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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Jonah 1

 

 

Verses 1-17

THE GREAT REFUSAL

Jonah 1:1-17

WE have now laid clear the lines upon which the Book of Jonah was composed. Its purpose is to illustrate God’s grace to the heathen in face of His people’s refusal to fulfill their mission to them. The author was led to achieve this purpose by a parable, through which the prophet Jonah moves as the symbol of his recusant, exiled, redeemed, and still hardened people. It is the Drama of Israel’s career, as the Servant of God, in the most pathetic moments of that career. A nation is stumbling on the highest road nation was ever called to tread.

"Who is blind but My servant, Or deaf as My messenger whom I have sent?"

He that would read this Drama aright must remember what lies behind the Great Refusal which forms its tragedy. The cause of Israel’s recusancy was not only willfulness or cowardly sloth, but the horror of a whole world given over to idolatry, the paralyzing sense of its irresistible force, of its cruel persecutions endured for centuries, and of the long famine of Heaven’s justice. These it was which had filled Israel’s eyes too full of fever to see her duty. Only when we feel, as the writer himself felt, all this tragic background to his story, are we able to appreciate the exquisite gleams which he flashes across it: the generous magnanimity of the heathen sailors, the repentance of the heathen city, and, lighting from above, God’s pity upon the dumb heathen multitudes.

The parable or drama divides itself into three parts: The Prophet’s Flight and Turning (chapter 1); The Great Fish and What it Means (chapter 2); and The Repentance of the City (chapters 3 and 4).

The chief figure of the story is Jonah, son of Amittai, from Gath-hepher in Galilee, a prophet identified with that turn in Israel’s fortunes by which she began to defeat her Syrian oppressors, and win back from them her own territories-a prophet, therefore, of revenge, and from the most bitter of the heathen wars. "And the word of Jehovah came to Jonah, the son of Amittai, saying, Up, go to Nineveh, the Great City, and cry out against her, for her evil is come up before Me." But "he arose to flee." It was not the length of the road, nor the danger of declaring Nineveh’s sin to her face, which turned him, but the instinct that God intended by him something else than Nineveh’s destruction; and this instinct sprang from his knowledge of God Himself. "Ah now, Jehovah, was not my word, while I was yet upon mine own soil, at the time I made ready to flee to Tarshish, this-that I knew that Thou art a God gracious and tender and long-suffering, plenteous in love and relenting of evil?" [Jonah 4:2] Jonah interpreted the Word which came to him by the Character which he knew to be behind the Word. This is a significant hint upon the method of revelation.

It would be rash to say that, in imputing even to the historical Jonah the fear of God’s grace upon the heathen, our author were guilty of an anachronism. We have to do, however, with a greater than Jonah-the nation herself. Though perhaps Israel little reflected upon it, the instinct can never have been far away that someday the grace of Jehovah might reach the heathen too. Such an instinct, of course, must have been almost stifled by hatred born of heathen oppression, as well as by the intellectual scorn which Israel came to feel for heathen idolatries. But we may believe that it haunted even those dark periods in which revenge upon the Gentiles seemed most just, and their destruction the only means of establishing God’s kingdom in the world. We know that it moved uneasily even beneath the rigor of Jewish legalism. For its secret was that faith in the essential grace of God, which Israel gained very early and never lost, and which was the spring of every new conviction and every reform in her wonderful development. With a subtle appreciation of all this, our author imputes the instinct to Jonah from the outset. Jonah’s fear, that after all the heathen may be spared, reflects the restless apprehension even of the most exclusive of his people-an apprehension which by the time our book was written seemed to be still more justified by God’s long delay of doom upon the tyrants whom He had promised to overthrow.

But to the natural man in Israel the possibility of the heathen’s repentance was still so abhorrent that he turned his back upon it. "Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the face of Jehovah." In spite of recent arguments to the contrary, the most probable location of Tarshish is the generally accepted one, that it was a Phoenician colony at the other end of the Mediterranean. In any case it was far from the Holy Land; and by going there the prophet would put the sea between himself and his God. To the Hebrew imagination there could not be a flight more remote. Israel was essentially an inland people. They had come up out of the desert, and they had practically never yet touched the Mediterranean. They lived within sight of it, but from ten to twenty miles of foreign soil intervened between their mountains and its stormy coast. The Jews had no traffic upon the sea, nor (but for one sublime instance to the contrary) had their poets ever employed it except as a symbol of arrogance and restless rebellion against the will of God. It was all this popular feeling of the distance and strangeness of the sea which made our author choose it as the scene of the prophet’s flight from the face of Israel’s God. Jonah had to pass, too, through a foreign land to get to the coast: upon the sea he would only be among heathen. This was to be part of his conversion. "He went down to Yapho, and found a ship going to Tarshish, and paid the fare thereof, and embarked on her to get away with her crew to Tarshish-away from the face of Jehovah."

The scenes which follow are very vivid: the sudden wind sweeping down from the very hills on which Jonah believed he had left his God; the tempest; the behavior of the ship, so alive with effort that the story attributes to her the feelings of a living thing-"she thought she must be broken"; the despair of the mariners, driven from the unity of their common task to the hopeless diversity of their idolatry-"they cried every man unto his own god"; the jettisoning of the tackle of the ship to lighten her (as we should say, they let the masts go by the board); the worn-out prophet in the hull of the ship, sleeping like a stowaway; the group gathered on the heaving deck to cast the lot: the passenger’s confession, and the new fear which fell upon the sailors from it; the reverence with which these rude men ask the advice, of him, in whose guilt they feel not the offence to themselves, but the sacredness to God; the awakening of the prophet’s better self by their generous deference to him; how he counsels to them his own sacrifice; their reluctance to yield to this, and their return to the oars with increased perseverance for his sake. But neither their generosity nor their efforts avail. The prophet again offers himself, and as their sacrifice he is thrown into the sea.

"And Jehovah cast a wind on the sea, and there was a great tempest, and the ship threatened to break up. And the sailors were afraid, and cried every man unto his own god; and they cast the tackle of the ship into the sea, to lighten it from upon them. But Jonah had gone down to the bottom of the ship and lay fast asleep. And the captain of the ship came to him, and said to him, What art thou doing asleep? Up, call on thy God; peradventure the God will be gracious to us, that we perish not. And they said every man to his neighbor, Come, and let us cast lots, that we may know for whose sake is this evil come upon us. So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. And they said to him, Tell us now, what is thy business, and whence comest thou? what is thy land, and from what people art thou? And he said to them, A Hebrew am I, and a worshipper of the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the dry land. And the men feared greatly, and said to him, What is this thou hast done? (for they knew he was fleeing from the face of Jehovah, because he had told them). And they said to him, What are we to do to thee that the sea cease raging against us? For the sea was surging higher and higher. And he said, Take me and throw me into the sea; so shall the sea cease raging against you: for I am sure that it is on my account that this great tempest is risen upon you. And the men labored with the oars to bring the ship to land, and they could not, for the sea grew more and more stormy against them. So they called on Jehovah and said, Jehovah, let us not perish, we pray Thee, for the life of this man, neither bring innocent blood upon us: for Thou art Jehovah, Thou doest as Thou pleasest. Then they took up Jonah and cast him into the sea, and the sea stilled from its raging. But the men were in great awe of Jehovah, and sacrificed to Him and vowed vows."

How very real it is and how very noble! We see the storm, and then we forget the storm in the joy of that generous contrast between heathen and Hebrew. But the glory of the passage is the change in Jonah himself. It has been called his punishment and the conversion of the heathen. Rather it is his own conversion. He meets again not only God, but the truth from which he fled. He not only meets that truth, but he offers his life for it.

The art is consummate. The writer will first reduce the prophet and the heathen whom he abhors to the elements of their common humanity. As men have sometimes seen upon a mass of wreckage or on an ice-floe a number of wild animals, by nature foes to each other, reduced to peace through their common danger, so we descry the prophet and his natural enemies upon the strained and breaking ship. In the midst of the storm they are equally helpless, and they cast for all the lot which has no respect of persons. But from this the story passes quickly, to show how Jonah feels not only the human kinship of these heathen with himself, but their susceptibility to the knowledge of his God. They pray to Jehovah as the God of the sea and the dry land; while we may be sure that the prophet’s confession, and the story of his own relation to that God, forms as powerful an exhortation to repentance as any he could have preached in Nineveh. At least it produces the effects which he has dreaded. In these sailors he sees heathen turned to the fear of the Lord. All that he has fled to avoid happens there before his eyes and through his own mediation.

The climax is reached, however, neither when Jonah feels his common humanity with the heathen nor when he discovers their awe of his God, but when in order to secure for them God’s sparing mercies he offers his own life instead. "Take me up and cast me into the sea; so shall the sea cease from raging against you." After their pity for him has wrestled for a time with his honest entreaties, he becomes their sacrifice.

In all this story perhaps the most instructive passages are those which lay bare to us the method of God’s revelation. When we were children this was shown to us in pictures of angels bending from heaven to guide Isaiah’s pen, or to cry Jonah’s commission to him through a trumpet. And when we grew older, although we learned to dispense with that machinery, yet its infection remained, and our conception of the whole process was mechanical still. We thought of the prophets as of another order of things; we released them from our own laws of life and thought, and we paid the penalty by losing all interest in them. But the prophets were human, and their inspiration came through experience. The source of it, as this story shows, was God. Partly from His guidance of their nation, partly through close communion with Himself, they received new convictions of His character. Yet they did not receive these mechanically. They spake neither at the bidding of angels, nor like heathen prophets in trance or ecstasy, but as "they were moved by the Holy Ghost." And the Spirit worked upon them first as the influence of God’s character, and second through the experience of life. God and life-these are all the postulates for revelation.

At first Jonah fled from the truth, at last he laid down his life for it. So God still forces us to the acceptance of new light and the performance of strange duties. Men turn from these, because of sloth or prejudice, but in the end they have to face them, and then at what a cost! In youth they shirk a self-denial to which in some storm of later life they have to bend with heavier, and often hopeless hearts. For their narrow prejudices and refusals, God punishes them by bringing them into pain that stings, or into responsibility for others that shames, these out of them. The drama of life is thus intensified in interest and beauty; characters emerge heroic and sublime.

"But, oh the labor, O prince, the pain!"

Sometimes the neglected duty is at last achieved only at the cost of a man’s breath; and the truth, which might have been the bride of his youth and ‘his comrade through a long life, is recognized by him only in the features of Death.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jonah 1:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/jonah-1.html.

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