The next three Sunday evenings we will be going through the book of Jonah. The book of Jonah is a great little book. It is a very interesting narrative and it is very skillfully put together, and of course it has captured the imagination of many.
The book of Jonah is a story about the prophet Jonah, who is also mentioned in 2 Kings 14:25. Jonah’s ministry took place during the reign of Jeroboam II, in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, in the early to mid-8th century BC. A number of dates have been proposed for when this book might have been written, and while a number of scholars favor a date after the exile of the Northern Kingdom, I agree with the commentator Desmond Alexander that an early date, within the 8th century BC and before Israel’s exile is possible, and I think likely.
In the last 100 years a number of scholars have tried to make the case that the book of Jonah was intended to be read as a work of fiction. But, it is worth noting that up until 100 years ago, there was an almost unanimous view that the author of the book of Jonah intended it to be read as history (Alexander, 81), and even now, “the majority of modern scholars […] reject as unlikely the possibility that the book of Jonah is [intended to be] allegory.” (Alexander, 77) Regardless of what some might think of the historicity of the events described, a number of features of the text indicate that the author intended for us to take his story as history, not fiction. Desmond Alexander suggests that the best way to categorize this book is as “didactic history”: History that intends to teach us a lesson (Alexander, 84).
Of course, saying that this book is meant to be taken as didactic history raises a question: What about the fish? If a person knows anything about the book of Jonah, and really if a person knows just a handful of Old Testament Bible stories, then they know about the fish. And I have just told you that the author of this book intends us to take as history his account that a man was swallowed whole by a big fish, and subsequently survived in that fish’s belly for three days and three nights before he was vomited back onto land to go about his business.
That is a significant claim and needs some discussion, but I am going to ask you to put a pin in that for tonight. We’re going to put a pin in the fish. Next Sunday night, when we look at chapter two, we will discuss what to do with the fish in more detail. But for now, we will just mention it briefly as it shows up only briefly in our text, and we’ll hold on until next week for further discussion.
One other disclaimer: As I read our text for this series, I am going to use God’s covenant name Yahweh where it appears in the text. Our English translation, like almost all other English translations, replaces this covenant name with the title “the Lord,” putting the word “Lord” in all capital letters. The ESV explains this practice in its preface.
While that substitution is fine, it can add confusion to texts where Israelites are talking about their God to non-Israelites. Our translation can come off as if they are speaking about a general deity, when actually they are naming a very specific God, the God if Israel, who is named Yahweh.
So, for the sake of clarity, for this series I will read our text with “Yahweh” put back in to the places where it has been replaced with “the Lord”.
With those things in mind, let’s turn to our text. I’m going to read the text in two chunks tonight. First verses 1-4, and then verses 5-17 a bit later. Hear now from Jonah 1:1-4:
1Now the word of Yahweh 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.” 3 But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of Yahweh. 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 Yahweh.
Thus far the reading of God’s Word.
Jonah starts like a typical prophetic story, but then a surprising twist quickly appears.
The beginning phrase “Now the word of Yahweh came to …” is a conventional way to start the story of a prophet. The phrase is used over 100 times in the Old Testament, and it would have been a familiar story introduction for a Hebrew listener.
Next we are told that this word from Yahweh came to a prophet: Jonah, the son of Amittai.
The conventional nature of verse 1 is what makes verse 3 so jolting. And some of that is lost on us because the first word of verse 3, translated “But” in the ESV can also be translated “And.” And so after the word of Yahweh comes to Jonah, a prophet, commanding him to “arise” and go to Nineveh, the Hebrew audience expects to hear “And he arose and went to Nineveh.” Instead they hear “And he arose to flee to Tarshish.” This is, of course, the twist of the story of Jonah.
The exact location of Tarshish is unknown, but the important thing to note is that Jonah was called to Nineveh, which was to the east, and instead he gets up and flees to the west. He is fleeing from God’s calling on him, and he is fleeing from God’s presence, by heading west.
The author also describes Jonah’s journey as going “down”. He goes “down” to Joppa. He went “down” below the deck of the ship. Jonah is trying to flee from God – travelling west when he is called east, travelling downward when he is called upward.
Why does he flee? Interestingly, we are not told his motivation. No explanation is given at this point. What we do know is that by fleeing God’s presence, and by fleeing God’s calling, Jonah is making plain his unwillingness to serve God. For whatever reason, Jonah does not want to preach to Nineveh. And so instead, he tries to run away from God.
God calls Jonah to something he doesn’t want to do, and Jonah responds by fleeing from God’s presence.
Of course there is something quite absurd about trying to flee from God’s presence. That will become obvious when we read the rest of chapter one, if it wasn’t obvious already.
It is an absurd image – Jonah trying to run away from Yahweh’s presence – Yahweh who Jonah himself will soon identify as the God of heaven, the one who made the sea and the dry land.
That absurd image reminded me of another, similar, absurd picture from a very different book, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a very intentionally (and sometimes unintentionally) absurd book. It is a comedy sci-fi book.
At one point the book is talking about the usefulness of towels. It lists a number of ways a towel can be helpful during intergalactic hitchhiking. One of the uses it lists is that you can wrap it around your head to avoid seeing a monster called the “Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.” It goes on to explain that you may need to do this because the “Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal” is such a “mind-bogglingly stupid animal [that] it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you.” And you can see the absurdity. This is a giant fictional beast, and if it comes after you, and you cover your head with a towel, it will see that you can’t see it anymore, and so it will assume that it must not be able to see you anymore. And it will leave you alone. It is dumb and fairly absurd.
My 22 month-old daughter Rosie seems to think that I am as dumb as the Bugblatter Beast of Traal. When I come up to her to tickle here, she covers her own eyes, and assumes that I can no longer see her.
Each of these pictures is absurd: A 22 month-old, covering just her eyes so that I can’t see her. A space traveler covering is face so a monster will think he no longer exists. A prophet running west and getting on a boat to avoid the presence of God, the maker of heaven and earth.
Yet in spite of how absurd it is, each of us does basically the same thing, all the time. We are just as ridiculous.
When God calls us to do something that we don’t want to do, we are tempted to try to flee from his presence. When we are given a command that seems unpleasant to us, we try to avoid God. We become like Jonah, trying to run away from his presence. We treat God like he is as stupid as the Bugblatter Beast of Traal, and we assume that if we don’t look at him, he won’t see us. We treat him like Rosie treats me, and we assume that if we avert our gaze from him, he’ll move on and leave us alone.
It is absurd. But we all do it.
What causes you to try to flee from God’s presence? What command does he give that leads you to try to avoid eye contact with him?
Is there a particular command, or set of commands, where when you hear it, you tend to lower your eyes, and hope that God does not notice you?
Maybe it’s with how you use your money. When God speaks of how all things are a gift, and all are his, and he calls his people to generosity, and concern for the poor, you want to make yourself small, and avert your eyes, and hope that God doesn’t notice you. You want to flee from his presence.
Maybe it’s with the Bible’s view of sexual ethics. The Bible’s view of human sexuality has been unpopular in our culture for some time, but never so much as right now. When your friends are putting rainbows across their profile pictures on Facebook, and the Bible’s stance is labeled as bigotry, does part of you kind of want to flee from God’s presence, to avert your eyes from him, and to just go with the flow of the world around us? Many Christians and many churches are feeling the temptation to do just that right now.
Or maybe it is not your public ethical stance, but your private practice of ethics. Some form of sin that has gone from being an occasional thing to being a regular thing. And you don’t want to deal with it. And you ignore it. And in that area of your life, you are trying to flee from God’s presence – hoping he does not notice you. Hoping he leaves you alone.
Maybe it’s in how you love others. We spoke this morning about how we can adopt a narrow view of what it means to love the people in our life. Maybe you are called to love more warmly, more affectionately, more gently, but you don’t want to. Or maybe you are called to love more firmly, to confront someone you care about, and you don’t want to. And in either case, God has called you to something you don’t want to do, and so you want to ignore him. To pretend he is not there … to flee from his presence.
Maybe you have been hurt. Maybe you have experienced suffering. Maybe you are angry about it … or sad about it. And you know you are called to bring that to God. You know you are called to bring it to him in prayer. But you don’t want to. If you’re honest, you don’t want anything to do with God right now. And so you avoid him. You want to hide from his presence.
Maybe you can’t put your finger on why it is – but you know that you are avoiding God. You don’t want to read his Word. You don’t want to pray. You don’t want to be here.
Pastor Rayburn made me aware that Alexander Whyte wrote an entire sermon titled “It Is Sometimes So With Me That I Will Rather Die Than Pray.” The title is apparently drawn from a quote by Thomas Sheperd. “It Is Sometimes So With Me That I Will Rather Die Than Pray.” Have you ever felt that way? I think I have. For whatever reason, we often want to flee God’s presence.
But especially when God calls us to something we don’t want to do, we are tempted to flee his presence.
And so we flee. We avoid him. We hope that if we don’t talk to him, he won’t notice us. We hope that if we avoid looking at him, he will avoid looking at us. Like Jonah, we run west, hoping he will keep himself in the east.
And what happens when we flee? Well, what happens to Jonah?
With that question in mind, let’s hear the rest of our text, Jonah 1:5-17:
4 But Yahweh hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. 5 Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. 6 So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”
7 And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. 8 Then they said to him, “Tell us on whose account this evil has come upon us. What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? And of what people are you?” 9 And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew, and I fear Yahweh, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” 10 Then the men were exceedingly afraid and said to him, “What is this that you have done!” For the men knew that he was fleeing from the presence of Yahweh, because he had told them.
11 Then they said to him, “What shall we do to you, that the sea may quiet down for us?” For the sea grew more and more tempestuous. 12 He said to them, “Pick me up and hurl me into the sea; then the sea will quiet down for you, for I know it is because of me that this great tempest has come upon you.” 13 Nevertheless, the men rowed hard to get back to dry land, but they could not, for the sea grew more and more tempestuous against them. 14 Therefore they called out to Yahweh, “O Yahweh, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not on us innocent blood, for you, O Yahweh, have done as it pleased you.” 15 So they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea, and the sea ceased from its raging. 16 Then the men feared Yahweh exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to Yahweh and made vows.
17 And Yahweh appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
This is God’s Word.
Sufjan Stevens is an indie-folk musician. He is also a Christian. He has a song called “Seven Swans” which is based on the Book of Revelation and the second coming of Christ.
In it, he describes Christ at his return this way – he writes these lyrics:
“He will take you / If you run, He will chase you / ‘Cause He is the Lord.”
And that is what happens when you try to flee from God’s presence: He will take you. If you run, He will chase you. Because He is the Lord.”
And that pretty much sums up Jonah 1:5-17. Jonah flees Yahweh. And far from being the aloof, detached God in the clouds that many modern people think of when they imagine God, far from being either the vaguely stern or the passively loving God that many people imagine, sitting at a distance and observing mankind, Yahweh chases Jonah.
Verse three ends by saying that Jonah had fled away from the presence of Yahweh, but we realize how mistaken that is when we suddenly learn that Yahweh is right there in verse four. It’s like those movies where one person is running from another. And they think they have escaped. And they take a deep breath. And they stand there for a moment. And then the lighting shifts. And we see that the one who had been pursuing them is now standing right behind them.
In the same way, Jonah had fled, but when he stops to catch his breath, Yahweh is there. He has pursued Jonah down to Joppa, and in verse 4 he hurls a great wind upon the sea. And there is no escape.
Jonah has fallen asleep, further withdrawing from reality, but he is soon called back. And it is quickly obvious to him that Yahweh has followed him. The sailors cast lots, and of course it falls to Jonah – for even over the lots, God is sovereign. And now Jonah’s flight is made public.
Jonah then claims that he “fears” Yahweh, though his actions have spoken differently, and while he seems to remain mixed in his response, the pagan sailors show more fear and reverence for Yahweh than he does.
They try to find a way to get away from the wind that Yahweh has hurled at them, but it proves impossible. And finally it seems that Jonah must face the music.
I wonder what Jonah thought would happen when he was thrown into the sea. In one sense it seems to be an act of surrender. Jonah is giving up on running. He is giving himself to Yahweh.
On the other hand, I wonder if he expected to drown. It’s unclear. But if he did expect to die, I wonder if he again imagined that in death he still may escape the calling of Yahweh.
But we soon see that it is not so simple. Because even when he hits the water, Yahweh is still not done chasing Jonah. The wind ceases, and the fish, appointed by Yahweh, swallows Jonah up alive. Jonah cannot flee from Yahweh even through death. Even in the sea, Yahweh chases him, and now, through the fish, God brings Jonah back, back to serve his calling.
What we see in this passage is that our God is a god who chases his people. Our God is a god who relentlessly pursues his people, even when they try to flee from him.
In his book The Four, Peter Leithart shows that this pattern is not unique to the book of Jonah.
Commenting on the Gospel of Matthew, Leithart writes the following – and please hang in there with me, because it is a longer quote – Leithart writes:
“Matthew is […] showing us that the story of Israel is the story of her rejection of Yahweh. Each time God comes, Israel turns from Him. God comes to Israel in Moses, and is rejected. God comes to Israel through priests and kings and prophets, yet Israel refuses to listen to her Lord. God comes to Israel through Moses and Joshua, through Solomon, through Elisha and Jeremiah, and yet Israel rejects the servants of Yahweh. Now, in Jesus Yahweh comes in flesh. Yahweh comes in person, as the Son. And Israel still rejects him.
“That’s not very good news. But that’s not the end of Matthew’s story. The God of Israel doesn’t stop coming. After His servants have been rejected again and again, after He has been rejected time without number, He still keeps coming, and will not give up coming. […]
“That is the message of the final act of this romantic comedy. Yahweh comes in the flesh […] and He is rejected again. He is rejected more thoroughly than ever. Persecuting prophets is bad; killing God Himself is worse. But the resurrection shows that Israel’s God will not let Israel have the final word. He will not let Israel’s rejection stand. He keeps coming back, even after Israel thinks they have killed Him. Israel does her worst: Yahweh comes as man, and Israel kills Him. If this were not a gospel, it would be a horror story, because this God cannot be stopped, cannot be buried. He comes back, and back again, even from the grave.
“This is great good news, the unsettling gospel of God. Matthew’s gospel reveals that God is Love, and Matthew’s gospel shows us what kind of love God is: He is relentless, faithful, persistent Love.” (Leithart, The Four, 130-131, emphasis added)
Leithart is drawing all of this from the Gospel of Matthew, and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ – but we get the same picture of God in the book of Jonah. We see a God who chases. We see a God who relentlessly pursues. We see a God who shows faithful, persistent love.
One of the parallels that Leithart draws is bizarre, and it feels a little awkward to say, but I think it is worth dwelling on. The relentless pursuit of Yahweh towards his people would feel a bit like a horror story, if it weren’t a gospel.
And really, think of any story – especially any movie or TV show – with an arch-villain.
I remember seeing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies that came out in the early 90s. In the first one, Shredder, the arch-villain is dropped into a garbage compactor and crushed. And he appears to be defeated. But then they made a sequel. And at the beginning of the sequel the camera pans over the city dump, and we see Shredder’s hand emerge from the garbage and make a shaking fist. He is back, and he is coming for the Ninja Turtles.
You see it in other series as well. Think of “The Master” for those of you who like Dr. Who, or Moriarty, for those who like “Sherlock.”
Or think of the variety of stereotypical movie scenes. A protagonist is pursued by a villain. Suddenly help comes, a second protagonist shoots, or stabs, or strikes the villain. And the villain collapses, presumably dead. And the protagonists feel safe. And they embrace. And they are so happy. And then, as we watch them hug, we see, slightly out of focus, behind them, the villain getting up again. And he continues to pursue them. Or maybe the villain is thrown from a window, and everyone is relieved, until they look down, and where they expect to see a body, they just see a big dent below. The villain has fallen, but now he is back up and the pursuit continues. Or the building that the villain is in is blown up! And everyone rejoices. Until a silhouette appears, and the villain walks out of the fire and keeps coming after them.
These scenes and images are stock images of the super-villain, the pursuer who just keeps coming no matter what you do.
And Yahweh is like that. He pursues us just like that. He keeps coming after his people, again, and again, and again, just like that … but with one essential difference. Leithart says it would be a horror story if it wasn’t a gospel. And what makes it a gospel? What makes this relentless pursuer good news?
It is that he pursues us with life. In a horror movie, the protagonists are running towards life and being relentlessly pursued by someone who wants to bring them death. In the gospel, we are foolishly, absurdly, insanely, fleeing towards death, and God is relentlessly pursuing us with life: true life, true love, and true fellowship with him. The gospel, the story of Israel, the story of Jonah, the story of Christ, the story of the Christian life – these are all anti-horror-stories. The structure is similar, the pursuit is similar, but the rest is flipped on its head. The pursuer is our savior – and not our enemy.
So what do we do with this pursuing God? How do we respond?
Well, first, we stop running. We see Jonah finally do that in our text. And what that looks like depends on just how and where we are running from God.
If it is with how we use our money, we stop ignoring God’s calling to be good stewards and we begin to consider what he may be calling us to do with the resources he’s given us.
If we are running from the Bible’s culturally unpopular sexual ethics, we need to stop, and consider who we will serve. Will it be the God of heaven, who made the sea and dry land, or will it be the culture around us?
If we are running from God by ignoring our own private sins, in neglecting his calling on some area of our private lives, then we need to acknowledge that he already sees us, that we already feel his gaze, and we need to stop resisting it, and look up, and know that he is there. Looking at us … calling us back to faithfulness and repentance.
If we have been hurt and we are avoiding his gaze, we need to acknowledge that he is the great physician, and our flight from him is not only futile, but detrimental to ourselves. Whatever you are feeling, you need to say it to him. He is strong. He can take it. The psalms are full of laments. Do not be scared to join your laments with the psalmist’s, and speak your pain before God.
Or maybe you are here and you are not a Christian. Maybe you never were, or maybe you thought of yourself that way once, but not anymore. But you find yourself here tonight. And God seems to be pursuing you. And you are running away, but he keeps coming, and you are scared about what will happen if he catches you.
Maybe it is time to stop running. Maybe it is time to let him catch you. That might be scary. But I promise you, it is not nearly as scary as it would be to turn around and find that he is no longer there – that he is no longer pursuing you. He chases you with life, and with love. Stop fleeing. Cast yourself onto him, and let him grab hold of you.
And so first, we stop fleeing. The rest of the book of Jonah gives us more direction. In chapter one, Jonah stops fleeing. In chapter two he engages with God in prayer. In chapter three, he begins to obey his calling. Jonah’s story is mixed and complex, but when he is at his best, Jonah stops running, starts praying, and begins to obey. And we are called to the same.
Once we have stopped running, we need to speak to our pursuing God. That relationship is much of what he desires from us. If we have not been praying, then we start. If we have been avoiding a topic in prayer, we begin to speak to God about it. If we have been praying about our areas of struggle, maybe we need to speak to God about them more honestly, more truthfully, or more deeply. If we do not know what to pray, maybe we need to share that with God too.
And then we take steps to obey our calling. To do the unpleasant things he has called us to do. And that is not some sort of detached moralism, or an attempt to merit something from God. No. That is relationship. I frequently try to do what I know makes my wife and my daughters happy. Why? To earn something from them? No. Out of a detached moralism? No. I do it because I love them – because I have a relationship with them. And so it is with God.
And so we stop running. We start praying. And we begin to obey. This is the best way for us to respond to the God who relentlessly pursues his people – the God who comes after us with a persistent love … the God who will not give up.
But first we stop running. Because as Sufjan Stevens says: He will take you. If you run, he will chase you. For he is the Lord.
This sermon draws on material from:
Alexander, T. Desmond. “Jonah.” In Obadiah, Jonah and Micah, edited by Donald J. Wiseman, 51-146. TOTC. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1988.
Collins, C. John. “From Literary Analysis to Theological Exposition: The Book of Jonah.” Journal for Translation and Textlinguistics 7, no. 1 (1995): 28-44
Leithart, Peter. A House for My Name. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2000.
Sources for illustrations:
Adams, Douglas. The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide. New York, NY: Portland House, 1986.
Leithart, Peter. The Four. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2010.
Stevens, Sufjan. “Seven Swans” on the album Seven Swans. Asthmatic Kitty Records.