A Lesson in Spiritual Geography (Jonah 1:3)

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If life is a journey toward a destination, then the most important question you can ask yourself is whether you’re headed in the right direction.
Yesterday, I talked about God asking the prophet Jonah to say a hard word to the Ninevites (Jonah 1:1-2). You might think that Jonah would quickstep it from his home in Gath Hepher all the way to Nineveh, but you’d be wrong. In fact, he went the opposite direction.
Here’s how Jonah 1:3 tells the story:
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.
Old Testament scholars locate ancient Gath Hepher in the modern village of el-Meshed, about two miles from Nazareth, in northern Israel. And they locate ancient Nineveh in archaeological ruins near Mosul, Iraq. But they’re not sure where ancient Tarshish is. Some identify it with the ancient city of Tartessus, which would have been located on the Iberian Peninsula in Andalusia, Spain. Others with Tarsus, in the western half of Turkey.
Whatever the physical geography of Tarshish may be, its spiritual geography is well known. Nineveh is east, Tarshish west. Nineveh can only be reached by land, Tarshish only by sea. Nineveh is where God wants you to go; Tarshish is not. Nineveh is obedience, Tarshish sin. Tarshish is a flight away from God.
Interestingly, we don’t learn why Jonah fled from God at this point in the story. In fact, we have to wait until the final chapter of the book to find out why Jonah bought a ticket to Tarshish. But at this point in the story, why he fled is not important, only that he fled.
The same thing could be said of our Jonah-like behavior. There are a thousand reasons to sin: “It’s only a ‘white lie.’” “He started it.” “She had it coming.” “The IRS won’t miss a few dollars.” “What happens in Vegas….” Our minds are an excuse-making factory that produces rationalizations on demand. (As some wag pointed out, to “rationalize” means to offer “rational lies.”) Whatever the reason, sin puts us on the road to the wrong destination, to the place of God’s judgment rather than his blessing. And after a long arduous journey, who wants to arrive at the wrong place?
There may be a thousand reasons to sin, but there’s one big reason to obey God: It’s in your best interest. As we’ll see tomorrow, God made Jonah’s flight to Tarshish so difficult that Jonah finally obeyed and set out for Nineveh. He doesn’t always do that, but sometimes he does. And when he does, you’d better get back on the right road.
Spiritually speaking, we’re all in Gath Hepher. The word of God has come to us too. We can go to Nineveh and obey or Tarshish and sin. Today, are you headed in the right direction?

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