Summary: To escape the presence of God is not rational thinking, certainly for a prophet of God. But how many of us are rational when we reject God’s commands and escape his attention? And that leads us to consider how much Jonah is like us.
Jonah 1:1-4 Fleeing from God
10/19/14 D. Marion Clark
Responding to the call of God is a mixed bag among biblical characters. There is Abraham, the model of obedience. God calls him to leave his homeland and he leaves. God calls him to sacrifice his son, and he rises early the next morning to carry out his sad mission. Then there is Moses, the hesitant one. God calls him to lead his people out of Egypt, and Moses does his best to excuse himself, finally pleading with God to send his brother Aaron instead. There is Jeremiah who humbly questions how such a youth as he could serve God. But there is no one like Jonah. No remonstrance; no objections – just flat out running away.
For six weeks we will consider the story of Jonah. Romans 15:4 tells us: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” We will consider the instruction intended for us through what Jonah experiences.
There really is nothing like this book. It is placed among the prophets because Jonah was a prophet, and yet it does not actually deliver prophecy to the readers as the others do. The main character – a prophet of God no less – turns out to be the one who doesn’t learn his lesson, while the pagans, who know nothing of the true God are the ones who respond to him best. It is both comedy and drama; in the midst of its humor it delivers a deep, poignant display of God’s sovereignty and his mercy.
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai,
One is tempted to discount the book of Jonah as merely a work of fiction because of its story format. The first line, however, tags the main character as an historical figure. 2 Kings 14:25 refers to the prophet Jonah, who was the son of Amittai. He served in Israel during the reign of Jereboam II.
We begin this story with the Lord giving his prophet a job assignment.
saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.”
This was an unusual assignment. The prophets of Israel and Judah typically spoke to their own people. They might be directed to take a personal message to a ruler or ruler-to-be in a neighboring territory. They might write prophetic messages to other nations, but Jonah is the only one actually sent to a faraway city to pronounce judgment on the people. And not just any city: this is Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire.
Again, there is no record of Jonah arguing with God. He simply gets up and heads in the opposite direction.
3 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.
Commentators are not sure where Tarshish is but one thing is clear – it is in the opposite direction of Nineveh. That city is northeast; Jonah hops on a ship on the Mediterranean Sea, most likely intending to cross it. Yet, it is interesting that the passage does not say that Jonah is fleeing Nineveh but “from the presence of the Lord.” Indeed, it repeats the phrase to make sure we understand Jonah’s intent.
What is Jonah thinking? He is a prophet of the Lord God, not some pagan who believes in gods that are bound to specific locations. And what’s with the ship? Even though Israel bordered the Mediterranean Sea, there is little reference to shipping in its history. For whatever reason, boating on the Great Sea was not looked to as an enjoyable experience among the Israelites. One only took to it out of necessity. Jonah must have been desperate to take such recourse.
What happens next is expected.
4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.
I have this image of God looking down with amusement at his fleeing servant. He sees Jonah sneaking out of his house early in the morning and heading as quickly as he can to the coast. I suppose he has skipped his prayers. He finds a ship heading out, pays his fare, and not only gets on the ship, but goes deep down into it, hopefully out of the sight of God.
Then the Lord has fun. He hurls a great wind, like a warrior who hurls a spear. It creates a mighty storm that tosses the ship about. It is God’s message to his prophet – where do you think you are going? We leave the scene with the ship in peril. Stay tuned next week for what happens.