This is the third post in an on-going series examining the book of Jonah. For the next couple of weeks we will release a blog post discussing a different element of truth found within the story of Jonah. Today, we will look at the idea of the will of God.
3But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish…away from the presence of the Lord. 4But 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. 5Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6So the captain came and said to him, ‘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.’
7And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.’ So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8Then they said to him, ‘Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?’ 9And he said to them, ‘I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’ 10Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, ‘What is this that you have done!’ For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them.
11Then they said to him, ‘What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?’ For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12He said to them, ‘Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.’ 13Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14Therefore 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.’ 15So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows.
17And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights (Jonah 1:3-17, ESV).
This passage provides a plethora of themes we could discuss. We could examine the parallels between Jonah’s story and the life of Jesus (i.e. sleeping in a boat during a storm, being swallowed for three days and nights, proclaiming repentance to Gentiles). We could take a look at the ineptitude of the sailor’s gods, even though, it seems, they were supposed to reign over the sea. We could praise Jonah for testifying to his nationality and, more importantly, his God, Yahweh, even during the literal storms of his life. There is even a theme developing in the book of Jonah concerning the belief of those who are not Jews.
All of these ideas and themes would lead us towards a wonderful dialogue about what God is teaching us through Jonah’s story and how we might change our lives in light of these truths. However, there is an aspect of God shown in this passage which, I believe, is under-appreciated: His will.
There are two ways to define God’s will. They are, as John Piper identifies, the “will of decree” and the “will of command1.” The will of decree is, simply put, God’s sovereign will for humanity. The will of command is God’s will for us to live the way He has commanded us to live. In this passage of Jonah (1:3-17), we see both the will of decree and the will of command actively represented.
Let’s look at what we know so far concerning Jonah’s story. Jonah was a prophet of Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews. Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire. Yahweh had commanded Jonah to “go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me (Jonah 1:2, ESV).” Jonah, a prophet of Yahweh, refused to follow Yahweh’s command and fled towards the farthest point of the known world. This is where we start to see God’s “will of decree” in action (as well as the “will of command”, which we will get to in a moment).
God had decided, in His infinite wisdom, and decreed to Jonah what His sovereign will for the Assyrians was. He had seen “their evil” and had appointed this moment in time to intervene through the “calling out” of their sins by His prophet Jonah. This is an example of the sovereign will of God, the “will of decree,” in action. God had decreed, or appointed a moment in time, for something to occur in the manner of His own choosing. When God sets a decree, there is no changing it.
Throughout the Bible, we see verse after verse affirming this aspect of the nature of God.
The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord (Proverbs 16:33, ESV).
Another way of expressing this verse is saying, “Even though you play the lottery and think the winner is chosen by chance, the outcome is already known and decided by the Lord.”
Some other verses which speak of God’s will of decree are:
The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will (Proverbs 21:1, ESV).
He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to him, ‘What have you done (Daniel 4:35, ESV)?’
Another specific example of God’s will of decree is found towards the end of the life of Jesus.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again (Mark 8:31, ESV).
God had decreed for Jesus to suffer and die even though He had lived a perfect life so that through Jesus all who believe in Him might be saved. This decree, or will, for Jesus’ life was God’s perfect and holy plan. This is something God had decreed to happen and there would be no changing it. But, we see that some of the disciples did not think God’s will of decree was the “right” plan.
And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man (Mark 8:32-33, ESV).’
Jesus is not truly saying that Peter himself was Satan incarnate. But rather, by rejecting God’s will of decree, Peter was not focusing on heavenly matters. This rejection of heavenly matters was a rejection of God’s will of decree. When we reject or refuse God’s will of decree we are putting on the things of man: sinful things which are the opposite of Godly things. The being which most readily represents this anti-God stance is Satan. Therefore, Jesus is saying to Peter, and to us when we reject God’s sovereign will, that we have taken a stance in opposition against God just as Satan did and does.
What we see in Jonah’s story is Jonah has taken this very stance in opposition against God’s will. Jonah, even though he was told what God’s sovereign will for the Assyrians was, decided to reject God’s decree and go in a different direction, quite literally. Jesus would say to this defiance on Jonah’s part, “Get behind me Satan!” We see Jonah trying to change God’s sovereign will out of his disdain for the Assyrians, but he is going to learn the hard way a valuable lesson concerning God’s sovereign will:
You can’t stop God’s sovereign will. You won’t stop God’s sovereign will.
God had pre-determined to use Jonah as His agent of proclaiming the need for repentance. We see a number of ways Jonah is brought back under God’s sovereign will in this passage: a severe storm stops Jonah’s flight, Jonah is reminded of his need to be in a right relationship with God by the captain of the vessel, lots are cast and it falls on Jonah (Proverbs 16:33…look a few paragraphs above), Jonah’s very own suicidal plans, and the infamous giant fish. Jonah will soon realize he cannot stop the sovereign will of God.
*Some might read this and come to the conclusion, “If God wants me to do something SO bad, he will send something after me to get my attention.” Let me remind you of the words of Jesus, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test (Matthew 4:7, ESV).” Just because God has asked you doesn’t mean God needs you.
How does the “will of command” differ from the “will of decree?” The “will of command” is the want God has for humanity to live in such a way as He has commanded. In this instance, the word “want” is not the same as “need.” Instead, it should be defined as “desire.” As an example of this distinction, I want my one-year old son to stop hitting our dogs in the face. I want this for him because I know what the consequences of his actions could be. When I was a small child, as he currently is, I found out the hard way you don’t hit dogs. They will bite you. Now, I don’t need my son to do this. My life is not lacking something which he can provide by ceasing to strike our evil little dogs (which are available for adoption to anyone who wants them). However, I do desire for his own good that he would stop doing something which could be harmful to him.
When God says He “wants” us to do something or not do something, it is for our benefit. If you look at the second half of the most famous commands of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, they are a playbook for how to get along with others2. When you consider they were given to millions of newly-freed slaves who are wondering around in a desert with all of their possessions, of course it was, and is, necessary to abide by God’s “will of command.”
Another major difference between the “will of decree” and the “will of command” is we can’t stop God’s sovereign plans, but we can stop God’s desire for our lives. This truth is quite obvious in this passage from Jonah (1:3-17). Jonah ran away from what God had commanded him to do. Yet, in breaking God’s command, he was unable to thwart God’s sovereignty.
It is easy for us to read this passage and throw stones at Jonah and ridicule his shortcomings. Instead, we should see Jonah’s story and be reminded of the times we thought we knew better than God. Remember, God is asking Jonah to go to his enemy and tell them they need to be forgiven. What if God told you to go and witness to ISIS? Would you be able to? I know my response wouldn’t be that awesome.
We have all had moments when we thought we knew better than God or just didn’t understand why God would be doing what He was. We can give in to these shortcomings and shake our fist at God. But, as the writer of Proverbs reminds us,
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Proverbs 14:12, ESV).
Just because we don’t understand God’s will doesn’t mean it’s not God’s will. Submitting to God is not an easy thing to do. But, it is a necessary thing to do. We cannot stop His sovereignty. We can only choose to disregard His commands. Let me encourage you, though, about why we should accept God’s sovereignty. And, why we should abide in His commands.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV).
- If you are interested in a more thorough discussion of God’s will, listen to John Piper’s sermon on Romans 12:1-2 at: http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/what-is-the-will-of-god-and-how-do-we-know-it
- C.F. Pfeiffer calls them the “second ‘table of the Law'” and notes they are concerned with “man’s relations with his fellows (Old Testament History, p. 168).”