A Word About Hope
The cries of a single voice are seldom heard in a city full of tumult. Countless peddlers of hope are passed by in the streets, carelessly dismissed, and their exhortations—“repent, and believe in the Gospel!” 1—are easily brushed aside. What use, after all, have the wicked for the wares of the righteous? For until the weight of sin is felt fully upon their shoulders, most nonbelievers see no reason to repent; surely if they cannot find fault in themselves, they have no need of salvation. They do not see because they do not wish to see, as it is written: “If our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” 2
Although our present age is markedly more secular than the world was 500 years ago, this willful ignorance is by no means a modern phenomenon; in fact, man has been turning his back on God since The Fall. But as many times as God’s people have disobeyed Him, God has anointed prophets to pull His people back from the brink of destruction, great men—like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Jonah—all called to charge the wicked with their crimes in order that they might seek forgiveness and make things right with God.
Especially amidst the recent surge in suicides at Columbia, as well as subsequent talk about stress culture and mental health, the desperate anxiety among students is palpable. For daily, we are tempted by both the (very real) agents of Satan and other demonic forces —ambition, pride, jealousy, loneliness, etc. Although we long for reprieve, for release, we do so in ways that are bound to fail, bowing down to other gods with the false hope that they will deliver us. Many seek comfort in a lover’s arms; others bury themselves in schoolbooks; while others still try to dull their pain with drugs and alcohol. All of this is in vain, for without a healthy relationship with the Lord, man is utterly hopeless, restless, and incomplete. Sensing the weight of their hopelessness, some even give in to the wiles of the Deceiver and tragically end their own lives. Perhaps more than ever before, we desperately need someone to call us to repentance; we need the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
For now, let us consider Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who has much to teach us, believers and nonbelievers alike, about disobedience, despair, hope, and redemption. The Scriptures tell us that Jonah heard the word of the Lord, telling him, “arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 Rather than obey God, Jonah boarded a ship to Tarshish and set sail “away from the presence of the Lord.” 4 Though the Bible says little about Jonah, he seems to me a devout man, enough so that our Lord Jesus saw fit, a thousand years later, to invoke him before the Pharisees. 5 He was a man to whom and through whom God had spoken, by any account a “good and faithful servant.” 6
So why would he flee? A truly righteous man would be convicted if the voice of the Lord spoke to him about an evil as great that which had come upon Nineveh. Just as any pious Christian should be moved to call out against corruption, poverty, violence, and prostitution—and of course, to go make baptized disciples of the nations—so too should Jonah have been eager to go to Nineveh and carry out the mission God gave him. But alas, something told Jonah to ignore God’s voice, and give heed instead to the voice that called him to Tarshish, the voice of fear, of despair, of selfish impulse. He let his heart become so perturbed by the Enemy that he sought the impossible: to leave God’s very presence.
Now, Jonah certainly had reason to fear for his own life and rightly dreaded bringing destruction upon Nineveh. The task set before him was quite immense. Indeed, to purge the sin from a city “three days’ journey in breadth,” 7 is not an easy thing for one man to do. Did he not know, then, that God would be with him, guiding him as He did Abraham, Moses, and those who came before? Did he forget the promise God made countless times: “do not fear, for I am with you”? 8 Maybe he felt ill-equipped, or thought he might bring dishonor to the name of the Lord. For if he went to Nineveh and delivered his proclamation, “yet 40 days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” 9 at which the people repented and God in His mercy allowed them to live, God might have lost His credibility, and people would have started to murmur that God does not keep His promises. Though he may have been well-intentioned, Jonah’s betrayal cannot be justified. At the very least, he doubted the Lord’s power and faithfulness, or perhaps he did not think Nineveh worthy of redemption, and so put his own will above the will of God.
Whatever inspired his disobedience, Jonah proved himself to be utterly hopeless; after all, it is only those without hope who defy God’s will.
But Jonah was not alone in his despair. Immediately after his ship left Joppa, “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god.” 10Though their prayers were empty, these Gentiles’ devotion put Jonah, in his indifference, to shame, this man called by God, who instead “had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.” To sleep through such a storm and a din as that—the sounds of cargo being thrown overboard and men wailing to false gods, the fury of the sea—was certainly no unremarkable feat. I must note, too, that this was no ordinary storm; for it was fierce enough to put the fear of God into the hearts of men whose lives had been spent at sea. As a matter of fact, the sheer power of the storm bears witness to the kind of chaos and terror that characterize a life without God.
Jonah knew nothing about, cared nothing for, the souls of the Gentile sailors on whose ship he slept, nor did he care for the souls of the wicked people of Nineveh, for his conscience had become hardened by his willful ignorance; therefore, sleep easily embraced him when he ought to have been focused and alarmed. Wearied by his rebellion, and exhausted from seeking his own evil way, Jonah wished to rid himself of the very thought of God, and having been called to be the Lord’s witness, he could not bear to think at all; his only recourse was to sleep. He must have been filled with such guilt and hopelessness and an overwhelming sense of futility—he could not hide from the Lord. His sleeping, his complete inaction, represents the height of disobedience and corruption, and so I must conclude that
Jonah’s soul was raging as fiercely as the winds and the waves, no matter how soundly he appeared to be sleeping.
While Jonah, in his wild hopelessness, slept, the sailors called upon their false gods until at last the ship’s captain came and rebuked Jonah, saying, “‘what do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us that we may not perish.’” 11 That it took a Gentile to rouse Jonah from his slumber is detestable, for he ought to have been the one praying most earnestly to the Lord, bearing witness to God’s goodness through his faith. Every single man aboard that ship was in imminent danger, yet Jonah did nothing. He had hope for neither those wailing sailors nor for the people of Nineveh, to whom he was called to prophesy. In the same way, many Christians today lack hope for the faithless.
Like Jonah—and like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane—we would rather sleep than carry out the mission to which our Lord has called us. Our brethren are crying out to false gods for the salvation that only Jesus can give them. Their hope is in false prophets—in pundits and politicians—and in the lies of Satan, materialism and atheism. Are we, then, to go and hide? Shall we kindle God’s ire against our own sinfulness before descending below deck, abandoning our hopeless neighbors to their doom?
But if we do speak out, as Jonah assuredly should have, we must be prepared to suffer, to sacrifice, to lose our friends and be cast out of various social circles. Jonah recognized this and, once awake, saw how he had deceived himself. In order to save the innocent mariners from perdition, he accepted responsibility for his evil deeds, and bid the men, “pick me up and hurl me into the sea.” 12 Yet again, they tried as hard as they could to resist God’s will, rowing instead toward dry land as the sea grew even more tempestuous. Realizing, as so many often do, that their resistance was futile, “they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.” 13 Would that I only be given an opportunity to cast myself overboard in order that even one man be saved. And this, I say, is God’s will for all of us: that we submit ourselves to Him, even lay down our lives for our friends, for truly, “greater love has no one than this.” 14 We should moreover be encouraged, for if the Lord can appoint a fish to swallow up and protect Jonah from the sea, he can surely deliver us from any trials or temptations we might face, so long as we do the work he has called us to do.
In the belly of the fish, Jonah repented, calling upon the Lord in his distress: “the waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God.” 15. At last, Jonah allowed himself to be completely vulnerable before God, pouring out his hopelessness at having been cast into the deep. How often do we find ourselves in a similar situation—the waters engulf us, our sins and fears wrap themselves around our heads, and we are dragged down into the pit, where we can no longer sense God’s love for us? We forget that it is God alone who can pull us up from the depths of our despair. But God saved Jonah, a man who rejected Him, a man who deserted Him, a man who lost hope in Him, a man who thought he was going to die at sea for his own disobedience. He saved Jonah from the pit of sinfulness that Jonah dug for himself. God saves. Jesus saves. After He saved Jonah, he restored in him a pure heart, a hopeful heart willing to submit to God’s will.
God loved Jonah so much that he sent a massive fish to swallow and protect him; He sent his Son Jesus to die on a cross for our sins that we might be saved; and He has, countless times, heard the cries of the afflicted and taken away their pain, wiped away their tears. At our weakest moments, when we lose hope and turn aside from God to the things of this world, God is all the time pursuing us. When He calls us to action, the wisest thing we can do is obey, lest He pursue us with storm clouds and rouse us from our selfish slumber. When we feel as though our suffering is going to overwhelm us, we need only remember Jonah; if we need it, God will send each one of us our own fish. For He is merciful and loving, redeeming us even when we turn our backs on Him, as He did Jonah, and even as He did the people of Nineveh. All He asks is that we repent and trust in Jesus, who is our hope 16.
Chris Bolton (CC ’19) is a proud Virginia gentleman. He loves his friends, family, and Jesus. He studies Mathematics and Philosophy by day, but by night plumbs the depths of his soul for complex emotions that he can spew onto a page, hoping something beautiful manifests itself out of the madness. He writes poetry, fiction, and libretto, hoping one day to watch one of his operas performed live.