God called Jonah to be a prophet, and to go to Nineveh to proclaim coming judgment—or coming mercy, should they repent. Jonah refused and went the opposite direction on a ship. God sent a great storm to put Jonah back on track but during the storm Jonah was busily disobeying God by sleeping. When the sailors woke him and begged him to pray to his god, he apparently refused for they instead cast lots to determine who was guilty of offending his god or gods and the lot fell upon Jonah. It was only at this point that Jonah responded by telling the men about his God. He is the LORD, the God of heaven, the one who made the sea and the dry land. Being the creator of all things he is the one who can rescue the sailors. He told them he was fleeing from God in disobedience, but prior to this he had not told them anything about his God, including his power to save. The men ask him what to do about the LORD’s anger.
Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. Therefore they called out to the LORD, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you.” So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.Jonah 1:11–16 ESV
The sailors understand that Jonah is the reason for the storm and they ask what to do with him. It’s reasonable to think that if the problem is Jonah disobeying God by going in the opposite direction of Nineveh then the solution is to return him in the direction of Nineveh. Instead of telling them they must return him to where he came from, he tells them to dump him over the side. It is tempting to read into this Jonah’s willingness to die in order to save the men, but he has shown a startling indifference to the plight of others all along. Given this lack of concern for others, it is likely that telling the men to toss him overboard is just another way to disobey God, for if he dies in the raging sea—likely, at least from his perspective—then he won’t have to go to Nineveh after all.
We know they all believed that tossing Jonah overboard was a death sentence for the sailors refused to offer what amounted to a human sacrifice. Instead of tossing him over, the sailors rowed hard to get back to dry land but they could not make headway, for Jonah’s heart was still stuck in stubborn rebellion against the Lord. When they realized they could not get him to land by rowing, they cried out to Jonah’s God for mercy, asking him to not lay guilt on them for Jonah’s life, for surely throwing him overboard meant he would die. They picked up Jonah and tossed him into the sea and the sea was calm.
When the soldiers saw that the LORD, the God of heaven who is the maker of the sea and dry land, calmed the storm they feared him and offered a sacrifice to him and made vows. The end result here is that these pagan sailors came to recognize the one true God and worship him while Jonah has gone for a swim, hoping to drown so he would not have to go to Nineveh.
Oh the kindness and mercy of God! These were pagan sailors who worshiped all sorts of false gods. They were deserving of death just as Jonah was deserving of death, for all were in active rebellion against God. He could have destroyed all of them in one fell swoop, yet he does not. God saved the sailors and granted them mercy and the result of his mercy was these formerly pagan sailors worshiped him and made vows. We’re not told the content of the vows but surely they were directly related to worshiping the one true God who controls the wind and the waves.
We see this same mercy and desire to save people from every tribe and nation as we’ve worked our way through the Gospel According to John. Whether he was speaking to a Pharisee (John 3:1–15), or he was speaking to an immoral Samaritan woman and her entire village (John 4:1–42), a foreign royal official (John 4:46–54), or a Jewish man trusting in Roman superstitions about water (John 5:1–9), Jesus offers mercy and forgiveness to any who are willing to believe in him.
God’s offer of mercy is incredible. It is good news to those who are perishing, regardless of what they have done or who they’ve done it with or how often they’ve done it. We have good news to proclaim. Let us not hide this good news. Let’s proclaim it loudly and often, trusting God to save even pagan sailors.
Let’s continue to pray for our community. Pray that our church can be a beacon of hope in a sea of chaos and storm. Pray that each one of us would be faithful to tell others with our words and our lives of the rich mercy of God in Christ.