Summary: The Book of Jonah is the story of a man whose greatest struggles were not with a big fish or a pagan city - they were battles within his own heart.
We are first introduced to Jonah the prophet in the Book of Second Kings.
"In the fifteenth year of Amaziah son of Joash king of Judah, Jeroboam son of Jehoash king of Israel became king in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. 24 He did evil in the eyes of the LORD and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit. 25 He was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo  Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah,  in accordance with the word of the LORD , the God of Israel, spoken through his servant Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher. 26 The LORD had seen how bitterly everyone in Israel, whether slave or free, was suffering; there was no one to help them. 27 And since the LORD had not said he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam son of Jehoash." 2 Kings 14:23-27
Jonah was a prophet during the reign of King Jeroboam the second. He prophesied the restoration of the land of Israel to its ancient boundaries, a prophecy he lived to see come to pass. At the time, the Assyrians were oppressing Israel. The words
“bitterly” and “suffering” are poignant descriptions of the cruel and barbaric treatment handed out by the Assyrians. Rape, murder, torture, the plundering and burning of grain fields and buildings traumatized a whole nation. Jonah lived through this and it is most likely that his friends and family were victims. The wounds of grief and suffering went deep inside his heart. Who were the principle culprits? The Ninevites, citizens of Assyria’s capital city.
Then, the time came when the unthinkable happened.
"The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me." Jonah 1:1-2
God asked Jonah to face his enemies, a prospect few people welcome. Jonah certainly didn’t. There is a saying that when people are confronted with unpleasantness the common response is either “fight or flight”. How did Jonah respond?
"But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD." Jonah 1:3
“Flight” was Jonah’s choice and what a flight it was! He ended up in the belly of a fish for 3 days and apart from the mercy of God he would have perished there.
In the Biblical account of Jonah’s life, there is nothing that indicates that fear of the Ninevites was the driving force behind his behaviour.
I remember a song about Jonah from the days of my childhood in Sunday school that contained the line, “he just obeyed a very foolish notion!” However, there is nothing in the Bible account to suggest Jonah was given to impulsiveness.
What then were the reasons for his reaction? Did his past experiences with the Ninevites affect him to the point that he lost perspective? Had the brutal attacks traumatized him? Are these the reasons he ran? We discover the answer to these questions in the Bible.
"But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD , "O LORD , is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O LORD , take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." 4 But the LORD replied, "Have you any right to be angry?"
Jonah struggled with a strong unwillingness to forgive his enemies or to let God forgive them. His heart was filled with hatred for the Ninevites. He ran from the call of God to prevent his enemies from being blessed with mercy. He most certainly did not want to be the instrument through which that mercy came.
The natural human response to trauma is to attempt to cope with it in a way that excludes God. Ultimately, as the text reveals, Jonah was not only fleeing from the Ninevites, he was running from the issues of his own heart. The terrible events from the past had shaped the character and behaviour of Jonah and he became a man who was out of control.
Coping with trauma by taking our lives into our own hands at the exclusion of God’s presence and will, is a very common human response. The loud cries from his wounded heart prompted Jonah to flee to a place where he could be alone with his broken-ness. It is a place that led him nowhere except into deeper despair.