We see Jonah’s disobedience and the Lord restoring him afterwards. We should be ever grateful that the Lord’s mercies are new every morning (Lam 3:22–23), and as John says, “We have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn 2:1). Our God is not only merciful and gracious to us in our times of sin and failure, but He is greater than all our seasons of sin, and he still brings about all that He intended to do in our lives. This is, of course, not a justification to sin. We are still morally responsible to the Lord for our sins. Yet the Lord is sovereign over everything, even our moral failures, He is hindered by nothing and no one, and He will bring about all He intends for our lives.
A few weeks ago I finished preaching through the book of Jonah at our church. This was a book with which most Christians are familiar. Most likely, we know of this book because of the account of Jonah being swallowed by the big fish. We probably learned this in Sunday school when we were children and have taught this to our own children. It is truly an extraordinary account, as no other endured the discipline of the Lord as Jonah did. But as we worked through this astonishing book, I gained a whole new appreciation for its message.
The main theme of the book is that of mercy. God is showing mercy and compassion to Nineveh, and the Lord teaches Jonah about the extent of His unfathomable mercy. The Lord not only demonstrated mercy to Nineveh, the great enemy of Israel, but also to others, including Jonah himself. Have we truly considered the great mercy of God toward Jonah? The account that was presented to us in this book was greatly encouraging to our hearts as a church.
But I must confess that I had not truly considered the rebellion of Jonah in that first chapter until I recently preached through it. The book begins with the Lord commanding Jonah to go to Nineveh and cry out against it because of their wickedness. This is the capitol of the great empire of Assyria. This is the same empire that will attack the Northern Kingdom of Israel perhaps a generation later and deport them out of the land. It will be this same empire that will try to take the Southern Kingdom of Israel in the years to come. This is Israel’s enemy without question.
We know what Jonah did thereafter. He travels to Joppa (50miles or so), and boards a ship that was going to Tarshish instead. The text tells us that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. Now, Jonah is not ignorant of the reality of God’s omniscience or power. Obviously, he cannot flee from the presence of the holy, infinite God. What does this mean then? As some commentators have pointed out, he was abandoning his calling as God’s prophet! He was basically saying, “If Nineveh is where I have to go, then you can take back your calling because I’m not going.” Think of this—he is a true prophet of the Lord. The Lord has truly spoken to this man, and instead of being humbled by this privilege, as we think we ourselves would have been if God spoke to us this way, he rebels against the Lord and refuses to go.
There could be a few reasons Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh. Perhaps he didn’t like Gentiles (probably not the reason). Maybe he was afraid to go to the city because they were enemies and he might be killed. He could have refused based on what his own people would have said about him because he preached to their enemies.
The view that I hold is that Jonah did not want to go to Nineveh because he knew that God would be merciful to them. God implies this in chapter four and verse two. Why else would the Lord send him? The Lord commanded Jonah to go to the city and cry out against it because, as the Lord said, “Their wickedness has come up before Me” (1:2). Doesn’t the Lord pass over the wicked and leave them to their just punishment? Why then did the Lord send Jonah there if His intention was to judge them anyway? He could have left them to their sins. The Lord sending Jonah to Nineveh was, perhaps, to use Jonah as the instrument of His mercy that they would repent of their wickedness, and Jonah wanted no part of this.
Consider the rebellion and arrogance of Jonah who, again, is a true prophet of the Lord and one of God’s own people.