Why did Jonah run away from God to Tarshish?

1 The word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me.”

3 But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord.

4 Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. 5 All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the ship.

3 Answers 3


Jonah did not want the city of Nineveh to repent and be spared destruction as a result of his preaching. At Jonah 4:2 (ESV) he explained his motive:

And he prayed to the LORD and said, "O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster."

Jonah did not have the attitude of a Christian evangelist. He did not hope that his hearers would respond to his message for their own welfare. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, and the Assyrians would take the northern ten-tribe kingdom of Israel captive and later invade Judah, only to be miraculously defeated at the siege of Jerusalem. - 2 Kings 14:25; 17:8; chaps. 18 & 19

The entire book of Nahum predicts the overthrow of Nineveh. Jonah would be much more in sympathy with this than with showing the Ninevites mercy. So Jonah wanted to see the enemies of Israel destroyed rather than spared God's wrath.


Tarshish was a port that could accommodate large, oceangoing vessels which would have sailed for months, going beyond the Mediterranean. Such things as peacocks and apes were brought to it from afar, I Kings 10:22. Some have misunderstood this and have thought there was another Tarshish or even several of them. But there was only one.

Smaller, local vessels would have gone from places like Joppa to Tarshish to bring back goods from the larger port of Tarshish and, thus, Tarshish was synonymous with the variety of foreign items from all parts of the then-accessible world. So he took ship from Joppa in order to get a passage abroad from Tarshish.

Thus Jonah actually hoped to go far, far further than Tarshish. Jonah was hoping to get away, permanently, to some far flung place. It was a desperate attempt at escape from something that was, to him, traumatic and incomprehensible.

The later part of the book reveals his conflict. He already knew that God would hear the repentance of Nineveh. He already knew that that was why he had been sent. To warn them in advance and give them an opportunity. And he knew that these people would repent.

Unlike Israel.

And that caused him genuine trauma. How could Gentiles be treated so ? How could God's people, Israel, receive such prophetic warnings and still harden their hearts ? How could God send a prophet to Gentiles ?

And what would happen to himself, once they repented at his words ? Why, the judgment would not fall. And what then ? Who would respect him as a prophet if judgment did not come down from God at his words ?

These are the kind of thoughts that Jonah must have had and that provoked him to run away, as far as possible, from an inward conflict that he could not bear.

And yet, what a thing occurred to Jonah - down into the depths, and worse than depths, into the belly of the fish. Yet in all this, his cry came up to the Lord and he was heard. And he became a singular figure of Christ in death and resurrection.

That which I've vowed I will not fail

to pay, as by my word.

Thanksgiving I will render sure,

salvation's of the Lord !

(From 'The Songs of the Witnesses.')

[Further Note on Tarshish : The city, of course, became 'Tarsus' under Roman rule and was one of the non-Italian cities which could confer Freedom upon its citizens. Thus Paul could, later, say, 'A citizen of no mean city' and he was able to claim that right when in custody, that he was a free man, much to the discomfiture of the centurion (clearly also not a born Roman) who had paid a high price to gain his freedom.]


Jonah ran away because he wanted to Ninevah to burn.

Ninevah was an enemy of the Jews. Jonah had no interest in saving the city.

So, when the Lord asked him to go and preach against their wickedness, ultimately to save them from the wrath of the Lord, Jonah got out of town! He took a boat trip. Without Jonah's message to repent, the sin continues, and the Lord burns it to the ground--exactly what Jonah wants.

That's why he told the sailors to throw him into the sea--tantamount to death. He despised Ninevah so much that he'd rather die then see it saved. Even after Ninevah repented, Jonah wanted them to burn so much that he sat outside the city, built a hut, and watched in the hope that it would be razed.

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