Word Study: Flee From His Presence



Jonah 1:3 “But Jonah rose up to flee unto Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.” KJV

Jonah 1:3: “But Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish.” NIV

I remember as a six year old sitting in Sunday School in Beginner’s Church listening to my Sunday School teacher tell the story of Jonah. I remember how my Sunday School teacher said that Jonah ran away from God. She then said: “Now children, you know you cannot run away from God.” I shook my head, yes, I knew that. I also thought: “Gee, I’m smarter than Jonah. Jonah must have been pretty stupid. Why I am only six years old and I know more than Jonah. I know you can‘t run away from God. He is everywhere and sees everything.” But soft – you can.

Let’s face it; Jonah was a prophet and a man of God for crying out loud. He should have known you can’t out run God. Note that the King James Version says that he ran away from the presence of God. The problem with that rendering is that it contradicts Psalms 139:7-10 which tells us that we cannot even run from the presence of God. To avoid this contradiction the NIV ignored the word pani in the Hebrew text which is rendered as face or presence. Well, they didn’t ignore it, they simply said that pani could be translated as before which is true and therefore Jonah fled from before the Lord. In other words David fled from standing before the Lord as a minister and servant of God. Other commentators suggest that he was fleeing from the temple of God where the presence of God rested and getting as far away as he could from the temple. I am not sure what difference that would make.

Ok, that all sounds good, if that explains the extent of your relationship with God. However, the word pani, like most Hebrew words, have a wide range of meanings. Also, the word has the preposition from in front of it but not the definite article the. More telling is the fact that the word pani is in a plural form. So the literal rendering is that Jonah fled faces of God.

You know I still hear some preachers who tell us that the word God Elohim is in a plural form and therefore speaks of the trinity and Jewish rabbis know this but won’t admit it. Actually Jewish rabbis know more than these preachers think. What they understand is that plural in Hebrew is different than plural in English. A plural in Hebrew may mean more than one like in English but not always, it can also be used to show a priority or an emphasis. So Jonah was not fleeing just from the presence of God, but from an overwhelming presence of God. This could also mean everything that reminds him of God and the word pani also means to consider and contemplate. Hence he fled the city of God where the temple was and all the religious men wearing their religious garb etc. Fleeing to Tarishish, which was a mercantile city, he would go somewhere where he there would be nothing to remind him of God and he could not contemplate God.

I recall a story that took place in Romania many years ago when the Communist came in and took over a small Romania village. They went into the church and removed all the sacred objects, the Bibles, hymn books, prayer books, crosses etc. and threw them into a bonfire and then they burned the church down. One of the communist soldiers grabbed one of the Christians and made him look at their destruction and said: “See there, we are going to destroy your God and everything that reminds you of your God.” That Christian just looked up and began to smile. It made the soldier angry and shouted at the Christian, “Why are you smiling, didn’t you hear me, we are going to destroy your God and everything that reminds you of your God.” This Christian just answered: “I was just wondering how you’re going to manage to get the stars down.”

The word for presence comes from the root word panah which is spelled Pei, Nun, and Hei. The Pei is a sign of the powerful activities of speaking and communicating. While researching my doctoral dissertation I was working on the origin of the Hebrew alphabet and I gradually came to realize the importance of God’s speech. It was the speech of God that created the universe. The Pei calls us to speak from the heart. When God spoke to Jonah, He spoke from His heart. God’s heart cried out to Jonah to share His message of mercy for Nineveh. We forget that in the Old Testament, God also loved the Gentiles as much as he loved the Hebrew people.

The Nun removes walls and barriers; the Nun represents faith which brings the walls down. Ancient rabbis taught that Joshua brought the walls of Jericho down with the Nun. When God speaks with the Pei He tears down walls and barriers but only when we enforce the Nun or faith. This leads to opening the door to the last letter which is the Hei. This represents the presence of God. The ancient sages taught that God created the world when he spoke the letter Hei. He created it with his breath and/or presence. Jonah fled from the spoken word of God, the power of God to remove barriers to His presence.

You see, it wasn’t the presence of God that Jonah was fleeing. It was the tool that Jonah would use to bring the presence of God to Nineveh. I remember when I worked as a caregiver in Hospice and I had a client who had a brain tumor and was dying. I was hired to be with him so his wife could take a break and get out of the house. I spent up to three hours a day, alone with Bob who could only communicate with his eyes. My first thought was that he could not understand anything I spoke. But his eyes spoke differently. The idea of just mentioning the name of Jesus in front of this dying patient terrified me. I don’t know why but I knew God called me there to share His message of mercy with this dying man that He loved. But I was just too afraid (unreasonable fear) to simply tell him that God loved Him. I put on the TV just to get my mind off of what I was called to do. I was like Jonah, running away to Tarishish, trying to escape not so much the presence of God but His pani the Pei, speaking of Him through the Nun faith which then delivers the Hei His presence, the powerful tool that God had given to me, to all of us, to deliver his message of mercy.

I realize now it was the enemy fighting like all get out to keep me from going to Nineveh. For the very presence of Jonah, or I should say the presence of God through Jonah, is what brought the great revival. I found like I am sure Jonah found out that when you run away from the great tool of His presence and power that you can share with a Nineveh, you don’t get that presence or power for yourself either.

What happened with Bob? I learned from Jonah’s mistake and I was not swallowed by a giant fish.