The prophet Jonah is being given the opportunity of a lifetime. God is calling him to personally bear witness to the city of Nineveh, the sinful capital of the Assyrian Empire, that its end was near. Like the proverbial cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, it will be razed to the ground. For many prophets, the singular honor, despite the difficulty of the mission, was something to die for. Jonah, for some reason, had misgivings. Instead of obeying God and heading immediately towards Nineveh, he fled in the opposite direction towards Tarshish. Jonah’s decision simply boggles the mind. What could have prompted his rash judgment?
The fear of the Assyrians was Jonah’s first consideration. He knew from his experience as a prophet that the Assyrians were merciless and barbaric. He is to be the harbinger of doom to a city teeming with one hundred twenty thousand blood-thirsty Assyrians. His head could be separated from his body in a flash and his torn flesh fed to the dogs.
Secondly, Jonah wanted to test God’s patience and his choice of him as the prophet that fits the job. There might just be a sliver of hope that by fleeing, he can avoid the assignment altogether. If God is not able to find him amongst the multitude where he intended to hide, God might leave him to his own devices and choose another prophet. He can always ask for God’s mercy if he was found. He knew that God’s will of mercy is bottomless.
Lastly, Jonah harbored a small suspicion that God can still change his decision to destroy Nineveh. What happens if the people of Nineveh will uncharacteristically repent? Will God spare Nineveh? After all his hard work, will his reputation as a prophet of God end up in tatters? It will be very hard to swallow.
As events turned out, God did show mercy to both Jonah and those who lived in Nineveh. If only Jonah had stuck to what he knew about God, there would have been no need for his terrible misgivings.