“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.’ But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah 1:1-3
The Book of Jonah is unique among the books of the Hebrew Bible, as well as the New Testament. It is short in length, filled with over-the-top language and descriptions, contains a fair amount of satire, and all the while beautifully demonstrates God’s providence and mercy in spite of our actions.
The book opens up in a very significant way: with Jonah receiving the “word of the Lord.” This is important in that it identifies Jonah as a prophet. This same opening occurs in nearly all of the prophetic books in the Bible; a prophet would receive the “word of the Lord” in some form or fashion, and in turn, that prophet would relay their God-given message to the people. Often these would be messages of rebuke from God, in which He would chastise His people for their disobedience and straying away from Him. Occasionally there would be oracles of judgment against other peoples and kingdoms for their wickedness; this was to demonstrate that God’s sovereignty was not limited to Israel, but extended over all the earth. Whomever God chose to carry out His prophetic work, He prepared, and He gave His word to speak.
Jonah’s reaction to receiving the word of the Lord is different from any other prophet we encounter in Scripture. When ordered by God to go to Nineveh, which is east of Israel and Judah (located in modern-day Iraq,) Jonah instead boards a boat bound for Tarshish, which is west of Israel, across the Mediterranean Sea (located in modern Spain.) Jonah heads in the opposite direction that he had been commanded to go. Not only that, but he goes as far as was humanly possible to go in the opposite direction. Tarshish would be the last port one would pass before going through what is now referred to as the Straits of Gibraltar, after which one would find oneself in the vast—and then uncharted—expanses of the Atlantic Ocean. At this time, there was no knowledge of any land beyond the Atlantic, so Tarshish was very much at the edge of the world. Jonah was trying, quite literally, to flee to the end of the earth to avoid doing what God had commanded him to do.
This is a point that must not be missed: Jonah was not a heathen fleeing from God; he was a prophet, chosen by God, who was attempting to flee from his duty.
People have often wondered why Jonah chose to run away from his God-given mission. Many have often speculated that it was out of fear. At this point in history, the Assyrian Empire, of which Nineveh was the capital, was growing and was becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East. The Assyrians had quickly become the dominant power in the region and were using their strength to intimidate weaker kingdoms like Israel and Judah. Nineveh, as God mentioned to Jonah, was known for its wickedness and debauchery, as its citizens were enthusiastically enjoying the spoils of their military conquests and successes. The Assyrians were also known for being especially ruthless and bloodthirsty; they spared no mercies to those whom they conquered. They would rape, pillage, and then deport any surviving vanquished peoples to various cities throughout their empire. In only a few decades after the time of Jonah, it would be the Assyrians who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and the ten tribes who once comprised this kingdom would be lost to history.
But it wasn’t fear that made Jonah determined not to go to Nineveh; it was hatred. Due to power and might that Nineveh and Assyria represented, the Israelites hated them. Additionally, the faithful Israelites who still followed God viewed Assyria with contempt because of their paganism which they saw corrupting their own Israelite leaders. Hate, however, was only part of the motivation behind Jonah’s decision to flee.
After finally getting to Nineveh and preaching the message given to him, Jonah is furious when the Ninevites repent. “And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.'” (Jonah 4: 2-3) Jonah said it himself that he knew exactly what would happen if he went to Nineveh; if the people of the city repented, God would spare them. He knew the character of God, and the thought of the people who he hated being saved from destruction by his just, gracious, and merciful God so upset Jonah that he tried to flee to the end of the earth to avoid playing his appointed role in it. Jonah, by his own account, would rather die than see Nineveh repent.
Though this story may seem far-fetched, when we honestly consider our own actions, we realize that we are very much like Jonah. When given opportunities to take part in God’s work, we find every excuse to avoid doing it. We flee from opportunities to serve because of who we might have to work with, or because we might have to watch God do mighty things for people that we do not like. We allow petty and insignificant hang-ups and prejudices to make us miserable and force us to avoid service instead of being humbled and excited to be chosen to take part in the service of our God. In spite of this, God still uses us—just as He did Jonah—and still does mighty things. Imagine how much more he could accomplish through us if we weren’t fighting Him all along the way.
Jonah fled because he hated Nineveh more than he loved God. Why are you running from God?
Photo: “Hobo Boarding a Train,” Library of Congress