Last time we saw that Jonah spilled the beans about who he was, what God he served, and what he was doing on the boat. Jonah was a Hebrew. He was a worshiper of YHWH, the creator of the sea and dry land. And he was on the boat because he was running from YHWH, the creator of the sea, ON THE SEA.
The rest of the sailors are rightfully panicked.
This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:10-12)
Wait, what? This raises so many questions for me. Let’s look at the a bit more closely.
WHAT GOD WANTS VS. WHAT JONAH WANTS
What does God want? God wants Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it in order that they might have a chance to repent from their evil ways. God wants to grant mercy to Israel’s enemy. God wants to make a great name for himself among the nations and draw all peoples to him. God wants all people everywhere to come to repentance.
What does Jonah want? Basically…not that. Jonah wants the Assyrians to get what’s coming to them. Jonah wants his enemies to perish and for Israel to thrive. In fact, Jonah would rather die than to offer mercy to the Assyrians.
And that’s the problem. Jonah isn’t heroically and selflessly offering his own life in order to save others. We’ve already seen that Jonah cares nothing about the Gentile sailors he hired. We already know that Jonah would do literally anything to avoid going to Nineveh to preach to the Assyrians. Jonah isn’t taking a bullet for anyone. Jonah isn’t sacrificing himself in exchange for someone else’s life.
Jonah is sacrificing himself as a last ditch effort to escape God’s call. This isn’t martyrdom. It’s assisted suicide.
IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY
The entire story of Jonah is based on the premise that God relents from sending calamity when people repent of their evil ways and turn to him. We see that with the sailors, and we will see it later with the people of Nineveh. But Jonah doesn’t get it.
Or maybe he does.
You see, Jonah doesn’t ever repent. Jonah skips straight to the sacrifice part of it. He cries “throw me overboard!” but he never cries out, “I’m sorry!” Jonah is willing to offer himself as a sacrifice, but isn’t willing to repent and turn from his own evil ways and attitudes.
I truly believe that God could have stopped the storm without Jonah’s sacrifice. If Jonah had repented and had a genuine change of heart on the deck of that ship, God could have stopped the storm. They could have made for a safe harbor. Jonah could have disembarked in safety to make his way to Nineveh. But that’s not what happened.
Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. (Jonah 1:13-15)
Amazingly, the sailors tried everything they could to save Jonah’s life and the lives of all the crew. That’s way more than could be said for Jonah himself. But when they tried to row toward land, the storm grew more violent. Why?
I think God was giving Jonah what he wanted – at least a taste of it. Ok Jonah, you say you’d rather die than go to Nineveh. Let’s see.
So they threw Jonah overboard just as they had done with the cargo earlier. And what do you know? The sea grew completely calm. It worked! Kind of.
WHAT GOD REALLY WANTS
Was Jonah’s self-sacrifice really necessary? I don’t think so.
Why do I think not? Because Bible.
Jonah lived in a religious era that was intimately familiar with animal sacrifice. It was common practice among not just the people of Israel, but also among most ancient cultures. An animal would be killed and burned on some kind of altar in order to get the attention of the gods or to remind the people that they deserve what the animal is getting.
Sacrifices did not remove or forgive sins.
It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4)
The scapegoat (Leviticus 16) was the representation of Israel’s sins being forgiven. But even then, it wasn’t the goat – it was God who forgave sins.
“Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7)
God doesn’t demand a sacrifice. God doesn’t want them because God knew that humans would easily substitute the sacrifice for true repentance. Seriously, I know I’ve sinned before and thought It’s ok, God will forgive me. We have a tendency to believe that we can do whatever we want, say whatever we want, live however we want, and it’s ok. We’ll just go to church, pray, take the Lord’s Supper, and it will all be good.
To quote The Good Place, “That’s bull shirt.”
This is the exact mindset that Jeremiah railed against:
“‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 7:9-11)
This was the exact mindset that Micah railed against:
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)
This was the exact mindset that Amos railed against:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)
Finally, Jesus railed against this mindset by quoting Hosea:
I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12:6-7, quoting Hosea 6:6)
I believe God knew there would come a time when sacrifices could no longer be used as a crutch or an excuse. God knew there would come a time when his people could no longer offer sacrifices and burnt offerings. Through his own sacrifice, Jesus put an end to the sacrificial system and reconciled everyone to God.
SACRIFICES WERE NEVER THE POINT. MERCY WAS THE POINT.
But Jonah completely missed that. He sacrificed his own life to avoid showing mercy to others. Jonah got it all completely backwards.
That’s why I think God let him go through with it. Jonah had more lessons to learn.
So as Jonah sank down into the depths, the sailors went about their way – forever changed.
At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. (Jonah 1:16)
Yes, they offered sacrifices. But their sacrifices were in response to what YHWH had done. Their sacrifice was a form of worship, the kind of sacrifice Paul would encourage us to make with our lives in worship to God as a response for all God has done for us (Romans 12:1).
The sailors were converted to become true worshipers of YHWH (as Jonah had claimed to be), while the prophet of YHWH sank down to the bottom of the sea. It saddens me to think that Jonah never knew what happened with those sailors. But it also reminds me that I have no control over who gets to experience the mercy, forgiveness, and salvation of God. As God says to Moses:
I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (Exodus 33:19)
GOD’S NOT DONE
That could have easily been the end of Jonah. If I were God, I probably would have just let Jonah drown (that’s what he wanted, after all) and found someone else to go to Nineveh. But that’s not the God of the Bible. Our God is one who pursues us, who leaves the ninety-nine and goes after the one. Even if that one is an unrepentant, racist, nationalistic prophet who cares about no one but himself. God still pursues Jonah to the ends of the earth and to the depths of the sea. God has mercy on the one who deserves it the least.
But sometimes God’s mercy can come in unexpected ways:
Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah… (Jonah 1:17a)