“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me. But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa …”
While Webster’s dictionary defines the word, ‘prodigal,’ as recklessly extravagant and lavish, we have come to most readily associate the word “prodigal” with Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. While the term prodigal most accurately describes the lavish mercy of the father in the parable, we nevertheless use the term to describe the son, who recklessly squandered his father’s inheritance. Today, the term has come to describe the proverbial prodigal child, who runs away from home, in the end to return. In this way, we can consider Jonah a prodigal prophet.
The word of the LORD came to Jonah. It came with clarity and heavy responsibility. God called him to “arise and go to Nineveh,” and “cry out against it.” The prophet unquestionably heard the call, but he responded by arising, and instead of going to Nineveh, fleeing to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He had no difficulty understanding the call, yet he likely excused his direct disobedience amidst a flurry of ministry activity. Perhaps Jonah’s speedy flight to Joppa was interpreted by others around him as a mission trip itself. But only Jonah and God knew otherwise.
What could Jonah mean when he tells us that he was fleeing, “from the presence of the LORD?” Surely he knew what David did (Ps 139:1-12) that God was omnipresent, and it is impossible to go anywhere away from His presence. What Jonah meant by this was that his flight was from God’s will and calling; he was fleeing from where prayer revealed would be his place service. At a great expense, Jonah endeavored to go as far
as he could in the opposite direction of God’s revealed calling, thinking that he might be able to push the haunting voice of God to the back of His mind. But he would soon learn that even if he should make his bed in hell, God is there (Ps 139:8)!
Jonah’s flight from his Father was met with much peril. Fleeing the fullness of joy that comes with God’s presence, Jonah instead first reaped a great storm which threatened his ship and the lives of many men, and then a great fish which became his cramped, soggy and smelly home for 3 days and 3 nights. But, not willing that Jonah should perish, the One who has been called ‘the hound of heaven,’ with an unhurried and deliberate pace, pursued this fleeing soul with divine mercy and grace. Though Jonah sought to hide himself, which is the tendency of all men since the fall, divine grace unwearyingly followed after, until his soul was compelled to return to God’s presence. As Martin Luther commented, “Not only the ship, but the whole world becomes too small for Jonah … He finds no nook or corner in all creation, not even in hell, where he might crawl in.” There is never a place of safety away from God’s presence, where we may be left in ‘superficial peace.’
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