Man on the run

Jonah flees to Tarshish
Author: Weigel, Christoph. Image Title: Jonah flees the call of God going to Joppa.

A sermon by Rod Benson

When we face a course of action that is possible, or even compelling, but at the same time unpalatable or undesirable for personal reasons – cost, taste, reputation, or such like – we tend to react and step back, and hope the moment will pass.

Or we reinterpret the situation, trying to convince ourselves that it’s not so important, or so urgent, as it appears. Or we rationalise: we reframe the challenge to make it seem easier, or more worthwhile, or less distasteful, or less confronting.

We sometimes do the same when we are actively engaged in behaviours and processes that, on reflection, feel unethical or untenable, but for personal or strategic reasons we are obliged to press on. And we can be very creative in doing so.

Consider nuclear warfare, for example, and the responsibilities of the military officers tasked with ensuring that nuclear missiles launch effectively, and reach their target, and vaporise whole cities and populations. If anyone needs to rationalise what they are doing, it’s workers such as these.

For example, on a Trident submarine, which carries 24 multiple-warhead nuclear missiles, crew members apparently call the part of the submarine where the missiles are lined up in their “silos,” ready for launch, the “Christmas tree farm.” In an actual nuclear war, the opposing forces “exchange” warheads, one missile “takes out” another, dead people are “casualties,” the geographic area is a “theatre,” and the pattern in which nuclear bombs land is a “footprint.”

But that’s not all: nuclear bombs are not dropped – they are “delivered” on a “bus.” Bombs are not bombs, or even warheads, but “re-entry vehicles,” or RVs for short.

What better way to conceptualise, abstract, and lighten the terrible dark reality of explosive devices with civilization-destroying capacity than to refer to them via the image of recreational vehicles?[1]

But you can only take reinterpretation and rationalisation so far. When its scope dwindles, or the smokescreen fades, you run.

Which is precisely what the Israelite prophet Jonah did when faced with a divine command to leave cool and cosy Israel and travel east across the wasteland to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, arguably the strongest political and military force the world had ever known, and preach a message of radical change to its citizens: a divine command that Jonah found both compelling, because he was a faithful Jewish man, and profoundly undesirable, for several reasons that we will come to later.

Look at the remarkable first few words of the book of Jonah: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah.”

God speaks! It’s more than an oracle speaking. This is the eternal, all-powerful Creator and Sustainer of all life communicating with a particular specimen of humanity.

It turns out that this is not as unusual as it may first appear. The Bible teaches that God speaks to people in many ways. Christian philosopher Dallas Willard observes that, in biblical times, God spoke to individuals or groups in at least six ways:

  • phenomenon plus voice (e.g. Moses at the burning bush)
  • supernatural messenger or angel
  • dreams and visions (e.g. Joseph; Peter in Acts 10)
  • an audible voice (e.g. Abraham on Mt Moriah)
  • the human voice (the OT prophets; Jesus, the apostles)
  • the “human spirit,” or the “still small voice.”[2]

To this list we could legitimately add the casting of lots, although the last time this was used in Scripture as a means to discern God’s will (Acts 1) nothing seems to have come of it, and the method is not commended or endorsed for use by Christians today.

Did Jonah hear a mysterious audible voice, a human voice, or the inner “voice” of his conscience or spirit? We don’t know, but we do know that he received a definite and clear communication to act, and it came from God.

In what ways has God spoken to you in the past? What consequences have flowed from that realisation?

Or if you believe God has not spoken to you in the past, why might this be so? Is God not speaking to you, or is it that you’re not listening?

Or does God not speak to people today in the ways in which he spoke to past generations?

How ever Jonah heard the word of God, the message was very clear: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before me” (v. 2).

Those words are hard to misunderstand; difficult to reinterpret, or reframe, or rationalise. We are not told, but perhaps Jonah did deploy delaying or evasion tactics, but eventually he obeys part of the command.

He arises from his Galilean café, and he goes. And so begins one of the most memorable stories in the Bible.

But of course he goes in the wrong direction. He heads west to the Mediterranean coast, not east into the desert and to Nineveh.

As a good Jewish man, he may well have known the words of Amos 9:1-3, or Psalm 139:7f, which speak of the impossibility of escaping from God’s presence, God’s reach, God’s claims on one’s life.

Jonah does his best to escape, but God is an inescapable God. Jonah should have known that no one can flee from God’s omnipresence, but he may have convinced himself that if he fled from Israel, and from proximity to the Jerusalem temple, he would flee the presence of the God of Israel.

So Jonah runs away, and goes down to Joppa (modern day Jaffa), and then down to the port, and down into the bowels of a ship bound for Tarshish, a Phoenician city in southern Spain, just west of Gibraltar.

But he has further still to fall. The ship sets sail, and there in the bottom of the boat he realises the folly of his actions: he has ignored a direct command of God; he has defied the will of the living God; and he has robbed God of the glory he would surely have received through Jonah’s faithful preaching to the civilized pagans of Nineveh.

In the prayer recorded in chapter 2 we get a glimpse of his emotional state as the ship heads out to sea. Physically he lies in the bottom of the boat; existentially he has descended to a lower place, “deep in the realms of the dead” (2:2).

Later still, Jonah acknowledges his downward moral and psychological trajectory, his spiritual death spiral: “To the roots of the mountains I sank down; the earth beneath barred me in forever” (2:6).

Jonah had expended considerable effort in seeking to separate himself from the presence of God, from the call of God, from the holy, righteous command of the One to whom each of us is fundamentally and finally responsible.

In what ways are you running from God? How far have you fled? How deep have you gone? What will stop your fall? What is it that you are running from? What are you going to do when you stop running?

Is it time to turn around, and return to God, and re-engage with the abundant life and awesome purpose you have been missing?

In his book, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, Anglican apologist and minister John Dickson writes:

I recently crossed a threshold in my skiing. For years I have been too proud to take lessons, content to carve up the slopes in my own effective but not exactly pretty style. In convincing my son to take a lesson, I somehow convinced myself it was my time, too. The lesson was a little frustrating at first. The technical way in which the instructor broke down the turn felt onerous – he had me concentrating on timing, edging, weight distribution on each foot, and so on, all at the same time. About half way through the lesson something clicked. Turns began to take care of themselves. I was no longer fighting the boots, the skis, or the snow. I was free. It turns out the instructor’s directives were not ‘restrictions,’ but paths to liberty in my favorite pastime.[3]

We are all ultimately responsible to our Maker, who is patient and beneficent, and who desires only our best. He has given us clear instructions both general and specific, universal and personal.

It is my prayer to God that each of us will discern what God is saying to us today, and follow his lead with confidence and courage.



Sermon 746 copyright © 2017 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 3 September 2017. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


[1] C. Cohn, “Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 12 (4), 1987, p. 698.

[2] Dallas Willard, In Search of Guidance: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), pp. 93-105.

[3] John Dickson, A Doubter’s Guide to the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), p. 80.

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