A Strange Response

How do you respond to a message from God?

If the God who created everything and provided for your eternal salvation wants to speak to you, how should you respond? There are many options, but today we are looking at Jonah's response.

I find Jonah's reaction very strange.

The book of Jonah begins with the Word of the Lord coming to Jonah, instructing him to go to Ninevah and cry out against the city because of their wickedness. It seems that God is telling him to proclaim a “fire and brimstone” message.

Most of us, I think, would first ask, “Is that really You, God? Can you confirm that this is what You want me to do?” Proclaiming a message of destruction might be scary when facing a wicked city like Ninevah. Or, perhaps, it might be satisfying to some to have God's permission to serve up a message of judgment on a deserving society.

Let's take a look at what Jonah did when God spoke to him.

Jonah's First Response

But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. 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. Jonah 1:3

What? Jonah fled from the very presence of God! At least, he tried to. But we know that God is omnipresent (present everywhere) and there is no place you can go to hide from Him.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.
Psalm 139:7-12

So, why did Jonah head toward Tarshish? Most say because it was the opposite direction of Ninevah – a long distance. But, I wonder if it was also a place that was worldly enough that Jonah didn't think God's presence would be found there.

Anyhow, Jonah tried to flee from the presence of God.


Did Jonah really think he could run from God's presence? We find that, after a series of events, he admitted to the fearful sailors on the ship he in which he journeyed that he was, in fact, running from God. Not only that, but He said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord God of heaven who made the sea and the dry land.” Then the men became extremely frightened and they said to him, “How could you do this?” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of the Lord, because he had told them. Jonah 1:9-10

Even the heathen sailors knew that what Jonah was doing was wrong.

Instead of asking to change course, Jonah told them to just throw him overboard into the raging sea. This frightened them even more, but eventually that was the only thing left to do. When the sea immediately ceased its raging, the sailors feared the Lord greatly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. That seems like a good response to God's demonstration of power and sovereignty.

Coming to His Senses

After Jonah sinks to the bottom of the sea, prays a desperate prayer, and is saved by a large fish that swallows him, he seems to come to his senses. He even makes vows to God.

“While I was fainting away, I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to You, into Your holy temple.
“Those who regard vain idols forsake their faithfulness,
But I will sacrifice to You with the voice of thanksgiving.
That which I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation is from the Lord.”
Jonah 2:7-9

After this prayer, from the belly of the fish, God commands the fish to vomit him onto dry land. Then, God speaks to Jonah a second time giving him a message to proclaim to the city of Ninevah. Jonah's response is, understandably, different this time.

So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” Jonah 3:3-4

Finally. Obedience?

Jonah walks through the city of Ninevah proclaiming God's judgment on the city and everyone there responds with belief, repentance, and the wearing of sackcloth. When word reaches the king, he proclaims a citywide fast, which includes the animals, and commands the people to leave their wickedness and pray earnestly so that God might relent and allow them to live. And God did relent and they were saved.

At this point, the story takes an even stranger turn.

But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” Jonah 4:1-3

Knowing God's Character

When Jonah sees the judgment of God stayed, he becomes angry at God for being Who He is. Jonah even begs death rather than to see God's hand of mercy extended to the undeserving. This was Jonah's response after the most successful evangelistic campaign in history where EVERYONE repented and turned to the Lord. A true city-wide revival.

Jonah knew God's attributes: His graciousness, compassion, patience, kindness, and forgiveness. Yet, he became displeased and even angry when God demonstrated His character by showing mercy on the repentant population.

Jonah was not alone among Biblical figures to desire vengeance and judgment on the wicked. It is certainly part of human nature to want to see retribution poured out on those who deserve it. God has claimed vengeance belongs to Him and promises justice repeatedly throughout Scripture. However, He prefers repentance, forgiveness, and redemption.

Patience and Compassion

God certainly showed His patience while dealing with Jonah. He gave him a second chance to obey and act as His chosen messenger. After Jonah's reluctant obedience and subsequent anger, God took the time to teach Jonah a lesson. Then, while Jonah still indulged in self-pity, God used the example of a short-lived comfort to reason with Jonah.

Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” Jonah 4:9-11

God cared so much for both the innocents and even the animals of Ninevah, that He gave the opportunity for a wicked people to repent so that He could offer them salvation. He also cared enough about a rebellious child of His to give him the opportunity to become the person God called him to be.

In the end, I believe that Jonah must have changed his mind and repented, else we wouldn't have his written account of the events.

How will you choose to respond to God's call?

Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®
Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation.
Used by permission. All rights reserved. www.lockman.org