Jonah was on the run from God. God had given him a mission that grated against Jonah’s prejudices. Jonah hated Assyrians; God called Jonah to preach to the Assyrians in their capital city of Ninevah. Jonah ran to the port of Joppa and boarded a ship headed for Tarshish (most likely Spain, on the opposite end of the Mediterranean Sea).
Jonah did not hide his plan. He told the crew members he was running away from his God. When a great storm threatened the ship, the crew members prayed to their respective gods for deliverance. They wanted all to pray, and were distressed when they discovered that Jonah was sleeping:
“The captain came and said to him, ‘What are you doing sound asleep? Get up, call on your god! Perhaps the god will spares us a thought so that we do not perish” (Jonah 1:6 NRSV).
Later, as the storm raged with greater intensity, the sailors drew lots among themselves to determine if one of them was the cause of their misfortune. When Jonah’s lot was drawn, he confessed to them that he was a Hebrew who worshiped “the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (verse 9). His confession disturbed them more because they remembered that he was running from God.
When they asked what they should do to him, Jonah told them to throw him into the sea and that the storm would end. The sailors apparently rejected his idea at first, for they began instead to row harder in their attempt to reach land. When the storm grew even stronger, they reluctantly accepted Jonah’s request. Then, the pagan sailors prayed fervently to Jonah’s God,
“Please, O LORD, we pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life. Do not make us guilty of innocent blood; for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you” (verse 14).
Throughout the book of Jonah, pagans pray to God for forgiveness while the prophet Jonah resists God’s direction. In this first chapter, the sailors first urge God’s reluctant prophet to wake up and pray, then express their fear of shedding innocent blood (Jonah’s, in the event his actions had not caused the storm) in their own prayer to the prophet’s God. Their actions should have been a “wake-up call” (forgive the pun) for Jonah. Why were unbelievers urging him to pray rather than receiving that exhortation from him? Why was their sensitivity to God’s will more well developed than his own? Why was Jonah sleeping when he should have been praying? The answer to the last question may be inferred rather easily. Jonah had already decided that he did not want to follow guidance and had set out with determination to follow his own path. Jonah’s crisis warns modern believers in God and Jesus to evaluate our decisions and actions carefully with God’s will as it is revealed in Scripture. If we want to be sources of spiritual light for our world, we must live ethically and morally. If we fall short in that regard, like Jonah we need to wake up and pray to our God for forgiveness.