Jonah’s mission at home is recounted in a few verses (2 Kings 14:23–27). It fixes Jonah in history, ministering during the long and successful reign of Jeroboam II, king of Israel. The striking feature of his task is the fact that he brings a positive message from the Lord at a time of national idolatry and immorality. Jeroboam II, like the many kings before him, led his people into sin and consequent misery. Yet the Lord sees their suffering and, with no one else to help them, steps in to give relief. Jonah is directed to prophesy that the country’s borders, which had been eaten away through repeated foreign incursions, would be restored. That is indeed what happened. No doubt Jonah’s popularity rose as he prophesied and soared off the graph as the prophecy was fulfilled. The lesson to be learned from this particular incident is that the Lord has compassion on the undeserving. It is a lesson which is repeated throughout Jonah’s life. It had to be, since he was such a slow learner. He will learn it on a personal level (chapter 2). He will also learn it in relation to the wicked Ninevites (chapters 3 and 4).
We tend to run from pain and run to pleasure. It’s how we’re wired and each of us do it in different ways. Maybe Jonah wasn’t running from God as much as he was running from the unpleasant thing God was calling him to do.
Reality can be filled with suffering, loss, pain, and can be anxiety-producing, so we try to escape that reality. We live in denial. We avoid the problems that are rising around us. We run. How do you run? How do you seek to avoid reality or escape from your problems?
Before we discuss what Jonah did, let’s talk about what he didn’t do. He didn’t talk about it. He isolated. We distance ourselves from the problems that plague us. This is at the root of addiction. But drugs don’t have to be illegal substances. Love can be a drug, gambling can definitely be a drug, binge-watching Netflix can release as much serotonin as ecstasy if you’re not careful. Alcohol is a drug. Overworking when the problem is at home, underworking when the problem is at work are all ways of distancing from the problem. Sometimes we’ll even try to change geography to run away from our problems. This was the story of Jonah.
Jonah was running to Tarshish. Commentators’ guesses about where it was range from just about every Mediterranean trading station known to scholars. It’s not an invented place but it seems always just out of the reach of those studying the etymology and ancient geography. Isaiah 66:19 lists it among the faraway places that have yet to hear God’s name. Since he never got there it hardly matters now. Of greater significance is the Tarshish of Jonah’s dreams—the place where he sought peace and fulfilment away from the presence and service of the Lord. In God’s grace he failed to arrive. The reality is that Tarshish—the place where you can forever escape your problems and doing what God wills—does not exist; it is only the place of disobedient dreams.
Enough about how we run and where we run. What about why we run? Jonah’s motive is hinted at in 4:2, because of God’s reputation for compassion and mercy. Maybe fueled out of racial hatred that the people might repent and God might have mercy upon the Ninevites, rather than judgment. Or maybe fueled by selfish motives, that after preaching judgment and God answers with mercy, he would be seen as a false prophet and burned at the stake.
Jonah turned away from the God of the universe to worship the gods of comfort, control, and approval. What would his fellow Israelites think if he did what God said to go to Ninevah? It would be difficult and very stressful! He would be very much out of his comfort zone and out of control, for what if they repented? Jonah would have no part in this, so he thought.
But the reality is that we cannot effectively run from God. Jonah should have known better. He knew Psalm 139. Do you?
When cows sense there is a storm coming from the west, they will run east, away from the storm. As we all know, cows are not the fastest animals in the kingdom and so the storms eventually catch up to the cows while they are still running east. The cows actually end up running WITH the storm and inevitably prolong the agony and pain of being in the storm.
Buffalos have a very different response to storms. They wait for the storm to crest over the Rocky Mountains and then they run west INTO the storm. By running towards the storm they run thru it and minimize the time they have to deal with the storm.
This is another way of the world’s mantra, “Sink or Swim.” Don’t be like a cow or you’ll sink. If you continue to run away from your problems they’ll eventually catch up with you. But the problem is that not all of us can do the alternative. Many of us are too overwhelmed and too tired to run through an approaching storm. We aren’t buff like a buffalo. So what can we do? There’s good news in a different cattle metaphor that Jesus used.
Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly in heart. And you will find rest for your soul…