Question: "Why did Jonah try to go to Tarshish instead of Nineveh?"
Answer: The word of the Lord came to Jonah with the command to preach against the wickedness of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Kingdom (Jonah 1:1-2). However, Jonah chose to flee from the presence of the Lord instead (Jonah 1:10). In his flight, Jonah left his home of Gath-hepher, near Nazareth in Israel (2 Kings 14:25), and traveled to Joppa (Jonah 1:3), a coastal city. There he boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, a city near Gibraltar in the southern part of Spain.
The contrast between Nineveh and Tarshish was vast. Nineveh was located east of the Tigris River in modern-day Iraq. It was more than 500 miles east of Jonah’s hometown. Tarshish, in contrast, was west of Gath-hepher. In fact, Tarshish stood more than 2,500 miles from Israel in the opposite direction of Nineveh. It was the most remote destination available to Jonah. Jonah was trying to put as much distance as he could between himself and the Assyrians. Whatever happened to Nineveh, Jonah would not be there to see it.
Jonah’s reason for running was that, quite simply, he did not like the Assyrians. Assyria was an idolatrous, proud, and ruthless nation bent on world conquest and had long been a threat to Israel. When God sent Jonah as a missionary to the capital, Nineveh, the prophet balked. At the end of his story, Jonah specifies his reason for resistance: “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2). In other words, Jonah wanted Nineveh to be destroyed. He felt they deserved God’s judgment. Jonah didn’t want to see God’s mercy extended to his enemies, and he knew in his heart that God’s intention was to show mercy. Jonah discovered that God’s salvation is available to all who repent, not just to the people of Jonah’s choosing.
Jonah also discovered that no one can run from God. “‘Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ declares the LORD. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 23:24). Jonah’s ill-advised attempt to escape from God was doomed to fail. He soon realized God was with him everywhere he went. Even in the stomach of the great fish, God knew where Jonah was and could hear his prayer (Jonah 2:2).
We are not to run from God but to Him. As Proverbs 18:10 says, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.”