Last week, we began this devotional series on Jonah by looking at the first two verses of chapter one. If I might sum up the first two verses once more, we could understand them best by the concept of God’s rights with the subcategory of God’s mercy.
God is always completely in His right to do as He pleases; we don’t have to agree, understand, or (especially) allow Him to have those rights. Being God, by nature, He is above all things created and is the only being with pure free will, that is, the ability to choose and to do exactly as He pleases without any constraint.
God has the power and the right to show mercy to whom He wills and to harden whom He wills. Romans 9:14-16 states: “What shall we say then? There is no injustice with God, is there? May it never be! 15 For He says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ 16 So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” We could simplify v. 16 by saying, “It depends on God.” The received treatment from God is not dependent upon the person in His sights but the God behind the “eyes” through which He sees the person. All of creation is dependent upon God, but God is dependent upon no one; He is self-existent, self-sustaining, self-contained, and self-fulfilled among many of His attributes.
Stepping into verse 3 today, we actually are looking at a verse that should be a crisis of theology for Jonah, but Jonah’s response often to lesser degrees has been attempted by many Christians. It’s amazing how believers have a propensity for learning Scriptural truth on one hand and yet have practiced beliefs on the other. No matter what we may claim to believe in doctrine, we are always limited by what we are willing to put into practice either in acts of obedience or in how we think, despite what we know.
Every Christian, in a sense, is given large shoes to fill that they are growing ever so slowly into when they are given biblical truth. We often don’t add up to what we believe, and just because we know to have faith, to live by hope, to trust God for the outcome, to practice obedience and to die to sinful desires, it doesn’t mean that we necessarily do. Biblically speaking, it is a process that we are both called to work out but that God Himself is also working out in us (and there’s great hope in that). Nevertheless, God has a way of taking truths we know and forcing us to see just what we truly want to believe; they don’t always align.
With this backdrop of thought in mind, let’s look at our verse. The first part of v. 3 says this: “But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” The word “but” is a contrasting word; God gave a command (v. 2), but Jonah chose to run from it. Not only did he run from the command, but his heart was to run from the presence of the Lord.
This is where that theology crisis should immediately kick in, because there is no place in all of creation that one can flee from the Lord. David would say in Psalm 139:7-8: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? 8 If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in [f]Sheol, behold, You are there.” (I’d recommend reading Psalm 139:1-12 for a more full picture of what’s captured in vv. 7-8.)
There is no escaping the presence of the Lord, but that is what Jonah’s intention was. He could have gone to Ninevah. He could have stayed put where he was. Jonah went above and beyond in his response by going the entirely opposite direction from Ninevah (Tarshish would be over in modern Spain). Jonah was trying to go as far away as he could, literally to the edge of the Europe near the Atlantic Ocean when Ninevah was thousands of miles the other direction.
Notice, though, that the story of Jonah doesn’t end with his boat ride, a frustrated God putting His hands up in the air and saying, “Guess I’ll have to find someone else.” No, God knew who He was calling when He asked Jonah to do this, and knew that Jonah would buck, and that this calling was going to not only be a work on the people of Ninevah, but also a work on a reluctant prophet who had a lot of rough edges to smooth out. He still has a way of calling us into places that will rough out the edges of both the ministered and the minister.
Service to God is not just about changing others, but also being changed in the process. He provides grace to serve, but the pressures that we may undergo in the process have a purpose in refining us. No one serves God without also being radically changed in the process; it’s one of the gifts (you read that right) that God blesses us with in obedience: transformation. This is why many folks would gladly accept the offer of grace and mercy but shun the notion of serving God for the potential pain incurred or dreams dismissed in favor of God’s plans. Obedience to God always brings the discomfort of submission, but then again, is it really all that comfortable to be at the helm of your life without God at your side?
“So he went down to Joppa, found a ship which was going to Tarshish, paid the fare and went down into it to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Can we draw something from this portion of verse 3? I would surmise that it’s highlighting how calculated Jonah was in his determination to run from God. He first went to a port town (intentionally), found a ship going to Tarshish (intentionally), paid a fare (probably not small as it was one of the farthest destinations to go) and then went down into the ship to go with the sailors. Jonah did his research, took his trip, and spent his time and money all in an effort to distance himself from God to serve his own interests.
We have to wonder if sometimes the best way to drown out the sound of God’s voice is to continuously take steps to ensure a path we know He’s not in. Jonah didn’t get to Joppa and then turn around, nor did he find a ship going to Joppa and then change his mind. He didn’t pause on the payment (that we can see) but took steps to cement his journey out of the presence of God. Sometimes we do similar things: we may choose to willingly not do things we know God wants us to do, but have to go to great efforts to keep not doing them. Additionally, we may choose to willingly do things we know God does not want us to do, and yet again have to go to great lengths to keep doing them when that quiet voice keeps trying to talk. The inner awareness that comes with God’s activity can sometimes only be dealt with by noise, but even noise can only keep God silent as long as He chooses to not overpower it.
It’s safe to say that Jonah’s response to God sought to downplay God’s right in calling him to serve God as He saw fit. God has the right to show grace and mercy to whom He will, but sometimes the harder calling that finds more resistance is in God’s right to call whomever He wills to serve Him. Service doesn’t necessarily mean going overseas or being in the ministry; every believer is called to honor God by doing what He is calling each of them to do individually. We may give Him 1,000 reasons for why He can’t use us, and other people may give Him 1,000 reasons more. Neither party matters when speaking of human reasons being thrown in the face of God; what He wants, He rightly should get. Still, this doesn’t mean we won’t have times of throwing up a fight of resistance or being like the child who would not sit down until the force of demand, at which the child responded, “I’m still standing inside.” Thank God that He doesn’t wait for us to determine if He can use us, but calls us to serve Him and on the way makes us more useful.
The beauty of this little verse of defiance (Jonah 1:3) is that God doesn’t give up on those He bestows His love upon. Both the Ninevites and the prophet Jonah were in need of God’s grace and mercy, and the glory of this book of the Bible rests not in the people portrayed but the God who, in His right, showed grace and mercy for His pleasure. Even Jonah’s reluctant unwillingness did not ultimately discount him from God using him; while in the moment he resisted, inevitably God would bring him around, though he still had much to work on even by the end of the book.
I pray for you today that whether you’ve been near or far from God, you’d be caught up not in your own reflection at the thought of Him, but in the image of a God who is glorious and kind, loving and forgiving, whose character when seen properly draws us in like a bug to a light (with a better end). See Him again for how good He is, and let that goodness infect your soul that you might grow in holiness before Him. God’s character is always on display in the Scriptures, whether people are behaving righteously or sinfully. How He responds to them teaches us much about who He is.
It all starts with salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, because if that hasn’t happened, there is no growing in holiness and spiritual maturity. The Gospel message itself tells us how great God is to be so kind to humanity when no one has been good enough to earn or keep the favor that He offers. If Christ is your Savior, take a moment to thank God for how good He has been to you recently.