Summary: Jonah runs away from God.
In its 1981 debut, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” made $384 million US worldwide. There didn’t seem to be a country that didn’t fall in love with character Indiana Jones. Kids everywhere were swooping around playgrounds cracking imaginary whips and humming the movie’s theme song as they “uncovered” hidden treasure they then fought hard to keep out of the hands of “bad guys.” Admit it. You were one of those kids. Who hasn’t dreamed of being a resourceful adventurer like Indy Jones?
Over the next few weeks I want to reintroduce you to a real person who got into his share of Indiana Jones-like tight spots. Independent Jonah, as I’ll call him for his I-know-what’s-best attitude, lived over 2,700 years ago in Israel. He’s most famous of course for having spent three nights in the belly of a fish. We’ll get to that but today let’s find out what led to the adventure we’ll call: “Independent Jonah and the Sailors of a Floundering Ark.”
Like Indiana Jones, Independent Jonah was not a full time adventurer. His day job was that of prophet. He preached God’s Word like a pastor does. One thing I find interesting about Jonah is that he may have been a disciple of the famous prophet Elisha. Independent was from Gath-Hepher, a town just 5 km northeast of Nazareth where Jesus would grow up. He lived during a time of political stability. In fact Jonah himself had prophesied this period of peace (2 Kings 14:25). It was perhaps while he was hanging out in his hometown of Gath-Hepher enjoying the peace when his next assignment came. The Old Testament book of Jonah begins: “1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (Jonah 1:1, 2).
It seems like such a simple assignment. Jonah had been given a specific destination and a specific message to preach. There shouldn’t have been much chance of Independent botching the mission. Jonah didn’t exactly botch the mission; he just didn’t want any part of it. So instead of setting out for Nineveh, which lay 800 km to the east in present day Iraq, Jonah headed for Tarshish, a town 4,000 km to the west in present day Spain. Tarshish was about as far as you could go by ship in those days. It was the “end of the line” at the end of the then-known world. Jonah was running from God and his mission as far away as he could.
Why did Jonah run? Did it have to do with Nineveh’s reputation? Nineveh was an ancient city already by the time of Jonah. It had been founded by Nimrod, a great-grandson of Noah (Genesis 10:11, 12). It eventually became the capital city of the Assyrians – a warlike people known for stacking the skulls of the vanquished on stakes. It was to these violent people that God wanted Jonah to go and tell them to repent. I suppose that would be like if God called you to go preach to a terrorist training camp in the mountains of Afghanistan. Wouldn’t you be hesitant to go?
It wasn’t his safety, however, that Jonah was worried about. He knew well how God had kept his mentor Elisha from harm when the whole Aramaean army had surrounded the town of Dothan to capture the prophet. God had sent an army of fiery angels to protect Elisha by striking the invaders blind (2 Kings 6). What would the Assyrian army be to God? They wouldn’t be able to touch Jonah if God didn’t want them to. No, there was another, more sinister reason for Jonah’s hesitation: God’s mercy (Jonah 4:2). Say what? Yes. Jonah wasn’t interested in preaching to the Ninevites because he knew how it would most likely end: God would forgive their sins and not bring upon them the punishment they deserved! Jonah didn’t want any part of that, especially since the Assyrians were bitter enemies of the Israelites. To put it into perspective what God was asking Jonah to do would be like Dr. Jones befriending and helping the Nazis in the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie. Such a thing would be unthinkable!
Let’s pause here to summarize what we’ve learned about God so far, after all, the Old Testament book of Jonah isn’t really about the prophet, the fish, or the Ninevites. It’s about God. It’s about his hatred for sin. If the Assyrians thought they could do whatever they wanted, they were mistaken. God was keeping tabs. As far as he was concerned their sins had piled dangerously high like a stack of dirty dishes teetering on the brink of a shattering collapse. God is keeping tabs on you too, you know. You may have hidden your thieving ways from your boss or parents but you can’t hide them from God. He knows what you’re up to and he isn’t impressed. Oh you may think that your sins aren’t as bad as what the Assyrians were up to with their wanton killing and pillaging. OK. Let’s say that for every sin you commit God only gives you a “ticket” written out on a single sheet of paper. How many tickets would you be holding by the end of the day? 100? 500? That sounds like a heavy load already considering there are 500 sheets of paper in a standard packet of photocopy paper. How many packets like that can you hold? Would you even still be standing by the end of the week or would the weight of your accumulated tickets have crushed you by then? We may take our sins lightly but God does not. The stench of our sins has reached heaven and the righteous God cannot ignore it.