Our emotions and personal desires must always be kept in submission to God’s will, as Jonah’s experience warns us. He knew exactly what God expected of him, but he was moved to disobedience because he allowed his feelings toward the Assyrians to override God’s command.
Watch Jonah Run
If I asked you to finish this sentence, what would you say? Adam and—Eve. Just about everybody would say that. What about this one? Noah and—the ark. Here’s another one: Daniel and—the lion’s den. One more: Jonah and—the whale.
The truth is, there’s a lot more to Noah than the ark; there’s a lot more to Daniel’s life than lions, and there’s a lot more to Jonah that being swallowed by a whale—or as the Bible says—a great fish.
Sometimes in our Bible study we focus on the sensational and miss other things that are just as significant. This little book of Jonah shows us the sovereign control of the Creator over His creation in a miraculous storm at sea; a great fish that’s told where to swim and what to swallow; a plant that grows at super speed; and one of the shortest sermons ever preached, followed by one of the greatest national revivals recorded in human history.
This little book is only forty-eight verses long, but it puts on a magnificent display of God’s power over all of creation—including the human heart. The book of Jonah is much more than a fish story.
The first thing we discover in Jonah is that there is no introduction to this book. It just begins suddenly with the statement, “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai” (Jonah 1:1). Nothing is said here about who Jonah is.
However, we know that Jonah was already quite famous. He had delivered a well-known prophecy during the reign of King Jeroboam II, which had been fulfilled. That prophecy is referred to in 2 Kings 14:25, which reads:
[Jeroboam II] restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.
We also know, by dating this prophecy, that Jonah ministered in Israel for a number of years. The prophets Hosea and Amos also ministered during the reign of Jeroboam, so it is quite possible they knew each other fairly well.
We are not told whether it was by a dream or a vision, but Jonah 1:2 tells us that God delivers a command to this veteran prophet. God says to Jonah: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” We could paraphrase that last phrase, “They smell to the highest heavens.”
The command from God certainly got Jonah’s attention. And Jonah was immediately overwhelmed with distasteful emotions—emotions that are going to lead him literally to run away.
Now let’s not be too hard on Jonah. If we climb back into Jonah’s generation, we can better understand why he decided to retire from the office of prophet.
Nineveh was the chief city of Assyria. Much of the city has been excavated, revealing a once-impressive fortress, built for war by a brutal nation. The Assyrians were Israel’s most feared enemies and a constant threat to their safety. And they will indeed eventually conquer Israel and take the people into captivity some fifty years after Jonah’s ministry ended.
When the king of Assyria took the throne, he supposedly joined the hand of deity, which invested in him the power of their national god, Marduk. The Assyrians were literally demon-worshiping, immoral, unmerciful people.
In fact, they boasted of their cruelty to their enemies. Archaeologists have discovered how the Assyrian army would parade with the heads of their vanquished enemies elevated on poles. It was an Assyrian custom to gouge out the eyes of prisoners or put hooks in their noses and then humiliate them by leading them like cattle before killing them.
God’s call here to Jonah is clear. It does not allow for any confusion, and Jonah doesn’t miss the point. God makes His will perfectly clear. The verbs, “arise,” “go,” and “call out against” are not suggestions. In the Hebrew language, these verbs are imperatives—they are commands that are unmistakable and undeniable.
By the way, God is not unaware of the danger of this mission; He is not covering over reality here. This is not a sales pitch to Jonah. No, God says in verse 2, “Their evil has come up before me.” In other words, “Their perversion and wickedness and cruelty have not gone unnoticed. I know what I am asking you to do, and I know how difficult this assignment will be for you.”
You might be tempted to think that if God really knew what was involved in what He called you to do, He would not have asked you to do it! I mean if He knew how impossible your situation would become, He never would have asked you to go. No, beloved, God is not out of touch, even though His calling for your life might make you feel out of place.
In his past ministry, Jonah had walked with God and spoken for God in his home country and to receptive audiences. Now, as God says in verse 2, it is time for him to “arise, go to Nineveh that great city, and call out against it.”
And don’t miss the fact that God does not give Jonah any guarantees of success or even safety. God does not say, “Arise, go to Nineveh, and they will repent and you will return home safely.” No, Jonah is simply commanded to confront this brutal nation for their wickedness.
Verse 3 records Jonah’s immediate response:
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.
Joppa was a busy port city on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It is to there Jonah runs to catch a boat and sail to Tarshish, a city located on the coast of Spain, which, by the way, is in the exact opposite direction from Nineveh.
In Jonah’s day, Spain was considered the most western spot of the known world. So, Jonah is running as far away as he possibly can!
Now understand, Jonah knows he cannot literally run away from the presence of the Lord. He has read the poems of King David and surely is familiar with Psalm 139, which says, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” (verse 7).
Jonah is not running away from God; he is resigning his role as a prophet. He is resigning from the ministry. This is more than he bargained for, and he wants out.
Whenever we run from God in disobedience, we pay a price—sometimes it is a high price. And when we run from God, we can never find a place we enjoy. I am convinced that the most unhappy person on the planet is a Christian who is running from the will of God.
Jonah arrives at the dock in Joppa. He boards a ship and might even think that everything is working out just fine. God is just going to have to find another prophet to go to Nineveh.
Now all that Jonah wants is a nap, as verse 5 will inform us that “Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep.”
Jonah might not have slept so soundly had he been able to see through the flooring of his cabin down into the deep waters of the Mediterranean Sea. Far below the ship a creature is swimming quietly, keeping pace, under orders to just tag along. Unlike Jonah, this creature will obey every command from its creator God.