“But Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshish.” Jonah was a great prophet, so why did he flee? Jonah knew that his country and the people he loved were caught up in great sin, and he knew that a day of reckoning was coming for Israel. The prophet Ahijah had prophesied years before that because of its sin, Israel would be destroyed by being scattered “beyond the Euphrates River” (1 Kings 14:15). Now it seemed that woeful day had come.
In Jonah’s lifetime, the only power that was able to scatter Israel beyond the Euphrates River was Assyria. Egypt was south, not north, and Syria was not far enough north to be “beyond the River.” But Assyria was poised to attack and defeat Israel and carry them beyond the Euphrates, except they had some internal struggles that might have kept them from being so aggressive. In that political environment, suddenly the word of Yahweh came to Jonah that he was to travel the over 600 miles to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria and preach against it. Although Yahweh said for Jonah to preach in Assyria because their wickedness had come up to Him, Jonah knew that all the pagan countries were wicked in the sight of God. Jonah put the history together and realized that if he preached to Nineveh and they changed, then they would come down and attack and destroy Israel and carry the people away to pagan lands (which is exactly what happened, 2 Kings 17:5-6, 18).
Not wanting Israel to be destroyed, and perhaps hoping that God would give Israel more time to repent if he did not act to hasten their destruction, Jonah fled to Tarshish rather than obeying God. God, however, intervened and via the fish incident got Jonah to go to Nineveh. Jonah did preach to Nineveh, the people there did repent and were spared, and Jonah, seeing the inevitable future destruction of Israel, was angered by the Ninevites’ repentance (Jonah 3:5, 10; 4:1). But Jonah was right; the Assyrians did attack Israel, conquer it, and scatter the Israelites “beyond the Euphrates River.”
“away from the presence of Yahweh.” The belief of many people was that individual gods lived in different places. Yahweh was the God of Israel, so the belief was that if Jonah could get away from Israel there was a chance that he could get away from Yahweh. [For more on people believing that different gods lived in different places on earth, see commentary on 1 Kings 20:23].