The book of Jonah is a different prophetic book. Most prophetic books record the words a prophet of God is proclaiming to a nation or people. Habakkuk is a unique prophetic book because it records a discussion between God and prophet. But Jonah is a completely different picture. The book of Jonah is a narrative about Jonah and his life decisions. This is a book about a stubborn prophet and a gracious God. So who is Jonah? The only thing we are told about Jonah is in the first verse that his father’s name is Amattai. But we do read about a prophecy he made which was fulfilled in the days of King Jeroboam II (cf. 2 Kings 14:23-25). This would mean that Jonah likely prophesies around 800 BC.
Jonah is told to go to the city of Nineveh and preach against it. Ninevah was the capital city of the great Assyrian Empire. The Assyrian Empire is considered one of the most vicious empires in world history. We will explore this more in our study of Nahum that we will be studying at the same time during our evening worship this month. But the summary is given in Jonah 1:2. The Lord says “for their evil has come up before me.” Assyria was the empire that was a constant threat against Israel and eventually destroyed Israel in 722. Assyria not only overthrew Israel but also conquered much of the nation of Judah during the days of Hezekiah, king of Judah. The point that I want to make with this is that no one liked Assyria. They are the first real world power in the ancient world. They are a nasty, cruel empire and they oppress Israel and Judah regularly throughout their time as a world power. So Jonah is told to go to Nineveh, the capital city of this cruel empire, and preach to them.
But I want you to notice what Jonah does. Verse 3 says that Jonah rose to run away from the presence of the Lord. He goes to Joppa and paid the fare for a ship to go to Tarshish. Jonah is told to go up to Nineveh but Jonah goes down to Joppa. Not only does he go down to Joppa, but he gets on a ship and goes the opposite direction toward Tarshish. What is Jonah doing? We are supposed to be shocked and surprised to read this about God’s prophet. What is Jonah doing and where is he going?
Running From God
I want you to notice what the text says Jonah is doing. Twice we are told that Jonah is running from the presence of the Lord. Jonah is going away from the presence of the Lord. Now it is important to thinking about what Jonah is doing. On an absolute level, you cannot run from God’s presence. We might read this and think that Jonah is pretty foolish for thinking that he can run from God’s presence because God’s presence is everywhere. You cannot run from God. God rules over heaven and earth and there is no place to hide from him. But I do not believe that Jonah thinks there is a place that God is not. Jonah confesses this knowledge in Jonah 1:9. “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” Jonah does not seem to think that God does not rule over heaven and earth. He confesses this. So what does it mean to run from his presence? We need to remember that Jonah is a prophet. For a prophet to stand in the presence of the Lord indicates that the prophet is speaking words on God’s behalf. We see Elijah say this in 1 Kings 17:1 and 1 Kings 18:15 when he makes his prophetic decrees.
Therefore, to leave the presence of the Lord is to quit his job of being a prophet. Jonah is turning in his prophet card. He is telling the Lord that he refuses to do the job that he has been called to do. This is why Jonah does not just stay in Israel. Jonah could have just stayed in Israel and not gone to Nineveh. Why does he get on a ship to go to Tarshish? The reason is not simply that Jonah is refusing to go to Ninevah. Jonah is refusing to go to Ninevah and is quitting his work as a prophet completely. In the scriptures, Tarshish was considered the place where God’s word and God’s glory had not gone (cf. Isaiah 66:18-19). Jonah is going to Tarshish so that he will not have to do God’s work any longer. Jonah is going to Tarshish so that he does not have to hear the word of the Lord any longer. Jonah does not like God’s command and he is done with God. Jonah is called to go where he does not want to go and do what he does not want to do.
Friends, this is our human tendency. Maybe we should not be shocked that Jonah ran the other direction because we can do the same thing. If we do not like what God says, then we will run in the other direction. I want us to notice that God is going to tell us to do things that we do not like. We sometimes have the idea that we should not have do things for God that we do not like. We should be able to like and agree with all the commands God has given to us. We should not have to do something that we do not want to do. This is where Jonah sits. He is a prophet of God but he does not like what God has told him to do. Since he does not like it, he is not going to do it. Even worse, he is quitting on God. If God is going to tell me to do something that I don’t like, then I am going to quit.
Unfortunately, I cannot tell you how often I have heard people say to me that they do not like what God is doing in their lives. So they quit God. They will say that they do not like what they are told that they have to do. So they quit God. They do not like what they have to change or what they have to give up. So they quit God. It is so sad that God’s word comes to us and we choose to stubbornly rear up against him and run the other way because we do not like what he has told us to do.
The Opportunity to Run
I want you to notice the trap that happens to Jonah and happens to us as well. You will notice that in verse 3 Jonah runs to Joppa. There he finds a ship that will take him from God’s presence. Now you may know all the things that God is going to do to Jonah later. But I want you to see something here. If you want to run from God, he will let you. If you want to quit on God, he is not going to stop you. There is always an opportunity to run from God. There will always be something in your life that will give you the encouragement to quit. Jonah does not get to Joppa and find out that there are no ships leaving the area for a few months. It is not like that is was common to have passenger ships in ancient times. But there is a cargo ship that is about ready to go. It will always be easy to go the other way. There will always be a ship ready to take you away from the presence of the Lord.
But I also want you to see something that this subtly stated. It is something that is easy to read past quickly. Jonah paid the fare. You are going to pay a price for turning your back on God. You are going to pay a price from running the other direction. God will let you run and you will always find a ship ready to take you away from him. But you are going to pay a price for this decision. Disobedience is always costly. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).
What we are now seeing crystalize before us is that Jonah’s story is our life story. God comes to us and tells us what we need to do. Our response is to run the other direction. Our response is to reject what he has told us to do. God calls us to go up but we choose to go down. In verse 2 the Lord tells Jonah to “Up and go.” But notice what the scriptures tell us is happening with Jonah. In verse 3 we are told that Jonah “went down to Joppa” and then “went down” into the ship. This is what we fail to see God. God is calling us upward and, when we disobey, we are choosing to go downward. Listen to how the apostle Paul pictured this to the Colossians.
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:1–2 ESV)
Paul says that since we are with Christ, then we need to look upward where Christ is. We need to set our minds on the things that are above. Do not look downward. Do not go down to the things of the earth. You are called to go upward, to be raised with Christ, and seek heavenly things. Paul said it this way to the Philippians.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way. (Philippians 3:14–15 ESV)
Our way will always take us downward. Only God’s way will take us upward. Jonah is beginning his descent. Jonah thinks he is going to get what he wants. He is going to get what he is looking for. But going downward never pays off. Going downward never gives you what you are looking for. Going downward never takes you to where you want to go and you will pay the price in the process.
But the Lord…
Please notice that verse 3 is not the end of the story. The Lord comes to Jonah and tells him to go up to Ninevah. Instead, Jonah goes down to Joppa, pays the fare, and goes down into the ship. God lets him go where he wants to go. But God is not done with Jonah. Notice how verse 4 begins, “But the Lord….” God is not done with his wayward prophet. God is not going to give up on his stubborn servant. In the same way, God is not done with you. You may have been running from God. But God is not done with you. You have may have heard what God wants you to do and rejected it. But God is not done with you. You have said that you are done with God. But God is not done with you. You may have tried to run from God’s presence. But God is not done with you. You may have given up on God. But God has not given up on you. The rest of the book of Jonah is going to show how God has not given up on Jonah, though Jonah has given up on God. The story does not end at verse 3. Your story does not end at verse 3. You may have also gone downward. But that does not mean that God is not working to turn you back upward. You might be running from God right now. But God is asking you to look at where you are. You are not getting where you think you are going. You are paying a price to run from him. The good news is that God is calling you to stop going downward and to turn your eyes upward.
We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:3–7 CSB)
God is ready to raise you up if you will stop running downward, away from your Father, who is calling for you to come back to him. We have an amazing God who shows relentless mercy. Verse 3 begins, “But Jonah ran away” (1:3 NIV). Then verse 4 begins, “But the Lord” (1:4 ESV). God is not done with you.