According to global mission’s statistics, a dozen Christians are martyred for their faith every day. Certainly, the path of following God is not the path of comfort and safety; it often is the path of sacrifice and suffering.
Jonah received a commission from God to travel to Nineveh, a nation that represented Israel’s most wicked and brutal enemies. I have little doubt that Jonah believed the outcome of his visit would be his death, or even worse in his mind: the repentance of his enemies.
The possibility of a vile and cruel nation being forgiven by God was simply too much for Jonah to stomach. We read Jonah 1:3, “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD.”
Now, Jonah is certainly aware that God is omnipresent—present everywhere at once. Jonah knows that he can’t literally run away from God or hide from His sight. What Jonah is doing here is quitting; he’s turning in his resignation as a prophet of the Lord.
To prove that he’s officially leaving the Lord’s service, Jonah attempts to leave Israel for good and sail to Tarshish.
Let’s stop here briefly and make two observations as we watch Jonah board a ship in Joppa to flee from God’s service:
Whenever we run in disobedience to God, we are running in the wrong direction.
Jonah is abandoning his national heritage, his friends and fellow Israelites, and his mission from God. His friends were counting on him; young prophets looked up to him; the entire nation of Israel listened to him as he spoke to them the word of God. Jonah is essentially abandoning them all.
Frankly, there is so much wrong in not doing right. A wrong decision can end up affecting the hearts and lives of many others.
Whenever we run in disobedience to God, we pay a higher cost than we planned.
The disobedient Christian is truly the most miserable person on earth.
I can imagine Jonah having second thoughts as he walked up the gangplank of that ship; imagine the guilt in his mind and the weight on his conscience. Worry and anxiety are at their highest peak when we are the farthest from God.
Jonah sets sail to Tarshish, a city on the modern-day coast of Spain. This destination was as geographically distant from Nineveh as possible. One author helped this make sense geographically by explaining that this would be like a Jew living in New York City in the early 1940s being called to become a missionary to Nazi Germany; but instead, they board a train to San Francisco, and from there, get on a boat to Japan.
As Jonah boards the ship, he is unaware of one important piece of information: God has not accepted Jonah’s resignation. Verse 4 explains, “But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea.” The captain of the ship awakens Jonah—who had been sleeping down below—and orders him to call upon his God, just like the sailors had been doing to their own gods.
These superstitious sailors had begun casting lots to try and determine which person on board was to blame for this catastrophic storm. But God was even in control of their ‘dice’ and Jonah was soon identified. As all eyes turned to him, he was asked, “What is your occupation?” (Jonah 1:8b). That was the last question Jonah wanted to answer.
As Jonah tries to explain why a prophet of God is running from God, even these hardened sailors are shocked at his rebellion. Jonah commands them to throw him into the sea to stop the storm, but the sailors rowed with all their might to get back to shore and safety. Their futile rowing produces no effect, and the crew finally agrees to throw Jonah overboard, but not before offering this interesting prayer, “O LORD, let us not perish for this man’s life, . . . for you, O LORD, have done as it pleased you”
(Jonah 1:14). Immediately after the “Amen,” they tossed Jonah overboard, and as promised, the sea calmed immediately.
In this section of the story, we can see two elements of God’s grace being revealed:
First, even when Jonah was disobedient, God used his words as a witness.
A rather surprising revival takes place on board this ship, now settled in calm water. Verse 16 informs us: “Then the men feared the LORD exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the LORD.”
Even though Jonah was running from God; even though his personal testimony was one of disobedience, God still used this situation to save this crew of superstitious sailors from Joppa. And their lives will never be the same.
Secondly, although Jonah is thrown overboard by the sailors, he will not be discarded by God.
As Jonah hits the icy waters of the Mediterranean Sea, I’m sure he thought this would soon end his life. But unknown to him, God was directing another member of His creation—a massive fish that had been commissioned to rescue a prodigal prophet.
And the fish will obey the command of God.