Our home Bible study group was chewing on Jonah 4. The reluctant prophet, spit up onto a beach by a giant fish, had finally decided to obey God and deliver His message to the huge, wicked city of Nineveh: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be destroyed.”
Despite Jonah’s grumpy demeanor, the greatest revival in human history then occurred in this wicked city. From the least to the greatest, they repented of their sin in sackcloth and ashes. And our gracious, loving, merciful and compassionate God relented from the destruction that He had warned might befall them.
And Jonah wasn’t happy at all about this incredible state of affairs! Surely these heathens are trying to pull the wool over God’s eyes, he must have thought. So he left the city (where he could have had an amazing ministry at this point in history), and went up by himself, alone, and sat on the hillside, “waiting to see what would happen.” Once God figures out what’s really going on, he’ll wipe them out … and I’ll have a front-row seat.
Two very interesting things then happen in Jonah 4, as the prophet is sitting there on the hillside. It’s unbearably hot (which is more than a little ironic, as Jonah is waiting to see the Ninevites get barbequed), and verse 6 says: “Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the plant.”
It’s the first time in the book Jonah has been happy about anything!
But then verse 7 continues: “But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant 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.’”
As God answers Jonah, we realize that God has masterfully created a teachable moment for the prophet. Jonah realizes that while God is utterly compassionate … he himself is not. At the very end of the chapter, God responds to Jonah’s anger: “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left — and also many animals?”
The story is open-ended. We don’t know how Jonah responded to this barb. But we do know he needed to be changed. And sometimes God goes to great lengths to change us.
Not just any old worm!
The Hebrew word for “worm” in verse 7 is tolah, a very specific worm that infests oak groves in the middle east. The female worm, laden with eggs, cements her body in a cocoon-like casing to the bark of trees and lays her eggs inside the cocoon with her. As the eggs hatch, her dying body nourishes her young. While still alive, the worm and her cocoon are bright crimson. (For centuries these worms have been harvested and ground up to make crimson dye.) But after she dies and the cocoon bursts, it turns pure white and flakes drift to the ground like snow as her children are released to freedom.
This process is referenced in Isaiah 1:18, where the Lord tells Israel: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” The word for “scarlet” there is the word tolah.
The crimson worm depicts vividly what Christ did for us on the Cross to free us from sin. In fact, in the Messianic Psalm 22, verse 6, Christ (through the prophet) calls Himself a tolah … “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.” Christ’s gruesome self-sacrifice on the Cross freed us from the bondage of sin and made us, in God’s eyes, white as snow.
The worm that chewed Jonah’s shade tree was none other than tolah — Christ Himself. He goes to great lengths to change us.
My shade tree gets chewed on
The week we were studying this chapter, I got called in to a meeting with my boss and our HR department. For nearly 23 years I had enjoyed a wonderful job at one of the world’s best places to work, World Vision. I had gotten to travel the globe and see firsthand the amazing, life-saving work World Vision does in nearly 100 countries. I had served as a ghost-writer for one of World Vision’s presidents. I had created our first internet presence, and invented many of the online products that today serve as a conduit for nearly a half billion dollars in aid to the poor. I had created many of World Vision’s social media channels, its intranet, and its emergency relief extranet. I had managed digital properties for the World Vision Report, its award-winning public radio program, and for its Media Relations Division.
And then, three years short of my planned retirement date, I was getting laid off. A worm was chewing on my shade tree!
The personal conclusion was inescapable: God had something he wanted to do in my character, some work in my life to make me more like Him. It wasn’t comfortable, it wasn’t fun, but it was from Him and it was something I simply needed to trust Him about.
God is in the business of change
I don’t yet know how He is going to change me through these current and future events, but I do know how He has used circumstances in my life in the past to change me.
I love to tell stories, and as I was leaving World Vision and so many wonderful friends there, so many of them told me, “I want to read your memoirs when you are ready!” I have had what I think is an interesting life, not because of anything special I’ve done, but because of what the Lord has done in and through and around me. I’ll look forward to “starting at the beginning” and sharing these stories through this blog, which I hope will someday morph into my memoirs. But the theme of it all, I will tell you right up front, because it’s my life verse:
“Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 4:6)