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God’s Word for You

Jonah 1:16 They feared a great fear

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Sunday, August 26, 2018

16 Then the men feared the LORD more and more. They offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows to him.

The poet-musician Asaph graced the reigns of both David and Solomon. He lived more than a hundred years before Jonah, but he captured the spirit of this moment when, in the 76th Psalm, he wrote a song about God’s victory in a great, unnamed battle—a battle that could have been the defeat of Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea (“both horse and chariot lie still,” verse 6) or about almost any of David’s or Solomon’s victories—especially over the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (1 Kings 9:20). “The land feared,” Asaph wrote (Psalm 76:8) “and was quiet.” This describes the sort of complete victories that God granted to Solomon in particular. Yet think of these sailors and what happened with Jonah and the storm as you hear Asaph’s words:

    Surely your wrath against men brings you praise,
    and the survivors of your wrath are restrained.
    Make vows to the LORD your God and fulfill them;
    let all the neighboring lands bring gifts
    to the One to be feared.
(Psalm 76:10-11)

The Phoenician sailors were on their own without the prophet. His words had given them the guidance and courage to throw him into the sea, and now with a breath of wind, their voyage continued, and they left Jonah to the waves. They sailed away—they could do nothing to save him. Only God could do that. But their lives were spared, and the prophet saw their actions as the boat’s hull and mast disappeared over the horizon. While he could still see them and hear them, he heard their vows to the LORD. And then he could see the smoke as someone lit a fire on deck and they made sacrifices to the Lord. Was this a sacrifice of some livestock they had kept aboard for food? Was it a fresh catch of fish? Or was it precious flour and salt that was now consigned to the flames in thanks to God for their deliverance? The food of the Greek soldier was probably quite a bit better than the food of the Phoenician sailor. The soldier lived on “barley-meal, olives, a little wine, fish as a relish, meat…on high holidays” (H.D.F. Kitto The Greeks p. 33). The sailors probably had the same as “the usual Attic dinner consisting of two courses, the first a kind of porridge, and the second, a kind of porridge” (ibid). Whatever food they carried, rich or poor, magnificent or miserable, it was all they had, and some of it went up in this sacrifice.

The content of the sacrifice is not important for our purposes. Even the words of their vows are not recorded. But these things were evidence of their faith.

Such faith without continuing contact with the word of God might seem suspect in our minds. How could it be kept up? But certainly, the memory of this voyage would remain with these men. They knew Jonah’s home. Did one of them, or more than one, or all of them, perhaps, return to Joppa, to seek out another prophet of the Lord to teach them more about their faith long after their journey to Tarshish was at an end?

They had a glimpse of God; of the eternal. They knew that there was a heaven, a paradise from which God reigns and rules over the sky, land, and waves (Jonah 1:9). As Phoenicians, they had a typical view of the grimness of the afterlife, where Hades was the resting place of the dead. Homer has Achilles confess the view of the pagan who believes in hell but who doesn’t know his Savior: “I would rather be a slave on earth than a King in Hades.” But now they knew that there was a rescue from Hades. Jonah had revealed to them that God is merciful and that God answers prayer. They had a miracle—the miracle of the ceasing storm—to prove it and fix it in their minds forever. These sailors would never know the name of Jesus or the precise salvation that Jesus won, but they knew the name of the merciful God who is above all other gods, and they had put their faith in him. It was the faith of Abraham. The faith of Isaac. The faith of Jacob. Was their faith not saving faith?

Consider Jonah’s carefully chosen phrase: “They feared God more and more.” Literally, they “feared God with a great fear.” Their fear in an earlier verse brought them to prayer in the name of the LORD. As God said to Malachi: “My name is to be feared among the nations” (Malachi 1:14). Now, the prophet Jonah teaches us, their faithful prayer and their prayerful faith grew more and more. “I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me” (Jeremiah 32:40). “The LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (Psalm 147:11). Was it not saving faith? How could it be anything else? Never doubt God’s compassionate grace.

As the prow of their ship churns up the creaming sea and they follow the path of the whales toward the mouth of the Atlantic, we realize that we will never encounter these sailors against in the pages of the Bible. But I invite you to ponder this: You and I may very well ask them about their faith as we sit at the LORD’s table together in heaven. It will be a better banquet than porridge.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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