Bad Times for Good Prophets
It was the early part of the eighth century B.C. There were two kingdoms in Israel. Jeroboam II was king in the north, in Israel; Uzziah was king in Judah. They were at peace with each other. Both prospered. Their borders had so expanded they could be compared to the vast expanse of Solomon’s day. The economy was booming. Well, at least for those who already had some wealth and influence. Actually, the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. Many little farmers were being gobbled up by the rich and powerful. Injustice was everywhere – from the buying of judges to the manipulation of weights and measures. Read the book of Amos.
The worship of Yahweh, the national religion of Israel, was not doing so well either. Lots of compromise and syncretism everywhere. Those local, neighborhood shrines were sometimes so confused one could not tell the difference between them and altars to Ba’al. In some places one could even find sacred prostitution and even child sacrifice creeping back in to their religious practices.
It was not a great time to be a genuine prophet in Israel. Oh, yes, when it came to war and the expansion of the empire, the powers-that-be wanted and sought divine direction, like Jonah’s prophecy in II Kings 14:25. But those in power didn’t want to hear any criticism, and certainly not all that stuff about injustice when the economy was doing so well. Jonah must have been less than happy with his calling as a prophet. Unlike those so-called prophets who sold their religion, who gave feel-good prophecies for the right price, Jonah was a man of integrity. He was honest with men and honest with God.
Times were tough for honest prophets. So what must have gone through Jonah’s head when that divine revelation came to him from the Lord, “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and cry against it, for their wickedness has come up before Me.”?
Initially, Jonah’s response must have been something like: “You have got to be kidding. Nineveh! – that god-awful place filled with all those horrible, violent, immoral idol worshipers? Our national enemy!? I’d rather die! Lord, you know what those people are like. Why not just destroy them right now?”
Furthermore, Jonah knew the implications of such a warning. God did not desire to destroy them outright without giving them a warning. Why a warning? Because God knew there was a chance they might see the error of their ways and repent – especially in light of the threat of total destruction. Jonah, too, saw the possibility of repentance. He knew the Lord was “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” Things were bad in Israel but this was intolerable. Jonah fled.
Jonah, a Hebrew man, probably had a wife and children, owned some property, had lots of relatives and friends, and all things considered was probably well situated in life. He left it all. He wanted to get as far away from the presence of the Lord as possible. So he fled for Tarshish, a pagan city on the western edge of the civilized world thousands of miles away. Desperate measures were in order if the salvation of those idol worshipers in Nineveh was to be averted. Would the Lord let him flee or would he kill Jonah for his disobedience?