Men Who Slept
The story of Jonah is well-known and has been a center of controversy for many generations, special attention being given to the fact that the prophet was swallowed by a great fish, and after three days vomited alive on to dry land. He is one of the men in Scripture who slept when he should have been awake, his sleep giving evidence that he was indifferent to the strange surroundings in which he found himself. Rehearse the story briefly.
The Story Itself
Jonah, a servant and prophet of the Lord, had been commissioned to go to Nineveh with a message of warning, but he was displeased and not disposed to go. Instead, he made his way to the port of Joppa and boarded a ship sailing westwards to Tarshish. In the providential intervention of God a tempest arose and the ship was in danger of foundering. The mariners in desperation cast their cargo overboard, fearing for their lives. “But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship, and he lay, and was fast asleep. So the ship master 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.”
When lots were cast to determine upon which of them the blame should rest for the disaster, the lot fell upon Jonah, and he requested that he should be thrown into the sea that the storm might subside. The mariners knew that he was endeavouring to escape from the presence of the Lord and from his duty as a prophet who had been sent to preach the message of God to Nineveh. Yet Jonah was sound asleep, unconscious of the danger in which he lay.
Why was Jonah asleep in such a storm as would keep most men awake? It was the experience of seeing some Moravians calm and self-possessed in a storm on the Atlantic which ultimately led to the conversion of John Wesley. In a storm which terrified the disciples our Lord was asleep in the hinder part of the boat because he was tired after his incessant toils. He had no bad conscience and was able to speak a command of power which stilled the wind and calmed the waves. Ordinary men don’t usually sleep in circumstances like those in which Jonah found himself, unless they are very tired. Jonah had been fleeing from the presence of the Lord, in all probability from Gath-hepher of Zebulon in the north to Joppa many miles away. That flight indicates how determined Jonah was in his disobedience. That he slept soundly through the tempest perhaps proves that he was not in the least perturbed by his reluctance to go to Nineveh. Perhaps, too, he went down to the sides of the ship, because, being a land-lubber he was afraid of the storm and wanted to consider himself safe from a watery grave. Whatever the reasons, his action endangered the lives of the mariners. When he was wakened, conscience-smitten, he admitted that he was to blame, saying, “I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you.” What a pity it is when a servant of the Lord by his disobedience brings the lives of others into jeopardy, if not physically, then spiritually, the latter being the greater calamity! God often has to intervene, as He did in the case of Jonah, to prevent His servants from following a course of self-will which would be to the hurt of others. Had Jonah reached Tarshish, Nineveh would not have had the message, obedience to which meant the preservation of the city.
Some Schools of Thought
The personality of the prophet cannot be assessed apart from a general understanding of the contents of the book. There are difficulties of interpretation.
1. Is he mythological, like so many heroes in stories of the ancient world in which a man is swallowed by a fish and regurgitated on to dry land? There are so many small incidental details which take the story out of the realm of mythology.
2. Is it parabolical? Some see in it an arresting parable intended to teach the Jewish nation that their proud conservatism was all wrong. They were being taught that the God who had chosen them had interest in other people, and that the message He had committed to them was to be shared by others. The story of Jonah does not read like a parable; it is too matter of fact.
3. Is it historical? Jonah is said to have lived at the time of Jeroboam II. His father and place of birth are named, and the inferences about Nineveh are true to history. Again our Lord, and we can rely upon His Word, referred to him as an historical person who carried a message of repentance to Nineveh. A reading of the book gives the impression that the events happened as narrated. The parabolic or mythological sense is never apparent.
The Significance of the Story
The story of Jonah is remarkable for various reasons. 1. It reveals the love and mercy of God in His concern for even the most wicked and rapacious city of that time. Nineveh, although notorious for its unrestrained violence, was given a message of warning to repent before judgment from God would descend upon it. 2. It is a story of one of the most remarkable revivals in history. The entire city repented and was spared. The people of Nineveh believed God (Jonah 3:5). “This is one of the most remarkable statements in the story. But it never seems to make the impression the whale does. The swallowing of a small man by a big fish is merely a matter of size … But for that little prophet to walk into New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, London, or any other city and bring that city to repentance and belief in God is some achievement! Why doesn’t the professor get funny about that—which is really the point of the story?” 3. When Jonah recovered himself and preached so that the king on the throne to the peasant in his mud hut repented, the lesson is being taught that the way to escape divine judgment upon wicked deeds is repentance. The grace of divine mercy is manifest in the fact that forty days were given before the stroke would fall. That is a divine method. “God is not willing that any should perish,” yet the preaching that calls for repentance must not be neglected. Jonah must have been a strange figure as he moved into the city preaching “repentance or doom.” 4. The story is remarkable because of the evidence of divine intervention. A great storm, a natural phenomenon sent by God, frustrated Jonah in his attempt to escape his duty. The fish which swallowed Jonah was on the spot by divine direction. Jonah was preserved in the stomach of the fish for three days; and the gourd, the worm and the wind of which we read in chapter 4 were the means by which God taught the unhappy prophet a salutary lesson. God is still the same, Lord of natural phenomena which He can manipulate to fulfil His own purpose. 5. One of the most remarkable features in the story is Jonah’s repentance when the Word of the Lord came to him a second time. When the command came “Go, preach,” despite his reluctance because he believed that a message of judgment was contrary to his conception of the God whom he knew, he went, making a long journey to warn the people of a city whose reputation was well-known for cruelty and wickedness. Moreover, such a message as he was given was contrary to his very nature. His name “Jonah” means “a dove”; and the closing scene is one of the most moving in the Bible. The prophet’s reaction to the response to his message reveals his belief in the goodness and mercy of God: “I knew that Thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest Thee of evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:23). He had gone to preach in obedience to the divine command, although, as had he thought, that was against his better judgment. The divine argument was this: If Jonah was grieved because the sun had withered the gourd which had sheltered him, should not God “spare Nineveh, that great city in which are more than sixscore thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left; and also much cattle?” (4:11) Jonah’s argument was effectively silenced because God had convinced him that even the wicked people of Nineveh were far more valuable in His sight than was a perishable gourd in the reckoning of a selfish prophet.
Some Practical Applications
Numerous lessons may be learnt from the story of the prophet who fell asleep in the sides of a tempest-tossed boat. Here are a few of those lessons:
1. Christians need not be afraid to accept the story as genuine. There are records preserving the stories of sailors who have had an experience similar to that of Jonah. Our Lord’s endorsement of it is sufficient guarantee of its historicity.
2. It is the duty of the preacher to, “Go…preach… the preaching that I bid thee” (3:2) The message must be balanced. Repentance or judgment must be preached on the understanding that God is merciful and gracious.
3. There is the danger that racial prejudice or religious conservatism will interfere with the desire to witness to other peoples of the goodness of God. Even in Christian circles racial prejudice dies slowly.
4. Prayer is the resort of a man who discovers himself in a desperate situation. Of Jonah in his plight it is recorded, “Then Jonah prayed”; and he recognized that salvation is of the Lord.
5. It is the business of every local church and of its individual members to be missionary-minded. A pertinent question, Are you?