Julius Pollux, Second century linguist, called it apodidraskinda; modern Greece named it Kryfto; Israel called it machboim; and we call it hide-and-seek. It’s a loved game throughout the world.
As a child I loved playing it with my father. This is how it started. My father covered his eyes, often counting to 10, while I hid. I would run fast and hide under the bed, my favourite spot. My father walked around the house looking for me and calling, “Where is Junah (my nickname)?” I always tried holding my breath and remaining still, but to no avail. Suddenly, my father would enter the silence. He would bend down on his knees near the bed and shout with a loud voice, “Here you are. I found you!” I always thought, “Should I have chosen a different hiding spot he wouldn’t have found me.” Little did I realise that I was in a walled, roofed house. Where could I run? Was there any place that could have hidden me from my father?
We can't hide from our Father. Jonah couldn't. I couldn't. Yes, you also can't. We can't hide from our heavenly Father.
The prophet Jonah also played hide-and-seek. He played it with God. What a Partner to play with! This is how it began for Jonah. The Word of God came, “Rise, walk to Nineveh the great city and cry against her, because their evil has come up before my face” (Jonah 1:2).1 Here we see the great picture of God’s love and passion to work hand-in-hand with humans. Could God have employed other means and ways to reach Ninevah? The answer is yes. But God chose to use a human agent—Jonah. God once again was about to write another unforgettable story, another important chapter in history. He was not only about to awaken the Ninevites but Jonah also. He was about to shape Jonah’s character. In the past God had used Moses to take His message to the Egyptian Pharaoh; He used Daniel to set an example among the Babylonians; and He used Esther in the court of a heathen king. This time, He chose Jonah to carry out His plans. What a partnership, human with divine. The divine God chose human Jonah to reach out to the Ninevites.
Nineveh was the city of wickedness (Nahum 3:1,19). The Assyrians’ undesirable political attitude towards Israel was yet another factor that formed hatred in the hearts of Israelites. The Ninevites were evil, but were they beyond God’s sovereign love? No, and neither are we. This wasn’t only the moment to take the message to the Ninevites, but it was a moment that challenged Jonah as well.
Rise beyond nationalism
Jonah was absorbed in his interest for Israel (2 Kings 14:25). He was busy serving God’s chosen, the Israelites. God wanted Jonah to rise beyond nationalism—Jonah’s comfort zone. We all have our comfort zones. Which one is yours? How often are we bound by our national, racial, denominational and religious interests that we miss to see the bigger picture of God’s love and salvation for all humanity?
Rise beyond fears
God wanted Jonah to rise beyond his fears. Rise beyond the fear of what others would say; the fear of getting hurt by the Ninevites; and the fear of losing prophetic reputation among his people. Which fear does God want you to rise beyond?
Rise beyond self
I’m not sure whether Jonah had a habit of talking to himself, but if he did, then it may have been similar to this. Jonah (to himself): “I don’t know what God has in His mind. The Ninevites are too difficult to reach. They are wicked. They won’t listen. I don’t know why I have to preach to the Ninevites. God, why can’t you send someone else? Don’t you have any message for the Israelites? I am willing to preach it to them.” Like each one of us, Jonah must have thought in his mind about the difficulties related to the task. Jonah had to rise beyond his self to become selfless.
Jonah is not walking, but running
It’s fascinating to note that in the original Hebrew text of Jonah 1:2 the writer uses two important verbs. The first is qûm, which basically means the physical action of rising. The second is from the root word hlk, which can mean to go, to come or walk. It carries with it the basic idea of movement or walking. Grammatically, both verbs are Qal active imperative. In Hebrew Grammar, imperatives are the commands given by the speaker. This information underlines that it was God’s command for Jonah to rise up and walk to execute His command. In verse 3 the writer uses qûm again to convey that Jonah did rise according to the command given by God. But to express Jonah’s movement in response to God’s command the writer did not use the verb derived from hlk (verse 2), but instead he uses barakh, which describes running away or fleeing. Jonah rose not to walk but to run. Sadly, he was running not to obey but to disobey. He was not behind God; not beside God; he was not with God; but he was running away from God.
Jonah arrived at Joppa, paid the fare and boarded the ship that was heading for Tarshish. God told Jonah to go to Nineveh about 550 miles northeast of Israel. Instead, he went to Tarshish—a destination about 2500 miles in the opposite direction. Jonah had made the choice. Jonah was ready to hide and God was ready to seek.
So the countdown had begun and the game was on. Was it only a game? No! It was more than that. The old battle was on—the battle that started in heaven (Revelation 12:7) and continued in Eden (Genesis 3); the battle between God and the devil, good and evil, and light and darkness (Ephesians 6:12). This time the battle wasn’t in heaven, it wasn’t in Eden, but in the mind of Jonah. Jonah’s mind was the playground.
What was in Jonah’s mind? Was he feeling guilty for not following God’s directives? Did he realise that it would take longer to reach Tarshish than Nineveh? Did he pray to God before starting the journey? Did he fight the battle of right and wrong? I reckon he did. We all do. Some lose, others win, but the battle goes on. In the case of Jonah, the devil had kicked the first goal but God was about to kick one. God wasn’t going to give up on Jonah.
Jonah and the deep sleep
We don’t know how long it had been since the boat left the harbour, but Jonah had found a favourite spot for hiding. He went below the deck, where he lay down and fell fast asleep (verse 5). The Lord sent a great wind and a violent storm arose on the sea (verse 4).
The moment of seeking has come. God has arrived. Not in a still, small whisper. Not in an earthquake. Not in lightning and thunder, but in a violent storm; a storm that threatens to break the ship; a storm that fills experienced sailors’ hearts with fear. Once again the wind and the sea are at God’s command. This time it isn’t the Red Sea (Exodus 13:18). It isn’t the River Jordan (Joshua 3:12-16), but the Mediterranean Sea. It’s as if the whole of nature has joined God against Jonah. It’s as if the whole of heaven has paused and zoomed in on Jonah. Montague Stephen Mills offers a fitting, graphic depiction of this storm. He states: “The Hebrew text is particularly graphic in depicting the most violent of storms which God hurled like a javelin at that little vessel. By using the phrase ‘hurled to the water’, it suggests that this was a violent squall which came from above, and by the phrase ‘great tempest in the sea’ suggests it was localised to one spot in the sea, that spot in which this hapless vessel came within an inch of floundering.”2 Surely, God has zoomed in on Jonah. The whole heaven has zoomed in to watch. Yes, Jonah is found. What next?
No more hiding. No more running away. God has won; the devil has lost. God is in; the devil is out. Jonah is in the grip of his Father’s hands—strong hands. We can’t hide from our Father. Jonah couldn’t. I couldn’t. Yes, you also can’t. We can’t hide from our heavenly Father. We all are housed, walled and roofed. We can’t hide behind closed doors, in the bars or behind bars. We can’t hide behind the lies, behind the words and behind the smiles. We simply can’t hide.
The Father is looking for you. He won’t give up on you until you are found. He didn’t give up on Jonah. He won’t give up on you. Doctor Luke sums it up: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). The Son of Man has come looking for you. He won’t give up until you are found. Do you want to be found? Are you still playing hide-and-seek?
1. My own English translation from BHS.
2. Montague Stephen Mills, Jonah: A Study Guide to the Book of Jonah (Dallas, TX: E Ministries, 1998), Book in the Libronix Digital Library System 3.0c, 2000-2006 [CD-ROM], June 2012.
Younis Masih is a pastor in Invercargill, New Zealand.