The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” 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.
– Jonah 1:1-3
A good many years ago our family purchased a book called Chess for Dummies.We bought it because we were heading out on a vacation, intending to play some serious chess along the way. The book turned out to be a pretty good book of chess instruction, and also contained play-by-play accounts of some of the great chess matches of history.
In the beginning of the book of Jonah we have what looks very much like a chess match going on between Jonah and God. In chapter one it begins with God making His move and Jonah, his countermove. This is not chess on a chessboard, however, but in life. It involved Jonah’s personal choices, actions and attitudes.
It is a good rule in chess to play people at a skill level comparable to your own. You really don’t want the local de facto chess master to have to suffer through your feeble play. It may also help you, the aspiring chess player, to avoid coming up against an opponent so skilled that it will make you want to give up the sport completely.
This book of Jonah, as we will soon discover, contains several unequal contests along the way. Very soon there will be a boatload of anxious sailors ready to make Jonah walk the plank to his death. There will be a hungry whale that swallows the Hebrew prophet out of the Mediterranean Sea like some after-dinner appetizer. It doesn’t stop there. Next, the prophet preaches judgment to a vast throng of humanity in a foreign land. If that isn’t enough, the story concludes with a contest between the man Jonah and a tiny worm in chapter four. One right after another, contests of true unequals.
We are getting ahead of ourselves, however, because the focus begins with Jonah. Jonah, son of Amittai, was called to be a prophet of Israel. It is worth noting that his success in discharging his duty as a prophet starts with the more mundane duty that accompanies being a mere disciple, learner and follower. Prophets too, you see, are first and foremost disciples. They put on their pants one button at a time like everybody else.
In this first part of Jonah chapter one, the prophet receives a word from God. God says to Jonah, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.” (1:2) God’s message to Jonah appears to be very clear and very definite, an express declaration of God’s will for his own life and for the Ninevites too.
So what did he do? How did he respond? Verse three tells us that Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, which was a sea-port, and got on a ship heading in the exact opposite direction of Nineveh. God says “Go” to Nineveh and Jonah says “No”. Jonah says “No” and runs away from God. Jonah is determined to go his own way. He uses his own God-given freedom to disobey God’s command.
We need to take a bit of a step back and ask ourselves—what kind of a person is this Jonah really? He comes across to us as the quintessential self-directed man, a real poster-child of personal autonomy. He is the kind of man we can relate to. So often the figures of antiquity seem more distant than the many years between us because of overly sympathetic biographers, or the many gloss-coats of paint that the retelling of history often accomplishes. Jonah actually seems near to us. In Jonah, we see someone we can really understand. We understand personal autonomy. We understand self-centeredness.
We live in an age when people have reached a new and unprecedented ability to self-determine the course of their own life. With technological change moving along at a dizzying pace, dramatic improvements in communication, a continued long-term pattern of economic prosperity and relative political stability, we are each given more freedom for self-determination than any other group in all of history.
We celebrate our personal autonomy. The musical group Fleetwood Mac had a very popular song when I was growing up, “You Can Go Your Own Way”. The song was an anthem to many of my generation of our own desire for autonomy. At the time it was popular, that song would never have had air-time in many of the countries of the world, but in America it expressed an ideal that we held dear. Later on I learned that my parents had their own pied piper of autonomy, Frank Sinatra, who crooned that he did it “My Way”.
So what is so bad about personal autonomy? Of course if each of us were our own island with no responsibility to anyone, human or divine, then this autonomy would not be a problem or anything other than a bald fact of man’s nature and existence. Such is not the case. Man is not alone. Each man is part of a greater reality, a greater purpose and a greater community.
In light of this, the very candid portrayal of Jonah here is indicative of a general pattern in the Scriptures to expose the problem of man’s quest for autonomy and the failure it represents in the bigger picture of things.
The theme of man’s desire to go his own way is consistently exemplified and taught in the Holy Scriptures. The Bible teaches that this is a basic fact about man, an internal principle of self-interest issuing in a pattern of effort to build a kingdom of self-rule and selfdetermination. In Judges 21:25 it says:
In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.
There is a way that seems right to man, and the testimony of Scripture as well as the observations of our common experience is that the way of man is “me, my & mine”, the holy trinity of self-rule and self-determination. Forbid it that anyone should get in my way, and certainly not God.
In verse three God says “Go” and Jonah says “No”. Actually we don’t know whether Jonah mouthed the word to God. All it says is that he went and did what was diametrically opposed to what God had asked him to do. Actions speak louder than words. In this case Jonah could not have found a more perfect way of saying “No”. He simply said no to God by refusing to do what God asked him to do.
A basic question we will ask is this: why did he do it? Why did he disobey God and go the other way? What motivated Jonah? There are several possible motivations behind Jonah’s decision to disobey God.
One theory would be that fear drove Jonah. When you think about it, there was not just one, but a whole shooting match of frightening possibilities in God’s request. Who wouldn’t have been afraid? Here, this single Hebrew prophet was asked to go into a foreign land, a land that was undoubtedly politically and militarily hostile to Israel.
Was Jonah taking a contingent of people with him? Very likely, he was not. He probably wasn’t a rich man like Abraham. A prophet would most likely be traveling alone. Frightening! Let’s face it, there are places you can go in this world that are terribly unfriendly. There are street-corners you do not want to stand on. But Jonah was asked by God to go.
Then, even more problematic was what Jonah was being asked to do. He was being asked to stand up in this politically charged situation and preach judgment against this people. One thing you really don’t want to do in life is go to a new place and then offend everyone you meet. Here Jonah is being asked by God to insure that he will offend them. “Go and preach against them”. Preach judgment against them. Preach how bad they are. This is not a pleasant task. He is being asked to do this to a truly unfriendly people, all by himself. Does this sound like a reason for fear?
Another theory is that Jonah no longer understood God’s leadership, that he had lost his grip on God and on God’s purpose. Didn’t God call him to be a prophet to Israel? God had set him apart to minister the word of God, to be God’s mouthpiece and to speak God’s word to God’s covenant people, the Hebrews. He knew about God’s covenant with Israel. He understood God’s covenant with Israel. Now where did this fit, this preaching to the Ninevites? Perhaps Jonah was losing his grip on what he had thought to be God’s plan.
We poor souls who have given over the job of navigating our cars to global positioning systems have all experienced a certain phenomenon. There are times when the GPS barks out directions that defy logic, in fact at times something diametrically opposed to what would seem obvious in our current situation. I am almost certain that Jonah experienced feelings towards God similar to those that I sometimes have towards my GPS.
We are especially vulnerable when things are going well. At those times we seem to be oblivious to the possibility that God may have something new and even potentially problematic in mind for us. It is only a matter of time really before we will find our experience to mirror the experience of other Christ-followers throughout the centuries: that God will be God and God will do what God chooses to do, even if our lives at times look and feel like a roller coaster.
Theologians list as an attribute of God’s character that he is inscrutable, that his ways are sometimes beyond finding out or difficult to understand through human reason. It is really better to know about the inscrutability of God before it is shows up at your door. God can intervene at any time with something that will totally rearrange our understanding. There are parents who thought they had a perfect family life, and along God comes to take one of their little ones.
God’s plan is greater and longer and higher and more mysterious than we can possibly imagine. It may have had that nightmarish effect on Jonah, who probably had no previous idea that God would ever want to send him to Nineveh. Nineveh! Did you say Nineveh? Impossible!
The text of Scripture itself reveals to us something about Jonah’s motivation. In chapter four, Jonah says to God after Nineveh repents:
O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you were a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. (4:2)
Some see Jonah’s behavior here as bald bigotry. Others have a tendency to give Jonah the benefit of the doubt and ascribe to him a jealousy for God’s honor. Nineveh, we do know, was a traditional enemy of Israel. There also is considerable evidence that at that time the culture of Assyria, of which Nineveh was a part, was an extremely brutal neighborhood in the region of the Middle East.
Jonah probably had genuinely unmitigated hatred for Nineveh, hatred so congealed that he was not able to act as God wanted him to act in obedience to His command. He likely hated the Ninevites for what he thought they could do to him and to his people, Israel. They were, likely to him,