RPM, Volume 17, Number 23, May 31 to June 6, 2015

Fleeing from God

Jonah 1:1-4

By D. Marion Clark


Responding to the call of God is a mixed bag among biblical characters. There is Abraham, the model of obedience. God calls him to leave his homeland and he leaves. God calls him to sacrifice his son, and he rises early the next morning to carry out his sad mission. Then there is Moses, the hesitant one. God calls him to lead his people out of Egypt, and Moses does his best to excuse himself, finally pleading with God to send his brother Aaron instead. There is Jeremiah who humbly questions how such a youth as he could serve God. But there is no one like Jonah. No remonstrance; no objections — just flat out running away.

For six weeks we will consider the story of Jonah. Romans 15:4 tells us: "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." We will consider the instruction intended for us through what Jonah experiences.

There really is nothing like this book. It is placed among the prophets because Jonah was a prophet, and yet it does not actually deliver prophecy to the readers as the others do. The main character — a prophet of God no less — turns out to be the one who doesn't learn his lesson, while the pagans, who know nothing of the true God are the ones who respond to him best. It is both comedy and drama; in the midst of its humor it delivers a deep, poignant display of God's sovereignty and his mercy.


Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 2 "Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me."

One is tempted to discount the book of Jonah as merely a work of fiction because of its story format. The first line, however, tags the main character as an historical figure. 2 Kings 14:25 refers to the prophet Jonah, who was the son of Amittai. He served in Israel during the reign of Jereboam II.

We begin this story with the Lord giving his prophet a job assignment.

This was an unusual assignment. The prophets of Israel and Judah typically spoke to their own people. They might be directed to take a personal message to a ruler or ruler-to-be in a neighboring territory. They might write prophetic messages to other nations, but Jonah is the only one actually sent to a faraway city to pronounce judgment on the people. And not just any city: this is Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian empire.

Again, there is no record of Jonah arguing with God. He simply gets up and heads in the opposite direction.

3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the LORD. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the LORD.

Commentators are not sure where Tarshish is but one thing is clear — it is in the opposite direction of Nineveh. That city is northeast; Jonah hops on a ship on the Mediterranean Sea, most likely intending to cross it. Yet, it is interesting that the passage does not say that Jonah is fleeing Nineveh but "from the presence of the Lord." Indeed, it repeats the phrase to make sure we understand Jonah's intent.

What is Jonah thinking? He is a prophet of the Lord God, not some pagan who believes in gods that are bound to specific locations. And what's with the ship? Even though Israel bordered the Mediterranean Sea, there is little reference to shipping in its history. For whatever reason, boating on the Great Sea was not looked to as an enjoyable experience among the Israelites. One only took to it out of necessity. Jonah must have been desperate to take such recourse.

What happens next is expected.

4 But the LORD hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up.

I have this image of God looking down with amusement at his fleeing servant. He sees Jonah sneaking out of his house early in the morning and heading as quickly as he can to the coast. I suppose he has skipped his prayers. He finds a ship heading out, pays his fare, and not only gets on the ship, but goes deep down into it, hopefully out of the sight of God.

Then the Lord has fun. He hurls a great wind, like a warrior who hurls a spear. It creates a mighty storm that tosses the ship about. It is God's message to his prophet — where do you think you are going? We leave the scene with the ship in peril. Stay tuned next week for what happens.


Meanwhile, what is the instruction for us? What do we learn that encourages us and leads us to hope, as our Romans verse indicated? The message of this passage is quite clear — no one can flee from God.

No one can flee from God because God is sovereign.

No one can flee from God because God is sovereign. Simply put, God is ruler over everyone and everything everywhere. The common religious position in the ancient world was that there were numbers of gods and goddesses, each with their sphere of authority. Some were limited to types of land and work. There were gods of the sea, gods of the land, gods of the sky; gods for crops, gods for cattle, gods for various trades and professions.

But the Hebrew God, the God of Scripture, the God whom we worship, is what Jonah himself ascribed to him in verse 10: he is "the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land." No one can escape God by sailing on the sea. God is Lord over the sea. No one can escape God by running to another part of the earth. God is Lord over the dry land. His kingdom has no boundaries.

All the more reason Jonah's attempt at a great escape is so baffling. He himself attested to his God's sovereignty. But let's go on.

No one can flee from God because every life matters to God.

No one can flee from God because every life matters to God. The rest of Jonah will testify to God's care for every individual regardless of where they live, what nationality they may be, no matter what experience or heritage or race. There is no one in whom God is disinterested.

We will see later in the book that it is this very trait of God that Jonah was troubled by, enough so as to attempt his absurd escape.

So what did Jonah think he was doing?

So what did Jonah think he was doing? We had already noted that Jonah was not fleeing Nineveh but the Lord. Note the specific wording: he was trying to flee from "the presence of the Lord." What does that mean — to flee from "the presence" of the Lord?

Jonah knew that the Lord was sovereign over all the earth, but there is a sense in which the presence of the Lord resided in the holy land, specifically in Jerusalem, specifically in the Temple, in the Holy of Holies of the Temple. Perhaps Jonah had in his troubled mind that if he could get away from the nation which the Lord had claimed for himself; if he could distance himself from the place where the Lord's presence is said to reside; then he could somehow remove himself from God's attention.

Jonah knew that he could not escape God in the sense of going somewhere outside of God's domain. His intent was to get out of being in front of God's presence. You cannot, after all, reject the command of your King and remain in front of his face. If you want to live, you need to get as far away as possible from his presence. To stand in the presence of God is to stand before his face. It is to have his face look upon you.

How are we like Jonah?

To escape the presence of God is not rational thinking, certainly for a prophet of God. But how many of us are rational when we reject God's commands and escape his attention? And that leads us to consider how much Jonah is like us. Do we not at times wish to escape God's presence?

Being before the presence of God can be a comforting thought or a burden or even a terror. In Psalm 139:7, David asks, "Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?" David is contemplating the sweetness of knowing that he cannot get away from God's presence. He likes the idea of God knowing not only where he is but even his deepest thoughts: "Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me" (vv.23-24).

I dare say that for most of us, the idea of God searching our hearts and thoughts for grievous ways in us is not a comforting thought. There is a scene in the Fellowship of the Ring where the companions of that fellowship experience such a painful search. They stand before the elf-queen Galadriel. She holds each one before her gaze, examining them, even testing them in their thoughts, and each person must turn away from her gaze. They cannot endure it. They cannot stand so exposed, especially to themselves.

This is what is involved in standing in the presence of God. We are exposed to his examination, an examination that exposes us not only to him but to ourselves. How much are we able to handle having our sinful thoughts and deeds revealed to ourselves before the presence of the holy God?

We are only able to do so, or at least to a degree, because we know that we stand before a God who is merciful, and who has provided for our redemption. There is the scene of Isaiah who does experience literally standing before the presence of the Lord sitting upon his throne. And it undoes him. He cries out, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5)

What keeps him together is the next action:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for (vv. 6-7)

It is atonement made for his sins that enables him to stand before the holy Lord. For to stand in the presence of the Lord in sin is to invite his judgment. Does it not make sense then for Jonah to escape that presence? He knows that he cannot disobey his King and remain in his presence. He cannot continue on as though nothing has happened between him and the Lord whom he serves. He certainly cannot bear standing before the Lord's face as it penetrates into his heart.

For then, and this is the worst case scenario, the Lord's face turns into one of condemnation. However uncomfortable it may be to stand under the gaze of the Lord as his servant, it is terror to stand before his presence as his enemy, as one who has rebelled against him.

No wonder Jonah fled. He had turned from servant to rebel. No wonder he tried to put every kind of distance between himself and the Lord. The judgment of God is the great terror that awaits any and all who would rebel against him, who will not serve him. The day will come that the prophets and Jesus spoke of when those who have not acknowledged the Lord as God will ask for the mountains to bury them, such will be the terror of the Lord's presence.

No, we cannot flee from the presence of the Lord, and yet even we who know his mercy will attempt to do so. For we still sin or we wish to sin. And we cannot sin, we certainly cannot contemplate sinning while standing in his presence. And so we flee. How?

One way to flee is by fleeing from everything that makes one think of God. How could Jonah not think of being in God's presence while he walked in the land where the signs of God are everywhere? For us, fleeing from God's presence may be to skip our prayer times, to keep our Bible closed, to drop away from Christian fellowship, to keep away from anything that ties us directly to God.

We make excuses such as being too busy or having too much on our minds. We say to ourselves that when things get back to normal, then we will get back to our routine. We begin to rationalize our behavior. "Does a person have to go to church to be a Christian?" we ask. We move from wanting to be at events and doing activities that put us consciously before God's presence, to complaining about all the demands the church places on us, and eventually to all the demands that God places on us.

But we must be careful. What starts off as a temporary respite from religious activities, easily turns into a permanent escape from God. Jonah did not stop being a believer in God when he first fled. He believed God was real; that was why he fled. But if God had not stopped his foolish running attempt, Jonah would have eventually fallen away from God altogether. You cannot rebel and still remain a follower.

God was merciful to Jonah and stopped his folly. He hurled a storm in Jonah's path; if he is merciful to us, he might do the same. It is not unusual for God to use storms to stop us in our foolish efforts to flee him. We would do well to take heed of God when storms come into our lives.

I want to be careful here. Many storms come precisely because we are being faithful to God. How then can we tell the difference? Often by our reaction. When we complain about the storms; when we complain to God that he should be treating us better — such a reaction indicates that we have already been straying off the path of faithfulness. A heart that is following God expects storms and even welcomes them because it knows that God tests the heart in order to purify it and to use it for his glory. If you find even now that you have been complaining about your lot; if you have grown more and more irritable with things connected to following God; then you have likely already been at sea sailing away from your Lord.

(Note: an astute listener commented that David quite often complained in the Psalms. The difference would be that David argued as a lover of God. He wanted to be restored to God, whereas the Jonah complainer wants to get away and not have to think about God.)

Some of you may know that you are fleeing from the Lord. Perhaps a storm hit you that you were not prepared for, and now you are wavering in your faith. Maybe you are angry with God for something that has happened to you or for something you wanted so much and you never received it. It has hit your faith. You are agreeing more and more with the culture. The Christian faith seems to be too harsh. It seems to be intolerant. And in particular, it is intolerant of the sin you have let yourself get enmeshed in.

However conscious or unconscious you may be of your fleeing, you find yourself uncomfortable of activities that place you before the presence of the Lord. You cannot stand his gaze. You cannot abide his Word, which is described in Hebrews 4:12 as: "living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." The next verse goes on to say, "And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account."

This being in the presence of the Lord sounds ominous. Who wants to stand before God? Yes, who indeed? I had asked what encouragement and hope do we find in these verses, but have only presented what is frightening. It lies first in the sobering news that however much we may flee, God will bring us into his presence. And it is in his presence, however, terrifying that might seem that we find precisely our encouragement and hope. We find hope because of the gospel. After that somber passage in Hebrews 12-13, the author then writes these words:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

In Jesus Christ, we have one who received a more momentous call than Jonah's and who did not hesitate to obey that call. After the sacrifice that he made of himself for our sins, he entered into the Holy of Holies before the presence of God, and he now stands at the right hand of the Father as our High Priest. He stands there interceding for us, so that we may enter before the presence of God who is sitting on his throne, knowing that it is a throne of grace, knowing that instead of judgment we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Why flee from God? Better to flee to him. Better to flee from the world and from the sin that would enslave us. Flee to God. Our Lord Jesus Christ has already paved the path for us. He has already entered the place of God's presence before us, for the very purpose of us appearing before God's presence and receiving mercy.

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