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.” But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD (Jonah 1:1-3).
The book of Jonah may be studied for many reasons, but a chief reason is for what it teaches about God‘s sovereignty. Sovereignty is a problem for some Christians in certain areas. There are areas in which it is not a problem, of course. For example, most of us do not have problems with God’s rule in the area of natural law. Gravity is one illustration. God exercises his rule through gravity, and we do not have difficulty at this point. In fact, we are even somewhat reassured that objects conform to such laws. The point at which we do have problems is that at which the sovereign will of God comes into opposition with a contrary human will. What happens at this point? God could crush the human will and thereby accomplish His own purpose with a ruthless hand. There are times when He has done this, as in the contest between Moses and Pharaoh. But generally God does not. So what happens in such cases? Does God give up? Does He change His mind? Or does He accomplish His purposes in some other way, perhaps indirectly? The answer is in the book of Jonah.
A Great Commission
Interestingly enough, this is the point at which the book starts. For it begins with a commission to Jonah and with Jonah’s refusal to heed it, In other words, the book of Jonah begins with a formal expression of God’s sovereign will and with a man’s determined opposition. We read, “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.’ But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD” (verses 1-3).
There is some dispute as to the location of Tarshish. It has been identified with one of the cities of Phoenicia or with ancient Carthage. Most probably, Tarshish was on the far coast of Spain, beyond Gibraltar. And if this was so, it means that in his disobedience Jonah was determined to go as far as he possibly could go in the direction opposite from that in which God was sending him. Nineveh was east. Tarshish was west. We can visualize the geography if we imagine Jonah coming out of his house in Palestine, looking left down the long road that led around the great Arabian desert to the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and then turning on his heel and going down the road to his right.
Why did he do it? We can imagine some possible reasons. We can imagine, first, that Jonah was overcome by thoughts of the mission’s difficulties. They are expressed very well in the commission which God Himself gave Jonah. God told Jonah that Nineveh was a very “great city,” and indeed it was. In addition to what the book itself tells us – that the city was so large that it took three days to cross it and that it had sixty thousand infants or small children (Jonah 4:11) – we also know that it was the capital of the great Assyrian Empire, that it had walls a hundred feet high and so broad that three chariots could run abreast around them. Within the walls were gardens and even fields for cattle. For a man to arrive all alone with a message from an unknown God against such a city was ludicrous in the extreme. What could one man do? Who would listen? Where were the armies that could break down such walls or storm such garrisons? The men of Nineveh would ridicule the strange Jewish prophet. If Jonah had been overcome with the thought of the difficulties of such a mission and so had fled to Tarshish because of them, we could well understand him. Yet there is not a word in the story to indicate that it was the difficulties that upset this rebellious prophet.
Perhaps it was danger? The second word in God’s description of the city is wickedness. If Jonah had taken note of that wickedness and had refused to obey for that reason, this too would be understandable. Indeed, the more we learn of Nineveh the more dangerous the mission becomes. We think of the prophecy of Nahum, for example. Nahum is written against the wickedness of Nineveh entirely, and the descriptions against it are vivid. “Woe to the city of blood, full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears! Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, people stumbling over the corpses – all because of the wanton lust of a harlot, alluring, the mistress of sorceries, who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft. ‘I am against you,’ declares the LORD Almighty. ‘I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame’ ” (Nahum 3:1-5).
What was one poor preacher to do against such hardness? Would they not simply kill him and add his body to the already soaring heap of carcasses? Thoughts like these could have made Jonah afraid; and if he had been afraid, we would not blame him. But again, there is not a word in the story to indicate that it was the danger that turned Jonah in the opposite direction.
What was the reason then? Well, in the fourth chapter of Jonah, after God had already brought about the revival and had spared the Ninevites from judgment, Jonah explains the reason, arguing that it was precisely because of this outcome that he had disobeyed originally. That is, he declares that he knew that God was gracious and that He was not sending him to Nineveh only to announce a pending judgment, but rather that Nineveh might repent. Jonah’s own words are: “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2).
As we read these words carefully we realize that the reason why Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh was that those who lived there were the enemies of his people, the Jews, and that he was afraid that if he did go to them with his message of judgment, they would believe it and repent and that God would bless them. And he did not want them blessed! God could bless Israel. But Jonah would be damned (literally) before he would see God’s blessing shed upon these enemies. So he fled to Tarshish. We can understand Jonah’s motives if we can imagine the word of the Lord coming to a Jew who lived in New York during World War II telling him to go to Berlin to preach to Nazi Germany. Instead of this, he goes to San Francisco and there takes a boat for Hong Kong.
We may laugh at that, of course. But before we laugh too hard we should ask whether or not we are in the spiritual ancestry of Jonah. True, we have never been sent to Nineveh, and we may never have run away to Tarshish. But the commission that has been given to us is no less demanding than Jonah’s, if we are Christians, and often our attempts to avoid it are no less determined than his were.
What was Jonah’s commission? “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it” (Jonah 1:2KJV). It consisted of three main words. He was told to “arise.” He was told to “go.” He was told to “cry.” This is precisely what we have been told to do in the Great Commission. We are to arise from wherever we happen to be seated. We are to go into all the world. And we are to cry against the world’s wickedness, teaching it all that we have been taught by Jesus. Matthew’s form of the Great Commission says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Wings of Dawn
Verse three tells us of Jonah’s attempt to get away from God, and it gives us the consequences of that attempt. It is surprising that Jonah did not know of these consequences before he ran or consider how impossible it is to escape God.
We must remember at this point that Jonah lived relatively late in Old Testament history, certainly long after the psalms were written, and that he therefore knew or had ample opportunity to know those great words in Psalms 139: “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Psalms 139:7-10). Did Jonah know these words? Probably. Then why did he not remember them as he set out in the ship for Tarshish?
As I read that psalm I find myself wondering if the name of the ship upon which Jonah set out might not have been The Wings of Dawn. The story does not give the name of the ship. But that is a good name for a ship; and if the ship of the book of Jonah were so named, it would be an irony well suited to Jonah’s situation. Did he notice the name, if this is what it was? Did he notice the rats getting off as he stepped on? If I understand sin and disobedience at all, I suspect that Jonah noticed none of these things, so set was he in this folly. No more do we when we take our “wings of dawn” to sail away from God across life’s sea.
At this point we find our first great lessons regarding God’s sovereignty. For built into Jonah’s first attempts to get away from God are two results which will inevitably follow whenever anyone tries to disobey Him. These results are in verse three, that is, one verse before the one that tells of God’s special intervention in sending the storm after Jonah’s ship. God has His special interventions too. But the fact that these occur before this indicates that they are as inevitable in spiritual matters as physical laws are in the physical universe.
The first result is that Jonah’s course was downhill. He would not have described it that way. He would have said that he was improving his lot in life, just as we also do when we choose our own course instead of God’s. But it was downhill nevertheless. In verse three, we are told that Jonah went “down” to Joppa and that having paid his fare he went “down” into the ship (see Jonah 1:3 KJV). This is not accidental in a story in which the words are as carefully chosen as this one. Nor are these two instances of the word down isolated. Two verses farther on, in verse five (KJV), we are told that Jonah had gone “down” into the sides of the ship, that is, below decks. Then in chapter 2, verse 6 (KJV), in a prayer which takes place after Jonah has been thrown overboard by the sailors, Jonah describes how he had gone “down” to the bottom of the earth’s mountains beneath the waves. That is a lot of going down! Down, down, down, down. But it is always that way when a person runs from the presence of the Lord. The way of the Lord is up! Consequently, any way that is away from Him is down. The way may look beautiful when we start. The seas may look peaceful and the ship attractive, but the way is still down.
There is another result. In his excellent preaching on Jonah, Donald Grey Barnhouse often called attention to this by highlighting the phrase “he paid his fare” (KJV). He noted that Jonah did not get to where he was going, since he was thrown overboard, and that he obviously did not get a refund on his ticket. So he paid the full fare and did not get to the end of his journey. Now, says Barnhouse, it is always that way. “When you run away from the Lord you never get to where you are going, and you always pay your own fare. On the other hand, when you go the Lord’s way you always get to where you are going, and He pays the fare.”1
Jonah illustrates one-half of that statement. The story of Moses’ mother, Jochebed, illustrates the other half. Jochebed conceived Moses during a time of great persecution by the Egyptians, a time in which the young male children were being thrown into the river to die. When the child was born, Jochebed and her husband, Amram, tried to hide him as long as possible, suspecting, I believe, that this was the one who had been promised by God to be the deliverer of the people. But at last the baby’s cries grew too loud, and another plan was necessary. The mother made a little boat of bulrushes, covering it with tar. She placed Moses in it and set it in the reeds by the river’s bank. Then she stationed Moses’ sister, Miriam, at a distance to see what would become of him. Though she wanted her baby more than anything else in the world, Jochebed trusted the matter to God, allowing Him to do as He wished with her and the child.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to the river, and when she saw the ark in the water she sent her maids to fetch it. When it was opened she saw the baby. He was crying. This so touched the woman’s heart that she determined to save him and raise him in the palace. But what was she to do? Obviously the child needed a wet nurse. Where could she find one?
At this point, Miriam, who had been watching from a distance, came forward and asked if she could be of assistance. “Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?” Miriam asked.
“Yes,” said the princess. So Jochebed was brought.
At this point Jochebed is about to receive back the child she most dearly wanted. She would have done anything to have had him. She would have scrubbed floors in the palace, anything. In fact, suppose the daughter of the Pharoah had said, “I am going to give you this child to raise. But I want you to know that I have seen through your stratagem. I know that this young girl was not up on that hill watching by accident. She must be the sister of this baby and, therefore, you must be the mother. You can have your child. But as a sign of your disobedience to the Pharoah, I am going to cut off your right hand. . . ” Well, if she had said that, Moses’ mother would have held out both hands if only she could have had the child back. But that is not what happened. Instead Pharaoh’s daughter gave her the child, declaring, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you” (Exodus 2:9).
“I will pay you.” That is the point for which I tell the story. Jonah went his own way, paid his own fare, and got nothing. Jochebed went God’s way. Consequently, God paid the fare, and she got everything. So I repeat: When you run away from the Lord you never get to where you are going, and you always pay your own fare. But when you go the Lord’s way you always get to where you are going, and He pays the fare.
But the Lord
Now in one sense Jonah’s story is over at this point. That is, the story of his choice, his disobedience, is over. God has given His command. Jonah has disobeyed. Now Jonah must sit back and suffer the consequences as God now intervenes supernaturally to alter the story. This point is made very clear by the contrast between the first two words of verse three (“But Jonah”) and the first three words of verse four (“But the Lord” KJV). It is true that Jonah has rejected God. He has voiced his little “but,” as we sometimes do. He is allowed to do it. God’s sovereignty does not rule it out. But now God is about to voice His “BUT,” and His “but” is more substantial than Jonah’s.
What does God do? Well, He does three great things. First, He sends a great storm. The text indicates that it was a storm of unusual ferocity, so fierce that even experienced sailors were frightened. I never read about it that I do not think of that other storm that also frightened experienced men on the lake of Galilee. The men were Christ’s disciples, and Christ was with them, although asleep in the boat. For awhile they rowed. But they were in danger of sinking and were afraid. So they awoke Jesus and cried, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”
Jesus replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The disciples were amazed and asked “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!” (see Matthew 8:23-27).
The Lord who can calm the troubled waters of your life is the same Lord who can stir them up to great frenzy. What He does depends upon whether He is with you in the boat or, which is a better way of putting it, whether or not you are with Him. If Jesus is in your boat- if you are going His way and are trusting Him – then, when storms come, you can cry out, “Oh, Master, help me!” and He will calm the violence. But if you are running from Him – if He is not in your boat and you are disobeying Him – then He will stir the waves up.
Second, the Lord prepared a great fish. Farther on in the story we read that God also prepared a small worm to eat the root and so destroy the plant that shaded Jonah. So we notice that, on the one hand. God used one of the largest creatures on earth to do His bidding and that, on the other hand, he used one of the smallest. Apparently it makes no difference to God. He will use whatever it takes to get the disobedient one back into the place of blessing. Are you running away from God? If so, he may use the cankerworm to spoil your harvest. He may use the whirlwind to destroy your barns and buildings. If necessary, He will touch your person. He will use whatever it takes, because He is faithful to Himself, to you, and to His purposes.
Finally, God saved a great city. This last act, like the others, is an act of great mercy. For the city did not deserve His mercy. Yet He saved it, thereby preserving it from destruction for a time.
God is so determined to perfect His good work in us that He will continue to do so with whatever it takes, regardless of the obedience or disobedience of the Christian. Will you go in His way? If you do, you will find the way smoothed out and filled with great blessings.
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