“But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship…paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” Jonah 1: 2
Jonah tried to run from God's call upon his life. He found he was unable to "burn his obedience bridge."
Fleeing From the Presence of God
Jonah boarded a ship headed to Tarshish, a city located on the far west end of the Mediterranean Sea, probably in Southern Spain near Gibraltar. To sail past this point would be to enter the vast unknown Atlantic Ocean. Jonah was going to a remote location that represented the point farthest from and most opposite to where God was sending him. He was fleeing not only from the purpose of God but also from the very presence of God.
Jonah went down into the ship and fell asleep. Usually a person running from God is unable to sleep very well, especially during a storm. Generally speaking there is no rest or peace to the wicked, but Jonah was able to sleep. He slept to escape his guilt and to avoid praying. He could not pray as did all the others on board who feared for their lives. He was in rebellion and he knew what God would say. He was trying to forget what he had already heard. So he avoided calling upon God.
"Throw me into the sea"
Jonah probably saw death as a means of continued disobedience, just another, yet final, step in avoiding Nineveh. He probably assumed he could repent, die, and go on to Abraham's bosom. So he landed in the water thinking he would drown and be out of his misery. But instead he was swallowed alive by the whale.
“Expelled From God's Sight”
Jonah "woke up" to realize that he was not dead, but in a very dark, remote, and frightening place. As the whale descended into the depths, Jonah came to the realization of what it really means to be expelled from God's presence. He had been hurled into the deep like a stone and felt himself falling to the base of the mountains. The mighty waters covered him with an intensity of distress.
Sometimes the greatest discipline God can mete out is to give us a heavy dose of the very thing we claim to seek in our rebellion. An appropriate judgment upon those who "flee from God's presence" is to be "expelled from His sight".
In reality, however, Jonah was under the discipline of a loving, yet determined, heavenly Father who had not forsaken him, but was allowing him get a taste of what he was asking for while simultaneously being placed back on track toward Nineveh and the purpose of God.
The wicked mistakenly think it will be a relief to get away from God, but it is a most awful terror. It is a cold, hopeless, and fearful place. Therefore, Jonah cried out in horror thinking he had been expelled from God’s presence. How relieved he must have been to discover that he was still alive and in the hands of God, and to know that he had not descended into Sheol in his rebellion.
A Whale: A Rebellious Person’s Gethsemane
Jonah intended to burn his obedience bridges when he embarked upon that ship to Tarshish, The Mediterranean Sea is large, and during Solomon's time ships from Tarshish came to Israel only once every three years. Therefore, it is obvious that Jonah was trying put himself into a situation in which it would be impossible to change his mind and in which God, even if He should forgive Jonah, would be unable to send him back anytime soon. Jonah assumed God would probably find someone else to do the job.
Jonah was to learn a hard lesson. If we deliberately burn our “obedience bridges” behind us in an effort to make obedience impossible, God can still make a way, a very uncomfortable way, to get us back on track. A person may think he is safe from the will and purpose of God as he sails far out onto the blue Mediterranean Sea. But God sends a storm…and then He sends a whale. Many who tried to run from God have found themselves traveling via "whale belly.” Once Jonah got onto the boat there was no easy way out and no easy or comfortable way back. But there was a way. He had to marinade in whale-belly enzymes for three days. He would definitely return to Israel a lot more tender of heart.
A “whale” is a very uncomfortable circumstance which God uses to return us to His will while giving us incentive not to run away again. A whale is also a place for a second chance, a door to restoration that otherwise would have been impossible. A “whale’s belly” can be a rebellious man’s Gethsemane—a place where even the rebel is willing to pray “not my will, but thine be done.”
Like Jonah we cannot escaped the presence or the call of God (Ps 139: 7-12; Romans 11: 29). His incomprehensible mercy and steadfast love will follow us to the ends of the earth (Ps.23: 6). God's word will overtake those to whom He speaks (Zech I: 6; Prov. 13:13). He may give us room to run…but we will meet Him in the way. If God was so persistent with Jonah who was genuinely trying to flee, how much more will He work to apprehend and help those of us who desire to obey but yet struggle in the valley of decision.
And for those of us who are determined to flee, it is foolish to think we can succeed in escaping and hiding from God. It is like the goldfish that decides to run away from home. He has nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. But why would we want to run and hide from such a wonderful God who loves us so much? In the blindness of our humanity we fail to see the awesomeness of His love, power, and wisdom. He is good. His way is right and best. We should embrace Him and His plan for our lives.
“You have hedged me behind and before, and laid Your hand upon me…
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your Presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;If I make my bed in hell, behold You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me, And your right hand shall hold me.”
-Psalm 139: 5-10