Jonah, the Runaway Prophet

“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). The Assyrians were a cruel people and their capital city Nineveh, in particular was an evil place in which to live. Jonah was commissioned by God to go to Nineveh and preach against this city, to expose its wickedness and to declare its condemnation, unless they repented. This was by no means an easy task for Jonah to have to do, and it is still difficult to speak of sin and judgement today – but it must be done.

When we come to Jonah’s response, chapter 1:3, it is as astonishing as it is tragic. Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. We need to remember this was the action of a servant of the Lord. Jonah was already exercising a ministry as the Lord’s prophet in Israel. Remember these words: “He (Jeroboam II) was the one who restored the boundaries of Israel from Lebo Hamath to the Sea of the Arabah (the Dead Sea) in accordance with the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, spoken through His servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath Hepher” (2 Kings 14:25). Jonah was a mature believer, one whom God had used to speak to the nation and had seen that word fulfilled; yet we find him running away from the Lord. Jonah knew no one could really run away from God. Psalm 139 makes it very plain that God is present everywhere.

How do we account for this behaviour? Well, first we have to say it was an act of open rebellion on the part of Jonah, rebellion against God Himself. Jonah knew what he was doing. This was not a sin he committed by accident or without realising what he was doing. This was flagrant disobedience and for which there was no excuse. Jonah should have known better. He displeased the Lord; he marred his own testimony, was a bad example to others and really should not have done this at all. But before we get too severe against Jonah, we need to look at our own hearts, for which none of us has always perfectly done everything the Lord asked of us. How often we know we should speak to others about the Lord and their sinfulness, but it is all too easy to talk about every other subject under the sun except this one. How we need the Lord to be merciful to us and to help us to obey Him better.

We see again that even the servants of God are but men, and weak men at that. This teaches us to arouse our trust in the Lord and not in flesh and blood. God alone is the only 100% reliable one. What is so sad about Jonah’s response is that he went to the sea port of Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish, which was as far as he could go in those days in almost the opposite direction to Nineveh. Tarshish was in what we know today as South-Western Spain, and was a Phoenician outpost on the very edge of civilisation. Underlying his behaviour is what characterised the religious leaders of the time when Jesus himself walked this earth. They considered every one else to be ‘Gentile dogs’ and had no room whatsoever for the possibility that God might have mercy on anyone other than themselves. It was a very narrow-minded view of the grace of God and very unbiblical, because He (God) had already promised to Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4, Gentiles as well as Jews).

Sadly, Jonah had fallen into the trap which it is still easy to fall into, and that is to think God has no interest in anyone else but ourselves, or our church, or our tribe, or our country. It is a very wrong position to take, but Jonah had fallen into the trap because he did not want the Lord to be merciful to the people of Nineveh. This was the real reason for his disobedience as becomes clear (4:2). It was not his fear of the Assyrians or the severity of his message that influenced him, but that God might be gracious to these Gentiles was what he could not accept. He had a hard heart that lacked any of the compassion that characterises the heart of God. Jonah here was resigning his job as prophet. He was refusing to serve the Lord and by going to Tarshish he was trying to make it impossible to serve the Lord as prophet in Nineveh. To take such a deliberate action is to take oneself out of the service of God and to deprive oneself of His blessing. Such behaviour can only have a bleak outcome. How terrible a thing sin is, especially when it is found in the life of a believer, as Jonah was.

The challenges of these opening statements about Jonah are:

* Are we concerned to know what the will of God is? The amount of time we spend studying the Bible or hearing it explained will indicate the true answer.

* Do we share the heart of God and have a real love for lost men and women in every part of the world? Our willingness to pray for them and speak to them will prove the condition of our heart.

* Are our lives submitted to what God tells us to do, or are we living in open rebellion to His word? Only those who delight in the law of the Lord are fully blessed according to Psalm 1. Remember Jesus said that loving God means keeping His commandments. True obedience actually brings us the joy of the Lord, whereas disobedience deprives us of it. Take great care not to misinterpret favourable circumstances in your disobedience as a sign that you are doing the right things. Jonah found an available ship at the right time and going to the right place, but he was still not doing the right thing. Let us learn from Jonah’s mistake, and let us follow the Lord with all our hearts.

Bro Maybin Bwalya (Kabwe, Zambia)

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