“They shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for He who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.” Isaiah 49:10
Well, I’d hoped to have a neat and tidy little devo to go with this week’s readings but I’ve honestly just been left scratching my head. The problem is Jonah. You might wonder how a fish story ends up in an astronomy blog but the book of Jonah is about a lot more than a really big fish. This tiny book is all about a really big God. A God who hurls winds, quiets raging seas, appoints great fish for rescue missions and relocations, plants for botanical cabanas, a worm for demolition, and sun and wind to sap ones strength and scorch ones head. All these elements of nature obey God’s bidding, except for man. Jonah, like all people, rebels against his Creator and creation becomes his scourge.
Nineveh is no exception. Nineveh deservedly awaits God’s wrath. But instead God sends His word. He sends Jonah to scatter the seed. Jonah proclaims Nineveh’s impending destruction and Nineveh believes God’s word and repents in fasting and sackcloth!
So God relents, just like Jonah suspected He would. “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” And that really ticks Jonah off—so much so that he just wants to die.
It’s fascinating to me what Jonah does next. He scattered the seed of the word like he was told, Nineveh repented like he was afraid they would, God has mercy just like he figured, and now instead of going home, he builds himself a shelter on a hill overlooking Nineveh and sits in it “till he should see what becomes of the city.” Why? We’ve already read that because the Ninevites responded to the word in repentance, God did not destroy the city. So what was Jonah waiting to see?
I think Chapter 4, verse 6 gives us a little hint. “The Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort.” At least that’s what the ESV says, but they also include a note that says “discomfort” or “evil.” Well, I don’t know about you, but that was a little disconcerting for an amateur Bible reader like myself. I don’t know a thing about Hebrew but this sure made me wish I did!
My trusty Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance and Hebrew Lexicon verified the typical translation of “ra ah” as “evil” or less often as “disaster.” A far more knowledgeable friend of mine confirmed that this is the only time “ra ah” is ever translated as “discomfort.” If that IS an accurate translation than I can totally accept the consensus in the stack of commentaries my husband has accumulated on this particular book, Colin Smith’s “Jonah: Navigating a God-Centered Life” being the best of the bunch. But if it isn’t an accurate translation and the plant was intended to save Jonah from something a whole lot worse than “discomfort,” than God’s immediate removal of that comfort before it even has a chance to be effective sheds a different light on Jonah’s situation (insert head-scratching here) (probably mine AND yours now).
Now, back to that other question about what Jonah might possibly have been waiting to see from the hilltop. Interestingly enough, the next reading on this week’s list is from Mark 4, the end of which has Jesus showing the same power God exhibits over the wind and the waves in the book of Jonah. But in the first part there’s this parable about the sower. Now all of this week’s readings had a scorching sun in common but these 2 had something else as well, namely the preaching of the word and the springing up of plants.
In Mark 4:13, Jesus explains that when the word is sown, it can fall where Satan will immediately snatch it up again, or it can fall on rocky ground and spring up quickly and with great joy but because it has no root it withers at the first sign of persecution (this is the scorching sun analogy). The word can also fall among thorns and get choked by “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things.” But when the word is sown on good soil prepared to receive it, it will bear much fruit.
I have to wonder if that might be what Jonah is waiting to see from his shelter on top of the hill. He had sown the word and rather to his dismay, Nineveh had responded in repentance. So God had pity on them. But would it last? Would Nineveh be like the rocky soil, or the thorny soil or was it actually going to bear fruit? Was there maybe just a chance that he might be able to witness this wicked city’s destruction after all?
I don’t know exactly what was going on in Jonah’s heart but God’s way of addressing it was to appoint this plant to spring up and save him from either its effects or the sun’s. We know God’s purposes always succeed, so whichever malady God was saving Jonah from, the removal of the plant must also have been necessary to the success of the mission. For before the sun had even arisen God appointed a worm to devour it.
Jonah responds in his usual rash manner. God graciously describes his outburst as misplaced pity for the plant. But then He says something that I think gets to the heart of the whole book.
“You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”
Oh friend! Do you not know that if you have received the word of the Lord, the Good News of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that gospel has taken root in your life and born fruit, that it is only by the mercy of God that it has done so? Were it not for the pity of our heavenly Father, we would be facing the same destruction Nineveh was, only on an infinitely greater scale. But God in His great mercy and steadfast love, takes out our heart of stone and replaces it with a heart of flesh, ready to receive His implanted word. He makes it take root. He makes it grow. He causes it to bear fruit. And according to James 1:18, He does this according to His own will, not ours. “Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures.”
In the preceding verses James contrasts those deep-rooted plants that joyfully and steadfastly face trials and persecutions with those that spring up quickly and just as quickly fade away when the scorching sun of adversity hinders their worldly pursuits.
Was Jonah one of those plants? Was he, as Smith suggests in his book, so exceedingly delighted in the comforts God had provided as to become “vine-centered,” freely accepting the good from God’s hand but cursing the worm and the wind (111)?
Our last reading of the week is a heavy one, but it’s one that can’t be ignored. Revelation 16:8 says there will surely come a day when God is going to allow the sun to so increase in intensity that people will be “scorched by the fierce heat.” Their response will be to curse the name of God rather than “repent and give Him glory.”
Smith suggests that Jonah must have repented and given God the glory or such a God-exalting, self-humiliating testimony could never have been written (141). Maybe it was the plant and its subsequent demise that was used to save him from his own “vine-centeredness.” I’m left with so many questions. Perhaps some of you real scholars out there can enlighten me. In the mean time, all I can do is keep scattering the seed.