The sailors play an integral role in Jonah’s seafaring voyage. In fact, they provide a positive model of faith in contrast to Jonah’s digressions.
If you look at the first and last verbs associated with the sailors, it becomes immediately evident that they undergo a transformation from being “afraid” (verse 5) to “greatly fear[ing] the Lord” (verse 16). Moreover, there is a stability to their path in that, within each verse that they are mentioned, there is a constant connection between the fear they experience and their response to call out for divine aid. They begin with prayers to their pagan gods but their pursuits finally lead them to pray to the one, true God.
The verses given to the sailors are constructed in an A-B-A format.
That is, we see them afraid and praying, they then receive a revelation, which is then followed by more fear and praying. In verse 5, the sailors “were afraid” because of the storm. But, what is the sailors first response? Before throwing cargo overboard, the text states, “each cried out to his own god” (verse 5). Not only do these men want to live, unlike Jonah who has already begun to spiritually and physically waste away at the bottom of the ship, but they fight to survive through prayer. How fascinating is it that the pagans know to pray for help, but the prophet does not? In verse 6, the captain of the ship expresses this shock when he wakes Jonah and pleads him to also “call on your god”, but even then Jonah refuses.
When prayer does not seem to work, the sailors turn to another religious ritual: they cast lots (verse 7).
In the ancient Near East, every people group cast lots to discern their gods’ will. In this situation, the sailors believe that the lots will indicate why the calamity is upon them (cf. Prov 16:33). Interestingly, this action leads to a revelation, not from their pagan gods but from the true and only God. The end of verse 7 concludes that “the lot fell on Jonah”, and this revelation causes the sailors to once again “fear greatly” (verse 10) because now they realize the cause of their calamity: Jonah is running away from his deity. Though Jonah does not fear running from the LORD, the sailors know better. They know that you cannot and should not run away from your god, and this is a further indictment against Jonah that pagans are better God-fearers than himself, a prophet from Israel.
Verse 13 provides a short diversion from the traditional pattern of the sailors as they try to “row back to land”. Here, instead of performing a human sacrifice, which would have been a normal ritual for pagan Gentiles, they have placed matters quite literally in their own hands. This verse holds significance in that it creates a transitional moment in the text: the sailors have turned their backs on their pagan gods and, in this turn, have become helpless.
But where does this helplessness eventually lead? In verse 14 they finally “call out to the Lord”!
They do what Jonah should have done all along. They appeal to God’s mercy and plead for God not to hold them accountable for Jonah’s death. This prayer is then immediately followed in verse 16 with a new fear, but this time “the sailors feared the LORD exceedingly” (emphasis mine), and furthermore they offer sacrifices to God and make vows to Him. The sailors thus stand in stark contrast with the prophet Jonah. They are the antithesis to Jonah’s absent worship and constant disobedience. For the sailors are worshipping God. This is stressed by the pairing of the verb ‘to fear’ and the modified ‘exceedingly’. This is the only time this appears in the OT, and who is doing it? – pagan sailors! The scene ends with the sailors being championed for their faith.
Now here is the humbling truth of the pagan’s inclusion in Jonah 1: their journey of ascent shows how non-believers often have a greater willingness to listen and obey God than we, as believers, do.
So let us ask you: How quick are you to pray to God? Do you think about praying more than you actually pray? If we are being honest with ourselves, this is true for all of us. And yet, here we are invited to pray and seek our God out. Our God listens and yearns for us to pray. He is so eager to answer prayers that He even answers the prayers of pagan Gentile sailors. “Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8).