Fleeing from the Lord — (Jonah 1)

After returning home from speaking at a conference on the east coast, my oldest daughter, age four at the time, met me at the door and informed me that she had grown while I was gone. So, we got out the measuring stick. For those of you that are parents, you know what that is like. We had in our house a place where every child stood to be measured. We would take that stick and draw a new line. And like any good dad would do, I drew it, ever so slightly, above the old line. Then I said, “Oh, Honey, you’ve grown since I’ve been gone!” We looked at it together, and she was so proud that she had grown. At bedtime she was sitting on my lap while I was reading her a book when I noticed she had a puzzled look on her face. She said, “Daddy, why do big people stop growing?” I thought about that, and I could have talked to her about the gene-molecular structure, how aging takes its toll, then there’s a time when we… I didn’t say any of that. I simply said, “Honey, we stop growing sometimes because that’s just the way it is. We grow to a certain point and then we stop.” For her four year old mind, that was enough. She was satisfied. After I tucked her into bed and said our prayers, I sat down and began to catch up on a book I had been reading before my trip. It was then that it hit me. Her question went far beyond the physical realm. Why do we stop growing spiritually? That is the question, is it not? Why do big people stop growing spiritually? Enter Jonah!

The Book of Jonah is a literary masterpiece. Like the books of Ruth and Esther, Jonah is tightly packaged, and is referenced in places beyond the church for its literary quality. As Hebrew poetry and narrative, it often is used as a case-scenario in Hebrew literature. The book has four very distinct, succinct chapters, and is ideal for rehearsing, for portrayal, and for acting. It was written for remembering and for learning (2 Tim. 3:16). One of the things that we see in the Book of Jonah is the author’s incredible use of irony. Irony is defined as an incongruity or discrepancy in a figure of speech, an event, or statement that occurs or is used in a way that is just the opposite of what is expected. John Frethem says, “Irony is commonly used by those who wish to state a truth to those who were guilty of prostituting it. There is a message in the book of Jonah, not just to the prophet, but to all the people of God. The question is this, what will you do with the commands of God?” In many circles within the evangelical church, we now are talking about intentional spiritual growth; however, in Jonah we have just the opposite – intentional un-spiritual growth.

The Assyrians, to whom Jonah was sent, were known for their brutality, exploitation, and violence. Ancient records detail bragging rights of Nineveh, capital of Assyria, for their conquests of other nations and peoples. They would boast of committing grotesque things, such as cutting off ears and other body parts, skinning people alive, and placing them on the gates outside their city as a testimony of their might and power. They were known for witchcraft and sorcery. The prophet Nahum also speaks of the grotesqueness and wickedness of the sins of Nineveh. Assyria also was known for its alcoholism, a sure sign of the demise of any culture. In addition, they were known for prostitution and illicit sex. There were no rules or regulations on promiscuity. Morality was expressed in any form and in any fashion. Things that were done in the heart of Nineveh were things that would make us blush in shame – even in our own immoral society. Assyrian society was sick; but it is to a sick world that the message of God must be given. Jesus said, It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick….I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners”(Matt. 9:12-13).

The story of Jonah opens quickly and rapidly: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah, son of Amittai”(1:1). The name Jonah, by definition means dove. If you were to go to Israel today, and say, “Jonah,” and look up in a tree, an Israeli who heard you would look up in search of a dove. A Hebrew reading the first words of this story would immediately become attentive, because there are ties of the nation of Israel to a dove. The dove was sent from Noah’s ark. Over time it became a symbol of peace and restitution. In the Book of Leviticus, the dove was used often as a sacrifice – especially for the poor. That is why in Luke2 Joseph and Mary, because of their social standing, presented the child Jesus at the temple with a sacrifice of a dove.

Amittai is probably a play on words. It was a genealogical tag that has great significance in the story line because in the Old Testament, names had meaning. Even today, when one goes to a restaurant like Cracker Barrel, you will see a rack with many name tags. Upon finding your name it is always something very outstanding or honorable: Mark – Great and Mighty Warrior, or Mark – The Incredible Husband. It will never say Mark – The Big Dork, because we market things in the United States and “The Big Dork” would never sell. In the Old Testament, however, words have meaning, and those meanings have significance. In our story Jonah means dove, and to the ancient Hebrew reader it was a sign of peace. Amittai is a play on words, because it sounds like a Hebrew word that means truth or faithfulness. So, in the opening line of the book the word of the Lord came to Jonah (dove), son of Amittai (truth). Jonah should be a picture of peace and truth; but he is something so very different in the story.

The narrative continues, “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because its wickedness has come up before me”(1:2) Many of the English translations of verse 2 say “Arise, and go…” God instructed His prophet to arise (lift up) and go. This is exactly what we would expect a prophet to do. The word of the Lord would come to a prophet of God, and the prophet of God would immediately obey. Look at I Kings 17:8-10. “The word of the Lord came to Elijah, Go at once to Zerephath, and so he went to Zerephath…” The same is repeated in I Kings 18:1-2. “Go and present yourself to Ahab. So Elijah went and presented himself to Ahab..” In other words, when God said it, the prophet did it. It was that simple. But what happens in our text? The Hebrew reader would anticipate the prophet of God to obey; but Jonah does just the opposite. He runs away from the Lord, and heads for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the Lord (1:3). If you were to look at a Bible Atlas, Nineveh would be about 500 miles to the northeast of Joppa. Geographically, the Hebrew reader would know exactly what was happening. God said to go northeast. Jonah went southwest. God said, “Go this way.” Jonah said, “I’m going that way.” We are intended to see the stark geographical markers in the narrative. Not only did Jonah disobey the Lord, he aggressively and progressively did just the opposite. Northeast! Southwest!

Earlier, I mentioned the idea of intentional spiritual growth. I would like to connect this idea to ten growth indicators throughout our study of the Book of Jonah. Here we have the first of three growth indicators from Chapter 1.

1. A life that is growing spiritually moves toward God’s commands, not away from them.

Look at your own life and evaluate. As I hear the commands of God, and I interact with what God desires from my life, am I moving toward Him or away from Him? To grow spiritually, one moves toward what God says, not away from it. Do not miss the haunting truth of the text. There is always a boat waiting at Joppa. Do you want to run from God, and from His best for you as His child? The enemy of our soul is always there providing an easy escape. Did a boat just happen to be at Joppa? I think not. It was placed there strategically, and the prophet of God had a great choice to make. Notice exactly what the text says. “He went down to Joppa.” There is another play on words here, and a downward spiral in the movement of this prophet of God. Later, he goes down into the boat. Then he goes down into the sea, and finally down into the belly of the fish. Four times the word down is used. We often miss it in English, but the Hebrew ear perked up attentively. When you run from God and you are not growing spiritually, you are headed in a downward spiral. There’s always a boat at Joppa.

“Then the Lord sent a great wind on the sea, and such a violent storm arose that the ship threatened to break up. All the sailors were afraid and each cried out to his own god. (Notice in our English text the small “g” in god implies a polytheistic culture) And they threw the cargo into the sea to lighten the load (1:4-5).” Meanwhile, Jonah had gone down into the boat and fallen into a “deep sleep.” I am not surprised that the prophet of God, in disobedience to his Commander-In-Chief, was now struggling physically. As the storm intensified, the captain called upon Jonah and said “How can you sleep? Get up and call on your god. Maybe he will take notice of us, and we will not perish (1:6).” It is the same wording. The author is playing with the reader again and he wants us to see the puns. When God first commanded the prophet, He said, “Arise, get up!” It is the exact word that the pagan captain said to Jonah. “Arise, get up!” The sailors superstitiously cast lots to find out who was guilty of angering his god, and the lot fell on Jonah (1:7). After a series of “twenty questions” (1:8), Jonah finally answered, “I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the land”(1:9). The captain and the sailors began to piece all of this together. Edwin Goode observed: “Jonah’s theology is unexceptional. Like so much theology, it seems to make no difference in his actions. We are certainly intended to perceive the incongruity between the prophet’s confession of God as the creator of the sea and his attempt to escape on it.” The pagan sailors understood that too. It terrified them (1:10). They knew that Jonah was running from God for he had told them so. This leads us to a second growth indicator:

2. A life that is growing spiritually shows a consistency between words and works.

Is there a contrast, between what we say and what we do, between the expression of our faith and the living of our life? Those that are growing spiritually have a consistency to their lives, and that is important for the world to see. The number one accusation against Christians by the non-believing community is hypocrisy within the church at large. Unfortunately, that is what they see. We can talk it, we can attend church, and we can say it just like Jonah. He bragged, “I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the land.” No doubt the pagan sailors were scratching their heads thinking, “Then why don’t you show it?” Their great fear was because they knew that was not right with God. Is there consistency in your spiritual walk – between your words and your works, between what you say and what you do? The haunting truth of the text is that the prophet of God ran from God, and when he ran from God, he ran from his consistency of faith. We dare not find the same in our lives.

As the narrative continues the sea became tumultuous. They asked Jonah what they should do to make the sea calm again (1:11) and he told them to throw him into the sea. The sailors must have been patient men for we probably would have done that earlier. Jonah admitted that the whole problem was his fault (1:12). “Instead, the men did their best to row back to land, but they could not” (1:13). Please note that. The writer of the text wants us to see the great lengths to which these pagan sailors went to save the life of the prophet of God who had been sent by God to save the lives of pagan people. “Then they cried to the Lord “(1:14). We now have made a major transition in the text. Earlier, the captain of the ship said to Jonah, “Arise, and call upon your god.” Suddenly, the text gives us an incredible transition in Jonah’s situation. The pagan sailors embraced the God of Israel by his covenant name. “They cried unto the LORD. O LORD, please do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man…”(1:14). When they threw Jonah overboard, the sea grew calm (1:15). I love the way that Perry Brown phrased this. He said, “Jonah’s fear is a very feeble thing. For all of its orthodoxy, the runaway prophet is shown in a bad light. Crew and captain can teach him many a lesson about his own faith.” They cried out, not to the generic name of god. They cried out to Yahweh. That’s the very thing that the God of Israel desired to hear from his prophet Jonah, but He did not hear it.

Notice the contrasts between Jonah and these heathen Gentiles in this chapter.. It’s very simple for us to see. Each sailor called out to his own god early in the story. They requested that Jonah call out to his God. They did, and Jonah did not. The sailors attempted to save Jonah’s life by rowing until they were exhausted. The sailors feared the LORD, while Jonah claimed that he feared the Lord. After they threw Jonah overboard, the sea grew calm (1:15). Then the men greatly feared the LORD, and they offered sacrifices to Him and made vows to Him (1:16). In chapter 2 we find out that the prophet of God made vows and promised to offer sacrifices to God (2:9), and he never does! If he did, it is not recorded in the narrative. The object of omission is one of the literary tools used by the writer. Jonah said that he would do it, but he never did. That is incredibly haunting to us. We think of all the times we said, “Lord, if you will just get me out of this one then I promise……! How long is our list of words without actions? Please note our third growth indicator.

3. A life growing spiritually exhibits a testimony to the non-believing world – not the reverse.

It is the pagan sailors that made their testimony to the prophet of God – not the reverse. Have you ever had that happen in your own life? I vividly remember a time in my life, and I am not proud of it. I embarrassed myself and my Lord before an unbeliever; and it was he who was more Christ-like on that occasion. Look at your own life, your home, your neighbor. Not in an attitude of superiority, but rather in humility; and in an understanding of the impact of God in your life. That is why Jesus calls us to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). There must be something that is different and distinct in the life of a believer. Jonah, the prophet of God, gives us not a story to emulate, but one from which to run. And it only will get worse as the story progresses. Yet in the midst of a negative example, we can ask ourselves, “Are we growing?” When God says it, do we do it? Is there a consistency between our words and our actions? Are we a model to the non-believing world so that when they look at us they say, “There’s something different about him” So, pull out your measuring rod and check. Are you growing?

Mark Yarbrough is Vice President for Communications, Associate Dean for External Education, Assistant Professor of Bible Exposition