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Outside of the book which bears his name, very little is mentioned in God’s Word regarding the prophet Jonah: in the gospels, we read of Jesus referring to Jonah, even comparing himself to Jonah, and the following verse in the Old Testament speaks of his ministry to Israel.
II Kings 14:25
He [Jeroboam II, king of Israel] restored the coast of Israel from the entering of Hamath unto the sea of the plain, according to the word of the LORD God of Israel, which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gathhepher.
From these records, we gather that God considered Jonah to be both a servant and a prophet, one who spoke for Him.The Scriptures give no other information as to Jonah’s ministry to Israel. However we do read that Jonah had the distinction of being one of the very few prophets called by God to speak for Him to another nation. In other words, to the Gentiles.
Jonah 1:1, 2
Now the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me.
Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria. Although God’s dealings in the Old Testament were primarily with His people (beginning with Abraham), at certain times, for certain reasons, He involved Himself with the affairs of the Gentile nations.
On this occasion His message to Nineveh was simple: repent of your wickedness, or you will be overthrown. Upon hearing the message that he was to deliver, Jonah didn’t just walk—he ran— but he ran in the wrong direction.
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.
Upon receiving His command, Jonah fled “from the presence of the Lord” and boarded a ship sailing for Tarshish (a port in the Western Mediterranean, most likely in what today is Spain). Tarshish was about as far away from Nineveh as one could travel in Jonah’s day.
As you probably know, Jonah never made it to Tarshish. Instead, during a storm at sea, he was tossed overboard, returning by “fish express,” at which point he finally did obey God and deliver His message to the Assyrians. Upon hearing God’s proclamation, they repented and thus were spared from calamity.
The record of Jonah raises a significant question. Why would a proven prophet, a servant of God, initially choose to disobey in such a flagrant manner?
The Assyrians were enemies of Israel. During Jonah’s day they were experiencing a period of decline, but Jonah knew that, should they be spared, they would again become powerful, and a threat to God’s people. Indeed, Assyria would one day serve as the vehicle for God’s judgment on Israel, carrying its people away into a captivity from which they would never return.
Jonah was willing to disobey God, and even to sacrifice his life to keep this from happening. Although Jonah delivered the message, it is not clear whether he was ever happy about it. After the repentance of the Assyrians, he began complaining to God and explained the reason for his resistance to God’s command.
And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet 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, and repentest thee of the evil.
Isn’t this amazing? Jonah may have been wrong-headed, but he was not ignorant. There is one thing he knew with all assurance: “thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness.” He knew that God would rather save people from calamity than subject them to it.
Do we, as Christians, know what Jonah knew? If God was willing to be so kind, so merciful, to those who had no part of His plan, what of His children?
Ephesians 2:4, 5
But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;)
Especially to us, who have believed on Jesus Christ, God is and always will be gracious, merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness. He does not delight in our condemnation, He delights in our restoration.
I pray that we come to truly know what Jonah knew. I pray that Jonah’s reason for running from God may become our reason for running to Him.