1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”
3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.
Jonah receives a word from the Lord that he should preach to the people of Nineveh in the Assyrian empire that they might repent. Instead of obeying God, Jonah runs away from God. This is not the story we expected to find about one of the prophets.
We learn from 2 Kings 14:25 that Jonah was from Gath Hepher. He was called by God to go to Nineveh, which is far to the north in the Assyrian empire; a city that overlaps with present-day Mosul in Iraq. Instead, Jonah hoofs it south to the port city of Joppa to catch a boat to Tarshish on the far side of the Mediterranean world, a city which is either in present-day Spain or Sardinia.
Clearly, it is not fear of travelling that keeps Jonah from obeying God, but something else. That something else is that Jonah knows something about the mercy of God. Jonah believes, as we find out later, that if he preaches to the Ninevites about Yahweh, the God of Israel, the Ninevites will actually turn from their wickedness and encounter the mercy of Yahweh God.
Jonah is afraid of this reality and will not obey God. Why?
Perhaps it was because Jonah was in thrall to King Jeroboam II. Jeroboam was a powerful king, who provided unequaled economic prosperity and political stability during his forty-year year. He was also one of the most godless kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. According to 2 Kings 14, Jonah prophesied favorably for King Jeroboam, and so perhaps Jonah did not want to defy the king and prophesy in another kingdom.
Perhaps Jonah’s disobedience was because the Assyrian Empire was threatening the people of Israel. We do know that later, in 722 BC, the Assyrians completely overrun Israel and the capital of Samaria, leaving nothing left. Perhaps Jonah was afraid of this larger, more powerful kingdom.
Or perhaps it was that Jonah simply did not believe that God’s mercy should extend to another people group, particularly one so wicked and violent as the Assyrians. Jonah may have wanted these wicked people to get what they deserved.
Whatever the exact reason, or perhaps the combination of reasons, Jonah has a problem in his heart that God needs to address. And that is really the driving theme of the entire book of Jonah.