He would have rather died than share his testimony with the inhabitants of that city. They were known as cruel imperialists, growing wealthy off the taxation of his people. God had commanded him to go, but he undoubtedly thought, "Why should I prophesy to a nation that has threatened to destroy my own? Why give them a chance to receive God's blessing? Why should I inconvenience my life to save theirs?"
To Jonah, the eighth–century prophet, none of this made sense. So he took a ship to Tarshish to get as far as he could from Nineveh, the capital city of the Assyrians.
When a storm threatened to sink the ship, Jonah knew instinctively that it was because of his obstinance. To appease God, Jonah told the crew to throw him overboard. And when they did, the winds calmed.
But the Lord kept Jonah alive—even after a large fish swallowed him. And for the next three days, he contemplated the error of his ways. Finally, he cried out to the Lord, and the fish vomited him onto a beach.
Given a second chance, Jonah went straight to Nineveh and delivered the message.
What struck me years ago, when I first heard this familiar story, was Jonah's miraculous return from the brink of death and his subsequent obedience. But I had overlooked an even greater miracle: how he convinced the Ninevites to repent. They actually received him with open arms. And the entire nation, from the king down, fasted, prayed to God, and was spared.
This put Jonah in a quandary: he could not understand why God gave him more success in proselytizing his enemies than the people of his own nation.
When the Lord calls us to witness in circumstances we can not fathom, we must trust Him, because only He has access to the larger, socio–spiritual picture. For instance, Jonah knew who his enemy was, but he may not have known about the events leading up to a temporary setback for the Assyrians: Shalmaneser IV, the young king, had died suddenly and left no successor. A famine soon followed, as well as a total eclipse of the sun, followed by floods, another famine, and finally an earthquake! Add Jonah's survival story to the list, and it is no wonder why, in the face of such compelling evidence, the Assyrians heeded his message of condemnation.
When called to cross cultures in delivering God's message of hope, may we be encouraged to trust Him for the big picture, so that we will be inspired to walk across the room, or sail across the sea, or go anywhere the Lord calls us, to be a witness for Him.