“But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the fare thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah 1:3
The biblical narrative of Jonah sets forth some of the most wondrous attributes of God: His absolute sovereignty and might, His great love and mercy, and His amazing grace shown to undeserving sinners. And it does so in some very striking ways. Accordingly, this prophecy has many important spiritual lessons to which we do well to take heed.
Jonah was a son of one called Amittai (1:1). Jonah was a citizen in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II, who, like his predecessors, did evil in the sight of the Lord. Most importantly, Jonah was a prophet—not a false prophet, but a true prophet of God. We know that because we are told that “the word of the Lord came unto Jonah.” God spoke directly to him and gave him the words to preach. What a great privilege it was to be given this calling to be God’s mouthpiece!
But Jonah ran away from God. The occasion for this was that God Himself commissioned him to bring His word to the city of Nineveh. “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me,” said God to Jonah; but Jonah refused to obey. Instead, he went to Joppa, boarded a ship manned by pagan sailors, and went with them in the opposite direction, to Tarshish.
Jonah did so in order to flee from “the presence of the Lord.” To be sure, this does not refer to the everywhere presence of God. We have no reason to doubt that Jonah, being a prophet of God, knew and understood the very simple but powerful truth of the omnipresence of God. He knew that there was absolutely nowhere he could go to hide from the Lord, and surely knew what the psalmist confessed, “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold thou art there” (Ps. 139:7–8). Rather, “the presence of the Lord” speaks of the intimate, special communing presence of God and, therefore, refers to the precious places, ways, or means through which God has fellowship and communion with His children. See this in how it is said that our first parents, Adam and Eve, hid themselves from “the presence of the Lord” when God had called out to them with His voice and approached them in the cool of the garden. They sought to flee from the intimate communion and sweet fellowship they had with God because they knew they were guilty of disobeying Him! So also was Jonah doing that when he tried to run away “from the presence of the Lord” by boarding that ship going to Tarshish, in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh.
Dear reader, could you be doing that? Are you fleeing from the presence of the Lord? There are so many ways to do this! Directly, we could be absenting ourselves from worship—whether it be at church, at the dining table where family devotions are held, or in our own private “closets” where we pray and read our Bibles. And indirectly, we could be physically present at these places but our hearts very far from, even against, God. We could be fast asleep during the sermon or “tuned off” when the good word addressing our sins is being brought to us. And though we could be diligently listening to the sermon and taking detailed notes, our intent is to use them against others and hurt them. When we do such things, we are, like Jonah, running away from the sweet, intimate, and communing presence of the Lord!
That leads us to ask the question, “Why?” Why was Jonah running away from the presence of his God?
Could it have been because of the difficulty of the task that God had called him to? After all, we are told that Nineveh was a “great city.” It took three days to cross, had 120,000 infants and thus likely had about 600,000 people living in it. Such information should not surprise us because it was the capital city of Assyria, the most powerful kingdom on earth in its day! So, what could one man do? Who would listen to Jonah when he got there? Or could the reason have been the danger involved in going to Nineveh? For it was a very wicked city (1:2), in fact, a city of great violence and murder (Nah. 3:1–4). If either or both of these were the reasons for Jonah to run away from God and His appointed mission, we might be sympathetic and somewhat understanding towards him.
But that was not the case.
Rather, the reason is given by Jonah himself later on in chapter four after God had shown mercy to a repentant Nineveh. In his anger and displeasure against God, Jonah said to Him, “Was this not my saying, when I was in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness…” (Jonah 4:2). In other words, Jonah was angry that God showed His graciousness by working repentance in the hearts of Nineveh’s elect citizens. While Jonah desired the salvation of his own people and willingly brought the gospel of grace and salvation in Christ alone to them, he did not want the Ninevites to be saved—saved through his gospel labors! At bottom, this was because Jonah had a powerful, sinful attitude of prejudice and hatred towards the people of Nineveh.
There are precious spiritual lessons we can learn from all of this.
The first lesson is that we should never underestimate the attitude of hatred in the sinful human heart. Hatred, when left unchecked and not diligently identified and put away from us, can develop into defiant anger that does great violence against God and our neighbor. This is what happened to Jonah, a fearless, tireless, true prophet of God who labored faithfully for the Lord. Such was the deep-seated, raging anger and hatred within Jonah that he would rather serve the sin of prejudice than live in the sweet communion of and joyful obedience to his Lord! We should know that, if it happened to him, it can also happen to us! Is there someone, or a group or ethnicity of people you despise? Is there someone who abused you so badly and in so many ways that you want to do the same or worse to him? Have you determined to harbor hatred forever in your heart against that person and never forgive him? If we are doing these things, we should know that though we may be physically present at worship, we could not be farther away from God. May God grant us grace to repent of our hatred and be watchful over our own hearts so that we might be actively “casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).
Second, God’s providence may never be set in conflict against His clear word of command and instruction. Looking at the circumstances in Jonah’s life when he went on board that ship, we can see how one might argue that Jonah was being “led” by God, in His providential arrangements, to do just that. In the providence of God, there was a ship at Joppa going to Tarshish. In the providence of God, the ship was manned by a group of ungodly sailors who certainly would not give Jonah a hard time for his disobedience to God. In the providence of God, Jonah also had sufficient money to pay his fare for the trip. But was it the case that Jonah was being “led by God” to Tarshish? Certainly not! For God’s clear word to Jonah was to “arise and go to Nineveh and cry against it” (1:2). Dear reader, could you be setting the providence of God in conflict against the clear Word of God? It may seem that God is opening the way for us to do something like Jonah when he went on board that ship to Tarshish. But we may not attempt to justify and cling to any thoughts, words, or actions that we may really desire when they are in conflict with the clear and good instruction of God’s Word!
Third, the prophet’s blatant defiance of and disobedience against God reminds us never to put our trust in man. No, not even saints whom we have the highest esteem for, be they our parents, elders, or pastor! For even the holiest of the saints have but a small beginning of the life of new obedience! They are what they are only by the grace of God.
If we were to conclude this meditation by fixing our eyes on Jonah, we are left only with a sad and sinking feeling in our souls. Rather, Jonah’s sin reminds us that we need to look up and fix our eyes on our great God. Because Jonah is a child of God, God never lets him go. The Lord would go through great lengths in order to recover His errant servant. He did so because of His great mercy and love for Jonah. For indeed, such is the love of God that He gave the unspeakable gift of His dear Son in order to save us, a sinful people who only have hatred in our hearts. If He did that for us, what good would He, the almighty and faithful God, not do for us?