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. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:1–3)
The opening words in this unusual prophetic book prime us to expect what we typically see in the Old Testament: God’s word comes, and God’s prophets obey. It’s the pattern with Moses, Nathan, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. God speaks, prophets do what God says. Jonah, though, does just the opposite of what God says, deciding instead that he would “flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” lol.
Jonah quickly found out what he confesses a bit later that he already knew, that is, that the Lord is “the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land” (Jonah 1:9). This God is sovereign, so Jonah couldn’t get away. This God commanded a mighty storm that buffeted the ship of these sailors to the point that they finally decided to toss overboard the disobedient prophet. What’s more, as soon as his Jonah made a splash, the billows ceased and the sailors worshiped.
God created not just the seas and dry land, but he also created the fish in the seas and animals on the land. And because he created those things, he could order a fish to swallow Jonah, carry him around for a few days, the unceremoniously deliver him to his not-quite-final destination: the shores of Assyria. There Jonah preached the most successful sermon in Israelite history (who’s issuing invitations for speakers at the SBC Pastor’s Conference this year?), only to be deeply offended at its success.
This God who made the land and seas and fish and animals, though, also made people. And so it’s up to him—and not Jonah—to issue forgiveness and relent from disaster. And that’s the very thing Jonah knew God would do: “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? 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). Jonah fled because he knows that God is compassionate and loving, eager to forgive sinners. This God is sovereign—he can tell the seas and winds and worms and great fish and prophets what to do because he created them—so Jonah couldn’t get away from him and his loving embrace of those outside of Israel. May we learn Jonah’s lesson without all the running away. Our God created everything, and our God freely extends his gracious mercy to whoever he wants, even to those who we would rather see perish.