“As we fill our minds with the truth of God’s Word, we will be better able to recognize the lies in our own thinking, as well as the lies that the world presses upon us.”
Scripture & Devotion: Scripture focus: Jonah 4: 5-8
Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There, he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade, and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it to grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day, God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”
“I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.”
But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred-and-twenty- thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”
The power of salvation
When I was a child in Sunday School, the story of Jonah was always used as a means of teaching obedience. The message we children heard went something like this: if we didn’t do as God directed, he might cause something terrible to happen to us (like sending a big fish to swallow us), so we had better be “good”. Yet, if we disobeyed but were truly sorry, God would forgive us. But nothing was ever said about what happened after the people of Nineveh repented and were spared. In fact, until I began preparing this study, I had completely forgotten that Jonah’s story didn’t end there at all.
After the people of Nineveh repented, Jonah camped outside the city, perhaps even hoping that God would reconsider forgiving the Ninevites and administer some dramatic form of punishment after all. When Jonah began to suffer from the heat, God provided a shading vine. But rather than accepting the fact that God did not intend to destroy the city, Jonah continued to sit and wait for God to act, even spending the night there. The next morning, when God caused the vine to wither, Jonah angrily insisted that he would rather die than suffer his present discomfort and indignity.
The first thing that strikes me about this passage is Jonah’s lack of concern for the very people to whom he came to preach. Their repentance does not make him happy. What does make him happy is God’s care for him personally in providing the vine to shade him from the sun. When he persists in waiting overnight for the city’s destruction, God withers the vine and asks Jonah a second time, “Do you have a right to be angry?” This question is meant to point out the inappropriateness of Jonah’s anger, his preoccupation with his own comfort while remaining totally unconcerned about the potential annihilation of an entire city of more than 120,000 unenlightened and misguided people “who cannot tell their right hand from their left”.
Something else that stands out to me in this passage is Jonah’s persistent disregard of God’s message that true repentance leads to forgiveness and salvation. This same cycle had been repeated (and would be again) by God’s people throughout history. Several times in the gospels, Jesus himself alludes to the stubbornness of previous generations, their rejection of God’s direction, and their persecution of the prophets who had been sent to them. In Matthew 12: 41, he contrasts the willingness of the Ninevites to embrace God’s message with the recalcitrance of his own people - especially the religious leaders - in accepting his own teaching when he says: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here.”
The Book of Jonah ends with a rhetorical question posed by God himself, “Should I not be concerned about that great city?” By definition, a rhetorical question is one asked for effect and to which no answer is expected, often because it is so obvious. The whole of the Bible is the story of God’s love and compassion for the people of the world he created. John 3:16, perhaps the most familiar verse in all scripture (“For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son…”), affirms this. The life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus that we celebrate at this time of year testify to God’s saving grace, his power to overcome evil and dispel darkness, even the darkness of the human heart. Just as Jonah emerged from the belly of a fish in the depths of the sea to witness God’s redemptive and restorative power in action, so we, too, can experience a rebirth as we invite God to shine his light into our hearts, not just at Easter time, but every day.
We thank You that Your redemptive and restorative power is still at work in us today!