Lessons From Jonah’s Flight

 Part I

Previously, we looked at the introduction to the book of Jonah and particularly at Jonah’s flight from the presence of God. But why? Why did Jonah flee to Tarshish? Why would he disobey a clear instruction from God to go to Nineveh?

Let’s take a few moments to try and piece together what must have been going through Jonah’s mind when he first received God’s call to preach in Nineveh. Jonah knew that the LORD was a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and of great kindness. If he went to Nineveh, that great city, and preached against its great wickedness, and the people repented, then the LORD would surely show mercy to them.

“In fact,” Jonah must have reasoned, “that is most likely what is going to happen. After all, why would the LORD send me, His prophet, hundreds of miles away to preach to a people He was going to destroy? Many nations have been destroyed by God because of their sin without any specific word from God sent through His prophet. If I am being sent to Nineveh, it must be that God has the gracious intention of sparing and saving them.”

So far so good. Jonah was indeed right about that. God did intend to save the wicked Ninevites through Jonah’s preaching. But Jonah didn’t stop there. He went further in his line of reasoning.

He had already preached to the Israelites in the northern kingdom and they had not repented. And he was not the only prophet to have done that. Other prophets had been sent but still, the people remained stubborn and unrepentant. If anything, they went further in their evil and wickedness. The word of the LORD was being rejected time and time again.

So on the one hand, there is unrepentant and rebellious Israel and on the other, there is repentant Assyria. It is not difficult to put two and two together and to see that not only will God spare the Assyrians and punish the Israelites but He will use the Assyrians as instruments of His wrath upon Israel.

Once again, Jonah was not far from the truth. Within 20 years of the end of Jeroboam II’s reign, the Assyrians would sweep into the northern kingdom of Israel and utterly devastate it.

So having put the whole scenario together, Jonah did not like what he saw. He wanted to protect his own people. He would rather see the heathen Assyrians perish than to have the disobedient Israelites suffer that fate. And so he ran. He would have nothing to do with the salvation of the Gentiles and the destruction of the Jews, especially if the first would lead to the second.

Was he right to run from His God-given assignment? Of course not! God is sovereign. He determines what goes on in the world. All the affairs of man are in His hands. If He chooses to save the wicked who repent and to destroy those who previously received His mercy, that is His right. The Judge of all the earth will always do right.

Men, who are mere creatures of dust, have no right to question God or to oppose His will. Jonah needed to learn that lesson, and God, by His providence and Word, was going to teach him that truth.        

There are many things we can learn from these opening verses of Jonah. I’ll like to look at one of them now and two of them the next time.

The first lesson is that God is concerned both with the sin of the heathen and the sin of His own people.

The book begins with a word from the LORD to Jonah not for Israel but for the Assyrians. God didn’t tell Jonah to arise and go to Jerusalem or some other city in Palestine. Instead, He told him to arise and go to Nineveh, which stood at the very heart of the Assyrian empire.

The sin and wickedness of that great city had gone up into God’s presence and it was hateful in His sight. “Go, Jonah, and preach against the wickedness of Nineveh. Denounce their sins and declare that the wrath and curse of God will soon fall upon them if they do not repent of their wickedness and turn from their sins, and seek the Lord with all their heart.”

It’s important to understand and to be reminded that God’s law or God’s standard of morality is applicable to all men everywhere and at all times. God does not have two standards of righteousness – one for his people and one for the heathen. No, all men everywhere, from Nineveh to Tarshish, will be judged by one standard, even the moral law of God.

Now it’s true that the Gentile nations did not have the law of God so clearly and fully revealed to them as it was to the Israelites. And it is true that the Jews will be judged more severely seeing they have sinned against greater light and privileges.

Nevertheless, the Gentiles will be held accountable for the knowledge of God’s law that they do have, which is written upon their hearts and consciences. As the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 2:14-15, “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law [that is they do not have the written revelation of God’s law], do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another.” And because of this innate or inborn knowledge of God’s law set in their hearts, they are without excuse.

Nineveh was a city of great wickedness because the people in it were guilty of gross sins or transgressions of God’s law. Remember again that wickedness is defined by God not man. If something is evil or wicked in God’s sight, then that thing is evil indeed. And conversely, if something is good in God’s sight, then that thing is good indeed.  

Some time ago, I read a post on my facebook page by a Christian brother from another country. It reads, “Right is right even if no one is doing it. Truth is truth even if no one believes it. Wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it. A lie is a lie even if everyone believes it.” When I saw it, I immediately “liked” it.

We live in an age when good and evil, truth and falsehood, right and wrong, are viewed as all being relative and dependent on man’s wisdom and judgment. Man decides for himself what is good and evil, what is true and false, what is right and wrong. Everything is relative. Nothing is absolute. But that is not so.

God, not man, is the One who determines these things. Nineveh was a wicked city because it was wicked in God’s sight. And in the final analysis, that is what truly matters.

But God is not only concerned about the sins of the Gentiles and heathen, He is also concerned with the sins of His own people, yes, even His own prophet. Jonah disobeyed a clear and direct instruction from the LORD. That was a serious sin and God would later chastise His prophet for his disobedience. 

But the point I want us to remember is that God is the One who determines what is righteous and what is wicked, and He is concerned both with the sins of the heathen and the sins of His people.

Let us as His people hold on to His definition of sin. And let us never be indifferent to sin, both the sin outside of us and especially the sin within us.

— Linus Chua