When heathens were fervently praying to their false gods, who couldn’t possibly help them, Jonah, the servant of the living God, was fast asleep. The Covenanting minister Alexander Wedderburn draws on this historical event to reflect on how the Lord’s people can be put to shame by the diligence and commitment of idolaters to their false worship. The following updated and abridged sermon is on the words of the ship’s captain to Jonah. “The shipmaster came to him, and said, What meanest thou, O sleeper?” (Jonah 1:6).
Jonah prophesied in the days of Jeroboam II. He is mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25, where he is called a prophet and servant of the Lord. Though he prophesied of prosperity, yet it was with small success in such a corrupt time. So the Lord sends him to Nineveh, the chief city of the Assyrian empire. This he is loath to do, and resolves to flee by sea to Tarshish. But the Lord follows him with a storm. Then, when all in the ship are busy praying to their gods, he is asleep. For this the captain strongly rebukes him, saying, “What meanest thou, o sleeper?”
Although these are the words of a heathen, yet they contain a deserved rebuke of a prophet of Israel. “What meanest thou?” A short, emotive utterance, expressing anger in the speaker, and unreasonableness in the one he is addressing.
How do we treat our God?
The worshipers of the true God are sometimes outstripped in worship, and may justly be criticised for their neglectfulness, by idolaters.
How much reverence?
Their gods were no gods at all, but devils, falsehood and vanity. They had eyes and could not see, ears and could not hear, yet they highly esteemed them, and reverenced them. They “walked in the name of their God” (Micah 4:5), and they boasted and triumphed in their gods. The Ephesians all with one shout cried, “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” (Acts 19). Idolatrous Micah, though he made his god himself, yet he called it “my god,” and said, “What have I more?” (Judges 18:24).
Now compare this with the worshipers of the true God. Who triumphs in God, or makes their boast of Him? Do we exalt Him as God? Do we confide in Him as God? Do we walk in the name of our God?
How much diligence?
As they revered their idols, so they were painstaking in worshipping them. Jeremiah notices their diligence. “Whom ye have loved, whom ye have served, whom ye have worshiped, and after whom ye have gone …” (Jeremiah 8:2). So many words to express their unwearying idolatry.
Compare this with the worshipers of the true God. Certainly our principles teach us the necessity of diligence in worship. But who runs, strives, fights, labours, according to their principles? Of whom can it be said in reference to God, “whom ye have loved, whom ye have served, whom ye have worshiped, and after whom ye have gone …”? It is just some feckless thing we do, and rarely we do that.
As they were diligent in their worship to their gods, so they were very zealous and intent on it. In Isaiah 57: 5, Israel is challenged for, among other things, inflaming themselves with idols. The ancient Greek religious leader Pythagoras forbade sacrifices to be offered when doing or thinking about any other thing.
Although we should be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, yet how often our heart in His worship goes staggering between that and something else! In worshipping Him, we are like someone looking at a star through a telescope with a shaking arm — sometimes he has a glance of it, and straightaway loses it again. Who prays as if they were making intercession for their life? or hears as the hungry man eats his food? Who sings, making a melody in their hearts to the Lord?
The idolaters prioritised the worship of their gods over their dearest and sweetest enjoyments. They made their children pass through the fire to Molech. This was a dreadful thing. Certainly, these parents were not lacking in natural affection to their young ones, yet they postponed that to the worship of their gods.
Compare this to the worshipers of the true God. A tiny speck appears an insuperable mountain in the way of His worship! Some will not come because they have a yoke of oxen to look after, etc (Luke 14:16-21). What would we risk for His honour or worship?
How much reliance?
The heathen depended heavily on their gods for everything. If they were at sea, they had a god to depend on for safety; in their harvests they had a god to depend on for fruitfulness. The Romans went never out to any war without multiplying sacrifices.
Do we acknowledge the true God in all our ways, that He would bring it to pass? Do we in everything make our requests known by prayer and supplication? What a sweet life we would lead, if every difficulty gave us an errand to Him with a petition, and every deliverance a song!
Why should we outdo the heathen?
If idolaters may justly reprehend the worshippers of the true God, it serves for lamentation and self-humbling. Especially if we consider things like these.
The excellency of our God
Our God is the Lord who made heaven and earth. Our God is in heaven, and does whatsoever He wills. Who is like the Lord among all the gods? Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands, but how excellent is our Lord’s name through all the earth! So excellent a God and yet worse served, how lamentable this is!
The infallible certainty of our principles
The basis on which we walk, and which obliges us to diligent, zealous worship of our God, is infallibly sure. Whatever human ingenuity could imagine, to demonstrate the certainty of our principles and obligations to worship, we have it. The Son coming down from the Father’s bosom and revealing our duty to us. A voice from heaven witnessing to the truth of His being His beloved Son. So many miracles, and such divine doctrine, proceeding from Him. It is ridiculous to hear of the origin of some of the heathen gods, to whom they offered sacrifices. Often they were the work of their own hands, or some of the creatures which God had made to serve them!
The sweetness of our duties
An idol signifies sorrow, but the duties we are called to create a bit of heaven on earth. “In keeping of thy commandments there is great reward” — not only for keeping them, but in keeping them. What ease to a burdened mind is prayer! What joy in praises! What refreshing consolations from meditating on God as reconciled through a mediator! Similarly in all other parts of worship. “I rejoiced when they said unto me, Let us go unto the house of the Lord.”
The greatness of our debt
It never entered the mind of idolaters to worship their gods for the reason that we owe worship to ours. They thought they gave them corn and wine, and victory over their enemies, yet they never even claimed that any of them died for them, to prevent their eternal ruin. But this is the unspeakably great obligation we are under to worship. When our loss was desperate, He was broken for our iniquities, and in His stripes we are healed, and one of the goals He had in this was that we would be zealous worshipers of Him (Tit.2:14). “Ye are bought with a price, and are not your own, therefore glorify God in your bodies and souls” (1 Cor. 6:20).
The eternal weight of glory ahead of us
We have encouragements in our worship from the expectation of a far more excellent reward than idolaters could ever dream of or hope for. The philosopher Seneca comforted himself with the Elysian fields as he was dying. These were only imaginary, but supposing they were real, what a low reward they are when compared with the excellent, exceeding great, and eternal weight of glory that awaits the worshippers of God!
The assistance we are given
The heathen never dreamed that their gods would give them assisting influences to help them at their worship. All they did, they did in the strength of inherent virtue, either natural or acquired. Philosophy might make you patient and bear reproaches — or despise riches and delight in poverty. Aye, but we have the influences of assisting grace secured to us by the word of Him who cannot lie, to help us at our worship. If we do not know how to pray, or what to pray, the Spirit helps our infirmities. There is a spirit of faith, and a spirit of love, and a spirit of a sound mind. Idolaters get their water out of broken cisterns, that can hold no water, but the Rock follows us, and the Rock is Christ.
How can we outdo the heathen?
Some things about their worship, we should imitate.
They were kept in much fear and awe of their gods. They were constantly afraid that if they neglected their worship, their gods would avenge it. It is true, this is too servile a principle of gospel worship. Fear should not be the pace that should make our wheels go, it should be love (“If thou love me, keep my commandments”). Yet where fear is lacking, usually worship is lacking also.
Also, they judged that they had need of their gods for everything they enjoyed — corn, wine, water, success in war, peace, childbirth, wisdom, or whatever else — and therefore had a god for each of them. This impression would contribute much to help us in worship. If we seriously believed that both our doing and our receiving depended on Him, our addresses to Him could not but be more frequent and fervent.
They were also much heartened in their worship by the responses they had from their oracles. These responses were often ambiguous, so that whatever way things fell out, the response could be made to hint at it. Certainly, if we took notice of the answers God gives to prayer, we would have more delight in it.
If we could imitate them in these things, we would readily outstrip them.
I shall only add two things they omitted, which make our worship, not only in its nature, but in its manner, far exceed theirs.
Though they were diligent and intent in their worship, yet they never dreamed of any gracious qualification in the person who presented the worship. Nature’s ladder was too low to scale the fort of a natural heart. But if you can be born of water and of the Spirit, it will give your worship a lustre theirs could never have.
Though their sacrifices were numerous, and sometimes costly and cruel, yet they never dreamed of a high priest who stands with incense in His hand, which is the prayers of the saints.
This is the great ground of a believer’s hope in Christ, that He sits a high priest, not only to make intercession for the iniquity of his holiness, and to cover the imperfections of his worship, but to present it, and to second it before the throne of God. He knows that broken words and groans and such-like sacrifices, performed with the incense of righteousness of such a Mediator, can have acceptation. Therefore to outdo them, put your sacrifice always in Christ’s hands, pray in His name, praise in His name, and do all through Him.
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