But the LORD sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken. Then the mariners were afraid, and cried every man unto his god, and cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them. But Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep. So his shipmaster came to him, and said unto him, What meanest thou, O sleeper? arise, call uon thy God, if so that God will think upon us, that we perish not. (Jonah 1:4-6)
Jonah has gone way off course. God wanted him to go east, but the prophet has chosen to go west. In doing this, he causes great loss to himself and to those with whom he travels. But in this, the Holy Spirit teaches us that trouble is often God's way of waking us from our carelessness and slumbers. In Jonah's case, "slumbers" can be taken in both the idiomatic and literal sense!
We are taught that God is sovereign. Here, this is shown by his control of the winds and waves. "Who is this, whom even winds and waves obey?" asked the apostles of Christ when they saw Jesus still the storm on the sea of Galilee. But here, we see God raising rather than stilling the storm when his prophet disobeys.
But not only Jonah needs to be awakened from his pre-dogmatic slumbers!
The sailors appear to be either heathens, who have long been accustomed to worship false gods, or Israelites seduced away from the divine covenant. Their reaction to danger is to call on their various gods to save them, even as they cast their cargo overboard to lighten the ship.
This is instructive. Probably, the sailors were Phoenicians, those intrepid traders and explorers of the ancient Mediterraneans; and the Old Testament gives little indication of the Israelites having seafaring proclivities. Indeed, it seesm that Solomon's ships of Ophir were manned by crews provided by his ally Hiram of Tyre, a Phoenician ruler. The Phoenicians were a folk eager for gain, and no port from the Levant to the southwestern corner of Britain--where tin was to be had--was ignorant of them. One Phoenician mariner, Hanno, was even the first to circumnavigate Africa. Yet these famed traders are willing to sacrifice their material wealth in the form of their trade goods in danger, even while they cling to their gods.
Nothing else so clearly reveals man as a a worshiping creature. This is evident even today, in those who claim to be "free" of religious taint. None have been so fanatically purposive in the pursuit of pleasing their gods as those who call themselves "athesits"--meaning that they disbelieve in the Christian God. Communists have made great sacrifices in the service of what Arnold Toynbee once called the goddess Historical Necessity. Others, in the name of the goddes Liberty, have made themselves into the worst of tyrants. Nietsche drove himself insane (perhaps aided by syphilis) in his search for a Godless intellectual integrity.
This has been the case with man since Jonah's Phoenician shipmates cast their costly goods into the sea down to the present day. It is no wonder then that many a Christian theologian has concluded that the worshiping impulse is one great evidence of man being created after the image of God.
Yet, oddly enough, while his shipmates worship their gods and sacrifice their livelihoods, Jonah is asleep. "It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late, to eat the bread of sorrows; for so he giveth his beloved sleep," says Psalm 127:2. Perhaps Jonah is an odd perversion of this great truth, for he sleeps as he flees God's mission and his companions are in danger. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the sinful complacency and silence of the church in too many ages! People perish without hope of salvation, yet we remain asleep. It takes the heathen captain's intervention to rouse God's prophet from his slumber.
The military chaplains say that there are no atheists in foxholes. The behavior of Jonah's shipmates is instructive. In crisis, man seeks God. But will those who have the truth be there to help them?