Jonah 1:1-3

We’ve recently begun a study through the Old Testament book of Jonah at the kirk. For those nearby and able, feel free to join us on Wednesday nights; for everyone else, I’ll be posting the manuscripts here with a week’s delay. The LORD bless you and keep you!

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

Jonah was a contemporary of Hosea and Amos; he was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom during the reign of Jeroboam II. We read in 2 Kings, “[Jeroboam II] restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the LORD, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher.”[1] Within only thirty years of the death of Jeroboam II, though, the Northern Kingdom would fall to a conquering world power. First, during the reign of Pekah, the tribes of the Transjordan (Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh) would be captured and sent into exile.[2] In 722 BC, the Assyrians would conquer Israel, which at that time was a vassal state to the greater empire. “Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.”[3] Though Israel was blessed with expansion during Jonah’s time, the coming judgment of God against their idolatry had been prophesied “by every prophet and every seer, saying, ‘Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.’ But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God.”[4] Amos, for example, prophesied to the Northern Kingdom, saying, “An adversary shall surround the land and bring down your defenses from you, and your strongholds shall be plundered.”[5] Thus, Jonah, the prophet of the LORD, knew that unless Israel repented, they would eventually be destroyed, and that by the great empire of the day, Assyria, the capital of which just happened to be Nineveh.

Imagine, then, if you can, the prophet’s distress when we read vv.1-2. 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.” To Nineveh? The LORD commands His prophet to go outside of the Promised Land, and prophesy to a Gentile people; the Assyrians are not only Gentiles, but they are also the very means God will use to bring down the Northern Kingdom of Israel! Why in the world would God send Jonah to warn the Ninevites of their coming destruction? We see a hint already in the way the LORD refers to Nineveh – that great city. Throughout the book we’re told of the massive size of the city of Nineveh. It was three days’ journey in breadth,[6] and contained a population of over 120,000 people.[7] The destruction of Nineveh would mean the destruction of many, many lives. Thus, Jonah was to go and call out against it because of their evil… and Jonah knew exactly why. It was through his preaching that God meant to work repentance among the people. He is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.”[8] Jonah knew the character of God, because God had revealed His character to His people. When Moses was given the revelation of the LORD’s name, “the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.’”[9] Jonah knew from God’s character that if the people of Nineveh heard the word of the LORD and repented, God would forgive and relent from the disaster He meant to do them. Indeed, this chance of repentance is what He continuously gave His own people Israel through His prophets, though they would not repent. Indeed, this same word had been preached by Joel in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The prophet writes, “‘Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”[10] What would be the result of Jonah’s preaching? Jonah believed it would be the repentance of the Ninevites, and God’s relenting to bring disaster upon Israel’s Gentile enemy and future conqueror.

Thus, we read, But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. What does it mean that Jonah sought to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD? We would first do well to consider the whereabouts of Tarshish. If the coast of Israel made up the eastern border of the Mediterranean Sea, then the strait of Gibraltar was the farthest point in the Mediterranean away from Israel. Through the strait, on the west coast of Spain – that is one possible location of Tarshish. But, even if we’re not completely sure of the precise location, from the context, Tarshish is meant to imply a place far away from Israel, and thus far away from the Temple, where God’s special presence resided. Interestingly, this isn’t the only place we find someone going out from the presence of the LORD. In Genesis 4, after Cain has murdered his brother Abel and has been sentenced by the LORD, we read, “Then Cain went away from the presence of the LORD and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.”[11] What is likely meant here and in Jonah is not a denial of the omnipresence of God, but both Jonah and Cain were going out from the place of God’s special, and in a sense, immediate, presence – Jonah from the Promised Land and the Temple, Cain out from before the very gates of Eden. Hugh Martin writes, “Most probably, in the days of the first family of our race, the gate of the garden of Eden, where God placed the cherubim and the flaming sword, constituted the seat of sacred worship; occupying the place and serving the purpose which, in after generations, were occupied and served by the tabernacle in the wilderness and in Shiloh, and ultimately by the temple, on Mount Moriah.”[12] Jonah is fleeing the face of the LORD, as He was present with His people in Israel, and more particularly in the Temple. Essentially, in this act, Jonah is refusing to speak the word of the LORD, he is renouncing his office as God’s prophet. If the LORD wants to send a prophet to the Assyrians, wicked Gentiles who would eventually be the undoing of the people of Israel, then He could send someone else; Jonah would have none of it. Much like the elder brother in our Lord’s parable of the Prodigal Son, Jonah is appalled at the mercy of the Father.[13] The correlation between the two – Jonah and the elder brother – will become much clearer in the fourth chapter of the book.

The prophet continues, 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. Again we see Jonah’s motive in fleeing – to be away from the presence of the LORD. To accomplish this, he goes to Joppa. Joppa was a haven on the west coast of Israel. It was to Joppa that Hiram, the king of Tyre, had sent from Lebanon the timbers used by Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem.[14] Now it was from Joppa that Jonah wished to flee the special presence of the LORD in that very Temple. And providence seemed to smile upon him, for when he reached Joppa, he found a ship bound for Tarshish. He paid his fare, climbed aboard, and went down into it. Perhaps Jonah’s going down into the ship was a matter of simply being unused to the seafarer’s life above deck. The people of Israel were not exactly known as the greatest sailors in the Mediterranean world, after all. Or could it be that he was ashamed of his actions? Was he seeking to hide his face, in a sense, from the face of God? Whatever may be the case, Jonah knew that what he was doing was wrong, and in time, the (proverbial and literal) sailing that seemed to be running so smoothly so far, would become a tempest that would toss him up and out, into the very hands of the LORD he was trying to flee.

Discussion Questions

  1. Is there a particular group of people that you feel shouldn’t be granted God’s mercy? Why is this attitude wrong?
  2. How does God work repentance through the preached Word?
  3. We who are in Christ are certainly beneficiaries of God’s grace. Do we often give thanks for God’s gracious acts, and praise Him for His gracious character? Consider David’s confession in Psalm 51.
  4. We, of course, affirm God’s omnipresence. But, biblically, where is God present in a special way today? Consider Ephesians 2:19-22.

[1] 2 Kings 14:25

[2] 2 Kings 15:29; 1 Chronicles 5:26

[3] 2 Kings 17:5-6

[4] 2 Kings 17:13-14

[5] Amos 3:11

[6] Jonah 3:3

[7] Jonah 4:11

[8] Jonah 4:2

[9] Exodus 34:6-7

[10] Joel 2:12-13

[11] Genesis 4:16

[12] Hugh Martin, A Commentary on Jonah (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1995), 35.

[13] Luke 15:28

[14] 2 Chronicles 2:16

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