The Book of Jonah is incredible. There are so many significant themes running through this little book of just 4 chapters. I recently went through it again and found something that bowled me over.
We are all aware that Jonah’s initial response to the Lord’s command to preach in Nineveh was one of total disobedience. He ran in the opposite direction. What is not so familiar, at least to me, is that Jonah, in taking the first boat out of the country, was fleeing from the presence of the Lord. This phrase is repeated 3 times in chapter one. Jonah was so brazen about his sin that he even told the sailors what he was doing (verse 10). Ironically, Jonah could not accomplish his plan. The Lord was right there to meet the prophet with a catastrophic hurricane and a large fish. But is there a different meaning to “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” than what meets the eye? I think there is.
Since Jonah operated out of the northern kingdom of Israel, “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” probably does not refer to Jerusalem and the temple. More than likely, what is meant here is that God viewed Jonah’s defiant running away as leaving his sphere of ministry and the place of blessing. We would say that Jonah, in his rebellion, left his post or quit his calling.
The outcome of Jonah’s sin is pictured in the phrase “he went down.” This thought is repeated 4 times (twice in 1:3, 1:5, 2:6) and acts as a euphemism (a different way of saying the same thing) for death. As Jonah hardened his heart, he took steps toward death itself … both figuratively and, for Jonah, literally.
So what delivered Jonah from this tail spin? Chapter two reveals that Jonah’s deliverance came through the Lord’s kindness and mercy. Jonah prayed: “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice….I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!" It is always God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).
My takeaway from this is that we also need to see our outright rebellion to the Lord’s commands for what it really is—a deliberate running away from God and taking steps toward judgment. The apostle Paul, in teaching Timothy to deal with those who oppose the truth, wrote something very profound:
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24-26 ESV)
Let us always seek God’s grace to lead us to repentance and a knocking of some sense into our thick skulls … before we also end up in a whale of trouble.