“Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, You are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there Your hand will guide me,
Your right hand will hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:7-10)
Nineveh lay far beyond the boundaries of Jonah’s world, in enemy territory. It was the capital city of the Assyrian empire – the epicentre of godlessness and wickedness on the earth at that time. Israel and Assyria had nothing in common! But God’s word to Jonah was clear and simple: he was to go and preach judgement to Nineveh. For even the worst of sinners must be given the opportunity to repent…
Jonah, however, refused to accept his commission. Unlike other prophets in receipt of an unwelcome call (such as Moses and Jeremiah), he did not even argue or debate the matter with God – he simply fled down to the coast and hired a ship to take him as far as possible in the opposite direction (verse 3)! But although he managed to leave the land of Israel, he soon discovered that it’s impossible to run away or hide from the God of Israel. Instead of simply letting him go, God pursued him… and the sudden violent storm threatened the lives of everyone with him on the ship (verse 4). While Jonah was below decks (probably suffering from seasickness) the crew did everything humanly possible to save the ship, but to no avail. While they prayed in desperation to their false gods, the one man on board who knew the true God was oblivious to the needs of those around him!
The sailors soon realised that this was no ordinary storm, and recognised it as some kind of divine judgement. According to their beliefs, they needed to find out who was the cause of their problem – and despite Jonah’s attempts to remain anonymous, the lot identified him (verse 7). Their persistent questioning obliged him to reveal who he was and why he was on board – and thus to accept responsibility for the perilous situation they were all in.
Clearly something had to be done about Jonah; to pretend otherwise would mean the death of all. Either Jonah must repudiate his sin, or the sailors must repudiate Jonah – and he would rather die than repent! And yet the sailors, though pagans, were caring and responsible men who had more concern for Jonah than he had for foreigners! Far from scapegoating him, they did their utmost to avoid having to resort to the desperate course of action that he had recommended. But in the end, they had no choice but to throw him overboard.
The instant calming of the storm terrified them; clearly Jonah’s God really was the Maker of both sea and dry land! And, like Jesus’ disciples (Mark 4:41), they seem to have been more frightened of the One who could calm such a storm than of the storm itself! From then on, these sailors became worshippers of the God of Israel. Thus Jonah was used by God to carry out His will, even while he was in a state of defiance and disobedience!
Now Jonah’s behaviour isn’t as unusual as we might think. He was just being a typical Israelite: stubborn, disobedient, and defiantly doing the very opposite of what God wanted him to do! And before we criticise him, it might be wise to reflect on whether this description might also might apply to us. For the Church too is called to be a light to the nations, “declaring the praises of Him who called us out of darkness into His wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9) Yet how often are we disobedient, uncaring, or simply too wrapped up in our own problems to fulfil our commission? All too frequently we see God at work in spite of us, rather than through us!
And we are also largely blind to our own inconsistencies. Jonah’s confession of faith is a good example of this: it has to be wrung from him (verses 8,9), suggesting that he is more than a little embarrassed by its implications. It’s noteworthy that he puts his ethnic identity first (which may explain his contempt for those who do not share it). And although his beliefs about God are accurate and orthodox, he doesn’t apply his theology very well! Surely if he really were a worshipper of such a great God, he would not have disobeyed Him? And if God really did make (and therefore rule) the whole world (verse 9), how could Jonah possibly imagine that he could run away from Him?