Jonah was a prophet of God. He was called by God to go to the city of Nineveh to warn the people that they would be facing destruction if they did not turn from their evil ways. Instead of obeying God's call, Jonah decided to flee from God. He boarded a ship headed in the opposite direction from Nineveh.
Then the LORD sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.
But Jonah had gone below deck, where he lay down and fell into a deep sleep. The captain went to him and said, "How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god! Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish."
Jonah 1:4-6 (New International Version)
Have you ever received a reminder from God that He is in power? Sometimes we need a wake up call to shake us into reality. There are times when we are set on cruise control and headed in the wrong direction. What does it take to open our eyes to the truth of what we are doing in our lives when we are on the wrong course--a catastrophe? The voice of someone else? Or a voice from within us? Jonah is about to experience all of these.
God has often demonstrated His might through storms and other powerful forces. As much as humans like to think they are in control of their lives, God is able to show them how little they do control when they resist Him. God sent a terrible storm to pursue the fleeing Jonah, who had been sent to save the pagan people of Nineveh and ironically in his flight imperiled the pagan sailors in the ship he had boarded. The sailors were mix of men who worshipped various gods. Terrified, these sailors began to pray to their various gods for mercy. Their pleas for help were futile.
These experienced sailors knew they were in trouble and were facing death. They began throwing their cargo overboard. Transporting this cargo to their destination was their livelihood and this would have been something they would have done only in the most dire circumstances to make the ship lighter and help it stay afloat better. We saw a similar situation in the Book of Acts when Paul had been taken prisoner and was being transported on a ship that encountered a violent storm:
We took such a violent battering from the storm that the next day they began to throw the cargo overboard. On the third day, they threw the ship's tackle overboard with their own hands.
Acts 27:18-19 (NIV)
The sailors on the ship Jonah was traveling on were willing to try anything to save themselves. If it meant losing money then so be it. The men valued their lives and they were putting up a fierce battle to save themselves. In the meantime, Jonah was below decks in a deep sleep.
It is interesting how the Book of Jonah doesn't reveal all of the facts to the reader at the outset and we find out vital bits of information as we read further along. What happens next is most likely one of those instances. We see that the ship's captain goes to wake Jonah up. Since the captain would be responsible for the safety of the passengers we might conclude that he is making sure that Jonah is safe. Then again we might think that the captain just wants all hands on deck to help jettison the cargo. However, verse six tells us that the captain specifically commands Jonah to pray to his god to save them.
We will learn later that Jonah has told his story to the crew members. Everyone on board the ship undoubtedly knows about Jonah's flight from God. They know that Jonah is a Hebrew. The God of Moses and the Jews has a notable reputation in history by this time. The other "gods" aren't doing anything to help so that captain probably is ready to see if this great god of the Hebrews is the one who can calm the storm.
Jonah was already called by God to save the pagan peoples of Nineveh. Now Jonah was being called upon by a pagan captain of a boatload of other pagans to save them. This captain was probably fearful for his own life but he was also showing the kind of compassion for his crew that Jonah should have had for the people of Nineveh.
There are many storms all around us in our lives today. There is turmoil, sin, and people who need to be helped and ultimately saved. Are you in a deep sleep under the decks of the ship? Are you are aware of those who could use your prayers? If the captain comes knocking at your door will you wake up to help save the crew?
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.
Psalm 107:28 (NIV)