I have often wondered what was going through Jonah’s mind as he rose up and prepared to run “away to Tarshish to escape from the presence of the Lord [and his duty as His prophet]” (Jonah 1:3a, AMP) because he objected to going to Nineveh as instructed (vv. 1-2). Though he was to declare the divine judgment over the city, in his heart he also knew that that one who sent him was “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). As Bible scholar John Darby puts it, “Israel were the depositary of God’s testimony in the world, and gloried in it as clothing themselves with honour, and Israel could not bear with the exercise of grace to the Gentiles.” Jonah had put himself on a direct collision course with the LORD with his rebellion.
When this reluctant prophet fled from the presence of the LORD, it wasn’t that he was trying to hide from Him. He knew better. While we often act as if God does not see everything that we do, we would do well to remember the psalmist’s question, “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?” (Psalm 139:7), and the futility of any such attempt (Psalm 139:8-12). As Bible commentator Albert Barnes tells us, “Jonah fled, not from God’s presence, but from standing before Him, as His servant and minister. . . he acted, as people often do, who dislike God’s commands. He set about removing himself as far as possible from being under the influence of God, and from the place where he ‘could’ fulfill them. God commanded him to go to Nineveh, which lay northeast from his home; and he instantly set himself to flee to the then furthermost west.” He went in the opposite direction.
It is interesting that even as Jonah executed his plan, God did not delay or stop him. According to the narrative, “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” (Jonah 1:3b). In his mind, once there he would be far removed from what God wanted him to do. How often have we made the same mistake? Just because God allows us to rebel against Him as we ignore and often frustrate the calling on our lives does not mean we are free from that calling. Sure, God could have blocked Jonah’s plans before he left for Joppa. He could have made it so that when Jonah got there, the trip to Tarshish was sold out. During all this time, God did not say a word to Jonah and he did not say anything to Him. God’s silence, however, should not be interpreted as His consent. Not every open door is one we should walk through. As Jonah settled in on his ride, it would have been interesting to know what he was thinking.
Has God asked you to do something that you don’t want to do? Something that you have ran away or are running away from? Albert Barnes reminds us, “This, above all things and alone, can neither be escaped nor resisted, God. When He willeth to hold and grasp in His Hand, He overtaketh the swift, baffleth the intelligent, overthroweth the strong, boweth the lofty, tameth rashness, subdueth might.” In other words, if God has you and me marked for an assignment, there is nowhere we can go and nothing we can do that would deny Him. Like Jonah, we might be tempted to believe that our plans can trump God’s plans, or that going our own way and doing our own thing releases us from our assignment, but He always has the last word. He sometimes gives us enough rope before reeling us back in, just to remind us that He is ultimately in charge. The Wisdom writer said it best: “Many plans are in a man’s mind, but it is the Lord’s purpose for him that will stand (be carried out)” (Proverbs 19:21). Those are words worth remembering.