Jonah 1:7 Bible Commentary

John Calvin’s Bible Commentary

Chapter 1, Verse(s) 1-23456 | 7 | 8-1011-1213-1415-1617 |

Jonah did not without reason mention this, -- that the passengers consulted together about casting lots; for we hence learn, that it was no ordinary tempest: it appeared then to be a token of God's wrath. For, if strong wind arose, it would not have been so strange, for such had been often the case; and if a tempest followed, it would not have been a thing unusual. It must then have been something more dreadful, as it filled men's minds with alarms so that they were conscious that God was present as an avenger: and we know, that it is not common with ungodly men to recognize the vengeance of Gods except in extreme dangers; but when God executes punishment on sins in an unusual manner, then men begin to acknowledge God's vengeance.

This very thing, Jonah now bears witness to, They said then each to his friend, Come, let us cast lots. Was it not an accustomed thing for them to cast lots whenever a tempest arose? By no means. They had recourse, no doubt, to this expedient, because they knew, that God had not raised up that tempest without some very great and very serious cause. This is one thing: but I cannot now pursue the subjects, I must therefore defer it until tomorrow.


Grant, Almighty God, that though we are here disquieted in the midst of so many tossings, we may yet learn with tranquil minds to recumb on thy grace and promise, by which thou testifiest that thou wilt be ever near us, and not wait until by a strong hand thou drawest us to thyself, but that we may be, on the contrary, ever attentive to thy providence: may we know that our life not only depends on a thread, but also vanishes like the smoke, unless thou protectest it, so that we may recumb wholly on thy power; and may we also, while in a cheerful and quiet state, so call on thee, that relying on thy protection we may live in safety, and at the same time be careful, lest torpor, which draws away our minds and thoughts from meditating on the divine life, should creep over us, but may we, on the contrary, so earnestly seek thee, morning and evening, and at all times, that we may through life advance towards the mark thou hast set before us, until we at length reach that heavenly kingdom, which Christ thy Son has obtained for us by his own blood. Amen

Lecture Seventy-fourth.

We said in yesterday's lecture, that it was a proof of extreme fear, that the sailors and the rest cast lots; for this is not usually done, except men see themselves to be destitute of judgment and counsel.

But it must at the same time be observed, that through error they cast lots: for they did not know, that if God intended to punish each of them, they were worthy even of heavier punishment. They would not indeed have thrown the blame on one man, if each had well considered what he deserved before God. When a calamity happens, it is the duty of every one to examine himself and his whole life before God: then every one, from the first to the last, must confess that he bears a just judgment. But when all demand together who is guilty before God, they thus exonerate themselves, as though they were innocent. And it is an evil that prevails at this day in the world, that every one is disposed to cast the blame on others and all would have themselves to be innocent before God; not that they can clear themselves of every fault, but they extenuate their sins, as though God could not justly pursue them with so much severity. As for instance, when any one perceives that he had in various ways done wrong, he will indeed confess in words that he is a sinner; but were any person to enumerate and bring forward each of his sins he would say, "This is a light offense, that is a venal sin; and the Lord deals not with us with so much strict justice, that he means to bring on us instantly extreme punishment." When there is a slight offense, it is immediately referred to by every one. Thus acted the sailors, of whom Jonah now speaks. Had any one asked, whether they were wholly without fault, every one, no doubt, would have confessed that he was a sinner before God; but yet they cast lots as though one only was exposed to God's judgment. How so? because they did not think that their own sins deserved so heavy a punishment. How much soever they might have offended, -- and this they really felt and were convinced of, -- they yet did not make so much of their sins as to think that they deserved any such judgment. This then is the reason why they come to the lot; it was, because every one seemed to himself to be blameless when he came to examine himself.

This passage, then, shows what is even well known by common experience, -- that men, though they know themselves to be guilty before God, yet extenuate their sins and promise themselves pardon, as though they could make an agreement with God, that he should not treat them with strict justice, but deal with them indulgently. Hence, then, is the hope of impunity, because we make light offenses of the most grievous sins. Thus we find under the Papacy, that various modes are devised, by which they absolve themselves before God and wipe away their stains: the sprinkling of holy water cleanses almost all sins; except a man be either an adulterer, or a murderer, or a sorcerer, or ten times perjured, he hardly thinks himself to be guilty of any crime. Then the expiations which they use, avail, as they think, to obliterate all iniquities. Whence is this error? Even because they consider God to be like themselves, and think not their sins to be so great abominations before God. But this is no new thing; for we see what happened in the time of Jonah; and from profane histories also we may learn, that this error possessed everywhere the minds of all. They had then daily expiations, as the Papists have their masses, their pilgrimages, their sprinklings of holy water, and similar playthings (nugas -- trifles, fopperies): but as under the Papacy there are reserved cases, so also in former times, when any one had killed a father or mother, when any one had committed incest, he stood in need of some extraordinary expiation; and if there was any one of great renown on the earth, they applied to him, that he might find out some new kind of expiation. An example of this error is set before us here, when they said, let us cast lots. For except they thought that one only was guilty, and not and every one would have publicly confessed his sins, and would then have acknowledged that such was the mass of them as to be enough to fill heaven and earth; but this they did not. One man must have been the offender; but no one came forward with such a confession: hence they cast lots.

It may now be inquired, whether this mode of seeking out the truth was lawful; as they knew not through whose fault the tempest arose, was it right to have recourse to lots? Some have been too superstitious in condemning lots; for they have plainly said, that all lots are wicked. Hence has come the name, lot-drawers; (sortilegi) and they have thought that lot-drawers differ nothing from magicians and enchanters. This has proceeded from ignorance, for we know that the casting of lots has been sometimes allowed. And Solomon certainly speaks, as of a common rule, when he says of lots being cast into the bosom, and of the issue being from Jehovah (Proverbs 16:33.) Solomon speaks not there of the arts of magic but says that when lots are cast, the event is not by chance but by God's providence. And when Matthias was chosen in the place of Judas, it was done by lot, (Acts 1:26.) Did the Apostles use this mode presumptuously? No, the Holy Spirit presided over this election. There is then no doubt but that God approved of that casting of lots. So also Joshua had recourse to the lot when the cause of God's displeasure was unknown, though it was evident that God was angry with the people. Joshua, being perplexed by what was unknown, did cast lots; and so Achan was discovered and his sacrilege. That lot no one will dare condemn. Then what I have said is clear enough, that those have been too superstitious who have condemned all casting of lots without exception. But we must yet remember that lots are not to be used indiscriminately. It is a part of the civil law, that when a common inheritance is divided, it is allowed to cast lots: as it belongs not to this or that person to choose, each must take the part which the lot determines. So again it is lawful to cast lot in great undertakings, when men are anywhere sent: and when there is a division of labor, to prevent jealousy when one wishes to choose a certain part for himself, the lot will remove all contentions. A lot of this kind is allowed both by the word of God, and by civil laws. But when any one adopts the lot without any reason, he is no doubt superstitious, and differs not much from the magician or the enchanter. As for instance, when one intends to go a journey, or to take anything in hand, if he throws into his hat a white and a black lot, and says, "I will see whether my going out today will be prosperous;" now this is of the devil; for Satan by such arts deludes wretched men. If then any one makes use of the lot without any just reason, he is, as I have said without excuse.

But as to the other lots, such as we have now noticed, they ought not to be viewed as precedents. For though Joshua used the lot to bring to light the cause for which God was angry with his people, it is not yet right for us to imitate what he did; for Joshua was no doubt led by some peculiar influence to adopt this measure. So also as to Saul, when he cast lots, and his son Jonathan was discovered as the one who had tasted honey, it was an especial example. The same thing must be also said of the lot mentioned here; for as the sailors were trembling, and knew not the cause why the tempest arose, and the fear of shipwreck seized them, they had recourse to the lot. Were we continually to imitate such examples, such a liberty would not certainly be pleasing, to God, nor consistent with his word. We must therefore bear in mind, that there were some peculiar influences, whenever God's servants used the lot in doubtful and extreme cases 2. This then is shortly the answer to the question -- Was it lawful for the sailors to cast lots, that they might find out the person on account of whom they were in so much danger? I now proceed to what follows --

1 ymlsb, this is a singular combination, two relatives with two prepositions -- "through what -- for what." It is in a more complete form in the next verse, yml rsab; s in the first instance stands for rsa, what. The first may be rendered consistently with the context, "through whom -- for whom:" but the context in the eight verse requires it to be "through what -- for what." -- Ed.

2 Similar is the view given by Jerome. "We ought not, for this example, to put implicit confidence in lots, nor to connect with it the instance recorded in the Acts, when Matthias was chosen an Apostle by lot, since privileges granted to individuals cannot make a common rule, (cum privilegia singulorum non possint legem facere communem.")

Chapter 1, Verse(s) 1-23456 | 7 | 8-1011-1213-1415-1617 |
  • John Calvin’s Bible Commentary