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Good Words 1860
Jonah and Paul at Sea


The narrative of Jonah's voyage, (Jonah i.,) and that of Paul's, (Acts xxvii.,) present several points of striking resemblance. In both we have a tempest at sea, and a ship in distress. In both the sea navigated is the same—the beautiful, yet deceitful Mediterranean. In both the ship's-crew consists of heathen mariners. In each ship, too, there is a remarkable passenger, bearing a Divine commission. And in both cases, the peril, though eventually overcome, is at one time so great as to make the very seamen abandon the hope of being saved.

Not less noteworthy is the resemblance between the two passengers. Both of them are Jews—Jews by birth and education—proud of their descent, and strongly attached to their country. Both of them, too, have their lot cast on an age when their nation is on the eve, and even in the throes, of dissolution. For Jonah's day is that which immediately precedes the captivity of the ten tribes; Paul's, that which immediately precedes the final subversion of the Jewish polity by the Romans. And, what is a still stranger coincidence, both are divinely commissioned to carry the true religion to the portion of the Gentiles most inimical to the Jews. It is to Nineveh, the capital of that Assyrian empire which is about to crush his country under its iron heel, that Jonah is commanded to go with the offer of Jehovah's mercy; and it is Home, the metropolis of the Roman power, and the destined destroyer of the Jewish city and temple, to which Paul is sent with the gospel of Jesus.

But probably the points common to the two narratives, though not devoid of instruction, are less suggestive of profitable reflection than the points of contrast; and, accordingly, it is to the latter that the attention of our readers is now invited, and especially to the contrasts, first, between the two passengers, and, secondly, between the two crews.

In looking at Jonah and Paul on shipboard, the first thing which strikes us is, that the former is a fugitive from duty; the latter in the path of duty. Jonah has so little heart for a mission of mercy to the Ninevites, or rather, he is so averse to what he thinks the unjewish and unpatriotic task of bearing the peculiar and exclusive religious privileges of his own countrymen to their heathen enemies, that he refuses to obey the Divine command. Nay, not content with merely disobeying it, he flees from the land of Jehovah's oracle, that the command may not again reach him; and finding a ship bound for Tarshish, he "pays the fare thereof, and goes down into it." Paul embarks, on the other hand, not that he may escape an irksome duty, but that he may be enabled to perform it. To him, no doubt, with his thoroughly Jewish heart and his ardent national attachments, the command, "Arise, go to Rome," is as heavy a one as is to Jonah the command, "Arise, go to Nineveh;" for he cannot but feel that such a command amounts to nothing short of this: "Preach the gospel to the oppressors of your country; offer them that mercy which your countrymen have forfeited; ring the knell of your country's doom." But he does not, like Jonah, "confer with flesh and blood." He waves his own predilections in deference to the Divine command; and, in spite of his sorrow of heart for his brethren according to the flesh—a sorrow which seems to have been evermore his heaviest burden—he determines to sail into Italy.

This radical dissimilitude between the prophet and the apostle, in their feelings and conduct with regard to their mission, naturally leads us to expect an equally marked dissimilitude in other respects. We cannot expect that a man who is so bigotedly attached to Judaism, as to be angry even with God for sending him on an errand of mercy to the Ninevites, shall conduct himself on shipboard in the same manner as a man who is at peace with his own conscience, and alive to the claims at once of God and of the Gentiles. We naturally expect, on the contrary, that while Jonah's ungodward temper shall, like the dead fly in the ointment of the apothecary, cause all his other gifts and qualities to send forth an offensive savour, Paul's piety and benevolence shall so impregnate and perfume his whole demeanour, as to fill, so to speak, the house with the odour of the ointment. And to this expectation the facts answer.

How does Jonah demean himself when the ship is like to be broken in the tempest, and the frightened mariners, driven to their wit's end, cry every man unto his god ? Does he come to their help? Does he join with them in prayer for Divine succour? Does he bestir himself in any way to aid or cheer them? On the contrary, he goes down into the sides of the ship, and there falls fast asleep. It requires a sharp rebuke from the shipmaster to rouse him; and even when asked to help the seamen, if with nothing else, yet with his prayers, he gives no practical heed to the request. He has no inclination for work, and no heart for prayer. Soured, depressed, discontented, sulky, he only wishes to be let alone; he cares not a straw whether the vessel sink or swim.

How very differently does Paul deport himself! At peace with his own conscience, and confident of Divine favour and help, he is the very life of the ship's company; he is all energy and activity. It is he who first foresees the coming tempest. It is he who rouses the shipmaster to a sense of the emergency, and stimulates him to meet it. It is he who passes to and fro among the despairing crew, saying to each in turn, "Work on; be of good cheer. There shall be no loss of any man's life among you, but of the ship." But for him, the shipmen would have made off with the boat, and gone down among the breakers. But for him, the soldiers would have killed the prisoners to prevent their escape. It is his cheerful, courageous spirit that imparts new life and heart, in the time of their extremity, to two hundred and seventy-six human beings. What a mighty agent for good is a real man of God! What an exhaustless source of moral energy does a calm and benevolent mind supply! A Jonah, who is consciously at war with God and duty, is ever straitened in spirit and palsied in action—in duty a cripple, in danger a coward; but a man who knows that he is at the post which God would have him occupy, and in the spirit which God would have him cherish, is bold as a lion, free of mind and of limb, alert for duty, resolute in danger, serene even in death.

As there is thus a marked contrast between the two passengers, in respect alike of their feelings towards God and of their conduct towards their shipmates, so there is the same twofold contrast between the crews.

The mariners of Tarshish, when the ship was like to be broken in the tempest, "were afraid, and cried every man unto his god." But the Alexandrian shipmen, though equally in peril, and equally afraid, gave no indication of any religious feeling. Now, it is true that prayer in the season of danger is no sure evidence of real piety; for men who never pray in the sunshine may be fain to pray in the storm. Yet, even supposing the Tarshish mariners never to have prayed before, the fact that they did pray now clearly proves them to have been men of at least another and better temper towards God than the Alexandrian sailors, whom not even the terrors of a watery grave could either draw or drive to so much as one God-ward aspiration.

Still more marked is the contrast between the two crews in their conduct towards the passengers and others embarked with them. What is the conduct of the Tarshish mariners towards Jonah, when they are apprised that his presence is the cause of the danger, and that they have only to cast him overboard in order to be safe? Do they at once proceed to throw him into the sea? Do they even proceed to take this step when they receive his own consent and command to do so? No; these brave tars continue to "row hard" to bring the ship to land, anxious to spare the life of their dangerous passenger, and unwilling to save themselves at his expense; and even when they are at last shut up to the inevitable necessity of casting him overboard, they go about the task with the utmost reluctance, and earnestly pray to be forgiven for an act to which not even its necessity can reconcile them:—"We beseech thee, O Lord, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man's life, and lay not upon us innocent blood."

Is there any like magnanimity on the part of the Alexandrian seamen? Do they care about the safety of Paul, or of the centurion, or of the soldiers, or of any one on board but themselves? Although Paul is not, like Jonah, the cause of the danger, but, on the contrary, the palladium of the ship, do they care that he perish? Their sole care is for their own safety. And so, the moment the vessel is among the breakers, they let down the boat, under pretext of getting out the anchors, and attempt to escape out of the ship. It is true their selfish, cowardly scheme is detected and frustrated; for, at the suggestion of Paul, the centurion gives the word of command, and ere the treacherous shipmen have descended into the boat, the sharp swords of the soldiers sever the ropes, and send it adrift. But the selfishness of these men is not the less detestable that it is baulked of its object; and, doubtless, when they perceive that their cunning scheme is defeated, and gaze after the boat as it parts from the ship, and drifts away on the rushing billows, their dismayed and scowling looks betray a temper of mind—oh how different from that of those kind-hearted Tarshish mariners, who stood with tears in their eyes and prayers on their lips as Jonah was precipitated into the deep!

It is sad to reflect that men of the same calling, and in the same peril, should feel and act so differently as these two ships' crews. And yet such difference usually comes out in seasons of emergency. Severe trials shew what spirit men are of; and not unfrequently, when some unexpected and appalling calamity falls upon a ship, a family, a city, a country, it is as if a separating hand had passed through to divide men into two classes—ranging the dauntless on the one side, and the dastards on the other. It is on critical occasions that piety manifests its divineness, and benevolence its sweetness; and then, too, it is that the ungodly are most godless, and the selfish most iron-hearted. The tempest which spreads terror and destruction here below only serves to purify and brighten yon upper sky.

It is worthy of remark that the religious sailors were the generous ones, and the godless sailors the cruel and dastardly ones — a union of qualities which, in both its phases, is found realised in all classes of society, and in all ages of the world. And there is yet another important lesson suggested:—The insufficiency of mere civilisation to morally elevate the humbler classes of a community. It was in an age of the world comparatively rude that the ship which carried Jonah sailed from Joppa to Tarshish; yet the seamen who manned it "feared God and regarded man." It was in the palmy days of ancient civilisation, the culminating time of classic poetry and art, that Alexandrian sailors bore Paul over the waters of the Levant; yet these sailors were godless, and selfish, and morally but savages. It might have been expected, that with the advanced knowledge and refinement of the later period, the seaman-class would have morally improved; instead of which, the seamen of Paul's day seem to have been much worse, morally and religiously, than the seamen of Jonah's. So far is a high civilisation from necessarily benefiting, other than physically, the humbler classes of society, that it may well be a question whether the working-men of an advanced country are not, upon the whole, more sensual, more irreligious, more discontented, more of the earth earthy, than the working-men of a country comparatively unrefined. It almost seems as if the effect of mere scientific and industrial improvement, was to advance man's physical condition, at the expense of his moral and religious character; to augment his wealth, but impoverish his soul. At all events, this much is certain, that something more than science and art—something more than trade and commerce —something more than books, and pictures, and statuary, and music, is needed to sustain the moral and religious life of a people. Civilisation is but a fabric of painted straw when it is not based upon those holy, humanising influences which emanate from the Christian home, the Christian school, and the Christian Church.

It would be improper to leave the subject, without bestowing a word of commendation on the soldiers who accompanied Paul in his voyage. Think of their promptitude in cutting the ropes of the boat at the command of the centurion, and thereby preventing the cowardly seamen from quitting the ship. This act, indeed, did really benefit the disappointed seamen; for the event shewed that the safety of even the seamen depended on their abiding in the ship. But then the soldiers did not know this at the time. On the contrary, they believed that, by cutting the ropes, they were removing the last and only means by which any one could escape from the wreck. They believed that they were cutting off their own chance of safety, no less than that of the seamen. Yet, did they hesitate to obey the centurion's command? No. In spite of their belief that, by sending the boat adrift, they were only sealing their own destruction, they hesitated not—they flinched not—they at once did as they were commanded. And happily these Roman soldiers are only an example of a self-sacrificing devotion to duty which has ever been the characteristic of a well-trained soldiery. There must be something in the very nature of military education and discipline to develop and strengthen the nobler elements of man's being; for in every age and in every country soldiers have outshone civilians in general manliness and magnanimity of character. It is only a year or two ago since the heroism of the soldiers who accompanied Paul was more than surpassed in similar, though more trying circumstances, by a British regiment. The loss of the steamer Birkenhead, on the coast of Africa, is still fresh in men's memories. That steamer struck on a hidden rock, and in little more than half an hour went to the bottom. There were on board many passengers, including women and children, as well as a regiment of troops; but while there were boats for the other passengers, there were no boats for the troops. How did the troops deport themselves! As soon as it was ascertained that the ship's fate was sealed, the roll of the drum called the soldiers to arms on the upper deck; and that roll was promptly obeyed by all, though each knew that it was his death-summons. On that upper deck they mustered every one. There they stood as if in battle-array—firm, unflinching, calmly waiting a watery grave. The ship was every moment going down and down; but there was not one deserter among these soldiers. The women and children were got into the boats, and pulled off in safety; but on that fatal deck the soldiers kept their ranks the while, motionless and silent. Down went the ship, and down with it went this heroic band, shoulder to shoulder—firing a parting volley, and then sinking beneath the remorseless waters. God bless our brave soldiers!


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