The account of Jonah was the story of Israel writ large. We’re rightly bothered by one of the Israel’s prophets who didn’t care about the perishing Gentiles and who failed to be light to them. The problem with Jonah, however, was the tip of the iceberg. Jonah’s problem was Israel’s problem. And judgment was coming—to the Israelites.
When the prophet Jonah was ministering in the land of Israel, the land was already divided into a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. Jonah lived in the northern kingdom (see 2 Kings 14:23–25), and the north would fall to the Assyrians in 722 BC.
During Jonah’s ministry, the word of the Lord came to him with instructions to go to Nineveh and preach against its great evil (Jonah 1:1–2). Nineveh was a major city in the Assyrian empire, and Jonah wanted nothing to do with helping that region. He fled to Tarshish, defying the word of the Lord (1:3).
Jonah’s flight from God’s command is a breathtaking response. The prophet pays a fare and boards a boat. Even a storm on the sea does not prompt him to cry out to God for mercy. The mariners on board were crying out to their gods (1:5), but Jonah was not (1:6). The storm had come because of Jonah, yet Jonah did not seem to care about what was happening on the boat. The captain feared that everyone would perish (1:6). Why didn’t Jonah care?
The boat scene gives insight into what’s wrong with Jonah’s ministry. Didn’t he care about the Gentiles who would perish on the sea? Didn’t it bother him that his actions had put everyone in jeopardy?