The Case of the Missing Prophet
The case of the missing prophet
“Then the men feared the Lord greatly and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.”
The brevity of Jonah 1:1-3 only serves to heighten the irony. In verse 2, the Lord says, “Arise, Go unto Nineveh!” In verse three, we find the response, “Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish!” For those unfamiliar with the Ancient Near East, Nineveh was located in the northern regions of the Tigris River, where the modern city of Mosul is now. Thus to travel from Israel, Jonah would have traveled 550 Northeast from Joppa (the location is in the present town of Tell Aviv). Conversely, Tarshish was 2500 miles west, located in the southern region of modern-day Spain. In other words, Jonah fled to the farthest possible place in the opposite direction! Jonah wanted nothing to do with any interaction with Ninevah (who were enemies of Israel and a threat to Israel's existence. In his folly, he thought he could escape God’s purpose.
However, a great storm arose as they sailed through the Mediterranean Sea. This “great wind” was so mighty and unusual that even the salty sailors were terrified. Yet, amid the storm, Jonah remained indifferent and unconcerned as he slept in the hold. As the sailors struggled to survive, they recognized this was not a typical storm. They concluded that this storm was coming from the gods themselves. When they cast lots to discover who had offended the gods, the lot fell upon Jonah. Even when these pagan sailors realized the threat came from Jonah, they had more compassion for Jonah than Jonah had for the people of Nineveh. Rather than immediately dispatch Jonah to “Davy Jones Locker,” as Jonah suggested, they refuse. Instead, they tried to save Jonah and the ship with every ounce of their strength. They cast Jonah into the sea only when it became apparent that they had no other option. Thus the irony of the events, the pagan, crusty sailors had more compassion for the soul of one man than Jonah had for the souls of a whole city!
While we are familiar with the story and quickly move to a whale's arrival and subsequent eating habits, we often overlook the redemptive acts of God revealed in the story. First, we see the compassion of God for these sailors. The sailors started the journey as common idolaters who believed that multiple gods determined their destiny (vs. 5). Each cried to their god. But in the end, they were bowing and sacrificing to the God of Israel. In verse 5, the sailors feared the storm, but in verse 16, the sailors were now God-fearers. They came to recognize the awesome capability of the God of Israel and were now worshiping him. Jonah’s first converts were not the people of Nineveh but the sailors on a boat in the middle of a storm.
But there is another unexpected deliverance. In his compassion, God did not leave Jonah to his fate but instead supernaturally sent a fish to deliver Jonah. Thus we see at the start the compassion God has for all people. He cares about pagan sailors and even disobedient prophets. God does not desire to bring judgment; He desires to bestow His grace upon those who seek Him.
Furthermore in the story, there is another essential lesson regarding God’s activity in our life. Just as God does not give up on sinners, he does not give up on us even when we are fleeing from him. He still uses us to accomplish his purpose even when we are not always walking in obedience. As the saying goes, God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick. If God can use us even when we disobey him, how much more can he use us when we are walking in submission to him? Today, ask God to use you as a vessel to reveal his redemptive grace to the people you encounter in life.