Sunday, July 17, 2022

Sunday Sermon: "The Sovereign Compassion of God" (Jonah 1:11-16)

SERMON:The Sovereign Compassion of God

SCRIPTURE: Jonah 1:11–16

You’ll remember from our previous studies that God had ordered Jonah to preach for the salvation of the savage people in Nineveh, but Jonah decided to abandon God rather than accept the job. Jonah’s experience has shown the futility of running from God. But as the story unfolds and Jonah falls under judgment, the irony of his rebellion is revealed through the actions of the pagan mariners on board Jonah’s ship.

Terrified by the great storm God had hurled at their ship because of Jonah, the sailors first prayed to their own false gods. Then they cast lots to identify the sinner responsible for the divine wrath. When the lot fell on Jonah, they began quizzing him. What is your occupation? Where do you come from? What is your country?  Jonah confessed, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jonah 1:9).

This was a pretty good confession by Jonah. Perhaps the preacher just couldn’t help himself, but has Jonah repented fully at this point? No, not yet. We will see the true, full repentance in chapter 2, but first we consider…


I say “dilemma” because for the sailors the storm is raging and now, they have a spiritual crisis on their hands that they are spiritually unequipped to meet, so no wonder in verse 10 it says the men became extremely frightened. They were already petrified and this just took it to another new higher level of fear. The sailors were “exceedingly afraid” when they realized that Jonah was rebelling against such a great God. 

They understand that in the midst of this supernatural storm, now they're dealing with the real God, the God who made the sea. He is proving that he's sovereign over the sea by the strength of this storm the likes of which we have never seen before and what do you do? What do you do at a time like that? They cry out to Jonah: "How could you do this?" And their understanding is brought to bear and they, at that moment, were spiritually unequipped to deal with it there in verse 10. 

You know, beloved, I can't help but think, that if a supernatural storm on the sea provokes this kind of heart-wrenching terror to experienced sailors in their element, what's it going to be like for sinners when the day of God's wrath comes and they are overcome by a supernatural intervention of God's judgment that they don't understand and they have no resources with which to respond? 

Friends, this is why it is so imperative for us to teach the word of God, to preach the word of God, to proclaim Christ every opportunity we get because that is the only protection, that is the only off-ramp from this freeway that is leading people to judgment on the Day of the Lord. And the fear of that moment will be profound. 

So in verse 11, they don't know what to do so they ask Jonah. Look at verse 11. 

“What should we do to you that the sea may become quiet for us?” (Jonah 1:11). 

Somehow this storm is even getting worse and they say, "Well, what do we do, then? We have no idea what to do to satisfy your God." And Jonah says something that would have shocked the sailors. Look at verse 12, 

“So he said to them, “Lift me up and hurl me into the sea. Then the sea will become quiet for you, for I know that on account of me this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:12).

What then happened was remarkable because of the nobility of the sailor’s conduct. Jonah was a perfect stranger to these sailors. No ties of friendship, or kin, or country was shared between them. The only thing Jonah had ever done for them was bring them into trouble. So, one could excuse them if they simply tossed him overboard, especially since Jonah himself had suggested this solution.

But instead, the sailors were motivated by the sanctity of Jonah’s life, and perhaps by fear of the divine consequences of needlessly shedding blood. So instead of tossing Jonah overboard, “However, the men rowed desperately to return to dry land, but they could not, for the sea was becoming increasingly stormy against them.” (Jonah 1:13). 

The Hebrew text indicates that the sailors “dug into” the waves, in other words, the rowed hard to try and get Jonah safely to ashore. They realized that their safety required his removal, but they exerted themselves to the utmost to spare his life and to remove him to shore. Whether their respect arose from his special status as a prophet or merely from his general standing as a human being, the fear of the Lord is manifested in their conduct. These men show us that just as a disregard for God always shows forth in cruelty toward man, the fear of the Lord invariably produces both justice and mercy.

What a reproach this was to Jonah! After all, the reason he was on the ship was his hardness of heart toward Gentiles. Palmer Robertson comments: 

“He, the believer, closes his heart toward the massive metropolis of Nineveh. Although his people had experienced the grace of God for generations, he closes his heart to another people. But in dramatic contrast these coarse sailors do everything they can to spare the life of Jonah, even after he has caused the loss of all their cargo, and now may cause their loss of life.”

But notice, apparently, God did not cooperate with the merciful sailors. No matter how hard they rowed, they could not overcome the increasingly raging seas. Evidently it was God’s will for Jonah’s punishment to continue, so nothing the sailors could do succeeded in sparing his life. 

“Therefore they called out to the Lord, ‘O Lord, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.’ So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging” (Jonah 1:14–15).

You see, these sailors knew that what they were about to do was profoundly serious. In any other circumstance, this would be murder for them to throw someone overboard to drown, from their perspective. But the circumstances had forced their hand. The lot had pointed to Jonah. Jonah, a prophet of God himself, told them, "This is what you must do." So they take a step of faith. They exercise faith in the word that they had heard, that this is the true God to whom we are praying. We're about to do what the true God has spoken for us to do through the prophet. Here, too, we see the impact of Jonah’s unconscious witness on the sailors. 

How do we account for the nobility of these men who did not know the Lord? The answer is found in God’s common grace. God’s Common grace is at work in the world even apart from the realm of salvation. God instills virtue in unbelieving kings and inspires a reverence for life among even the unbelievers. God provides this common grace for the sake of the gospel, so that the world might continue and His church be preserved in the midst of a wicked world, and also to preserve the world for the sake of those who yet will be saved.

But the sailors also display an awareness of what is called natural law. It is doubtful that they had ever read the Ten Commandments, with God’s mandate that “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13). Yet they still knew it is wrong to take human life needlessly. 

Both common grace and natural law are still in evidence today. Sometimes the virtue of unbelievers can even embarrass the people of God who possess saving grace and know the written law of God. 

We think, for instance, of the heroism on 9/11 by which the New York City firefighters gave their lives trying to save others in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Many of them were probably not believers in Christ, yet their valor exceeded that of many believers, that indeed of most all people! Whenever God’s people witness such virtue in unbelievers, we should feel challenged to respond to God’s saving grace by becoming the men and women the Lord desires us to be.


A question arises at this point for which there a little bit of disagreement. The question is whether or not the sailors are converted. Were they operating strictly out of common grace, or at some point did they come to a true and saving knowledge of the Lord?

I think there is ample evidence to believe that these mariners were truly converted through their experience with Jonah’s God. This is the view held by a number of very faithful expositors of scripture as well, so let me share what I think is the is the evidence for their conversion:

First, I am influenced by the way such a conversion fits in the overall narrative of Jonah. The prophet had feared that his preaching in Nineveh would lead pagans to find mercy in God’s grace. It follows that God should teach him a lesson in the conversion of the pagan sailors. Moreover, the sailor’s conversion should be considered no more implausible than that of anyone else’s conversion. It took no more grace for them to be saved than it takes for any Christian to be saved.

In addition, the language of the mariners’ prayer suggests they realize their pagan gods and idols were as nothing in the face of the One True God, and they became true and faithful God fearers.

Another proof of this is actually a phrase the sailors pray in verse 14: “you, O Lord, have done as it pleased you.” This scriptural phrase actually corresponds to three other Old Testament texts that make a similar statement (Pss. 115:3; 135:6; Isa. 46:10). In each of the other cases the context features the rejection of false gods, so it is reasonable to take it with this meaning here as well.

Furthermore, we read that the sailors “offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows” (Jonah 1:16). They called on God’s covenant name, Yahweh, and while they did not know the proper procedures for the Levitical sacrifices like in Jerusalem, they seem to have understood their need for some offering of atonement for sin. The taking of vows is probably to be understood as a confession of covenant faithfulness.

And let’s just use common sense for a moment – why would the sailors convert? Well, the sailors had experienced an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime divine encounter – they had seen God’s power on display! In this way, God had sent the storm not only to awaken his wayward prophet, but also to provide the pagans a display of his saving power. Who knows but that these Tarshish-bound mariners were the seeds for the later and wider knowledge of God in Spain. We remember the apostle Paul’s fervent desire to preach the gospel in Spain; perhaps God was preparing the ground hundreds of years before through these sailors? 

What lessons should we learn from this conversion? One lesson is not to be intimidated by the world’s unbelief. The same God “who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9) and converted the pagan sailors is able to win converts through our witness to anyone. We should also learn that God will save whomever he desires, whether we are faithful and obedient or not. Jonah’s willingness to witness to the Gentiles did not determine God’s will for their salvation; all it determined was whether or not Jonah would be blessed by it. As it was, Jonah went beneath the waves without witnessing the mariners’ sacrifice or hearing their vows. 

Dear friends, I want us to learn from this! What God is going to do, He will do.… But notice, God can do this through the obedience of his children, as he does later with Nineveh through Jonah, in which case God’s people will share in the blessing. 

Or God can do what He wills to do through his children’s disobedience, as here with Jonah, in which case the believer will miss the blessing. 

Either way, God is sovereign. And He will get what He has decreed. 

Which will it be in your case? Will you resist him? Will you refuse his Great Commission? Or will you obey him in this and in all matters? You see, many of us have been called by God, but not everyone has fully surrendered, fully accepted, and fully obeyed God’s holy call. Maybe you have been unwilling …

….to change your situation to serve the Lord more faithfully because it will require too much of you.

….Maybe you have been unwilling to turn away from your comfortable lifestyle or the bright lights and pleasures of this world to do what God is calling you to do.

…Maybe you need to deny yourself right now in some costly way and sacrifice to serve the Lord more faithfully?

In what way are you rebelling against the Lord right now? And what will you do to be more faithful because of this sermon?


Well, the sailors were praying. "God, we are in a most desperate situation here. We're about to do something that in any other case would bring us guilt. But God, in dependence on you, we appeal to mercy as we do this. Don't judge us for what we're about to do. Have mercy on us. Don't judge us too because of what we're about to do. We know this man is before you. We take him at his word." And in verse 15 after they had prayed thus, 

15 So they picked up Jonah, [hurled him, same verb] hurled him into the sea, and the sea stopped its raging. 

They went in an instant from a supernatural storm to a supernatural still. From a raging tempest to a sea of glass and God who sovereignly brought the storm, sovereignly brought the calm. God hurls a storm and the sea starts to shake. The sailors hurl Jonah into the sea and the storm stops. And then there is the great result:

16 Then the men feared the LORD greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made vows. 

Look at your text there and it says that the men feared the LORD and offered a sacrifice to the LORD - all caps signifying the Hebrew name Yahweh, the proper name for God. Not the generic name for God but his personal and proper name by which Israel worshiped him, and this is a great contrast as you look at verse 14, 

14 ... Then they called on Yahweh and said, “Ah! O Yahweh, we earnestly pray, do not let us perish on account of this man’s life, and do not put innocent blood on us; for You, O Yahweh, as You have pleased You have done." 

Three times in that one verse, three times in that prayer calling on the unique name of the God of Israel. 

In sovereign compassion, God saved them to the uttermost and, beloved, here's what I want you to see and pastorally this is why I make such a big point of this. What I want you to see here today, my Christian brother, my Christian sister, is that it is that same kind of particular, kind compassion that God showed to you to save your soul. 

We don't have any kings in here. We don't have any princes. We don't have any people in here of stature, and yet God reached down into your life and showed you mercy in Christ, showed mercy to you in your darkness, showed mercy to me in my darkness. 


Such mercy from the hands of a holy God. Here we were ignorant, rebellious and lost, people of no account to the world, and here we are today in Christ. Such mercy. Such compassion. Such sovereign love bestowed upon us. 

Is that mercy yours in Christ? Have you received Christ by faith? Have you made your faith know in baptism yet, for the remission of your sins? The God who saves the sailors like this offers Christ to you right here, right now. 

In the words of Scripture, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent because he has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness through a man whom he has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising him from the dead. Are you here without Christ? If so, sovereign compassion is offered to you. Come to Christ in repentance and faith and be saved. Be baptized this morning and quit fooling around. 150,000 people die in this world every day. What if the LORD requires from you your life this day? Look at the sovereign compassion of God. You don’t need to resist anymore! 

Forget about what you've done, the praise you've praised in the past. Forget about all of that and focus your thoughts on what's ultimately true, what we ultimately know to be true, that God is a God like this, he is a God of sovereign compassion who has expressed it and accomplished redemption at the cross of Calvary when the Lord Jesus Christ shed his own blood for the forgiveness of sin for everyone who would repent and believe on him. Sovereign compassion raining down upon our minds as we contemplate these things. Start there and realize what God has done and who he extends this to and come to him in confident faith. 

But you say, "But I'm too insignificant. I've sinned too much. I'm too far gone." Don't you see, beloved, don't you see, don't you see that it is precisely on people like you that God has mercy? That it was on unknown faceless sailors 2,700 years ago that he showed mercy? If he showed mercy to them, he'll show mercy to you. You say, "But I've sinned too much." 

The Apostle Paul said, "I persecuted the church. I'm the chief of sinners and yet I was shown mercy in my unbelief and God saved me, saved a wretch like me, saved a wretch like her, like him." He's a God of sovereign compassion and he'll show that same mercy to you. Come to Christ. He invites you because it's his intent to receive you. Let us all glory in the sovereign compassion of God, bow in grateful worship in response, and in adoring majesty of response, realize that the great God of eternal glory looks down on men and women like us and shows mercy, such mercy for which we will ever praise him. 

Let us pray.

Our God, thank you for the mercy that you show on unworthy sinners. Extend it further to those here without Christ today. Those of us that are in Christ, O God, help us to respond in trust, in obedience, in loving worship of which you are so richly deserving. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.