The Jews were not seafaring people. Their coast had no safe harbours, and they seldom ventured on the Mediterranean. To find Paul in a ship with its bow pointed westwards is significant. It tells of the expansion of Judaism into a world-wide religion, and of the future course of Christianity. The only Old Testament parallel is Jonah, and the dissimilarities of the two incidents are as instructive as are their resemblances.
This minute narrative is evidently the work of one of the passengers who knew a good deal about nautical matters. It reads like a log- book. But as James Smith has well noted in his interesting monograph on the chapter, the writer's descriptions, though accurate, are unprofessional, thus confirming Luke's authorship. Where had the 'beloved physician' learned so much about the sea and ships? Did the great galleys carry surgeons as now? At all events the story is one of the most graphic accounts ever written. This narrative begins when the doomed ship has cast anchor, with a rocky coast close under her lee. The one question is, Will the four anchors hold? No wonder that the passengers longed for daylight!
The first point is the crew's dastardly trick to save themselves, frustrated by Paul's insight and promptitude. The pretext for getting into the boat was specious. Anchoring by the bow as well as by the stern would help to keep the ship from driving ashore; and if once the crew were in the boat and pulled as far as was necessary to lay out the anchors, it would be easy, under cover of the darkness, to make good their escape on shore and leave the landsmen on board to shift for themselves. The boat must have been of considerable size to hold the crew of so large a ship. It was already lying alongside, and landsmen would not suspect what lay under the apparently brave attempt to add to the vessel's security, but Paul did so. His practical sagacity was as conspicuous a trait as his lofty enthusiasm. Common sense need not be divorced from high aims or from the intensest religious self-devotion. The idealist beat the practical centurion in penetrating the sailors' scheme.
That must have been a great nature which combined such different characteristics as the Apostle shows. Unselfish devotion is often wonderfully clear-sighted as to the workings of its opposite. The Apostle's promptitude is as noticeable as his penetration. He wastes no time in remonstrance with the cowards, who would have been over the side and off in the dark while he talked, but goes straight to the man in authority. Note, too, that he keeps his place as a prisoner. It is not his business to suggest what is to be done. That might have been resented as presumptuous; but he has a right to point out the danger, and he leaves the centurion to settle how to meet it. Significantly does he say 'ye,' not 'we.' He was perfectly certain that he 'must be brought before Caesar'; and though he believed that all on board would escape, he seems to regard his own safety as even more certain than that of the others.
The lesson often drawn from his words is rightly drawn. They imply the necessity of men's action in order to carry out God's purpose. The whole shipful are to be saved, but 'except these abide ... ye cannot be saved,' The belief that God wills anything is a reason for using all means to effect it, not for folding our hands and saying, 'God will do it, whether we do anything or not.' The line between fatalism and Christian reliance on God's will is clearly drawn in Paul's words.
Note too the prompt, decisive action of the soldiers. They waste no words, nor do they try to secure the sailors, but out with their knives and cut the tow-rope, and away into the darkness drifts the boat. It might have been better to have kept it, as affording a chance of safety for all; but probably it was wisest to get rid of it at once. Many times in every life it is necessary to sacrifice possible advantages in order to secure a more necessary good. The boat has to be let go if the passengers in the ship are to be saved. Misused good things have sometimes to be given up in order to keep people from temptation.
The next point brings Paul again to the front. In the night he had been the saviour of the whole shipload of people. Now as the twilight is beginning, and the time for decisive action will soon be here with the day, he becomes their encourager and counsellor. Again his saving common sense is shown. He knew that the moment for intense struggle was at hand, and so he prepares them for it by getting them to eat a substantial breakfast. It was because of his faith that he did so. His religion did not lead him to do as some people would have done -- begin to talk to the soldiers about their souls -- but he looked after their bodies. Hungry, wet, sleepless, they were in no condition to scramble through the surf, and the first thing to be done was to get some food into them. Of course he does not mean that they had eaten absolutely nothing for a fortnight, but only that they had had scanty nourishment. But Paul's religion went harmoniously with his care for men's bodies. He 'gave thanks to God in presence of them all'; and who shall say that that prayer did not touch hearts more deeply than religious talk would have done? Paul's calmness would be contagious; and the root of it, in his belief in what his God had told him, would be impressively manifested to all on board. Moods are infectious; so 'they were all of good cheer,' and no doubt things looked less black after a hearty meal,
A little point may be noticed here, namely, the naturalness of the insertion of the numbers on board at this precise place in the narrative. There would probably be a muster of all hands for the meal, and in view of the approaching scramble, in order that, if they got to shore, there might be certainty as to whether any were lost. So here the numbers come in. They were still not without hope of saving the ship, though Paul had told them it would be lost; and so they jettison the cargo of wheat from Alexandria. By this time it is broad day and something must be done.
The next point is the attempt to beach the vessel. 'They knew not the land,' that is, the part of the coast where they had been driven; but they saw that, while for the most part it was iron-bound, there was a shelving sandy bay at one point on to which it might be possible to run her ashore. The Revised Version gives a much more accurate and seaman-like account than the Authorised Version does. The anchors were not taken on board, but to save time and trouble were 'left in the sea,' the cables being simply cut. The 'rudder-bands' -- that is, the lashings which had secured the two paddle-like rudders, one on either beam, which had been tied up to be out of the way when the stern anchors were put out -- are loosed, and the rudders drop into place. The foresail (not 'mainsail,' as the Authorised Version has it) is set to help to drive the ship ashore. It is all exactly what we should expect to be done.
But an unexpected difficulty met the attempt, which is explained by the lie of the coast at St. Paul's Bay, Malta, as James Smith fully describes in his book. A little island, separated from the mainland by a channel of not more than one hundred yards in breadth, lies off the north-east point of the bay, and to a beholder at the entrance to the bay looks as if continuous with it. When the ship got farther in, they would see the narrow channel, through which a strong current sets and makes a considerable disturbance as it meets the run of the water in the bay. A bank of mud has been formed at the point of meeting. Thus not only the water shoals, but the force of the current through the narrows would hinder the ship from getting past it to the beach. The two things together made her ground, 'stem on' to the bank; and then, of course, the heavy sea running into the bay, instead of helping her to the shore, began to break up the stern which was turned towards it.
Common peril makes beasts of prey and their usual victims crouch together. Benefits received touch generous hearts. But the legionaries on board had no such sentiments. Paul's helpfulness was forgotten. A still more ignoble exhibition of the instinct of self- preservation than the sailors had shown dictated that cowardly, cruel suggestion to kill the prisoners. Brutal indifference to human life, and Rome's iron discipline holding terror over the legionaries' heads, are vividly illustrated in the 'counsel,' So were Paul's kindnesses requited! It is hard to melt rude natures even by kindness; and if Paul had been looking for gratitude he would have been disappointed, as we so often are. But if we do good to men because we expect requital, even in thankfulness, we are not pure in motive. 'Looking for nothing again' is the spirit enforced by God's pattern and by experience.
The centurion had throughout, like most of his fellows in Scripture, been kindly disposed, and showed more regard for Paul than the rank and file did. He displays the good side of militarism, while they show its bad side; for he is collected, keeps his head in extremities, knows his own mind, holds the reins in a firm hand, even in that supreme moment, has a quick eye to see what must be done, and decision to order it at once. It was prudent to send first those who could swim; they could then help the others. The distance was short, and as the bow was aground, there would be some shelter under the lee of the vessel, and shoal water, where they could wade, would be reached in a few minutes or moments.
'And so it came to pass, that they all escaped safe to the land.' So Paul had assured them they would. God needs no miracles in order to sway human affairs. Everything here was perfectly 'natural,' and yet His hand wrought through all, and the issue was His fulfilment of His promises. If we rightly look at common things, we shall see God working in them all, and believe that He can deliver us as truly without miracles as ever He did any by miracles. Promptitude, prudence, skill, and struggle with the waves, saved the whole two hundred and seventy-six souls in that battered ship; yet it was God who saved them all. Whether Paul was among the party that could swim, or among the more helpless who had to cling to anything that would float, he was held up by God's hand, and it was He who 'sent from above, took him, and drew him out of many waters.'