Like I said last week, Jonah the prophet is sort of unusual in terms of his ministry. He’s very much an anti-prophet and he doesn’t behave as he we think a prophet should.
Maybe that’s understandable because of his unusual call. Most prophets were called to deliver a message only to God’s people, either the people of Israel or Judah. But not Jonah. No, right away, God tells him, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
While prophets were regularly called on to preach against people and their sin, Jonah is told to go to Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrian Empire. And that didn’t sit well with Jonah. After all, the Assyrians were the “Big Bad” of his day and age, a force of unimaginable evil. The Assyrians were known for their savagery. When they conquered people, they would often deport their victims into exile. To keep these exiles under control, they would run fishhooks through their noses and tie all the hooks together. Believe it or not, the exiles got off lightly. Historical records indicate that the Assyrians loved to make pyramids of human skulls after winning a battle.
In other words, the Assyrians were vicious. They were sinful. And now, God wants Jonah to go and tell them to get their collective act together.
I think it’s understandable that Jonah would have balked at this. After all, the people of Israel were experiencing something of a golden age under the reign of King Jeroboam II, who had been able to conquer a number of Israel’s enemies. But what would happen if someone from Israel went to the mighty Assyrians and told them off? These barbaric warriors might have taken exception to Jonah’s message and expressed their displeasure by taking it out on Israel.
Worse than that, Jonah knew God’s character. He knew that, although God was angry with the Assyrians and their skull pyramids, there was always the chance that, if the Assyrians did repent (as unlikely as that might have seemed), then God would spare these monsters and not show them the justice they so richly deserved. That’s the last thing that Jonah wanted to happen.
So Jonah did something you wouldn’t expect in a prophet. He ran.
But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
Now we don’t know for sure where Tarshish was. Some people think that it might have been ancient Spain. Whatever the case, Jonah was heading in the exact opposite direction of where God wanted him to go.
Jonah, our hero, winds up running in the opposite direction. But doesn’t that sound familiar? Let’s be honest with ourselves. We’ve behaved in exactly the same way. We know what God’s will is for our lives, but instead of following it, we wind up running in the opposite direction as well.
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?
Paul understands the desire to run in the opposite direction of God’s will all too well. He knows what he should do. But instead of doing that good, he does the opposite. He runs. We do the same thing.
But thankfully, God doesn’t leave us to run off without doing something about it. Paul, at the end of his diatribe about his actions, asks the painfully poignant question: “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” But he goes on to answer his own question:
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
And that’s what God does for us as well. We may stray, but Jesus chases us to bring us back onto the right path.
That’s sort of what happened with Jonah. Only with our anti-prophet, it took the more unusual form of a storm and a fish. But that’s a tale for next week.
Until then, may God continue to call you back to the paths He’s laid before you.