Text: Jonah 1:1-3
Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.” But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
This morning we’re going to begin a series on the book of Jonah. This is a book that is well known and loved, and I would suppose that it ranks among the favorite children’s stories in the Bible. But I wonder if we really understand its main message. You see, the primary sinner in need of repentance in this book isn’t any of the Ninevites. No, it’s Jonah himself. And what we will see as we read this book together is that Jonah actually has two major sins, an external one and an internal one. The external one is what we see in these opening verses, how he refuses to listen to the commands of God. The internal sin is the motivation for the refusal, and that sin will actually be shown to be the more foundational one, the big message which the book of Jonah as getting at. Before we get to that punch line, however, we will work through the book in order, as it is presented to us in the Bible, and so for this morning I want to focus simply on the first three verses.
In these opening verses we see the basic set-up of Jonah’s problem. He is commanded to prophesy to Nineveh, but he does not want to obey. Instead of listening to and obeying the word of God, Jonah decides to do something irrational and impossible. He tries to run away from God. The plan is totally ridiculous, but the lesson to be learned from it is precisely in the fact that Jonah was not a simple or uninformed man. He knew all about God. He probably had very good theology. As we will see as we get to the end of the book, Jonah about God’s divine attributes and what He was like. So how could he think that he could escape from God? That is the question I want to ask this morning. The prophet runs, but does he really think that he can get away?
Jonah in Context
As we read the Book of Jonah we should know that it is presented as real history. Jonah was a real person, and we know that he prophesied during the reign of Jeroboam II in the 8th century (2 Kings 14:25). As the depiction in 2nd Kings makes clear, this was not a time of religious fidelity in Israel, and yet Jonah prophesied that Israel would have military success at this time. It’s important to know, as well, that Israel was at war with the Assyrians during this time, and one of the capital cities of the Assyrian empire was none other than Nineveh. God is here asking Jonah to go preach against the enemies of Israel.
Jesus interprets the events of the Book of Jonah as history, and we can see this in Matthew 12:
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here. (Matt. 12:40-41).
And so Jesus says that the men of Ninevah are an abiding witness against those who do not hear the prophetic word of God. They actually did repent when Jonah came to them, and so we are all called to repent when God’s word comes to us.
Running Away From God
Nineveh would have been northeast of Israel, somewhere in modern-day Iraq. Instead of going there, Jonah tied to run to Tarshish, a city all the way in Spain. In other words, Jonah tried to go to the other side of the world, to get as far away from God’s calling as he could. What was he thinking?
The expression “flee from the presence of the LORD” appears three times in the first chapter of Jonah (vs. 3, 10), and we see it twice in these opening verses. Jonah heard God’s command, and instead of obeying, he determined to flee from the presence of the LORD. The Hebrew word for LORD is actually Yahweh, and so the idea is clear. Jonah is trying to get away from the God of Israel, the maker of heaven and earth. We know this is impossible, and Jonah would have known it as well. He would have known it because of the overall revelation of God to the Hebrews, but He would have also known it specifically because of what David wrote in Psalm 139. In fact, Psalm 139:7 is the only other place in the Old Testament which speaks of fleeing from Yahweh’s presence, and it tells us that no one can do it.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You. (Psalm 139:7-12)
What we see is that it is impossible to get away from God. God is already in the highest heavens and the lowest hell. If you try to cross the oceans what you will find is that God’s hand is actually underneath you during your journey and that there’s nowhere to hide. God sees all, God knows all, and God is everywhere present. He is all in all.
Now Jonah was most likely already a public prophet by the time that he received this call from God. He knew that God was omnipresent and all-powerful. This was not a matter of him not having enough head knowledge. No, the truth is that this was a problem of the will. Jonah did not want to obey God, and so he practically denied God’s attributes and character. Sin does this to people. They know the truth but they decide to do their own thing anyway. When they do this, the Bible says that they suppress the truth and end up becoming fools, attempting dumb and even impossible things.
Romans 1 explains this phenomenon like this:
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools. (Rom. 1:20-22)
The thoughts of sinners become futile, and they begin to do things which don’t necessarily make sense. They are not interested in reason or logic. They act contrary to truths which they otherwise confess to be true. It doesn’t matter. They just want to do what they want.
And in this case Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh and prophesy against it. Sometimes we try to give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he was scared of going to Nineveh, that he might be killed. But as we will learn in chapter 4, the real reason was that Jonah hated the people of Nineveh and did not want to see them saved. “Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled previously to Tarshish; for I know that You are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, One who relents from doing harm” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah most certainly did not want to be their preacher, the instrument of their salvation, and so he did a very ridiculous thing. He fled from the presence of God.
The reason that Jonah fled from God was simple. He was in rebellion. But another question is relevant as well. What was God’s purpose in this event? After all, God is sovereign and all-powerful. He could have immediately turned Jonah’s will and caused him to comply. Or, after seeing Jonah’s disobedience, God could have simply judged him or struck him dead. Instead, God had a purpose in Jonah’s flight.
As we will see in chapter 2, God humbled Jonah and taught him of His power. God allowed Jonah to flee precisely so He could show Jonah, and us, that it is impossible to flee from God. God allows wandering so He can demonstrate His power, His judgment, and, ultimately, His mercy. God allowed Jonah to flee so that He could bring him back.
But there’s another layer to this as well. Very few people actually saw Jonah’s rebellion against God as it was happening. There were only those few sailors on the boat as primary witnesses. But God then inspired Jonah to write his experience down, to write down his own sin and foolishness and pass it on to us. So we know that God allowed Jonah to flee so that we could read about it centuries later and learn from it. And in addition to the lesson about God’s power, judgment, and mercy, I think we are also supposed to learn the lesson that even God’s people, even His prophets, struggle with sin and hard hearts. The real “bad guy” in the book of Jonah is precisely Jonah. He is the one who most opposes God, and so we learn that God’s people are not free from sin and that they must never become prideful or self-reliant.
Beyond learning about the universal sinfulness of mankind, including God’s people, we also learn that God uses these sinners to do His work and to reveal Himself to others. If you think of the various authors of Biblical books, most of them have grave sins in their lives, and they have those sins and failings recorded in the Bible, for all of subsequent history to see. And this is a good thing.
God uses sinners. This means that God can use us. And this means that our sins, though shameful in themselves, are not meant to shame us but rather to help us see God. God is not the author of sin, but He most certainly does use our sin to extol His glory. In the book of Exodus, God says this to Pharaoh: “Indeed for this purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you, and that My name may be declared in all the earth” (Exodus 9:16). If this is true for objects of wrath, then it is also true for objects of mercy, even if they must endure chastening for their sins. Remember again what David had written, “If I take the wings of the morning/ And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea/ Even there Your hand shall lead me/ And Your right hand shall hold me” (Psalm 139:9-10). God’s hand leads us, even when we are running away from Him.
A final reason that God allows us to stray from Him is that He uses sin and its chastening as a way to sanctify us. As the Epistle to the Hebrews says:
“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.”
If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:5-11)
As odd as it might sound, God’s allowing you to sin so that you can be punished and then perfected is a kind of grace. He teaches you and changes you in this way, and through rebellion and divine judgment, we come to know God as our Father.
Jonah was running from God. There’s not a lot more to it than that. Jonah heard God’s voice, he knew what he ought to do, he did the opposite, and he ended up becoming pretty foolish before it was over. But in the end, all of this was part of God’s plan, for Jonah’s good and for our good today. There was a grace in this foolishness, and we should learn from it when we think about our own lives.
Are any of you on the run from God? Oh it’s an odd question to ask a bunch of churchfolks isn’t it? Obviously you are faithful in your attendance and have made many difficult choices in your life in order to be faithful to your religious convictions. But all that was true for Jonah too. He would have been pretty impressive, if judged according to the flesh. It all changed when God asked him to do the thing that he didn’t want to do. What is God asking you to do? Why don’t you want to do it? What sort of stupid excuses are you making in order to justify your disobedience? What kind of stupid things are you doing because of that rebellion? Stop and take a look. See if there’s anything to it.
But don’t lose heart. God lets us run away from time to time so that He can humble us and bring us back. Let this be a comfort to those of you with friends and family who are on the run from God. God’s providence is always true. He’s always in control. And He’s always good.
Sure it’s hard to see and accept. I understand that. That’s why it’s called faith. Remember Jonah and what it took to get him back on the right track. And then remember Jesus who didn’t run from God, even though His human will asked for the cup to be taken from Him. Still, He said, “Not my will be done but Thine.” And so while we aspire to be like Jesus in this obedience, we also know that when we are disobedience His obedience is there for our forgiveness and makes it possible that we might be brought back to God. Stop running. Stop running from faith. Believe the gospel, really, and believe that it matters, that it changes people (even you), and that it’s true.
Let us pray.