According to the narrative, Jonah was directed by the LORD to go to Nineveh “and proclaim [judgment] against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me” (Jonah 1:2, AMP). One would have thought that he would have immediately obeyed, “but Jonah ran away to Tarshish to escape from the presence of the Lord [and his duty as His prophet]. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish [the most remote of the Phoenician trading cities]. So he paid the fare and went down into the ship to go with them to Tarshish away from the presence of the Lord” (v. 3). Instead of going northeast from his home, he decided to go as far to the west as he could; the opposite direction away from where he was sent. He was deliberately disobeying God; He had no intention of going to Nineveh.
Bible scholar Matthew Henry writes, “Nineveh was at this time the metropolis of the Assyrian monarchy, an eminent city (Genesis 10:11), a great city, that great city, forty-eight miles in compass (some make it much more), great in the number of the inhabitants, as appears by the multitude of infants in it (Jonah 4:11), great in wealth (there was no end of its store, Nahum 2:9), great in power and dominion . . . and yet a heathen city, without the knowledge and worship of the true God.” The LORD had told Jonah that “their wickedness is come up before me,” hence his commission ‘to go . . . and proclaim [judgment] against it.” So why did he go in the opposite direction? Jonah would later tell God, “I ran to Tarshish, because I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and great in lovingkindness, and [when sinners turn to You] You revoke the [sentence of] disaster [against them]” (Jonah 4:2). In other words, he, the prophet of God, was greatly displeased and very angry (Jonah 4:1) that the merciful and gracious God would possibly show grace and mercy to these wicked people.
But why would he show such strong negative emotions? Because the people of Nineveh were enemies of his country, Israel, and as such he did not believe they deserved God’s grace. By preserving them, Jonah feared they would later come to inflict great harm upon God’s people. He was so distraught by the thought that he said, “Therefore now, O Lord, just take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3). But there was something self-serving about Jonah’s position as well. If he went to the city to proclaim judgment and God showed mercy, he feared he would be seen as a false prophet. Bible scholar John Darby puts it this way: “Jonah thought only of himself; and the horrid selfishness of his heart hides from him the God of grace, faithful to His love for His helpless creatures. . . . God must proclaim His justice. He does not save in sin. He makes man know his sin, in order to reconcile him to Himself, in order that his restoration may be real-may be that of his heart and of his conscience with God. But it is to make Himself known in pardoning him.”
It is interesting how Jonah was able to rationalize his disobeying God and to present those arguments to Him. Yet, before we judge him too harshly, we would do well to look into the mirror. In there, most of us would see some of Jonah in us. Just because God tells us to do something, doesn’t mean we will necessarily do it. And we often rationalize or justify our disobeying God as well. Despite the disobedience, God showed kindness to Jonah in the same way He continues to show kindness to you and me. However, let us not take this kindness for granted. Through Christ, He continues to ask the question: “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not practice what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). It is a question that demands our reflection and response.