Jonah may be the most mis-remembered story in the whole Bible. Anymore, you can’t assume that people really know anything much about the Bible at all, but even now, you mention Jonah, I think most folks will immediately come up with Jonah and the whale. And then, of course, you have the killjoys who get all bent out of shape because “it wasn’t a whale—the Bible says it was a big fish, and a whale isn’t a fish!” Which completely ignores the fact that three thousand years ago, they didn’t have our taxonomic classifications; they didn’t have the concept of “whale” as “not fish.” It lived in the water, no legs, it swam, it was a fish. Period. But while everyone’s distracted by that red herring, the real whale here—the meaning of the story—swims off unnoticed.
Which is too bad, because this is an amazing book, if a rather unsettling one when you really understand it. Nineveh, you see, was one of the great cities of Assyria, and one of the places where the king of Assyria had a palace—not his main residence, but one of the places where he and his court would reside during the year. Assyria at this point was the main foreign threat to the people of Israel and Judah—it was a growing empire, and highly aggressive—and it may well have been the most evil political entity in human history. They worshiped Ishtar, the goddess of war, who was an extraordinarily cruel deity, and their leaders were bloody conquerors who delighted in the carnage of battle; worse, the end of battle did not bring an end to their cruelty, for their treatment of captives could easily inspire a whole series of horror movies. Politically speaking, Assyria was less a government than a cancer.
And yet, at this time, things weren’t going well for them. They’d had a couple weak kings in a row, and they’d even suffered some defeats in battle—which, when your whole nation exists to win battles, you can imagine the crisis of confidence that caused. They’d had some famine and some other negative omens, and so there was noticeable popular unrest; clearly the gods weren’t happy with them, and they were trying to figure out why. It was a teachable moment for Assyria, a time when they were open to ideas they would otherwise have rejected out of hand.
And so God tells Jonah, “Go to Nineveh and tell them they have to repent”—and Jonah flips out. He hates Assyria, which is understandable; he doesn’t want to be the agent of their repentance, because he wants God to destroy them. And so he up and does a bunk; instead of heading east, he anticipates Horace Greeley by a couple thousand years and heads west, out to sea. We need not think that Jonah actually thought he could outrun God, or that God couldn’t send someone else to Nineveh; but presumably he figured that God at least would send someone else, and let him off the hook.
Now, sometimes God lets us run, and sometimes he doesn’t; here, of course, he doesn’t, and so the great storm comes on Jonah’s ship as he sleeps. The sailors immediately start trying to figure out who offended which god and how they can make amends, and the Lord points them straight to his runaway prophet. When Jonah’s lot comes up, they don’t immediately assume he’s to blame for the storm, but clearly he’s the one who can tell them who is, so they ask him a bunch of questions that all boil down to this: “Who is your god?” Which god is angry, and why, and what can we do to appease him?
Give Jonah this much credit, he gives it to them straight: “I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” He admits that he’s a prophet, that he’s running away from God, and that the storm has come upon them as a result of his defiance. The sailors are, quite understandably, terrified and infuriated—how could he do such a thing? And how could he mix them up in it, putting their lives at risk? Clearly, he deserved to be punished—but none of them knew what punishment his god would consider to be sufficient.
So, since he was the religious expert, they asked him: “What do we need to do to you for your god to calm the storm?” And here we see Jonah’s agenda, because all they need to do is turn around and take him back to port so he can go to Nineveh—but he doesn’t tell them that; he’d rather drown than do that. He’s willing to die so that the sailors might be spared, but not to keep living if it means that Nineveh might be spared.
The sailors don’t like his answer, though. Jonah is the outlaw prophet of a god they don’t know, they have no way to be sure he’s telling them the right thing to do, and they don’t really have any reason to trust him. Gods don’t like people messing with their prophets, and if his god holds them responsible for Jonah’s death, he might drown them all anyway. They try to row back to shore, but the storm keeps getting worse, until finally they give up and toss him overboard—begging the Lord not to be mad at them, because it isn’t their idea . . . and as soon as the prophet hits the water, the storm stops. As frightened as they were during the storm, they’re even more freaked out now, because any god who can do that is a god to be feared. I don’t know if they offered a sacrifice to God right there on the deck or if they waited until they got back to port, but that was absolutely the #1 thing on their agenda, because Jonah’s God had gotten their attention; he was clearly a god to be worshiped, and not one they could afford to ignore.
Now, there are a couple things that come through loud and clear in this chapter. One is that God desires to show mercy to Nineveh; we’ll come back to that later on in this series. The other, which I want you to focus on this morning, is a very high view and a very powerful picture of the sovereignty of God—the fact that God is in control. God rules everything—full stop, end of sentence, no exceptions. Every thing, every person, everywhere, at every point in time, it’s all and always God’s.
And God uses everything—our obedience, as with the sailors, but also our disobedience, as with Jonah. In fact, and we’ll talk about this in a couple weeks, there’s good reason to suspect that Jonah’s rebellion was part of God’s plan—that God chose Jonah not despite the fact that he would rebel, but in part because he would rebel. Every second, God is completely aware of, and in control of, every detail, everyone and everything everywhere in creation—and every second, he is at work in every bit of it to accomplish his purposes. He uses all of it, and wastes none of it, ever.
Now, maybe there’s a Jonah here this morning; maybe some of you see yourselves in the prophet who tried to derail God’s plan by defying his will. If so, let me tell you, it won’t work. If you aren’t where God wants you, he can always send a fish—and I don’t know about you, but I’d rather avoid that, because there’s no first-class service on a fish. But even if he lets you sail on west, it just means he has another way to do what he is absolutely going to do.
Or maybe you see yourself in the sailors—just trying to do your job, caught in the middle of somebody else’s storm. If that’s you, take heart, because the sailors weren’t accidental bystanders in Jonah’s story; God had them there for a reason, too. They were people who didn’t know him—but by the end of their encounter with Jonah, they did, and they were worshiping him. It was a scary blessing, not an easy one, but God used Jonah to bless them nonetheless, through the storm. We’ve talked about this before, how often God’s road to blessing leads through the storm, through difficulty and trial, not around it; but I can assure you, even in the storm—even when it’s not your fault, not of your own making, not anything that seems to have anything at all to do with you—God is in control, God is still God, and he is still at work to bless you. Indeed, he is using the storm to bless you, though you may not be able to see that now; he is still the God who can speak peace to the sea and calm the storm, as he did for the sailors, and for his disciples so long ago—and in his good time, he will do the same for you.