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Why Did Jonah Board That Ship?
by Wayne Blank
"That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish"
Jonah is well-known from his encounter with a great fish (not a symbolic event, since Jesus Christ spoke of it as literal - see the Fact Finder question below), but he was actually recorded in the book of 2 Kings as well, as quoted above. The Lord was bringing His wrath upon sinful Israel (the northern kingdom), using the Assyrians (see Ancient Empires - Assyria) to do it. Although Jonah would have understood that, he would also naturally view the Assyrians with dislike and would prefer to have seen The Lord's wrath fall on them as well - so when The Lord told Jonah to go and warn Nineveh, Jonah was unhappy with his mission. Instead of going east to Assyria, Jonah fled west, to the Mediterranean seaport of Joppa (shown in the photo), heading for far-away Tarshish.
"Now the word of The Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness has come up before me."
Jonah should have known better than to attempt to get "away from the presence of The Lord," especially when The Lord had specifically told Jonah to do something; The Lord went along on the voyage.
"But The Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up." (Jonah 1:3-4 RSV)
When the crew of the ship realized that Jonah's presence was a danger to them and the ship, they threw him overboard, but "The Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights."
"So they took up Jonah and threw him into the sea; and the sea ceased from its raging. Then the men feared The Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to The Lord and made vows.
Jonah's prayer inside the fish reveals one of the reasons that Christ later referred to that experience of three days in "Sheol" (a Hebrew word for the grave) and the feeling of being forsaken by God. Christ experienced both things Himself, 3 days and 3 nights in the grave, and the feeling of being forsaken by God (see Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?).
"Then Jonah prayed to The Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, "I called to The Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and thou didst hear my voice. For thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all thy waves and thy billows passed over me. Then I said, 'I am cast out from thy presence; how shall I again look upon thy holy temple?'" (Jonah 2:1-4 RSV)
After Jonah had learned his lesson, The Lord ordered him a second time to prophecy to Nineveh, repent or be destroyed. This time, Jonah went.
"Then the word of The Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of The Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey in breadth.
Jonah was unhappily successful; the people of Nineveh repented, but that is not what Jonah wanted. Jonah knew that the Assyrians were going to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel (see Israelite Monarchy - The Northern Kingdom) because of their unfaithfuness, so he wanted The Lord to destroy Assyria too, or before. Jonah knew that The Lord forgives anyone who repents, so he attempted to sail away in the other direction to keep them from being saved. Ironically, the Savior used Jonah's three days and three nights in the "grave" as an analogy of that very thing - that anyone who repents will be saved.
"But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to The Lord and said, "I pray thee, Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and repentest of evil." (Jonah 4:1-2 RSV)
Fact Finder: What did Jesus Christ say about Jonah and repentance?