Man overboard!

A sermon by Rod Benson

Jonah 1:4-16

Can you imagine what it must feel like to be “on the run”? Countless novels and movies celebrate the terror – and the glamour – of being on the run from the law, or from the lawless. How much more terrifying, unnerving and depressing it must have been for the prophet Jonah, fleeing from the Lord!

Jonah was not the first to try to run away from God (v. 3), and large numbers of men and women, including some of the most intelligent members of our species, have taken similar foolish steps. Indeed, lest we be labelled hypocrites, each of us in small ways, and perhaps one or two of us in large ways, has tried to break free of God’s claims on our lives. Perhaps we succeeded, or thought we had, for a time – until God graciously intervened, and called us back to himself for fellowship and service. Each of us has our Jonah story.

For the historic Jonah to “run away from the Lord,” at least two things had to happen. First, he had to disregard the word of God that challenged him to action in the service of God. The will of God and the will of Jonah were on a collision course. I don’t think it’s too much to borrow New Testament language, and say that in this situation Jonah’s “flesh” (or “sinful nature”) desired what was contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what was contrary to Jonah’s “flesh” (Gal 5:17).

And for a time the flesh is in the ascendancy: Jonah refuses his divinely appointed commission, defies God’s will, deserts his post, runs away, and begins reaping the consequences.

Have you ever been in the grip of such a situation? Have you bowed to internal or external pressure, and knowingly declined to do what you knew to be right, and true, and good? Are you in the battle now, and you need strength from God to resist the desires and arguments of your human nature that resists following the path you know is God’s will for your life in this moment?

Have you been defeated in the battle, and you know you’ve taken the wrong decision and the wrong path, and you regret that, and you want to get back into fellowship with God, and work in fellowship with God again? God wants nothing more than to restore the unity and harmony that is your birthright and destiny.

Jonah wasn’t alone. His family and friends must have known something was up. His life was uprooted; he gathered his clothes and his cash, and probably invented an excuse to explain his sudden obsession to go off on a Mediterranean cruise.

Perhaps they thought he was embarking on a noble mission trip to help the Israelites of Tarshish. Some well-meaning friend might well have given him the money for his fare.

But talk is cheap, people are gullible, and “activity is a poor substitute for obedience.”[1] And off goes Jonah into the sunset.

Later, when he can run no more, Jonah pours out his heart to God, expressing contempt for the citizens of Nineveh who have responded to the word of God, and repented, and turned from their pagan ways to God (4:2). Jonah cannot accept that God’s mercy extends to pagans, and they may come to God in the same way as a descendant of Abraham. Jonah has God in a box, and his wrong thinking poisons his whole life.

Second, for Jonah to “run away from the Lord,” he had to turn from God’s presence, at great cost not only to himself but those around him. Jonah’s disobedience almost damned every other soul on the ship.

The ship Jonah embarked on may have looked something like this.

As the ship bore west, across the Mediterranean, God stirred up a violent storm so intense that it threatened to break up the ship (v. 4). All the sailors feared for their lives, and cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo over the side in order to lighten the ship and reduce the chance of being swamped and sinking.

Someone had paid for that cargo. Wharf hands had carefully loaded it into the ship’s hold. Others awaited its arrival at the destination. But because of Jonah’s disobedience, it is ruined, floating off into the storm, sinking down into the depths of the sea.

Far more alarming, however, is the threat to the wellbeing and survival of those on board – also at risk due to Jonah’s disobedience. Lives are at risk because of his cowardice. Innocent people are suffering because of Jonah’s fear and timidity.

How often have you faced a situation calling for courage, and you have given in to cowardice? How many times have you forfeited opportunity and blessing because of your fear, timidity, lack of focus, lack of persistence, or unfaithfulness to God and others?

In Jonah’s case, help was at hand – in the form of divine love, divine mercy, divine intervention.

But first, I want you to notice a minor miracle that takes place on board the ship. It quickly became evident to these seasoned sailors that this was no ordinary storm. Verse 5 tells us that each one cried out to his favourite deity for rescue, without response.

Strange as it may seem, Jonah was not praying. Instead, he was fast asleep in the depths of the ship. I imagine him snoring among the few sacks, boxes and jars that remain in the hold.

The captain finds him, rebukes him, and urges him to pray to his god (v. 6).

Then the terrified sailors cast lots to see who is responsible for the cataclysm, and God so orders fate that the lot falls on Jonah (v. 7).

The sailors interrogate Jonah (v. 8), and he confesses to being a Hebrew, one of those strange people who have just one deity, “the Lord God, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (v. 9).

Jonah tells them that he’s running away from this all-powerful Creator God – but he doesn’t answer their question about his vocation. He’s too ashamed of what he is, and of what he’s not doing.

The sailors are still more distressed at this new revelation (v. 10), but the storm fury intensifies, and Jonah, depressed and increasingly disillusioned, invites them to fix the problem by tossing him over the gunwale.

But the sailors leave Jonah where he is, and grab the ship’s oars, and try with all their strength to row toward land, in the faint hope of getting out of the ugly storm’s path (v. 13a).

As Old Testament scholar James Bruckner observes:

They know Jonah is a serious problem, but they do not want to be held responsible for killing the prophet of such a powerful god. In the cosmology of the ancient Near East, one did not have to be responsible for a situation in order to incur the consequence of someone else’s guilt. It was an ancient version of being ‘in the wrong place at the wrong time.’[2]

What happens next? The storm intensifies still further! The sailors have run out of options. They have tried prayer to their gods, without success. They have ditched the cargo, no benefit. They compelled Jonah to pray, but he seems distinctly uncomfortable with that suggestion. They have cast lots to identify the personal source of the evil causing the supernatural storm, but that changes nothing. They have interrogated Jonah, they have tried rowing to shore. Nothing has worked. They have run out of options.

Then a strange development occurs. Where Jonah fails to pray to the God he knows, the sailors – in a last-ditch attempt to escape the storm’s deadly fury, pray to the God whom they don’t know (v. 14)!

They cry out to the Lord, acknowledging their moral responsibility to God, and recognising God’s sovereignty in the world – two things Jonah himself has been unwilling to accept.

Then they take Jonah and throw him overboard, into the dark churning water, and down he goes, “and the raging sea grew calm” (v. 15). What a major miracle! What a relief! What an answer to prayer! But the next verse is more amazing still, in a way.

Observing the dead calm set in, these pagan sailors “greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him” (v. 16).

Psalm 111:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” These sailors have come a long way, spiritually, in the last few hours. They are beginning to discover the living God, and they respond with reverent worship.

Everyone in the book of Jonah eventually calls on God and is saved: the sailors, Jonah, and the people of Nineveh (1:6, 14; 2:2; 3:8).

But does it last? Is the sailors’ faith real faith? What was the motive for their prayer to God?

We may equally ask: Is our faith real faith? What is my motivation for prayers for divine blessing?

Or what lay behind those sailors’ desire to sacrifice and worship God? Well, why do we gather together for worship?

Or what were those vows they made, and did the sailors keep the promises they made to God that day? We may well ask the same of ourselves, if we have ever made promises to God.

There is much we do not know about the events described in the Book of Jonah. We never hear of these sailors again. But we can be sure that:

  • they have witnessed God’s awesome and unmistakeable power in nature;
  • they have begun to know the living God as their Creator and Deliverer;
  • they are learning that prayer to this newly discovered God is answered in miraculous ways; and
  • their public act of worship indicates sincerity, and gratitude.

Jonah’s disobedience has ironically had a profound positive impact on these saved sailors. He has unintentionally introduced them to God; and his presence in the wrong place, and his witness under duress, have been used by God for good (cf Num 20:1-13; Gen 50:20).

Who are you in the story? Are you prayerless Jonah, on the run from God, needing to trust and obey?

Or are you the pagan sailors, just beginning to know God and learn how to relate to him?

Perhaps you feel you are sinking in the midst of your own personal storm, and you need prayer, grace, and calm.

Or perhaps you are still in the ship, braving the storm, rowing with all your might, needing rescue from beyond yourself, someone who will step into your life, and take the oars, and bring the calm you need.

May God meet each of us at our point of real need today.

Sermon 747 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 10 September 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Man Overboard! The Story of Jonah (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2008 [1981]), p. 13.

[2] James Bruckner, The NIV Application Commentary: Jonah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), p. 47.

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