The Sleep of Jonah

Victor Chininin Buele

Thanks to the saints of the Congregación Cristiana Dios es Amor in Loja, Ecuador, I had the opportunity to prepare to study the book of Jonah with them through Zoom. A musician somewhat recently wrote in a song, “Zoom, zoom, se activó la colmena” (Zoom, zoom, the hive was activated) and speaks to the truth that one of the ways in which these times of Zoom have uniquely shown the goodness and the power of God is in activating a powerful force for the gospel not limited to physical buildings that may have been sitting empty. The gospel proclamation is advancing. The hive was activated indeed.

One of the good effects of studying the book of Jonah with the saints in Loja was that we were able to see the sovereign purpose of God in a story that is often the target and source of jokes in our secularized days. Interacting with one astute sister in the study one night, we were fleshing out the following line of reasoning from Jonah, chapter 1:

Essentially, these experienced seafarers were staring in the eye of something like nothing they’ve ever seen before. And they had seen plenty of storms in their lives. Clearly, something greater than themselves had brought this upon the sea and their ship and was threatening their very lives. This was not normal. In this display of pluralism, everybody worshiping their own gods in their own ways, they are all trying their best to appease them. Nothing works. The storm does not relent. Their fear led them to worship, to begging to their gods. These false gods proved false and failed. So, they took matters into their own hands and started throwing everything off the ship–better to starve than to die! But the ship was still going down. Death is certainly ahead. Fear is rampant.

And there is good old Jonah. Sleeping. “Fast asleep” (5).

In the study, she then asked something along these lines: Do you mean to say that God has brought about this pandemic of global proportions, like nothing we or any doctor has ever seen before, in a time of rampant pluralism, secularism, and atheism, and that we may be asleep? And that the unbelievers may actually be more engaged in calling out to their gods than us, the Christian children of God?

Are we asleep?

From the text what we do know is that Jonah was asleep, fast asleep, in the inner part of the ship that was in the worst of a storm of mythical proportions (5).

What could be the possible intended effect that the author of the book of Jonah has for us as we read the story? How are we to think about this? What are we to feel? What’s going on here?

We see in the text that God calls Jonah to rise up and go to Nineveh, a great and sinful city that Jonah has no desire to see saved. For all he cares, he wants them to perish without any opportunity to repent. His emotions and actions testify to that. So, what did he do? He got up and went not just in the other direction, but he paid the fare to go to Tarshish, the end of the known world in the other direction. He wanted to go as far as possible from those who needed to hear God’s call to repent.

The mariners want to know who is to blame for this because something greater than themselves is at play, so they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. They asked him to identify himself. His first response was that he was a Hebrew. This may be a clue that Jonah was seeing his identity as primarily national and ethnic. Secondly, he described himself as one who fears the LORD, the God of heaven. At that point, these experts in pluralism and the equal validity of all their false gods, “knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them” (10). They were even afraid to throw him overboard because they feared the LORD counting his death upon them and not rescuing them out of the storm. “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” (14).

The pagans were far more eager to obey the LORD than the prophet of the LORD was. The pagan pluralists were far more fearful of the LORD than the one who self-described as one who fears the LORD.

I heard a sermon not so long ago where the preacher reflected on Jonah choosing to rather sleep than to face the storm. Yes, we are in the realm of speculation. After all, we are looking at narrative not synthesized doctrine.

Yet, I don’t think from the look we have taken together at chapter 1 of this story, that this is the point. From the text, we don’t get a real answer as to the heart of Jonah. We are left with a lot of questions. We don’t know if he truly repented, or if that repentance was genuine. We could take 2:8-9 as a potential sign of repentance, but then we have his anger and exceedingly great displeasure in 4:1 at the compassion of the Lord Yahweh.

I think what we are seeing here is somebody whose original disobedience from the LORD came from deep passion against the people of Nineveh. I can almost hear him say, “I rather watch them burn in hell…” When we choose to disobey God, we are hardening our heart. We are starting to bring in the bricks and concrete to build up a wall. We know how Americans feel about walls, right? Some of the ones who want them built to keep others out don’t realize the walls they’ve themselves built around their hearts to block what God calls them to do, and some of those who don’t want them built to keep others out don’t realize that they’ve themselves been building walls around their hearts to keep God out. We can sound so righteous in both camps! Meanwhile, the wall of bricks around the heart keeps getting built. Higher and higher.

Jonah’s actions show us this. He cares a lot about the Ninevites. It’s not that he doesn’t care for them. He cares so much about them that he will go to the end of the world to avoid preaching to them, to avoid caring for them, to avoid loving them. And loving here requires a sharp rebuke. God is not telling him to go give them an encouraging, Hallmark card. God is calling him to “call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (2). One could imagine that somebody who despises the Ninevites would want to go and let it rip… But it is not so. Jonah knows that God is merciful. So, as far as he is concerned, and as far as it involves him, he will not even crack the door so that light maybe, maybe could come in. God had not guaranteed compassion upon Nineveh to Jonah. But Jonah knows that God is able to save, and that in His love and mercy, He can save anyone.

The sleep of Jonah, therefore, I propose, is the sleep of a man who has seared his conscience through hate and disobedience to such an extent that he does not care about the eternal future of the Ninevites, about their earthly good, about his ship sinking, about the storm raging. It is not that he doesn’t want to face the storm. It’s that he believes that he is sleeping in safety behind the hard wall he built around his heart. Even as the storm rages and destroys outside. He is fast asleep. Every sinful choice added a brick to the wall. It is not like Jonah just happened to be at the sea port and happened to pay the fare to the end of the world. You know how it works. You start driving by that forbidden place, you circle around, you drive away, you come back, you make an excuse to be nearby, you start lingering, you park, you turn off your location on the phone, you get cash, and then you do it. You built a wall around the heart, step by step, action by action.

Are we asleep? Who has God called you to reach that you would rather, and literally, see burn in hell?

We may not know where Jonah’s story ended. But you have a say on where your story ends. You have the choice to get up and go.

Do you want to be the one who hardened his heart against the one to whom God called you to love and show compassion?

Wake up. It’s time.