Scripture: Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” 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. Jonah 1:1-3b ESV
Observation: This is not a whopper fish tale. Jonah is a historical person (2 Kings 14:25), and Jesus confirmed the historicity of the event (Matthew 12:39-41). Indeed, the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, had caused much grief for Israel under Omri and Ahab’s reigns. Thus, Jonah held the Ninevites in contempt as terrorists who sought the demise of God’s people. So the notion that Yahweh would show mercy toward a neighboring enemy if they would sincerely repent infuriated Jonah. That’s why he fled the opposite direction, joining a pagan sailing vessel bound for Tarshish (a city once located in modern-day Spain).
Unfortunately for Jonah, the outcome was disastrous. The Lord stirred up a storm that nearly sunk the ship, provoking Jonah’s confession of guilt: “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you” (1:12). Despite the sailors’ effort to row to safety, the storm continued to rage. So recognizing their helpless state, the sailors reluctantly threw Jonah overboard. Immediately, the sea calmed, and God sent a “great fish” to swallow up Jonah, where he rested for three days and nights.
It is an ironic story. Jonah, who despised the Ninevites, selfishly put innocent sailors at risk of drowning. While Jonah continued to disobey God, these pagan sailors, fearful of the might displayed by Jonah’s God, sought to spare his life. Then, having exhausted their strength, they prayed to Yahweh, pleading for mercy—acknowledging he had orchestrated circumstances. And when the winds ceased, they reverently offered a sin sacrifice and made vows to the Lord.
Takeaway: Indeed, it is a reversal of roles. God’s chosen prophet acts like a pagan who is no better than his nemeses, and the pagan sailors respond like God-fearers: believing, praying, and vowing to do better. Meanwhile, Jonah remained dispassionate, showing no mercy toward the Ninevites nor himself. But his gracious and loving God still rescued Jonah from his fleeing folly.
At this point, it would be easy to disassociate ourselves from the text and tut at Jonah, but we all act like him from time to time. We write off our rivals with an attitude of righteous indignation, forgetting that we were once God’s enemies—mercifully rescued through the sacrifice of his Son. And when provoked to forgive and move toward our enemies, we run away. The Solution? Certainly not Jonah’s fleeing folly. Our real threat, Satan, would like nothing more than for us to harbor anger and distance ourselves from God, all the while spiraling down with bitterness and self-loathing. In contrast, the pagan sailors provide a more godly response:
- Draw near and behold our all-powerful God.
- Seek his mercy and receive his forgiveness.
- Recommit to cooperate with the Holy Spirit and follow his ways.
And the One who rescued us from our fleeing folly will guard our hearts and minds with his peace that calms the raging storm.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for rescuing us when we, who were once your enemies, foolishly fled from you. Would you please help us cooperate with your Holy Spirit and stay on course in obedience to your direction for our lives? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling