But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. 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. So the shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not.
In the title of this article, I have called the storm that came on the sea while Jonah traveled to Joppa, “Jonah’s storm,” and with good reason. To our knowledge never in the history of the world or in sacred history has any storm been sent for one man only. The storm of Jonah 1:4 was sent for the salvation and obedience of one man, Jonah. It served the repentance and salvation of the mariners as well, but as Jonah himself confessed: “I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.” In that sense, the wind and tempest was Jonah’s storm.
It was not Jonah’s storm alone, however, but Jehovah’s storm. Sent by Him as the great God of providence, it was controlled and directed by Him and used by Him for a very specific purpose, the conversion of one wayward sinner.
We know that God is present in every storm. He is, as Jonah confessed, “the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Psalm 18:9, 10 reminds us that, “Forth through the storm Jehovah flies as on the wings of cherubim” (Psalter #34, stanza 5), and so does Jonah 1:4: “But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.” His winds blow and His waves are stirred up and His sea is tempestuous. This storm was part of God’s providential work in seas and oceans.
Psalm 18 reminds us, too, that God’s providence is always directed to the good of His people and of His church, for the storm described in the opening verses of that Psalm was for the deliverance of the Psalm’s writer: “He sent from above, he took me, he drew me out of many waters” (v. 16). In that sense the storm was not just God’s storm but Jehovah’s storm, a storm sent by the covenant God of His people.
The storm that Jehovah sent after Jonah is a unique illustration of that truth, not only because it came on the sea for Jonah’s sake but also because it lasted only as long as was necessary to bring Jonah to his senses. When Jonah was thrown overboard, the storm ceased as abruptly as it began.
God will do whatever is necessary for the salvation of those whom He has loved, chosen, and redeemed both as the God of grace and as the God of providence. That is a fearful truth when we are disobedient and rebellious as Jonah was, but a comforting truth when we, like Jonah, have been brought to our spiritual senses.
So it is that these few verses of Jonah 1 begin with the words, “But the Lord….” Jonah had fled from God’s presence and word. Foolishly, he had thought he could escape his commission to Ninevah by leaving the land of Israel where God revealed Himself and gave His word. He intended to get as far away from Nineveh and from the word of the Lord as he possibly could. He rose up to flee. He went to Joppa. He found a ship. He paid the fare. He went down into the ship. He fell asleep.
“But the Lord” had other plans. God had commanded the preaching of the word in Nineveh; He had determined the salvation of His own there. He had chosen Jonah himself to preach to Nineveh and, though Jonah had refused his commission and forsaken God, God would not let one of His own perish. He, controlling and directing all things according to the counsel of His own will, followed Jonah to Joppa and out on to the sea, called the storm down on Jonah and the ship, frustrated Jonah’s intentions, brought him to repentance and back to obedience, and in the process worked another part of His will in the salvation of the mariners.
Jonah had found a ship bound for Tarshish and had sailed on it, not for any interest in Tarshish, wherever it was, but to get away from his God, the God who in the Old Testament revealed Himself exclusively in Israel. He forgot, however, that the God who revealed Himself in Israel as Jehovah was the God of land and sea, the everywhere-present God, whose reach extended far beyond the furthest bounds of the sea on which Jonah sailed, the Mediterranean Sea.
The storm must have been an unusual storm, like the storms that came on the sea of Galilee during the ministry of Jesus while He was there with His disciples. The mariners not only confessed that the ship was in danger of being broken up, but also that their own efforts were useless in the face of such a storm. They not only “cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea” (v. 5), but the shipmaster also waked Jonah and demanded that he, too, cry to his God: “What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call upon thy God, if so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not” (v. 6).
That the mariners recognized the unusual character of the storm is evident not only from their heathen prayers—each of them to his god—but also from their casting lots, believing that one of them was the cause of the storm. When Jonah insisted that his God, the God of the sea and land, had sent the storm because of him, they believed him, though they were still unsaved men. Indeed, the unusual fury of the storm was a means to their salvation, but that is the subject of another article.
Jonah’s sleep (for he “was gone down into the sides of [inside] the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep,” v. 5) was not the sleep of the just, but the sleep of a man exhausted in his disobedient efforts to escape the Word of the Lord. He must have been exhausted, for the fury of the storm did not waken him. Only the shipmaster was finally able to do so. It is a wonderful thing when the righteous are able to sleep peacefully in the confidence that they are right with God, for then “He giveth his beloved sleep.” It is not so wonderful when the disobedient and ungodly are able to sleep, for their sleep is evidence of a conscience that has so hardened itself against God that even a quiet night is possible.
Jonah’s sleep may even be the sleep of one who thinks his way, though wicked, has been successful. We are too often like Jonah in thinking that, because we prosper in disobedience, God does not mind or does not see. This is especially true when we have made up our minds to do something that is clearly forbidden in the Word of God but which we want desperately. Perhaps we want to marry an unbeliever, thinking we love him or her. Maybe we are having marital difficulties and things look better elsewhere. Perhaps we want to go along with those who have given themselves to drunken revelry. Maybe we wish to forsake our place and calling in family or church to follow a career or way of life that is more profitable or self-pleasing. We are no different from Jonah if we think that being allowed to go our own way represents God’s approval and blessing or His indifference.
You may resolve to disobey; you may rise up and flee; you may find your way to Joppa; you may find the ship ready there; you may find the mariners make no objection to your company and are ready to receive the fare. You may crown all, and think the day is gained, when you go down into the ship. How successful has your scheme been! Not a single step of it has misgiven. The whole project thrives…. You think it is all right now, and your plan is safe and your project sure. The last move has been all that you could wish it to be.
Yes, but that last move is your move into the very prison in which God holds you now under lock and key, and will hold you, till He either cast you out for execution, or bring you to repentance.1
Jonah was not only asleep physically, but spiritually. He had closed his eyes and mind to the Word and call of God. He was in a spiritual slumber no different from the unbelief of the mariners who were “asleep” to the knowledge of the true God and, as the ungodly, would have fallen asleep forever if God, through the storm and the mariners, had not wakened him.
What a terrible thing it is to be in such a state of spiritual slumber! Living sinfully, we have our eyes closed to the danger of our way, for sin’s ways are the ways of death. Hardened in sin, we sit in church, hear the Scriptures read, and even read them ourselves, listen to the Word preached, but are as insensitive as a man asleep. We neither hear nor are aware of our danger and, if God does not waken us, we will never wake again.
Jonah was not allowed to progress very far in his disobedience. Any progress in sin, however, is progress towards destruction. Psalm 1:1 describes this progress in sin as first walking in it, then standing, and finally sitting in it. The ungodly make such progress to their own destruction. God’s children are, in the wisdom of God, allowed to go only so far as to teach them the danger of sin. What a hard lesson that is when it is necessary for God to teach us in that way.
Jonah’s lesson was not quite finished. He still needed three days’ instruction in the belly of the fish, but in the purpose and good pleasure of God he was needed, reluctant though he was, in Nineveh, and so God almost immediately stopped Jonah’s wicked way.
The Canons of Dordt in chapter 5 sum up this part of the story of Jonah thus:
Article 4. Although the weakness of the flesh cannot prevail against the power of God, who confirms and preserves true believers in a state of grace, yet converts are not always so influenced and actuated by the Spirit of God, as not in some particular instances sinfully to deviate from the guidance of divine grace, so as to be seduced by and to comply with the lusts of the flesh; they must, therefore, be constant in watching and in prayer, that they be not led into temptation. When these are neglected, they are not only liable to be drawn into great and heinous sins by Satan, the world, and the flesh, but sometimes by the righteous permission of God actually fall into these evils. This, the lamentable fall of David, Peter, and other saints described in Holy Scripture demonstrates.
Article 5. By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them.
Article 6. But God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people, even in their melancholy falls; nor suffers them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption, and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted, and to plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.
Article 7. For, in the first place, in these falls He preserves in them the incorruptible seed of regeneration from perishing, or being totally lost; and again, by His Word and Spirit, certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling.
1 Hugh Martin, Jonah (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 66.