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.
The Prophet Jonah (Jonah 1:1-2)
The story of Jonah is complicated—at times unexpected—and tells us so much about what our God is like, what he’s capable of doing. During the reign of Jeroboam II—an evil king of the Northern Kingdom—towards the beginning of the 8th century BC, Assyria was growing stronger, becoming an empire 300-400 miles to the east. In 2 Kings 14:23, we read that Jonah—the son of Amittai—is from way up north in the land of Israel from the town of Bath-hepher. And God essentially tells Jonah, “Jonah, I want you to go to Nineveh and call out their evil.”
Jonah Flees from God (Jonah 1:3)
Instead, he goes to Joppa, a coastal city—port city, which had been around for some time, to board a ship headed to Tarshish—or at least in the direction of Tarshish. Though the location of Tarshish is largely unknown there are a few possibilities such as Tarsus in modern Turkey—probably not the case—or Carthage in North Africa or even Sardinia off the coast of Italy. Another possibility is a Phoenician settlement of a very similar name on the Atlantic coast of Spain. The would be all the way across the Mediterranean Sea, “away from the presence of the Lord.” Whatever the true identity of Tarshish, the point is that Jonah goes as far as humanly possible away from where God is calling him. This will become even more evident in chapter 2. This was west across the Mediterranean Sea. All the while Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, was 300 miles east of Israel.
The Anti-Prophet (Jonah 1:4-6)
Right away the sailors and Jonah find themselves in the midst of chaos. The text says that it was the Lord who hurled a great wind upon the sea. But Jonah has become numb to it. Over the course of this story Jonah has to acknowledge his lack of control in the midst of this chaotic, turbulent storm. With his actions, running from God—getting on that boat and trying to take control—Jonah actually endangers the lives of everyone else on board. As they hurled their cargo over—a huge deal—Jonah slept in the midst of the storm. Unlike Jesus, Jonah is beginning to find out that he’s not in control. Jonah is finding out that he can’t play god with even his own life.
Eventually, while the crew is terrified, throwing their livelihoods overboard, the captain comes to Jonah and says, “arise! Call to your God!” It took a non-believer to tell Jonah to pray. Let that sink in for a moment. And Jonah’s a prophet! That’s his job! But even still, when you read the text closely it never says that Jonah prayed. Why doesn’t Jonah pray? Doesn’t he care what’s happening? Doesn’t he care about the lives that he is hurting?
God Comes for Us in a Pluralistic World (Jonah 1:7-10)
Like us, Jonah lives in a pluralistic world, and he hides from it—afraid to proclaim what God declares to Nineveh. He’s afraid to tell the sailors about his God until they press him on it. Jonah thinks that he can take control of his life by hiding. Are we afraid to engage our world as God has called us? Sometimes, just like Jonah, we look for ways to escape, convincing ourselves that we’re in control when we’re not, afraid of not knowing what God will do next.
We’re blessed that our God chases after us—comes and finds us. We’re blessed that Jesus came and prayed to his Heavenly Father “not my will, but yours, be done.” Our God sought us out through Jesus, and now his joy is our joy. His love is our love. His peace is our peace. His life is our life, into eternity. And sometimes that means that he has to demonstrate that he’s the one in control. We worship Yahweh, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the dry land! He was in control of the storm faced by Jonah and the mariners, and he is in control here today. When we seek God’s presence in our lives and call upon him, we acknowledge this, and everyone is better off—even those around us—because the presence of God in our lives is the greatest blessing that we could ever experience, and everyone is better for it.