Jonah: On the Run (1:1-3)
The book of Jonah contains only fifty-eight verses, but those few verses include a storm at sea, the conversion of sailors, a miraculous rescue, a song of praise, the repentance of Israel’s archenemy, and an intensely honest dialogue between the Lord and Israel’s most reluctant prophet.
The author, who is most likely Jonah, sets the tone in this passage to focus on God and Jonah.
“1 Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 3 But Jonah rose 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, away from the presence of the LORD.”
In the first verse, the author begins this story by saying that “the word of the LORD came to Jonah. . .” (v. 1). This phrase is used when God speaks directly to someone who is asked to participate in God’s mission in a special way. God spoke personally to Jonah. Often times, we look down on him because he ran from God. Despite that, God loved him and favored him. If God didn’t favor Jonah, He wouldn’t have spoken to him in such a personal way.
In the Bible, a person’s name was the description of their character. This is true for the many names given to God in the Bible, and also for the various people in the Scriptures. Take Genesis 25 for example, where we read about the birth of Jacob: “Afterward his brother came out with his hand holding Esau’s heel, so his name was called Jacob” (25:26). So his name means, “he takes by the heel” or “he cheats.” With that in mind, what is the meaning of the name “Jonah?”
His name means “dove.” Do you recall what Noah did with the dove? Of course you do. It’s found in one of the most beloved Bible stories. In Genesis 8:10-11, Noah sends out a dove from the ark and it returns with the branch of an olive tree, symbolizing peace and compassion. Similarly, God sent out Jonah to be a symbol of peace to the Ninevites. God wanted to rescue the Ninevites from destruction and judgment by His wrath so that they could have peace, forgiveness and mercy.
Furthermore, the Old Testament describes doves as birds who moan and lament (Isaiah 38:14; 59:11). And Jonah moans and cries in chapter 4. Leviticus describes doves as birds of sacrifice, similarly Jonah sacrifices himself to save the sailors in chapter 1. Lastly, in Psalm 55, the psalmist longs to be like a dove to flee from the terrors of death. Jonah also, flees like a dove in chapter 1 from the terror of Nineveh. That’s not why he flees, but he does flee from that.
A Symbol of Peace
As indicated by our text, God sent Jonah to be a messenger of peace to the wicked Ninevites. God desired to rescue them from destruction. We are to be symbols and messengers of peace in our world today. The Bible gives us certain commands concerning peace: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:18), and in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). And Paul in Romans 12:18, “Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone” (NLT).
So we are commanded to be symbols of peace in our world today, and even more, to follow the example of Jesus. He is the very embodiment of peace. Paul describes Jesus in an unusual way: “He himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14a), unusual because, nowhere else in the New Testament is Christ portrayed this way—as the very embodiment of peace. We Christians today should follow Christ’s example of peace. In fact, we should follow the example of Jesus in everything. Jesus is our perfect example of obedience to the Father, even to the point of death (Philippians 2:8).
“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (v. 2). This statement is of course from God. This is that word of the Lord that came to Jonah. God tells Jonah to “call out against” the Ninevites. To call them to repent and seek God. Why? “For their evil has come up before me.” Their evil has been done in plain sight of God. Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, and they were Israel’s worst enemy and a source of harm and violence to the ancient world. They were especially known for their brutal and grisly treatment of their enemies. Jonah, being an Israelite, was not interested in taking part in the redemption of this particular enemy. He wasn’t interested in going there and giving them any chance to repent and turn from their ways—they were one of Israel’s enemies.
So what did Jonah do in response to God’s call? “But Jonah rose 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 into Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD” (v. 3). He flees to Tarshish. He goes down to Joppa and finds a ship going to Tarishish. He pays the fare (the cost to ride) and goes with the crew. The author, who is most likely Jonah, tells this story in a remarkable way. The details mentioned in this passage help you to feel like you are actually going on this trip with Jonah, wondering what will happen next. Something worth noting is the repeated phrase, “away from the presence of the LORD,” which occurs twice in this verse. The various authors of the Bible will often times use repetition to help illustrate an important point. In this case, to help us understand what Jonah was fleeing from: the presence of the Lord. He was fleeing from God’s presence. He runs to Tarshish to avoid two places associated with God’s word: the temple, and Nineveh. Jonah was a prophet, so he would often hear the word of God read in the temple, and he knew if he went to Nineveh, then he would have to preach the word. So he heads to Tarshish, hoping to get away from God’s voice. He knows God is everywhere (1:9), but he thinks that going to Tarshish will drown out God’s voice.
Naturally Running From God
Jonah’s running from God is a great example of a larger theme taught in the Bible—we naturally run from God. We do not naturally run after God or seek Him. “10 as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12, emphasis mine). We are born haters of God and lovers of darkness. “19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:19-20). There is nothing good in us and nothing in us that desires God or naturally delights in Him. Even after we are believers, we continue to struggle with sin daily (Rom. 7:22-26).
But the glorious flip-side of it is this: Though we are on a pursuit away from God, He is running after us, because of His great love. In fact, God has been running after you since before you were born—before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). God even loved you before time began and God is pursuing you like He pursued Jonah. And that pursuit from God is our only hope.
Why Did Jonah Run?
Jonah is certainly rebelling against God by running from God’s call on his life. He does get to a low point. His running was a refusal to obey God’s call to “go to Nineveh,” but it was more than that. To see the whole picture, we need to ask ‘Why did Jonah run from God?’ Many scholars have given a number of creative answers to this question:
1) Jonah ran because the Ninevites were not Jews. The text does not indicate that Jonah was racist against the Ninevites. This conclusion is weak, even though the Ninevites were Israel’s cruel enemies.
2) Jonah ran because he did not want to be known as a false prophet. God says in Deuteronomy, “If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the LORD does not take place or come true, that is a message the LORD has not spoken” (18:22). As you know, when Jonah preached, the people repented and the judgment was avoided. But would that make Jonah a false prophet? No. God says in Jeremiah 18:7-8, “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it” (emphasis mine).
3) Jonah ran because he feared death at the hands of the cruel Ninevites. This conclusion is also weak because Jonah wasn’t afraid to die (1:15). He readily offered himself to be tossed overboard to save the sailors.
The true reason Jonah ran was this: He knew that if he preached judgment, there would be a possibility of forgiveness if they turned from their ways. He knew God was like that: “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). And he didn’t agree. Jonah thought God was making a mistake and a dangerous theological move by offering forgiveness to these wicked Ninevites. Jonah didn’t agree with the way God was going to deal with the Ninevites. Jonah couldn’t swallow (pun intended) the truth that God is both judging and forgiving. Full of both grace and truth. Wrath and compassion.
Taking the Gospel to Haters
Jonah was called to take the message of repentance to his enemies. In the New Testament, we find out that Jesus actually brought the gospel to His enemies (Romans 5:10). You and I. Now, you are called to take the gospel to your enemies. To those who hate you. Jesus, again in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Peter in his first epistle, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9).
Think about who your greatest enemy is. Maybe someone at work who always gives you a hard time. Maybe someone at your school who always rejects you. Maybe a parent who you cannot please. Maybe a cousin or someone in your neighbor hood. Think about the person who gives you the hardest time. That person needs the gospel. You need to take the gospel to them. That’s a risky mission. It might mean inviting them to eat lunch with you. It might mean buying them a Coke after school. It might mean resisting their constant attacks. It might mean doing more work around the house. It might mean talking with them on a personal level.
You may say, “They won’t care. They won’t care about Jesus or the gospel.” You’re right. All who are unsaved do not give the least rip about the gospel. It is foolishness to them (1 Cor. 1:18). But we have the promise that God can save anyone. God must enlighten someone to the worth of the gospel. When He does, all they can do is run to God. There is not another possibility. You can’t be enlightened to the worth of God through the gospel and then make a choice to go the other way (Hebrews 6:4-6). It is impossible. It’s a miracle of God. He enlightens you, grants you faith and repentance and He gives you spiritual life, all in one moment. So don’t believe that God can’t save someone because they count the gospel as worthlessness.
A prime example of this is the conversion story of Paul. He hated the Christian church. He persecuted and killed Christians. He watched Stephen, one of the most courageous believers who ever lived, be stoned to death. And the Bible says that Paul “approved of his execution,” or was pleased (Acts 8:1). Paul was saved soon after this and now look at what God did through him. The gospel spread throughout the entire Mediterranean world because of Paul’s efforts. And half of our New Testament consists of Paul’s writings.
We have enemies like Jonah and we are called to take the message of the gospel to them whether or not we believe they deserve it.