To be a prophet in Old Testament times was a hazardous occupation. You only had one chance to get it right. ‘The prophet which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak … even that prophet shall die’. There were so many that claimed to be God’s prophets that God gave the nation a way of evaluating their claims. ‘When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken,’ Deut 18. 20-22.
What a thrill it must have been, then, to find a true prophet. Jonah had a good track record. In 2 Kings 14. 24 we read that something happened ‘according to the word of the Lord God of Israel which he spake by the hand of his servant Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gath-hepher’. Jonah, then, was a prophet who was ‘on-line’ with God. He was in touch with God and God was in touch with him. This proved to be so again when ‘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 is come before me’, Jonah 1. 1-2.
‘But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord’, Jonah 1. 3. Had God said, ‘Go to Nineveh?’ Then Jonah would go to Tarshish. Had God said, ‘Cry against it?’ Jonah would not. The rebellious prophet went down to the harbour at Joppa to escape from God.
Now to disobey God is never right. This is where Jonah went out of line. No doubt Jonah was a spiritual man for the word of God to come to him. He was not a charlatan, a dreamer who made up his own messages, a false prophet. He was the real McCoy. Why then is he going to Tarshish, not Nineveh?
Jonah explains his reasons in Chapter 4. ‘O Lord, was not this my saying when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness and repentest thee of the evil’, 4. 2. It wasn’t the greatness of God that bothered Jonah: it was the goodness of God. Jonah did not want these Ninevites to be forgiven by a God who, on principle, forgives repentant sinners. In fact, Jonah was so determined that his preaching would not be the means of their forgiveness that he resolved not to go at all. This was his first mistake – judging for himself the rightness or wrongness of God’s will.
Jonah ‘rose up to flee from the presence of the Lord’, 1. 3. Now Jonah surely knew that God is everywhere, and that he could not hide from Him. ‘To go out from the presence of the Lord’ does not mean to go where God could not find him. It means to refuse to be in touch with God any more, to refuse to be His prophet, to be a rebel, to leave the conscious presence of the Lord. In other words, Jonah chose to turn his back on God, as Cain had done many years before when he, too, went out from the presence of the Lord, Gen. 3. Jonah is a rebel prophet.
Yet God is not going to let His prophet go. Jonah is His man for the moment. So God sets in train a series of events to bring His prophet back into line. First of all, God targets the ship. The force of the Hebrew word in verse 4 is lost in the Authorized Version. What God actually did was to ‘hurl’ a great wind into the sea, so that the ship was in danger of breaking up. Like a mighty javelin thrower in the sky, God targets the ship itself and it is caught in the maelstrom of the storm. The sailors try to establish which one of them has offended his god. Finding Jonah asleep in the hold, the captain rouses him. Now God targets the man. He will make plain to all that Jonah is the one He is after. ‘The lot fell upon Jonah,’ v. 7. Of course it did. God saw to that, Prov. 16. 33. Jonah knows now that, though he is in flight, God is in pursuit.
It is always a dangerous thing to sit in judgement on God. If God’s will for us, expressed as principles for all believers or as matters of personal guidance for individuals, is clear, we would do well not to disobey. ‘Whatever he says to you, do it’ is a very good principle in the Christian life. Let us be careful never to go from the presence of the Lord in open disobedience, as many have. Have you already done so? God may yet be in pursuit of you, by conscience or circumstance. He does not let His own go. Be sensitive to Him.
And how this generation needs men of God who are ‘on-line’. So much of our preaching is so general, so vague, so stale, so powerless. There cannot be anything more important for any generation than to hear the voice of God for its day. Are you willing to be that – a messenger with the mind of God? Seek His face. And have you found a preacher who speaks from God and is obedient to God? Cherish him, listen to him and pray for him. He is a rare find!