The God Who Won‘t Let You Go
When we think of the prophet Jonah, we immediately think of the prophet who was trapped in the belly of a whale. Yet, before we get to that point, we read about the calling of Jonah—a calling to preach to the people of Nineveh.
It should be noted, first of all, that the people of Nineveh were among the most notorious enemies of Israel. Even though Israel was enjoying a measure of prosperity during this time—during the late 700's B.C.—they continued to endure attacks from Assyria. And the capital of Assyria was Nineveh, a culturally advanced city with a population exceeding 600,000.
Bearing this context in mind, we read the first two verses, "The word of the Lord came to Jonah . . . 'Arise, go to Nineveh the great city, and cry against it, for their wickedness has come before Me'".
God's call to Jonah was to "go to Nineveh" and preach to the people there on account of their "wickedness". Jonah, evidently, had no interest in this call. While verse 2 records God's call to Jonah to "arise" and "go to Nineveh", verse 3 provides the contrasting response, "But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish". Not only did Jonah want to steer clear of Nineveh, but the text twice indicates how Jonah was also attempting to flee "the presence of the Lord"(1:3).
So why doesn't Jonah answer the call of the Lord? Why does Jonah fail to do what the Lord asks him to do? For the answer to this we must jump ahead to chapter 4, verse 2. What immediately precedes this verse is the repenting of Nineveh, and God promising to relent with the calamity He had previously threatened (3:10).
In 4:2, the text says that Jonah prayed, "Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and One who relents concerning calamity."
The reason for Jonah's disobedience is confessed unashamedly—he couldn't have cared less about the people of Nineveh. These people were Israel's enemies, and Jonah was not about to inconvenience himself to help enemies receive God’s mercy.
Before we condemn Jonah, however, I think it is important for us to examine our own tendencies. In light of the fact that God has called every Christian to share the gospel of Christ, we need to evaluate our own level of faithfulness to God’s command.
I suspect we are more like Jonah than we would like to admit. When God calls us to “go”, what we often do instead is “flee”. At best, we rationalize a more moderate alternative for ourselves.
Most of us, if we are honest, will admit that we are governed by the law of convenience. When it is convenient we attend Sunday service, when it is convenient we pray, when it is convenient we read our Bible—for many of us, we are faithful Christians so long as being faithful does not require an extraordinary break from our planned routine.
And yet, it seems apparent from this account that God sometimes calls for our faithfulness during times of great inconvenience. It appears that God sometimes calls us to do things that we are not naturally inclined to do.
And what we learn from Jonah is the foolishness of resisting God’s call. We also learn from this account how God’s will relates to our ability to make choices.
Notice that, in one sense, Jonah had the ability to choose between going to Nineveh and fleeing to Tarshish. And when Jonah chose to disobey the Lord, when he chose to "flee to Tarshish", notice that the Lord did not immediately stop him. Jonah made it to "Joppa", where he "found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare"(1:3), and was on his way.
It seems to me, as I survey other parts of Scripture, that God's willingness to let Jonah "flee" is typical of how God deals with us. When we disobey God, He does not rearrange the stars of heaven to read, "Stop right there. Do not go any farther". If we stop reading our Bible, God does not send a special angel to get us reading again. If we stop praying, God does not shout down from the heavens at us.
As evidenced in the life of Jonah, when we disobey God, He allows us to wander. But, as we will soon see, God does not let His children wander indefinitely.
The reason God’s children are not left wandering indefinitely is because God is not held captive by our choices to disobey. God has the power to bring us back into fellowship with Him, and we see this ever so clearly in the account of Jonah.
Jonah was allowed to flee to Joppa. Jonah was also permitted to go as far as to purchase a ticket and to board a ship headed for Tarshish, but eventually the Lord intervened—and He intervened decisively.
The text says that "the Lord hurled a great wind"—a wind so great that "the ship was about to break up"(1:4). As the sailors worked frantically to preserve the ship, Jonah was down below, soundly sleeping (1:5). Eventually, the desperate sailors "cast lots" to "learn on whose account" the "calamity" had struck them (1:7). Their lot "fell on Jonah"(1:7).
The questions that the sailors ask Jonah are predictable: "What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?"(1:8).
As you read Jonah's response in verse 9, do you see the irony? Jonah ran away in the first place because he did not want to preach to pagans. But here he was doing just that: "I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land"(1:9).
The sailors, who had previously been "crying to their own gods"(1:5), were now asking Jonah, "What should we do to you that the sea may become calm for us?"(1:11). The sailors, evidently, understood that it was indeed Jonah's disobedience, and his God's power, that had got them in this predicament.
While Jonah asked to be thrown into the sea (1:12), the sailors, instead, chose to row harder (1:13), and to pray to Jonah's God (1:14). Only when neither of these courses of action succeeded, did they finally "pick Jonah up" and "throw him into the sea"(v.15). The amazing thing is, that when they did this, "the sea stopped its raging"(1:15).
The ejection of Jonah from the ship, and the total derailment of his plan to reach Tarshish, is a clear sign of God’s control over this situation. As we compare the will of God with the will of Jonah we are confronted by the doctrine of God’s sovereignty.
The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is a highly relevant doctrine in that it relates to the myriad of choices we make everyday. By our own will, we make and execute choices all the time. But here, in Jonah, we are reminded that we are not sovereign and our choices do not necessarily get the last word.
The testimony of Scripture is that it was the will of Jonah to buy a ticket, and to board a ship at Joppa. The testimony of Scripture is that it was the will of Jonah to "flee to Tarshish"(1:3). The testimony of Scripture also teaches us that, by God's power and will, Jonah was prevented from reaching the destination of his choice. Friends, the testimony of Scripture is that God's will for Jonah superseded Jonah's will for Jonah.
The lesson of Jonah, chapter 1, is that God is sovereign. And since God is sovereign, it is impossible for you and I to ultimately "flee" from His presence. The phrase "you can run, but you can't hide", perhaps, best fits our relationship with God. Jonah was allowed to run, but God wouldn't let him get away. Jonah had an agenda, but in the end, it was God's agenda that was realized.
Friends, I submit to you that the story of Jonah is a microcosm of the story of humanity. For thousands of years, humanity has been fleeing from the presence of the Lord. But God, in His sovereignty, has determined to pursue and rescue us. Instead of allowing humanity to author our own destruction, God has determined to preserve a people for Himself by sending His Son, Jesus Christ.
And, as the apostle Paul has said, “He who began a good work in you will complete it” (Phil. 1:6). Or, to put it another way, the God who has called you will not let you go. This is the lesson of Jonah.
Jonah wanted to go to Tarshish; he even paid his fare to get there (1:3). But in the end, Jonah did not get to where he wanted to go. God had other plans for Jonah.
We too, may have a destination in mind. It is conceivable that our destination may be, by human standards, a reasonable destination. Some are seeking a certain level of advancement in their career. Some are seeking a certain level of wealth and prosperity. Still others are seeking to adequately provide for the well being of their family.
If any of these represent our primary destination, the temptation we face is the same as Jonah’s. In seeking a destination outside of God we run the risk of altogether fleeing His presence in the process.
But, if there is something to learn from Jonah it is this: Our first pursuit should be the presence of the Lord.
I pray that you will be encouraged by what you read in Jonah. You should be encouraged knowing that no matter how far you have wandered from God's way, no matter how long you have been fleeing from His presence, you belong to a God who refuses to let you go.
By our own will we may fight against God’s design, but in the end, God’s design for you will prevail. And thankfully, God’s design for you is good. God’s design for you is the best of all designs. Thanks be to God! Amen.