RPM, Volume 17, Number 24, June 7 to June 13, 2015

Fearing God

Jonah 1:5-16

By D. Marion Clark


What do you fear? Who do you fear? What does it mean to fear? Fear is the word that keeps cropping up in our text this morning. Getting these questions sorted out will help us to understand both this passage and how we ought to regard and worship God.


We left our ship stranded in a mighty tempest on the Mediterranean Sea and threatening to break up. The Lord had hurled a great wind upon the sea in response to Jonah's futile effort at escaping his presence. Let's pick back up the action.

Fearing the Storm

Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, "What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish."

Until we come to verse 5, although there obviously are other characters in the story, this is the first time reference is made to them. We have the mariners and their captain. Two things are noted about them — they are afraid and they are religious.

That they are afraid is another indication of how mighty the storm is. They would have experienced enough storms on the sea not to be frightened by large waves. That they would hurl the cargo over the ship reveals how desperate their plight has become.

But they also cry out to their gods. It is said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Evidently there are none on board of ships being tossed about in storms. They cry out each to his own god. They must come from different nations and places. Remember our observation last week of how gods came with territories. Their prayers were not superficial. They believed in the gods. The captain wakes up Jonah for the purpose of him praying to his god. He certainly would have been no other help on deck. Gods have their limits, and the hope is that someone's god will be able to come through.

Fearing the Cause

But the prayers are not working. The next step is clearly one of pagan superstition. It is the old belief that any bad circumstance is the result of punishment. But what happens demonstrates how the true God will nevertheless use the false presumptions of pagans to meet his purpose.

7 And they said to one another, "Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us." So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah.

This is the nightmare we have all had. We are trying to remain as inconspicuous as possible, and all eyes turn to us. In Jonah's case, not only are the mariners staring at him as they might at someone who is different or has embarrassed himself. They stare at the man who is the cause of their life-threatening storm. The gig is up. Jonah is now put on the spot. The questions come at him rapidly.

8 Then they said to him, "Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?" 9 And he said to them, "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land."

Jonah identifies himself as a Hebrew in answer to their last question, which leads to his next identification. A Hebrew is identified not only by his race but by his God.

"I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." We noted last week that Jonah is ascribing to his God sovereign power. The Creator of sea and dry land is the Ruler of sea and dry land. All the earth is his domain. And unlike a human ruler who may have a domain but cannot control all that takes place in that domain, this Ruler can and does. That is why Jonah cannot flee from his presence. He tried, but to no avail.

Note that Jonah uses the term "fear" the Lord. The NIV translates the Hebrew word as "worship." The term is yare?. It can be translated "worship." Even if it is, the aspect of fear is present in the term, as that is its basic meaning.

To fear God was the common understanding of ancient religions. Gods needed to be pacified. They could be vengeful and unpredictable. But that is not how the Hebrews viewed their God nor was it the tone of their fear. Listen to these few references. We will start with a verse we already recited in our responsive reading.

Teach me your way, O LORD, that I may walk in your truth; unite my heart to fear your name. Ps. 86:11,

For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. Ps. 96:4

He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD. 96.4

Let those who fear the LORD say, "His steadfast love endures forever." 118:4

To fear the Lord is not to be in terror, unless one is under God's judgment. But for those who belong to him, to fear God is to acknowledge God's holiness; it is to acknowledge that God is sovereign; it is to acknowledge that God is not like us but is indeed the Creator of the sea and the dry land. It is to be in awe of God, not in our modern sense of being wowed, but of being unsettled and thrilled at the same time.

Yes, the Hebrew word yare? can be translated worship but to do so in our text misses the contrast that is being made by the writer. The mariners feared (yare?) the storm. Jonah fears the Creator Lord.

If the mariners were afraid before, they are all the more so now.

10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, "What is this that you have done!" For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the LORD, because he had told them.

Don't you love their response to Jonah? What have you done! Here we have the pagan sailors scolding the prophet of God. You fear the Lord of the sea and earth, and that's who you are trying to flee from? Of all the cargo boats in all the world and you have to walk on to ours! Now that they know the cause of the storm, they truly should be exceedingly afraid (the same term yare?).

Fearing the Lord

So what is to be done?

11 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. 12 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."
13 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.

So Jonah is the cause of the storm. What should be done with him? Jonah, to his credit, gives a brave solution. He offers himself as a sacrifice for the lives of the men. But they are not so hasty. If Jonah is the cause of the storm, perhaps they could somehow get him to shore, then they would be allowed to go their own way. Jonah's proposal, however noble it may be, also puts the mariners at risk of offending his God further. After all, we are talking about sending a man to his death, and thus angering the Lord all the more. But their efforts fail, so that they must resort to Jonah's proposal.

14 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." 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows.

The mariners had feared the storm. Then they feared the cause of the storm once they learned what it was — namely, that Jonah had offended his God. They feared the desperate proposal of Jonah and prayed for pardon even as they carried it out. But it is the last verse that depicts the right fear.

When they witnessed the raging sea turned calm, they knew that the Lord God, Yahweh, the God that Jonah testified to, was indeed the Creator of sea and land. And they feared (yare?) him exceedingly. And their fear turned into right worship. They offered a sacrifice to him and made vows, undoubtedly to worship him as Lord. It is not the storm that led them to belief, but the calming of the storm that led them to recognize his true power.


What a great story. What are lessons for us to learn?

1. Again, as last week, we learn that no one can flee from the Lord because the Lord is sovereign. There is no place to run or to sail that is outside his domain. The stirring up the storm, and, even more, the calming the storm demonstrate his sovereign power. God is not a mere onlooker over his domain. Everything is under his control, and he will use whatever he wills to correct our will.

Respect that sovereignty and that power. It will save much fruitless effort. When you read a command in Scripture, follow it. To go against it is only to invite trouble (what we view as trouble) from the Lord. "I don't want to forgive." "I don't want to remain chaste." "I don't want to ….." There are many things I may not want to do. Living the Christian life is not easy, but there is no alternative if the Lord is your God. He will have his way, and as likely as not you will end up facing much more uncomfortable circumstances than if you had bucked up and followed his command.

2. This second lesson can be easily overlooked, which is that our sins impact others. Jonah's reckless behavior put the lives of innocent men in danger. Who knows besides the one ship's mariners what other ships were put in peril? If Jonah had given the least thought to his foolishness, he would have understood the peril, but no, he has one thought only which is about himself. Think about this the next time you are tempted to some folly. "I am only hurting myself" is unlikely to be true.

3. Once the mariners do become involved they teach us a critical lesson. They are a good reminder that those whom we give no thought to or do not believe would ever convert are converted. Jonah was rebelling against a command to go to Nineveh. His sin puts him on board a ship, and men whom he gave no thought to were converted by his rebellion! How's that for evangelism!

Of course, the mariners were not an afterthought by the Lord who uses even the rebellion of his servants to accomplish his will. It is a good reminder to us that whom the Lord wills to convert, he will convert, and he will use whatever means that he chooses. Do not despair for your loved one and others for whom you have prayed. Do not despair over the circumstances they have placed themselves under. God will save those whom he determines to save. And do not dismiss the salvation of anyone. It does not matter their religion, nor their sins; God will save whomever he will.

4. Speaking of religion, the mariners teach us that being religious is not enough; it matters whom we worship. They believed in their gods; they cried out to them. But they did not know the true God. Being religious; being spiritual may feel good and may make one feel close to God, but he does not share the same feelings.

5. The next lesson is the clear message of the text. Do we fear God? Do you grasp the concept of a holy God? Last week, I read the passage in Isaiah where the prophet comes before the presence of God and cries out in fear that he is an unclean man standing before the King, the Lord of hosts. This is what Isaiah saw:

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said:

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!"

4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke (Isaiah 6:1-4).

We likely are not to be granted the same vision like Isaiah, but it is this vision that we need to meditate upon. The Lord is merciful to us, and from the very teaching of Christ we have come to know him as Father. But his character has not changed. He remains the holy God, before whom all the world is to tremble.

As already noted, the Hebrew word yare? can be translated "to worship." Even so, the basic meaning of fear teaches us that worship has the element of fear. This is difficult for us Americans who know only democracy to conceptualize. But for those who lived under kings would understand. We worship a God who is not like us. Our Father in heaven is the Almighty King of heaven and earth. He gives life and takes it away, as he pleases. All that live live for the purpose of serving him alone. And as the holy God he will not abide sin, but will bring justice. Therefore, we are to "offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe" (Hebrews 12:28).

Meditate upon that concept and see how it affects the way you worship. The more you understand, the more thrilling worship becomes, the richer the celebration becomes. It is the difference between enjoying a sight of a city from an enclosed skyscraper and the sight of the earth from the top of a mountain. There is a greater sense of the majesty of the God who has created you and redeemed you.

Yes, fear God, and if you truly fear him, then you will not fear the storms of your life, nor will you fear man.
The angel of the LORD encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
8 Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
9 Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints,
for those who fear him have no lack! (Psalm 34:7-9)

Fear the Lord, and you need fear no one else.

6. There is another story of a boat in peril with the main character asleep during the storm. It was smaller water — the Sea of Galilee — and in a smaller boat. The mariners were Jesus' disciples, experienced sailors in their own right. And, of course, it was Jesus sleeping away. Let's read the story in Luke 8:23-25:
and as they sailed he fell asleep. And a windstorm came down on the lake, and they were filling with water and were in danger. And they went and woke him, saying, "Master, Master, we are perishing!" And he awoke and rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm. He said to them, "Where is your faith?" And they were afraid, and they marveled, saying to one another, "Who then is this, that he commands even winds and water, and they obey him?"

See how much the disciples were like the mariners. First they feared the storm because of its raging. Then they fear Jesus because of his power to calm the storm. The first fear was for their safety; the second fear was the reverential awe of their Master whom they learned was the Master of creation itself.

Jesus calmed the storm by his command; Jonah made it possible for the storm to be calmed by his sacrifice. He offered up himself as a sacrifice so that the mariners might be saved. The day would come when Jesus would offer up himself as a greater sacrifice to save us from a greater storm.

Our Savior was not fleeing from God. He was traveling without hesitation to the destination that God the Father was sending him to carry out the mission he was given:
And as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside, and on the way he said to them, 18 "See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death 19 and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day" (Matthew 20:17-19).

He traveled straight to his destination because our Savior was the true Servant of whom it was said in Isaiah:
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord (11:2).

Our Savior was able to travel through many dangers, toils, and fears because he knew the fear of the Lord. And so we, by his amazing grace, may travel through the same knowing that our Lord's grace will lead us home.

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