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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 4–10
Verses 4–10

When Jonah was set on ship-board, and under sail for Tarshish, he thought himself safe enough; but here we find him pursued and overtaken, discovered and convicted as a deserter from God, as one that had run his colours.

I. God sends a pursuer after him, a mighty tempest in the sea, Jonah 1:4. God has the winds in his treasure (Ps. 135:7), and out of these treasures God sent forth, he cast forth (so the word is), with force and violence, a great wind into the sea; even stormy winds fulfil his word, and are often the messengers of his wrath; he gathers the winds in his fist (Prov. 30:4), where he holds them, and whence he squeezes them when he pleases; for though, as to us, the wind blows where it listeth, yet not as to God, but where he directs. The effect of this wind as a mighty tempest; for when the winds rise the waves rise. Note, Sin brings storms and tempests into the soul, into the family, into churches and nations; it is a disquieting disturbing thing. The tempest prevailed to such a degree that the ship was likely to be broken; the mariners expected no other; that ship (so some read it), that and no other. Other ships were upon the same sea at the same time, yet, it should seem, that ship in which Jonah was was tossed more than any other and was more in danger. This wind was sent after Jonah, to fetch him back again to God and to his duty; and it is a great mercy to be reclaimed and called home when we go astray, though it be by a tempest.

II. The ship’s crew were alarmed by this mighty tempest, but Jonah only, the person concerned, was unconcerned, Jonah 1:5. The mariners were affected with their danger, though it was not with them that God has this controversy. 1. They were afraid; though, their business leading them to be very much conversant with dangers of this kind, they used to make light of them, yet now the oldest and stoutest of them began to tremble, being apprehensive that there was something more than ordinary in this tempest, so suddenly did it rise, so strongly did it rage. Note, God can strike a terror upon the most daring, and make even great men and chief captains call for shelter from rocks and mountains. 2. They cried every man unto his god; this was the effect of their fear. Many will not be brought to prayer till they are frightened to it; he that would learn to pray, let him go to sea. Lord, in trouble they have visited thee. Every man of them prayed; they were not some praying and others reviling, but every man engaged; as the danger was general, so was the address to heaven; there was not one praying for them all, but every one for himself. They cried every man to his god, the god of his country or city, or his own tutelar deity; it is a testimony against atheism that every man had a god, and had the belief of a God; but it is an instance of the folly of paganism that they had gods many, every man the god he had a fancy for, whereas there can be but one God, there needs to be no more. But, though they had lost that dictate of the light of nature that there is but one God, they still were governed by that direction of the law of nature that God is to be prayed to (Should not a people seek under their God? Isa. 8:19), and that he is especially to be prayed to when we are in distress and danger. Call upon me in the time of trouble. Isa. any afflicted? Isa. any frightened? Let him pray. 3. Their prayers for deliverance were seconded with endeavours, and, having called upon their gods to help them, they did what they could to help themselves; for that is the rule, Help thyself and God will help thee. They cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it of them, as Paul’s mariners in a like case cast forth even the tackling of the ship, and the wheat, Acts 27:18, 19, 38. They were making a trading voyage, as it should seem, and were laden with many goods and much merchandise, by which they hoped to get gain; but now they are content to suffer loss by throwing them overboard. to save their lives. See how powerful the natural love of life is. Skin for skin, and all that a man has, will he give for it. And shall we not put a like value upon the spiritual life, the life of the soul, reckoning that the gain of all the world cannot countervail the loss of the soul? See the vanity of worldly wealth, and the uncertainty of its continuance with us. Riches make themselves wings and fly away; nay, and the case may be such that we may be under a necessity of making wings for them, and driving them away, as here, when they could not be kept for the owners thereof but to their hurt, so that they themselves are glad to be rid of them, and sink that which otherwise would sink them, though they have no prospect of ever recovering it. Oh that men would be thus wise for their souls, and would be willing to part with that wealth, pleasure, and honour which they cannot keep without making shipwreck of faith and a good conscience and ruining their souls for ever! Those that thus quit their temporal interests for the securing of their spiritual welfare will be unspeakable gainers at last; for what they lose upon those terms they shall find again to life eternal. But where is Jonah all this while? One would have expected gone down into his cabin, nay, into the hold, between the sides of the ship, and there he lies, and is fast asleep; neither the noise without, for the sense of guilt within, awoke him. Perhaps for some time before he had avoiding sleeping, for fear of God’s speaking to him again in a dream; and now that he imagined himself out of the reach of that danger, he slept so much the more soundly. Note, Sin is of a stupifying nature, and we are concerned to take heed lest at any time our hearts be hardened by the deceitfulness of it. It is the policy of Satan, when by his temptations he has drawn men from God and their duty, to rock them asleep in carnal security, that they may not be sensible of their misery and danger. It concerns us all to watch therefore.

III. The master of the ship called Jonah up to his prayers, Jonah 1:6. The ship-master came to him, and bade him for shame get up, both to pray for life and to prepare for death; he gave him, 1. A just and necessary chiding: What meanest thou, O sleeper? Here we commend the ship-master, who gave him this reproof; for, though he was a stranger to him, he was, for the present, as one of his family; and whoever has a precious soul we must help, as we can, to save it from death. We pity Jonah, who needed this reproof; as a prophet of the Lord, if he had been in his place, he might have been reproving the king of Nineveh, but, being out of the way of his duty, he does himself lie open to the reproofs of a sorry ship-master. See how men by their sin and folly diminish themselves and make themselves mean. Yet we must admire God’s goodness in sending him this seasonable reproof, for it was the first step towards his recovery, as the crowing of the cock was to Peter. Note, Those that sleep in a storm may well be asked what they mean. 2. A pertinent word of advice: “Arise, call upon thy God; we are here crying every man to his god, why dost not thou get up and cry to thine? Art not thou equally concerned with the rest both in the danger dreaded and in the deliverance desired?” Note, The devotions of others should quicken ours; and those who hope to share in a common mercy ought in all reason to contribute their quota towards the prayers and supplications that are made for it. In times of public distress, if we have any interest at the throne of grace, we ought to improve it for the public good. And the servants of God themselves have sometimes need to be called and stirred up to this part of their duty. 3. A good reason for this advice: If so be that God will think upon us, that we perish not. It should seem, the many gods they called upon were considered by them only as mediators between them and the supreme God, and intercessors for them with him; for the ship-master speaks of one God still, from whom he expected relief. To engage prayer, he suggested that the danger was very great and imminent: “We are all likely to perish; there is but a step between us and death, and that just ready to be stepped.” Yet he suggested that there was some hope remaining that their destruction might be prevented and they might not perish. While there is still life there is hope, and while there is hope there is room for prayer. He suggested also that it was God only that could effect their deliverance, and it must come from his power and his pity. “If he think upon us, and act for us, we may yet be saved.” And therefore to him we must look, and in him we must put our trust, when the danger is ever so imminent.

IV. Jonah is found out to be the cause of the storm.

1. The mariners observed so much peculiar and uncommon either in the storm itself or in their own distress by it that they concluded it was a messenger of divine justice sent to arrest some one of those that were in that ship, as having been guilty of some enormous crime, judging as the barbarous people (Acts 28:4), “no doubt one of us is a murderer, or guilty of sacrilege, or perjury, or the like, who is thus pursued by the vengeance of the sea, and it is for his sake that we all suffer.” Even the light of nature teaches that in extraordinary judgments the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against some extraordinary sins and sinners. Whatever evil is upon us at any time we must conclude there is a cause for it; there is evil done by us, or else this evil would not be upon us; there is a ground for God’s controversy.

2. They determined to refer it to the lot which of them was the criminal that had occasioned this storm: Let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause the evil is upon us. None of them suspected himself, or said, Isa. it I, Lord; is it I? But they suspected one another, and would find out the man. Note, It is a desirable thing, when any evil is upon us, to know for what cause it is upon us, that what is amiss may be amended, and, the grievance being redressed, the grief may be removed. In order to this we must look up to heaven, and pray, Lord, show me wherefore thou contendest with me; that which I see not teach thou me. These mariners desired to know the person that was the dead weight in their ship, the accursed thing, that that one man might die for the people and that the whole ship might not be lost; this was not only expedient, but highly just. In order to this they cast lots, by which they appealed to the judgment of God, to whom all hearts are open, and from whom no secret is hid, agreeing to acquiesce in his discovery and determination, and to take that for true which the lot spoke; for they knew by the light of nature, what the scripture tells us, that the lot is cast into the lap, but the whole disposal thereof is of the Lord. Even the heathen looked upon the casting of lots to be a sacred thing, to be done with seriousness and solemnity, and not to be made a sport of. It is a shame for Christians if they have not a like reverence for an appeal to Providence.

3. The lot fell upon Jonah, who could have saved them this trouble if he would but have told them what his own conscience told him, Thou are the man; but as is usual with criminals, he never confesses till he finds he cannot help it, till the lot falls upon him. We may suppose there were those in the ship who, upon other accounts, were greater sinners than Jonah, and yet he is the man that the tempest pursues and that the lot pitches upon; for it is his own child, his own servant, that the parent, that the master, corrects, if they do amiss; others that offend he leaves to the law. The storm is sent after Jonah, because God has work for him to do, and it is sent to fetch him back to it. Note, God has many ways of bringing to light concealed sins and sinners, and making manifest that folly which was thought to be hidden from the eyes of all living. God’s right hand will find out all his servants that desert him, as well as all his enemies that have designs against him; yea, though they flee to the uttermost parts of the sea, or go down to the sides of the ship.

4. Jonah is hereupon brought under examination before the master and mariners. He was a stranger; none of them could say that they knew the prisoner, or had any thing to lay to his charge, and therefore they must extort a confession from him and judge him out of his own mouth; and for this there needed no rack, the shipwreck they were in danger of was sufficient to frighten him, so as to make him tell the truth. Though it was discovered by the lot that he was the person for whose sake they were thus damaged and exposed, yet they did not fly outrageously upon him, as one would fear they might have done, but calmly and mildly enquired into his case. There is a compassion due to offenders when they are discovered and convicted. They give him no hard words, but, “Tell us, we pray thee, what is the matter?” Two things they enquire of him:—(1.) Whether he would himself own that he was the person for whose sake the storm was sent, as the lot had intimated: “Tell us for whose cause this evil is upon us; is it indeed for thy cause, and, if so, for what cause? What is this offence for which thou art thus prosecuted?” Perhaps the gravity and decency of Jonah’s aspect and behaviour made them suspect that the lot had missed its man, had missed its mark, and therefore they would not trust it, unless he would himself own his guilt; they therefore begged of him that he would satisfy them in this matter. Note, Those that would find out the cause of their troubles must not only begin, but pursue the enquiry, must descend to particulars and accomplish a diligent search. (2.) What his character was, both as to his calling and as to his country. [1.] They enquire concerning his calling: What is thy occupation? This was a proper question to be put to a vagrant. Perhaps they suspected his calling to be such as might bring this trouble upon them: “Art thou a diviner, a sorcerer, a student in the black art? Hast thou been conjuring for this wind? Or what business are thou now going on? It is like Balaam’s, to curse any of God’s people, and is this wind send to stop thee?” [2.] They enquire concerning his country. One asked, Whence comest thou? Another, not having patience to stay for an answer to that, asked, What is thy country? A third to the same purport, “Of what people art thou? Art thou of the Chaldeans,” that were noted for divination, “or of the Arabians,” that were noted for stealing? They wished to know of what country he was, that, knowing who was the god of his country, they might guess whether he was one that could do them any kindness in this storm.

5. In answer to these interrogatories Jonah makes a full discovery. (1.) Did they enquire concerning his country? He tells them he is a Hebrew (Jonah 1:9), not only of the nation of Israel, but of their religion, which they received from their fathers. He is a Hebrew, and therefore is the more ashamed to own that he is a criminal; for the sins of Hebrews, that make such a profession of religion and enjoy such privileges, are greater than the sins of others, and more exceedingly sinful. (2.) Did they enquire concerning his calling—What is thy occupation? In answer to that he gives an account of his religion, for that was his calling, that was his occupation, that was it that he made a business of: “I fear the Lord Jehovah; that is the God I worship, the God I pray to, even the God of heaven, the sovereign Lord of all, that has made the sea and the dry land and has command of both.” Not the god of one particular country, which they enquired after, and such as the gods were that they had been every man calling upon, but the God of the whole earth, who, having made both the sea and the dry land, makes what work he pleases in both and makes what use he pleases of both. This he mentions, not only as condemning himself for his folly, in fleeing from the presence of this God, but as designing to bring these mariners from the worship and service of their many gods to the knowledge and obedience of the one only living and true God. When we are among those that are strangers to us we should do what we can to bring them acquainted with God, by being ready upon all occasions to own our relation to him and our reverence for him. (3.) Did they enquire concerning his crime, for which he is now persecuted? He owns that he fled from the presence of the Lord, that he was here running away from his duty, and the storm was sent to fetch him back. We have reason to think that he told them this with sorrow and shame, justifying God and condemning himself and intimating to the mariners what a great God Jehovah is, who could send such a messenger as this tempest was after a runagate servant.

6. We are told what impression this made upon the mariners: The men were exceedingly afraid, and justly, for they perceived, (1.) That God was angry, even that God that made the sea and the dry land. This tempest comes from the hand of an offended justice, and therefore they have reason to fear it will go hard with them. Judgments inflicted for some particular sin have a peculiar weight and terror in them. 5c92 (2.) That God was angry with one that feared and worshipped him, only for once running from his work in particular instance; this made them afraid for themselves. “If a prophet of the Lord be thus severely punished for one offence, what will become of us that have been guilty of so many, and great, and heinous offences?” If the righteous be thus scarcely saved, and for a single act of disobedience thus closely pursued, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear? 1 Pet. 4:17, 18. They said to him, “Why hast thou done this? If thou fearest the God that made the sea and the dry land, why wast thou such a fool as to think thou couldst flee from his presence? What an absurd unaccountable thing is it!” Thus he was reproved, as Abraham by Abimelech (Gen. 20:16); for if the professors of religion do a wrong thing they must expect to hear of it from those that make no such profession. “Why hast thou done this to us?” (so it may be taken) “Why has thou involved us in the prosecution?” Note, Those that commit a willful sin know not how far the mischievous consequences of it may reach, nor what mischief may be done by it.