By Tyson Thorne

May 16, 2018

Sovereignty large

The principle is as true of mystery novels as it is to the study of Scripture, that while reading it is important to look for what doesn't fit. In a murder mystery, it might be catching a character in a lie or witnessing someone where they shouldn't be that leads you to identify the culprit. In Scripture, finding what doesn't fit might be your key to gaining a greater understanding or sense of the story. Sometimes that greater understanding is that would have been readily apparent to the original readers and you have uncovered a cultural barrier, other times it may be translation issue, or a historical implication.

Such is the case in Jonah chapter one. We've witnessed Jonah receive his third calling by the Lord (the first was to ordain the new King of Israel, his second to denounce that kings successor), a mission to which Jonah is opposed. Instead of faithful obedience, Jonah demonstrates defiance and steps aboard a ship to flee the land of Israel and Israel's God. The Lord almighty, however, isn't one to be denied and so he causes a storm that threatens the ship and all the lives on board. All this is well known and well established already, but as we look at the reaction of the sailors we find clues as to the broader story being told.

In Jonah's time, deities were exclusive to certain lands. When one crossed a boarder on a map, that person was entering not only a different country but the jurisdiction of another god. The pagan gods were very territorial and thought to bless the inhabitants of the land and curse invaders. Then there are the areas that no one had claimed for country or for their god, a sort of godless no-mans-land. This is where we find Jonah, in the middle of a sea where no empire or god ruled. For this reason, when the storm first moves against the waters, the terrified sailors begin to pray, each to their own god. They were hoping at least one of their gods might intercede for them, or better yet, that all their gods might work together in a sort of international rescue operation. When their prayers failed they cast lots to find who was to blame, and they fell to Jonah.

They then asked a series of questions to the prophet, “Tell us, whose fault is it that this disaster has overtaken us? What’s your occupation? Where do you come from? What’s your country? And who are your people?” Five questions in all, yet Jonah only answers one: "I am a Hebrew," he said. And that is what doesn't fit. How is it that identifying oneself as a Hebrew is the only relevant answer? Because only the God of the Hebrews works his will across all territories, disrespecting local gods and seizing every unclaimed patch of land and sea. Everyone knew the Hebrew God, the one who conquered the gods of the Egyptians and brought his children out of that great nation. He was the same God who gave the people victory over every nation and tribe in the promised land. This is the God that conquered the earlier Philistines (known in secular texts as the Minoans) and the later Philistines whose statue of Marduk was found in his own temple fallen prostrate before the ark of the covenant. This is what prompted the sailors to affirm, "Oh, please, Lord, don’t let us die on account of this man! Don’t hold us guilty of shedding innocent blood. After all, you, Lord, have done just as you pleased.”

The Jewish Tanakh has a simpler and more direct reading of that last bit from verse 14 which may be preferred, "O Lord, as You wish, You have done." Even the pagans understood that Elohim was sovereign over all. This isn't the first indication of this truth in the account of Jonah — only the most dramatic — and it wont be the last either. This first bit of Biblical theology is woven throughout. We see God's sovereignty demonstrated in verse two, where he has the authority to send Jonah where he wills. We see it again in verse four, when God commands a storm to arise against the ship and once more (for emphasis, I imagine) when the sea calms after they throw Jonah overboard, and finally when God commands a great fish to swallow Jonah whole. Four indications of God's authority over all things in 17 verses — and it doesn't end there. The other demonstration of this Biblical theology are as follows:

  • 2.1: Jonah does the one thing he has been avoiding, he prays to God revealing his acquiescence to God's rule.
  • 2.10: God commands the fish once more, this time to spit Jonah up onto a beach.
  • 3.1: God again commands Jonah to take his message to Nineveh.
  • 3.5: The people of Nineveh repent to God.
  • 3.6: The king of Nineveh repents before God.
  • 4.6: God causes a plant to grow, supernaturally fast.
  • 4.7: God commands a worm to attack the plant and kill it.
  • 4.8: God commands a heated wind from the east to discomfort Jonah.
  • 4.10-11: God tells Jonah of his sovereign concern for even Gentile nations.

Clearly, at the time of Jonah the Israelites had a solid understanding of sovereignty. God rules over land and sea, creatures from the water and from the earth, and includes the hearts of men and even vegetation. Through the work of the Messiah more than a thousand years later, this theology will be expanded. Jesus will fulfill this authority structure over all spiritual realms, the church, and even death so that, "...God put all things under Christ’s feet, and he gave him to the church as head over all things" (Ephesians 1.22). Clearly, the established theology of Jonah's day was completely true, but not the complete truth. We see in the New Testament writings of Paul how it's ultimate and fullest expression is in Jesus Christ.

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