The Great Refusal—Jonah*

Bibliology
Guest Writer Clovis G Chappell

“But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord”
(Jonah 1:3).

There is doubtless not another book in the literature of the world that has suffered more at the hands of men than the Book of Jonah. It has been tortured by its enemies and “wounded in the house of its friends” (cf Zechariah 13:6). We have been so prone to give our attention to the nonessential in the book rather than the essential. We have had such keen eyes for the seemingly ridiculous and the bizarre. For this reason it has come to pass that you can hardly mention the name of Jonah to a modern audience without provoking a smile. Thus Jonah, coming to us as an evangelist, is mistaken by many for a clown.

Now, this is a calamity. It is a calamity, in the first place, because the Book of Jonah is one of the gems of literature. There is not another book in the Old Testament that is more fragrant with the breath of inspiration. There is not another book more radiant with the light of the divine love. It is a wonderful gospel in itself. Therefore, it is a great pity that we have turned from its winsome wealth to give ourselves to the unedifying task of measuring the size of a sea creature’s throat.

Did you ever hear of the hungry men that were invited to a feast? When they came in the banquet hall, they found the table spread with the viands [food] of a king. But the table was a bit out of the ordinary. Therefore, there arose a discussion over the material out of which it was made. These guests began heated arguments also over the method of its carpentry. And they argued so long and learnedly and well that the food went utterly to waste, and they went away more hungry than when they had come.

There is a story of a prince who loved a beautiful peasant girl. In spite of his royal blood he determined to marry her. To seal his pledge of marriage he sent her a wonderful engagement ring. It was a gem so marvelous that it was said the stars shut their eyes in its presence and even the sun acknowledged it as a rival. But the girl was more interested in the beautiful box in which it was packed than she was in the ring. And when the prince came, he was humiliated and disappointed to find her wearing the box tied upon her finger while the jewel had been neglected, forgotten, and lost.

Now, there is real jewelry here in the Book of Jonah. Let us forget the rather strange casket in which this jewel comes while we examine the treasure. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Ammittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for its wickedness has come up before Me” (1:1, 2).

“The word of the Lord came to Jonah.” There is nothing crude about that statement. There is nothing in that to excite our ridicule. That is one of the blessed and thrilling truths of the ages. To this man Jonah, living some time, somewhere, God spoke. To this man God made known His will and holy purpose.

And God is speaking still. The word of God is coming to men and women today. There is not a single soul listening to me at this moment but what at some time in your life there has come a definite and sure word from God. You have felt the impress of His Spirit on your own spirit. You have felt the touch of His hand on yours. You have seen His finger pointing to the road in which you ought to walk and to the task that He was calling on you to perform.

How this word came to Jonah we do not know, nor do we need to know. We may sense God speaking to us through the consciousness of another’s need, through an impression, or through a study of the Word. Others have sensed God speaking through a “still small voice” (cf 1 Kings 19:12), an audible voice (Genesis 12:1; 13:14), a divine presence (cf 12:7), a vision (cf 15:1), a dream (cf 28:12; 37:5, 9), or prayer and meditation. How the word of the Lord came to Jonah is not the essential thing. The one thing essential and fundamental is this: that the word did come. That is the essential thing in your case and in mine. God does speak to us. God does move on us. God does call us, command us. God does stir us up. “The word of the Lord came to Jonah,” and it comes this very moment to you and to me.

What was it that the Lord said to Jonah? He gave him a strange and unwelcomed command. He said, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for its wickedness has come up before Me” (1:1, 2). It was hard for Jonah to believe that he had heard right. Was it possible that Nineveh was a great city in spite of the fact that it was a heathen city? Was it possible that Nineveh grieved God because of its wickedness? Could it be possible that God loved Nineveh, though it was outside the Covenant? Jonah did not want to believe this, but he had to believe it. He had to realize that …

The love of God is wider than the measure of man’s mind
And the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
~Frederick W Faber (1854)

Jonah did not want to undertake this mission. His objection, however, did not grow out of the fear that Nineveh would refuse to repent. His reluctance was not born of the conviction that there was nothing in the people of Nineveh to which his message would appeal. I know we are often hampered by that conviction. We feel that it is useless to preach to some folk. There is no use trying to christianize Africa or Asia or America. There is no use trying to christianize some of our next-door neighbors. We so often forget that there is in every man an insatiable hunger and an unquenchable thirst that none but God can satisfy.

But to Jonah this call was unwelcomed because he feared that Nineveh might repent. And that he did not want. Jonah believed that God was the God of Israel only. He believed that God blessed Israel in two ways. First, He blessed her by giving her gifts, spiritual and temporal. Second, He blessed her by sending calamities on her enemies. An abundant harvest in Israel was a blessing from the Lord. A famine in Nineveh was also a blessing from the Lord. Jonah was firmly convinced that the prosperity of a nation other than his own meant calamity to Israel.

It is a pity that this selfish belief did not perish with Jonah. But when we face the facts, we know that it did not. It is a human trait to feel that another’s advancement is, in some way, a blow to ourselves. It is equally a human trait to feel that another’s downfall and disgrace, in some way, adds luster to our own crowns. Of course, nothing could be more false; but in spite of this fact we cling to that belief through all the passing centuries.

On the whole this duty, then, that God had put on Jonah was so distasteful that he made up his mind that whatever it might cost him, he would not obey. Therefore, we read that he “rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Ordered to Nineveh, he sets out for Tarshish. There were two cities on his map and only two. There was Nineveh, the city to which he might go in fellowship with God and in the will of God. And there was Tarshish, the city that lay at the end of the rebel’s road, the city whose streets, if ever he walked them at all, he would walk without the fellowship of the God whom he had disobeyed.

And there are two cities on your map: the Nineveh of obedience and the Tarshish of disobedience. You are going to Nineveh or to Tarshish. I do not claim to know where your Nineveh is. It may be a distant city. It may be a city across the seas whose streets you will crimson with the blood of your sacrifice. It may be a city as near to you as the home in which you live, as the child that nestles in your arms. But wherever it is, if you walk its streets, you will walk them in the joy of the divine fellowship.

On the other hand, you may go to Tarshish. Tarshish is the city of “Have-Your-Own-Way.” It is the city of “Do-As-You-Please.” It is the city of “Take-it-Easy.” It is the city with no garden called Gethsemane outside its gates and no rugged hill called Calvary overlooking its walls. It is a city without a cross; and yet, it is a city where people seldom sing and often sob. It is a city where nobody looks joyously into God’s face and calls Him Father.

I met Jonah that day on the wharf. He looked as if he had passed through a terrible spell of sickness. His cheeks were hollow. His eyes were red with sleeplessness. He had a haggard, worn, hounded look about him. “Are you on the way home, Jonah?”

And he shook his head and said, “No. I am going to Tarshish.”

Tarshish was the most faraway place of which the Jew had any conception. “Tarshish!” I say in astonishment. “What are you going to do over at Tarshish?”

“Oh,” he said, “I hadn’t thought about that. I do not know what the future has in store for me. What I am trying to do is to get away from God.”

“And Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”

I wonder why the text did not say “And Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of his duty” instead of “from the presence of the Lord.” The writer of this story had real spiritual insight. He was far clearer in his thinking than many of us. He knew that to flee from duty was to flee from God. Whenever you make up your mind to refuse to go where God wants you to go and to do what God wants you to do, you must make up your mind at the same time to renounce the friendship of God. You cannot walk with Him and, at the same time, rebel against Him. God has no possible way of entering into fellowship with the soul that is disobedient to His will. Believe me, it is useless, it is mere mockery, to say “Lord, Lord” and then refuse to do the things that He commands you to do (Luke 6:46).

Now, when Jonah saw the spaces of water growing wider between him and the shore, a kind of deadly calm came over him. A man with his mind made up to do wrong is far more at rest than the man whose mind is not made up at all. So when Jonah had fully decided that he would rebel against God and give up all claim to God, a dreadful restfulness came to his troubled spirit. He went down into the sides of the ship and fell fast asleep. The days before had been troubled days. The nights had been restless nights. But the battle was over now, though it had been lost, and he was able at last to sleep.

This period marks, I am sure, the period of greatest danger in the life of Jonah. Jonah had been a rebel before, but he had been a restless rebel. He had been disobedient before, but his disobedience had tortured him. It had put strands of gray into his hair and wrinkles on his brow. But now not only was he a rebel, but he was content to be so. Not only was he without God, but he was, in a measure, satisfied to be without Him. No greater danger can come to any man than that. As long as your sin breaks your heart, as long as your disobedience makes you lie awake nights and wet your pillow in tears, there is hope for you. But when you become contented with your wickedness, when you come to believe that it is the best possible for you, then you are in danger indeed.

Now, I am fully convinced that Jonah’s danger is the danger of a great many, both in the church and out of the church. You who are listening to me at this moment are kindly and cultured men and women. You are full of good will toward the church. You love it and desire its prosperity. Yet many of you are doing practically nothing to make its desired prosperity a reality. One of the most discouraging features about the church today is the large number of useless people in its fold. And not only are they useless, but, saddest of all, they are content with their uselessness. It seems they feel that it is God’s best for them; that adherence is all that God expects or has a right to expect.

Did you ever make out your religious program and look at it? What does discipleship cost you? What is involved in your allegiance to the Lord? Coming to church once or twice a month on Sunday mornings and making a small contribution? Only this and nothing more? The Sunday School is not your burden. The prayer meeting is not your burden. Visiting the new members who have recently come into the church and into the Kingdom is not your responsibility. Helping by your presence and by your prayers, to give spiritual fervor to all the services, is not your responsibility. Yours is to make your way up to the doors of the House of Many Mansions, by and by, without ever having made one single costly sacrifice to follow the Lord.

Are you running away from your duty this morning? You know what it is. At least you may know it. This is a needy world. This is a needy church. It has an opportunity to touch the uttermost parts of the earth if it is spiritually alive and spiritually mighty. Are you making your contribution? Are you accepting your responsibility or have you turned your back on it for no other reason than this: that it is too much trouble? If that is true of me and if that is true of you, may the Lord wake us up this morning and give us to see our deadly danger.

So Jonah turned his back on his duty and turned his back on God. He took ship for Tarshish and went to sleep. Surely his situation was critical indeed. But though he had forgotten God, God in His mercy had not forgotten him. God still loved Jonah, still longed for him and still hoped for him. And so, in mercy, He sent a storm after him. That was dangerous cargo that that ship had on board. Better to have gasoline or TNT than a rebellious prophet!

It was in mercy, I say, that the Lord sent the storm after Jonah. Miles Coverdale (1535) translates it, “The Lord hurled a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea.” Let us thank God for the storms that rouse us, that wake us up, that keep us from sleeping our way into the pit. May the Lord send us any kind of storm rather than allow us to fling ourselves eternally away from His presence! I am so glad God will never allow a man to go comfortably and peacefully to eternal death. He never allows any man to be lost until He has done His best to save him.

I read some years ago of a New England farmer who was driving to town on a cold winter’s day. He overtook a woman on the way who was walking and carrying a baby in her arms. He took her up on the seat beside him. The cold became more bitter. He noticed after a while that the woman replied to his questions drowsily. A little later he saw that she was asleep. Ho knew that unless awakened she would sleep the sleep of death.

So he did what at first seemed a cruel thing. He sprang from the wagon, dragged her out into the snow and took the child from her clinging arms. With the child he sprang into the wagon and started his team down the road at a trot. The woman roused herself and began to totter feebly forward. A little later she quickened her pace. At last she broke into a run. And as she caught up with the wagon a little later and the farmer put the baby back into her arms, life had come back to the mother. A temporal loss was a blessing to this woman. Let us thank God for any losses that may come to us that will keep us from sleeping our way to ruin.

So Jonah was down in the sides of the boat asleep. Meanwhile the tempest was raging. Meanwhile the fear-filled crew was rubbing elbows with death. Then a hand was clapped on Jonah’s shoulder, he was being given a vigorous shaking, and a voice was calling to him. Though it was a heathen voice, it was full of rebuke. “What mean you, O sleeper? How is it that you can sleep in the middle of all the agony, all the danger that is about us? When the situation is as it is, how is it that you are not on your knees? Up and call on your God” (cf Jonah 1:6).

I wish through this message that I might take some of you who are sleeping so soundly and peacefully and shake you awake. I wish that God might speak through my voice to my heart and yours and say to us, “What mean you, O sleeper? What do you mean by sitting idly and stupidly in the house of God Sunday after Sunday and never doing anything? What do you mean by having children growing up about you and not being enough interested in their spiritual welfare even to have a family altar? How is it that in the middle of the tremendous issues of moral life and moral death that you can be as complacent and as undisturbed as the dead? Why in the name of all that is reasonable will you continue to lie like huge stones across the mouth of the sepulcher where God is trying to raise some Lazarus from the dead?”

That shake and that message got Jonah awake. He sprang out of his berth and rushed on the deck. And the sight that met him there made a new man out of him. It changed him from a provincial Jew into a world citizen and a missionary. What did he realize as he looked into the pallid faces of those death-threatened men about him? He forgot all about their being heathen. He only remembered that they were one with himself in their common danger and their common need. They were all threatened with death. They all needed somebody to save. And, men and women, that is true still. We folk differ in many respects, but we are all alike in this: We have all sinned (Romans 3:23) and we all need a Savior.

He saw not only that they were one in their needs but that they were also one in their hopes. He realized what we have been so long in realizing, and that is the oneness of the human race (cf Acts 17:26). He came to know, even in that distant day, that since we are one body, one member could not suffer without all members suffering with it (cf Romans 14:7). He faced the fact not only that his own wicked rebellion against God had brought wretchedness on himself, but that it was bringing it on all who sailed with him. No man ever flees from duty without incalculable hurt, not only to himself, but to others as well.

But, thank God, the reverse is also true. If my disobedience hurts, my obedience helps. If my sin carries a curse, my righteousness brings a blessing. Here is another vessel lashed by a tempest. But the preacher on board this time is on good terms with his God. Therefore, he puts one hand into the hand of his Lord and with the other he saves the whole company of two hundred and seventy-six souls that sail with him. “Be of good cheer: for there shall be no loss of any man’s life among you, but of the ship. For there stood by me this night the angel of God, whose I am, and whom I serve, Saying, Fear not, Paul; you must be brought before Caesar: and, lo, God has given you all them who sail with you” (Acts 27:22-24).

How may the sea become calm for us? is the question. Jonah does not offer an easy suggestion. “Cast me overboard” (Jonah 1:12) is the reply. The man who a few days ago despised the heathen is now ready to die for them. That shows that God had made him a new man. I know he backslides a bit later, but he comes out all right in the end.

And, my brethren, God has no other method for stilling seas than that employed by Jonah. When the tempest of this world’s sin was to be stilled, there was no cheaper way than for Christ to allow Himself to be thrown overboard. When Livingstone wanted to still the tempest of Africa, he did not undertake the task from long distance. He allowed himself to be thrown overboard. And that is the price you and I have to pay for real service. “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abides alone; but if it die, it brings forth much fruit” (John 12:24).

So Jonah was cast into the sea. But by losing his life he found it.

A friend of mine told recently of an experience of his in dealing with a British soldier in India. This soldier was seeking salvation. They prayed together. But as they were about to separate, the soldier was not satisfied. He staggered against the wall and prayed after this fashion: “Lord, my sins are many. I am unworthy of Your salvation. I am unworthy of a vision of Your face. But if there is any place that You want some man to die for You, I would count it as a great favor if You would let me be that man.”

“And then suddenly,” said my friend, “the light came into his face and he was conscious of the presence of Christ.”

If you will do this today, stop running from God and turn and walk with Him, you will find that Nineveh is not a city of restlessness and wretchedness. But you will find that it is a city rich in fellowship with God and in the blessed experience of that “peace that passes all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Which way are you going to travel from this hour? Out of that door you will go in a moment facing toward Nineveh or toward Tarshish. Which way will you face? May God grant that every step you take from this hour may be toward Nineveh.

“For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Romans 11:29).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Boisterous wind and wave

*Adapted from Clovis G Chappell [1882-1972], Sermons on Biblical Characters (New York: George H Doran, 1922; Richard R Smith, 1930), sermon 2. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

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