Scripture from the ESV
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 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.
On Imagery in Jonah
The Book of Jonah is full of symbolic language and imagery. I want to take a moment to point out certain examples and themes, but also to explain how I approach biblical symbolism.
While this can be read as the story of the soul’s flight from God, it is first a story of a soul’s flight.
As Nate Shurden pointed out on Sunday, the Book of Jonah is full up and down imagery, and motion in general. Jonah is told to “arise” because evil has come “up” to God. He “rises,” only to “flee” “from” the presence of the Lord. He then goes “down” to Joppa, “down” into a ship. and later “down into the inner part of the ship.” This imagery continues throughout the Book. Attending this direction imagery, the author also uses water, earth, heaven, as well as light and darkness to help depict and illuminate the story.
This sort of imagery is provocative both theologically and philosophically. It is tempting to give an esoteric reading to the book of Jonah, but esoteric readings presume that God hides His real revelation from the many for the sake of the wise few. Esoteric readings rarely provide true spiritual nourishment. Esoteric readings are rarely truly philosophical or theological. They abstract symbols and empty them of their life.
On the other hand true philosophy and theology return us to the text, make the obvious more meaningful, and help explain difficulties. The story of one soul is the story of every soul, but a soul must be understood as a life and not merely some intellectual or emotional journey interior to and seperate from all the rest of the world.
When God speaks to us he calls us to Arise, to awaken, to believe and respond to His Word. To disobey or flee from God is to create an illusion self-determination. Though we run, we have not arisen, but lie prone, enter deeper into sleep, go down to the grave, further from light.
God raises up a people; brings up plants from the soil; raises Christ from the dead. Man is an upright creature, who is called to be upright in his dealings. To arise is to meet God’s Word; to arise is in some sense the meaning of being human.
Jonah rose to flee
The oft repeated response to God’s call is “here I am.” Indeed, for where God speaks there one is. His Word is life.
The text records no response on Jonah’s part but his flight. Jonah has not truly arisen but entered into a terrible dream. When we are pursued in nightmares, even when we think our pursuer knows where we are, the logic of the dream allows us to delude ourselves in the possibility of hiding.
He paid the fare
He did not haggle. He was simply glad to find a ship going in the opposite direction of God’s will, regardless of the cost.
Went down into it
He has found his hiding place. The belly of the ship is that place where one is most likely to be sea sick. He isolates himself from the rest of the people on the ship. He is alone, in the dark, asleep.
From the presence of the Lord
God is not always welcome in our lives. He challenges us; He tells us the truth about the world and about ourselves; He asks things of us.
Without obedience, without love, without trust, we cannot bare the presence of the Lord. Our response to God’s presence without the aid of the Holy Spirit is flight. We prefer the most terrible of hiding places to the terrible mercy of God.