Summary: Jonah refused to go to Tarshish because emotionally he felt unwelcome and theologically he thought he could escape God’s oversight. He paid hidden costs, in vain: the loss of a vessel, the loss of joy, human wreckage, reckoning with eternity.
When I travel, I don’t want to spend too much money on the travel itself. I’d rather spend my money on whatever there is to buy where I’m going. I don’t want to hand much over to the airline or the railroad. I want to travel cheap. But I sometimes miss an important fact – that when I try to travel cheap, there may be hidden costs. There may be costs I hadn’t counted on.
A couple of years ago Margaret and I wanted to go to Texas for my niece’s wedding. We got discount airline tickets. The only flaw was that we would have to go to a more distant airport. Cheap fares were not available at National or Dulles, only at BWI. And the flight was to leave very, very early in the morning. That sounded okay. Just get up early, pack quickly, and scoot out to BWI – not a bad price to pay for a cheap ticket.
Travel day came, and we did what you have to do. We got before the birds. We grabbed everything in sight and packed. We warmed up the car, and we dashed off to BWI, arriving with just enough time to park the car, get our boarding passes, check our luggage – uh, oh, our luggage? We had some of it; but most of it was forty miles away, still sitting in our bedroom at home. We were in such a hurry to get to Texas on the cheap that we rushed out – Margaret is probably asking, “Who’s this ‘we’ he’s talking about?” – I rushed out and left our luggage behind.
Cheap tickets? When we got to Austin, we promptly went to the nearest shopping mall and stimulated the Texas economy, buying shirts and socks and blouses and skirts. So much for traveling on the cheap. Whenever you travel on the cheap, there are going to be hidden costs. Whenever you try to get by with a cheap fare, there will be other prices to pay you never even thought about.
And when God’s people try to cheat God out of what God wants us to do, there will be a price to pay. When God’s people attempt to get by without following God’s expectations, we will find that the fare is much higher than we had thought.
Jonah heard God’s call one day. It didn’t sit well with Jonah. This wasn’t what Jonah wanted to hear:
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, "Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me."
The summons of God for Jonah was to go over to Nineveh, the great capital city of the Assyrian Empire, a place quite unlike Jonah’s home and certainly not friendly to Jonah’s people. There Jonah was to tell the people of Nineveh that they were wrong. That is likely to get you yelled at, cursed and spit on – or worse. So Jonah did just about what most of us would do: he ran. Jonah ran as hard and as far as he could go in the other direction. He found something else to do and some place else to go, right now.
But Jonah set out 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 his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.
We don’t know exactly where Tarshish was. One theory is that it was in what today is Spain. Let me tell you, that was a very long way from home. Might as well have sailed to the moon. The Biblical writer is trying to tell us that Jonah ran as fast as he could as far as he could. He “paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD”.
Now why do you suppose Jonah ran like this? Why do you suppose he was ready to shell out good money for fare on a ship bound for nowhere?
There isn’t much in the Bible to explain why, but there are two hints I want to develop. I can detect, from this text, that Jonah had both an emotional reason and a theological reason. An emotional, down in the tummy, in the guts reason, and a theological, intellectual, up here in the head reason for not going. Let’s look at those.
First, the emotional, down in the tummy, reason not to go to Nineveh. The people there were described as “wicked.” God said that their “wickedness” had come to His attention.. How does that word “wicked” make you feel?