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The Flight of Jonah
"Now the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the son of Amittai" ( Jon 1:1 ).
We are apt to think that this coming of the word of the Lord to men in ancient time was so special a circumstance that it has no application to ourselves. We think of the prophet as a solitary being; we have no doubt that Almighty God did speak to him in some special and peculiar manner; but how rarely it occurs to us that he who spoke to the prophets in times past is now speaking unto us as directly and vividly by the ministry of the Holy Ghost. The Lord comes to us as distinctly as ever he came to the old prophets. How are we to understand that the word of the Lord has come to us? Have we a strong conviction of duty? That is the word of the Lord to our hearts, as distinctly and certainly as if God had opened a door in heaven and spoken to us face to face. Knowest thou what is right? Do it as the word of the Lord. Is your life entirely a life without strong and definite convictions? Then, truly, there is something wrong at the very roots of your being. We ought to have clear persuasions of duty, and in so far as we have them we are in direct communication with the spirit of the universe. What more can we desire than to be persuaded that the thing is right? The question ought not, with sober, earnest men, to be: Is this thing expedient? Are circumstances favourable to the execution of this purpose? The one sovereign question is, with every man whose life is set in the right key, "Is this right?" Yes. Then it is a revelation from God; it is the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the heart; and, at all risks, it must be done.
"Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me" ( Jon 1:2 ).
This same event comes to every man. Do not suppose that Jonah is a lonely creature afar off in the ages somewhere, having an experience unique and incommunicable. The experience of Jonah is the experience of every good man. What is your call in life? To go wherever wickedness is and cry against it. Nineveh has perished, but Ninevitish iniquity is upon our own streets, is throwing its shadow upon our own thresholds, is sending a keen wail of pain and blasphemy through the very air that blows around us! Every child of God is to be a protesting prophet. Every earnest man is to have no difficulty in finding the word of condemnation when he comes into the presence of sin. If we could realise this call all the Lord's people would be prophets. Is it not a burden to speak against wickedness? Where is the man that dare do it? It is easy to condemn wickedness generally. The difficulty is to say to the individual sinner: "Thou art the man." Almost anybody can stand up before a thousand people and speak against iniquity in the mass. But he must be a lion from God that dare say to the individual criminal, "I charge you, in the name of the Living One, with doing things that are wrong." Still it is well that we should have men who stand up in the midst of cities, and who let the cities know that there are eyes upon them that see things in moral relationships and aspects and consequences; and woe betide the cities of the earth when the voice of the prophet is no longer heard in them! It is a harsh voice, it is a piercing cry; but believe it and regeneration comes, and restoration and lost peace returns, and things are set right before the face of God.
"But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord" ( Jon 1:3 ).
Here is a man falling below the great occasions of life. How possible it is to be doing a little peddling work, to be mistaking fuss for energy, and an idle industry for that holy consecration which absorbs every power! A man has great difficulty in recovering himself after a lapse of that kind. There are certain hours in our experience after which all other hours are empty and poor; great critical hours that have the making of manhood in them, the determination of destiny in them; and when they come upon us, if we shrink from them, fall below the occasion, it takes a long, long time to gather one's self up again, and to do anything in life that is really, in the sight of God, worth doing. Do not let us be keeping ourselves in reserve for some stupendous occasion. Let us make every occasion great; let us rise to it, and who can tell what may be done by energy, perseverance, devout reliance upon God, holy, undivided consecration to the dear Cross of God the Son!
"And Jonah found a ship going to Tarshish." Circumstances may be in favour of a man, even when he is doing some bad deed. Observe that. Because some people make circumstances into a kind of Bible, and argue that it is impossible, after all, that they can be so very bad, otherwise circumstances would not have conspired as they have done to further their purposes. "Jonah went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish." As if it were in the very act of putting off; as if it would have gone five minutes before but for a consciousness on the part of the officers that the chief passenger had not yet arrived. It had been waiting there in impatience; people had been wondering why it had not gone out to sea; the man came running down, and as soon as he got on board the vessel went, and he said to himself, "Now I cannot have done far wrong, after all, otherwise this ship would not have been made ready to my hands." So do we misconstrue circumstances, and so foolishly sometimes do we talk about the things which are round about us in life! When a man wants to patch a quilt, in order that he may cover and conceal his iniquity, it is not difficult for him to find the pieces to patch, and the needle and thread with which to put them together. It is difficult sometimes to read circumstances. We do not wonder that the contemporaries of Jesus Christ found it difficult to understand the signs of the times, and very much easier to read the signs of the sky. We are making precisely the same blunders to-day. We set up a foregone conclusion in the mind; we say, "We will do so and so." And having made up our mind to pursue that course, everything round about us takes hue and attitude from the determination of our own mind, and thus we come to have a kind of sovereignty in the region of detail, so that we can turn things pretty much as we please, and then say, "Now, look there." When a man has got wrong at the centre, it is no wonder that he sets up a kind of supernatural wisdom of his own in the inferior region, that he may justify himself to himself; for, unless he be upon good terms with himself, if he consent to his own judgment, there is schism in his life, and no storm you can create outside him makes such a tumult in his soul as his own dissidence from his own soul. Wonderful, therefore, is life; perplexing are the hedgings and surroundings and groupings of life. It is very easy for a man to put circumstances before his own mind in such a light as to mislead him, to gratify his vanity, and to actually constitute a kind of pedestal on which he may stand, that he may the more readily blaspheme his God.
And Jonah paid his fare. How particular some of us are about these little pedantries of morality! We think, when we have defied the Almighty, and run away from his presence, we can go up to the counter like honest men and put down the fare. Many of us are making up by pedantries what we are wanting in the principles of our life. We have good points without having a good soul; we have beautiful characteristics, without having a solid and undoubted character. Jonah has paid his fare? Yes, but he has forsaken God! Can a man like that do anything right? No. You cannot have any rights if you have cut the bond that unites you with the throne of God, with the law of right. When men come to understand these things we shall have less pedantry in our feelings, and we shall not look at one another through the medium of little things and details and petty momentary associations. The question will be, "Art thou right with God?" Yes! Then you cannot be wrong with man. A man can do nothing right if he is wrong with God. What he does that is so-called right, is right relatively only, secondarily only; it has but a limited sphere; it is not set down to the sum total of the worth of his character.
"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" ( Jon 1:4 ).
From the beginning the sea has been the pavement of God, over which he has walked as if on a basement of solid gold. What agents he has! He said to the wind, "Catch them!" They were miles away. No matter. When the wind gets hold of a ship it is very difficult to unloose its fists. Oh, it does get hold! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God! The sea is his, for he made it. Before chart of man was ever written, he made a chart for himself. You cannot escape God. All things do his will. Storm, fire, vapour, frost and morsels of ice, bitter winds, lightning in the air, trouble in the winds, earthquakes, sea storms, they are all servants in his household, and he appoints each its own work. You cannot get away from God. Whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I go up into heaven, it is the very centre of thy dwelling; and if I make my bed in hell thy shadow is over me, to say that my hiding-place has been discovered.
"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" ( Jon 1:5 ).
The bad man never suffers alone. Here is a man causing a loss of property. He paid his fare! Oh, it was poorly earned money! His fare was taken out again. They cast the wares into the sea; they said, "She is too heavy; she must be disburdened; we must throw away whatever we have away it all must go!" The bad man cannot suffer alone; the bad man is the tormentor society; wickedness is the cause of social loss. It is madness for any man to rise up and say, "In doing an evil deed, I am injuring no one but myself. You are injuring everybody. You are causing loss to the universe itself. Yet all the while it appears that Jonah was asleep. There is an innocence that is too innocent. There are some signs of blamelessness which are rather too significant. There is an innocence that excites suspicion; there is a harmlessness that is so very harmless that it brings upon itself keen and just criticism.
"Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship; and he lay, and was fast asleep" ( Jon 1:5 ).
So wickedness may have some alleviation. A man may have such control over himself that he may actually be able to take some of the blessings that do not belong to him. If he commit theft in heaven, what if he commit some lower theft elsewhere? It is no consequence. The second criminality is lost in the stupendous act of felony which he first committed. What a tumult there was! Every man cried out unto his god. So the ship's master came to Jonah and said, "What meanest thou, oh sleeper? Arise, call upon thy God." What a crying out for gods there is in the time of trouble! How self-controlled we are when there is no sorrow at our hearts, and how instinctively a man cries out after the invisible, the divine, the supernatural, when he is in any great agony!
The men knew that Jonah had fled from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them so. All the while they had been looking in the wrong direction for an explanation. That is precisely the mistake we are all making. When anything goes wrong, we say, "The ship must be too heavily laden with goods"; and set to work, tear out all the baggage and throw it into the sea. But the life is leaking out of the heart. What is wrong with you is your heart. This was found out, at last, in the case of Jonah. So they took up the vagabond prophet and cast him into the sea, and the sea ceased from her raging; with a shudder and a sigh she shrugged back and said, "That will do!" Not till then. Nothing is settled until it is settled right. Understand that in all the relationships of life. You may cobble up a thing, but it is not settled. We are not settled in our character, in the sight of God, until we are settled on the basis of righteousness as it is found in Christ Jesus, the Man of the Cross, the Saviour of the world! The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin. No man can be right till he is right with God; and being right with God, everything else will fall into its place, the sea will be at peace, and there will be no storm in his heart.
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Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Jonah 1". Parker's The People's Bible. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany