesus, for holiness. Our lives most not be marked by hypocrisy, but by fidelity. These sailors are growing in fear of and fidelity to the LORD, while Jonah remains in rebellion. We can see this all the more by what happens next.
In verses 11-13 we see these rough and tuff, yet desperate and afraid sailors are at a lost for what to do. Jonah suggests that they throw him overboard, but unlike him they desire that no man perish. Unlike Jonah they show themselves to be gracious; and this is because they are coming into the grace of the Lord. This raging storm that God has hurled at them is showing itself to be an act of grace as it is leading them to the truth and to salvation. And that’s typically how things work. It’s usually in the hardest times, in and through the storm that we come to into saving grace, or grow in sanctification. So be encouraged; God uses trials, the hard things of this life and this broken world to save us and grow us. Indeed, He’s working all things together for good…
Here God is working on Jonah and the sailors, but the sailors are coming around much faster than Jonah. The sailors have entered into the beginning of wisdom, the fear of the Lord, yet Jonah remains hardhearted. When they asked what they should do to get the storm to stop, Jonah should’ve told them to take him towards Nineveh, but he remains unrepentant. He has not had a change of heart here; when he suggests they throw him overboard, he’s not saying he cares for them, he’s saying that he would rather die than obey the LORD’s command to go to Nineveh. Offering himself as a sacrifice is not an act of faithfulness but an act of stubbornness.
But the sailors on the other hand, do seem to have a change of heart. These sailors who typically would’ve had no problem throwing a person overboard now wish to show mercy and grace; they keep Jonah on the boat. But, the storm doesn’t relent. The LORD doesn’t relent. They try and try to make it to shore, but never come close. In fact the sea raged even more, keeping them from the shore, because Jonah wasn’t ready to be on dry land. Or should I say, God wasn’t ready for Jonah to be on dry land yet, because he still needed to repent. So after seeing that the lot fell on Jonah, and that the storm grew worse when they didn’t throw him into the sea, they humbly and timidly took this—rightfully so—as a sign from God, and they threw Jonah into the sea.
In verses 14 and 15, these once pagans now call out to Yahweh, to the LORD, and beg Him to be merciful to them. They confess God to be sovereign over all of this, having the ability and the right to do all that He pleases; but they don’t know all of Jonah’s story or his issues with God, so they refer to him as innocent; of course we know otherwise. But, they make it known to the LORD that they don’t wish to harm the innocent, but they think this is what He wants them to do, so they’re going to do it, but before they act they cry out for mercy. And the LORD does indeed have mercy on them. When Jonah is thrown into the sea the sea ceases from its raging. And this is a glorious picture, because in the Bible the sea represents chaos, sin, and death. And indeed these sailors were saved from all of these, but not because of Jonah.
The reason the LORD had mercy on these sailors here is because roughly 700 years later the LORD would come to earth and live the perfect God glorifying life that we all should be living, showing Himself to be the only true innocent One; and indeed He did. He did this and then He allowed Himself to be hurled into the sea, into the chaos of sin and death. He went to the cross and took on the storm of God’s wrath and fury that we all deserve for our rebellion; He took the raging sea of God’s wrath upon Himself until it was completely satisfied and ceased its raging. He lived and died, and on the third day He rose from the grave so that all who would repent of their sin and cry out to Him for mercy, so that all who would turn from their rebellion and look to Him for salvation would be saved….
You see beloved, it was Jesus that saved these sailors, not Jonah. But Jonah points us to Jesus here. Jesus was the true prophet that was thrown into the storm so that we could be saved from it. That’s why Jesus refers to His death and resurrection as the sign of Jonah, because though Jonah is thrown into the sea here, he will immerge again. And though Jesus entered into sin, wrath, and the grave for us, He immerged again in victory; and because of that God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11). You see Jesus is LORD; He is the One whom the winds and waves obey; Jesus is Yahweh who is exercising His sovereign grace in Jonah here. Jesus was at work then, and Jesus is at work now. God’s sovereign grace in Christ works to save sinners. Jesus is mighty to save. We can see that by looking at our last verse.
In verse 16, we’re told, “Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.” This shows that they had true faith because they were truly repentant, and thus truly saved. God is still working on Jonah, but in and through Jonah and the things happening to Him, God uses Him to bring these sailors to Himself—which is a picture of what God is going to do with Nineveh and the world at large, indeed what He’s begun in us. All Jonah said to them was that he feared the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land; and that was enough to lead them to repentance. They had already thrown most of their livelihood overboard; and by not immediately throwing Jonah overboard they had already shown themselves to be gracious where they used to be merciless. And now here we’re told that they feared the LORD exceedingly, and even after losing so much they offered a sacrifice to the LORD, and then they made vows, as in vows of loyalty and fidelity to the LORD. And that’s what true faith and repentance look like; they’re ongoing. We must turn from our sin, trust in, surrender to, and follow Jesus.
But what led them to do all of this? Were these brief words from a bitter rebellious prophet that convincing? Was it the great storm that lead these sailors into saving grace? Well, they both had a part in it, as we’ve seen; but, salvation is an act of God’s sovereign grace. And what a great encouragement that is. This week I shared the gospel with someone and called them to repentance and faith, but they refused to surrender to Christ. Later I found myself wondering if I didn’t say enough, or if I said the wrong thing. But here we see God using just a few words to save a boat full of people. Beloved, we’re never going to say everything just right. But that’s ok, because we don’t save anyone; Jesus does. Through the storm and a few words, that didn’t even lay everything out clearly, their eyes were opened to God’s amazing grace, and it was by God’s sovereign grace that their eyes were opened. I mean if God is sovereign over the winds, the waves, and even the dice, is it a stretch to believe that He is sovereign over salvation? I don’t think so. And praise God that He is, because if He wasn’t none of us would be saved.
Do you think God was caught off guard by Jonah’s rebellion? No! God orchestrates this whole scene in order to save people for whom Christ died: these sailors, and as we’ll see the people of Nineveh and Jonah himself. Under God’s sovereignty, everything in this scene was working towards this. And it’s the same for us. I mean, think about everything that happened in just the right way to get you to the point of true repentance and faith. Think about everything that has led you to be right here this very moment. Could it be that God has ordained all things and orchestrated everything in your life in just such a way, to get you to right where you are today? How amazingly loving is that? That God in His sovereignty orders His creation and every circumstance in our lives to get us into His saving grace. Friends, that is the case. God is that sovereign. And God is that gracious…
God, in His grace opens eyes and transforms hearts. You can hear that in their prayer in verse 14 as they acknowledge that the LORD does as He pleases. They saw God’s sovereignty, they saw God’s bigness, and they agreed that He has every right to do whatever He pleases; He has sovereign rights over everyone and everything. He can do no one wrong; for all He owes us is death and wrath. But God shows grace. And it’s only by God’s grace that they could see this and accept it; for only the redeemed heart happily admits the God is God, and can do whatever He pleases. So they had indeed experienced grace; and that grace led the sailors to worship. They truly feared God: and by fear that means fear, but also reverence and love. And that showed itself through sacrifice and loyalty; or for us, that means through dying to self and fidelity. You see, this passage, and as we’ll see, this book is full of God’s amazing sovereign grace.
What we see in the first part of Jonah here, is Jonah trying to run from God, but there is no running from God. So friends, don’t try it. Are you going against His Word? Are you avoiding His call on your life? Have you yet to surrender your life to Him? Stop running. If this passage teaches us anything it’s that if God wants you He will do whatever it takes to get you. So, I encourage you to repent and believe; die to yourself and pledge your fidelity to the LORD. Our passage ends with Jonah in the sea, destined for destruction; but as we’ll see in the weeks to come, that’s not the end of the story. But, if you, right now are living in rebellion against God, you should know that if you don’t repent you too are destined for destruction. So, come to the end of yourself, and rest in God’s good sovereignty. Your life belongs to Jesus; He has every right to use us and the rest of His creation however He sees fit. But remember, He ordains and orchestrates all things for His glory and the good of His people; so, humble yourself, obey Him, and trust that whatever He ordains is right…