Now the word of the LORD came unto JOnah the son of Amittai, saying, Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me. But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the LORD, and went down to Joppa; and he found a ship going to Tarshish: so he paid the far thereof, and went down into it, to go with them unto Tarshish, from the presence of the LORD.
The book of Jonah is a short portion of Scripture, but extremely rich. The village atheists of the naive, innocent early 20th century era loved to attack it for its great "fish story", only to be answered by a barrage of "answers" from our side about how known fish or whales of various species were indeed capable of holding a man inside them. But the book is far deeper and more wonderful as a tale of divine grace meeting the recalcitrance and folly of man--especially in its reminder that the purposes of God are far larger than human sin; and not changed or derailed because we refuse to cooperate.
Apart from the book that bears his name, Jonah is mentioned only in a few citations in the New Testament and II Kings 14:26. In II Kings, he is said to have prophesied that the borders of Israel would be restored, which happens under Jeroboam ben Joash (not to be confused with Jeroboam ben Nebat).
Jonah thus received the blessing to know that God was prepared to preserve and aid his people even in a dark, sinful, and thoroughly unworthy time. Jeroboam ben Joash, it is said, "departed not from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin"--specifically, an idolatry repeating the infamous episode of the golden calf (Exodus 32:1-20; I Kings 12:28-30), as if the people and their leaders learned no lessons from the past. Yet in those days, God was nonetheless willing to rescue and restore part of Israel's patrimony by an unworthy instrument. And, in those days, a prophet who recognized the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob arose to foretell such an event--Jonah the son of Amittai.
In the book of Jonah, Jonah receives a second call from God:
Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness is come up before me. (Jonah 1:2).
Yet Jonah, instead of heading northeast towards Nineveh, flees to the coast and takes a ship to Tarshish--lands at the Western end of the Mediterranean--in exactly the opposite direction from that which God ordered.
It is easy to be hard on Jonah at this point. How many of us think in our hearts that, had we been in Jonah's sandals, we would have gladly heeded the divine call! We glibly envision ourselves striding boldly out the gates of some Israelite city, Scripture under one arm and staff in hand, ready to speak mightily against a sinful heathen city in northern Mesopotamia!
But let us pause. The Assyrians, the people whose capital Nineveh was, were a fierce and dangerous people. One author has described them as the storm troopers of antiquity. Archaeology has uncovered their monuments and literature, in which they boast of impaling men alive and smashing in the heads of children after conquering an enemy city. After conquering most of Mesopotamia and Aram (today's Syria), could they be expected to heed the rantings of a wandering Israelite? Could Jonah, accustomed to being the patriotic prophet of restoration, welcome the mission to speak to a people whom his own people hated and feared?
In 1940, the Japanese Christian Toyohiko Kagawa went to prison for openly expressing remorse and apologies for his country's invasion and occupation of much of the Republic of China--at a time when China was still fighting. On his release, he went to the United States in an ultimately futile attempt to short-circuit the path towards war on which both Japan and the USA were already travelling. Certain American pastors went to Japan for the same purpose, and similarly failed. But Kagawa and his American counterparts in 1940 are exceptional cases, and remembered as giants for their determined pursuit of peace. They are remarkable for how few of their kind arose in those perilous times.
Similarly, we remember the Dietrich Bonhoffers, the Wang Mingdao's, the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyns who bravely stood up in Christ's name against the horrors of 20th century totalitarianism. But again, if faced with a similar situation, would not most of us prefer to acquiesce, to go along and get along?
The refrain of these first verses of the book are that Jonah went away "from the presence of the LORD". This warns us that we must guard against self-righteousness and complacence. As we walk before God, we must adopt a posture of humility; as we deal with our fellow humans, we must cultivate both humility and charity--difficult gifts when we deal with many whom we are predisposed to see as enemies. If one who enjoyed the prophetic gift could flee from the presence of the LORD, how much more can the rest of us?