With the Young Adults group at our church (called “Pulse“), we’ve been studying books of the Bible verse-by-verse most Friday nights for the past 14 years. We’ve learned that, when we’re in a book of the Old Testament, it is clear there are many, many references to (or metaphors for) Jesus, if we care to recognize them.
As an example, currently we are studying the book written by the Prophet Zechariah. Fourteen years after a large contingent (about 42,000) of Israelites left Babylon, with the King’s blessing, headed for Jerusalem, Zechariah, along with a contemporary prophet named Haggai, each received a very special message from God for His people, and particularly directed at the High Priest at the time (named Joshua … a Hebrew name which is at the root of the Aramaic Yeshua, or Jesus), and also Zerubbabel, Israel’s political leader.
Israel had “stalled.” When they first arrived in Jerusalem after the long journey across the desert from Babylon, they were excited about rebuilding the city’s walls and rebuilding the Temple where Yahweh God was to be worshiped.
However, due to conflicts within and challenges without, the Israelites lost sight of that vision. Haggai reveals that they gave up on the task, and each man “busied himself with his own house” instead (Haggai 1:9).
So, by the time Zechariah and Haggai came along, they were in serious need of a refocusing on the vision God had called them to. The prophet Haggai’s style was a direct kick in the seat of the pants, but Zechariah’s style was different. He was encouraging, inspiring, and challenging. In one amazing night he experienced a series of eight prophetic visions or dreams, designed to help the Israelites reacquire their divine purpose by seeing the big picture of what God was doing.
Zechariah’s first vision, in chapter 1:7-17, sets the tone:
7 On the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, which is the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Zechariah, the son of Berechiah, son of Iddo, saying, 8 “I saw in the night, and behold, a man riding on a red horse! He was standing among the myrtle trees in the glen, and behind him were red, sorrel, and white horses. 9 Then I said, ‘What are these, my lord?’ The angel who talked with me said to me, ‘I will show you what they are.’ 10 So the man who was standing among the myrtle trees answered, ‘These are they whom the Lord has sent to patrol the earth.’ 11 And they answered the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, and said, ‘We have patrolled the earth, and behold, all the earth remains at rest.’ 12 Then the angel of the Lord said, ‘O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ 13 And the Lord answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me. 14 So the angel who talked with me said to me, ‘Cry out, Thus says the Lord of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. 15 And I am exceedingly angry with the nations that are at ease; for while I was angry but a little, they furthered the disaster. 16 Therefore, thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. 17 Cry out again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’”
There are a number of fascinating things that we can discover about this vision. First of all, Zechariah was startled to see “a man riding on a red horse, standing among the myrtle trees.”
Jewish scholars understand that throughout the Old Testament, the image of myrtle trees represents the Jewish nation. An evergreen, it is hardy and widespread, but not incredibly tall or majestic, like the cedars of Lebanon. Zechariah’s hearers would have understood this clearly. Myrtle leaves are fragrant but have no taste, and Jewish teachers frequently used this analogy to drive home the point that many of their hearers had a form of religion but really weren’t serious about the Torah. There is also a greater association of myrtle trees with the Jewish nation when they are under persecution, as they were in the days of Zechariah and previously.
So if the myrtle trees in this narrow ravine represent Israel, who is the man on the red horse, standing among them? The answer becomes clearer in reading verse 11, where He is called “the Angel of the Lord.” This term is frequently used throughout the Old Testament, say scholars, to reference a Christophany … the appearance of the Christ in a pre-messianic form. Since “angel” means “messenger,” “The Angel of the Lord” was the primary messenger of God. John 1 says of Jesus:
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Christ is clearly God’s primary vessel of communication. In John 12:49 Jesus said: “For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak.”
So these verses therefore make it clear that it was Jesus Christ, God Himself, who stood as a man riding a red horse among the myrtle trees. God was present in the midst of Israel, despite the persecution of its enemies. This passage is making clear exactly how precious Israel was to God, and to what great extent He was present in their midst as they experienced difficulties from without and within.
But what about the red horse? This correlates with Zechariah’s eighth and final vision, recorded in chapter 6:
1 Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. 2 The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, 3 the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong. 4 Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” 5 And the angel answered and said to me,“These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth. 6 The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.”
And this vision, of four chariots with different colored horses, corresponds closely with Revelation 6, when as a result of the first seal of judgment opened by the Lamb (Christ), four horsemen issue forth on red, black, white, and pale (grey or dappled) horses. Here the red horse represents one wielding a huge sword, and he resides over a situation where people are slaying each other with abandon.
In Matthew 10:34 Jesus says, startlingly: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Jesus is both the ultimate peacemaker, and representative of God’s ultimate judgment on mankind.
It’s interesting to note that in Zechariah 6, after issuing forth between the two “brass mountains” of God’s judgment, the charioteer of the red horses, alone, is not recorded as going a specific direction (the black and white horses go north, and the dappled south). I think it could be assumed that he remains either above it all, or omnipresent.
And red, of course, throughout Scripture, represents blood. Rev. 19:13 says of Jesus: “He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.” Ties quite handily back to John 1, doesn’t it?
In future installments of The Crimson Worm, we’ll look more carefully at various instances, throughout the Old Testament, when the phrase “Angel of the Lord” is invoked. But, spoiler alert: The use of this phrase is always indicative of supreme authority, God’s ultimate messenger intervening in human affairs for His sake and glory.
I’m very excited today to read (and comment on) a Religion News Service column by Jonathan Merritt about a new book by Lauren Winner, titled Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.
The book “explores many surprising and provocative images for God that help us experience and understand God in fresh ways.” (Which is exactly what I created this blog to do!)
I’m looking forward to reading and discussing it with you!
My wife and I pastor a group of young adults at our church, affectionately known as “Pulse.” It is our prayer that the very heartbeat of God, the lifeblood of Jesus Christ, flows through this group of wonderful young adults who are sold out for Jesus.
Pulse meets for Bible study and prayer each Friday night at our home, and for book study at Starbucks (before worship at our church) each Sunday morning. (Thank you to Starbucks for hosting our book study in its conference room and selling us such wonderful coffee to wake up to!)
Currently we are studying the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus. The goal of our Bible study is to see how Christ is depicted “between the lines” (and sometimes very directly) throughout the Old Testament. This week I am preparing a study in Exodus 25:1-22, where God instructs Moses in the construction of the Tabernacle. I never before realized what an amazing metaphor the Tabernacle is for Jesus.
What is a “tabernacle?” Basically it is a tent, a mobile meeting place between God and people. Here is the passage in Exodus 25 …
¹The Lord said to Moses, ²“Tell the Israelites to bring me an offering. You are to receive the offering for me from everyone whose heart prompts them to give. ³These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver and bronze; 4blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; 5ram skins dyed red and another type of durable leather; acacia wood; 6olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense; 7and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece.
8“Then have them make a sanctuary for me, and I will dwell among them. 9Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you.
10“Have them make an ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. ¹¹Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it. ¹²Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other. ¹³Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold. 14Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it. 15The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. 16Then put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law, which I will give you.
17“Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. 18And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. 19Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. 20The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. ²¹Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you. ²²There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites.
Here are some things that God is teaching us through this passage:
1) God blesses us as we respond to the Holy Spirit moving in our hearts, and give cheerfully (verses 2-7). God doesn’t expect magnificent gifts, except from those who have the capacity to give them. Some can give gold, others goat hair. The key is to give cheerfully and extravagantly of whatever He has blessed us with. (Jesus praised the impoverished widow for giving two small coins … all she had.)
2) Jesus can be seen in the Tabernacle itself. John 1:14 says, “The Word (Jesus) was made flesh and dwelt among us.” The Greek word for “dwelt” is literally “tabernacled” in Hebrew. The epistle to the Hebrews, chapters 8-10, also speaks at length at how Christ our Great High Priest can be seen in the Tabernacle.
3) The Tabernacle was very plain on the outside (covered with animal skins), but beautiful and precious on the inside (gold, fine tapestries, precious stones … and the very shekinah glory of God). Isaiah 53 tells us that, externally, Jesus had “no beauty that we desired from Him.” He was plain in appearance. But internally His was the very glory of the Most High God, which attracted even rough fishermen who lay down their nets to follow Him at His simple command.
4) The Tabernacle was a temporary, mobile representation of a more permanent, heavenly reality. Hebrews speaks at length about this. Likewise, Jesus was a temporary manifestation of the reality of God in our midst. He walked among us for 33 short years, and didn’t stay in any one place very long. In fact, He said, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He was essentially “homeless” during much of his public ministry, moving from town to town to preach.
5) The purpose of the Tabernacle, according to verse 8, was so God could “dwell with men.” One of the names of Jesus, Immanuel, means “God with us.” Christ was God, dwelling among men.
6) The Tabernacle created a way for God to meet with (connect with, fellowship with) men … above the mercy seat, where the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled, once each year by the High Priest. The Hebrews epistle says Christ was our perfect High Priest, who “lives to make intercession for us.” There is “one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.” He whose blood was shed for forgiveness of our sins is our connection to God.
7) We see clearly that the Ark itself is also a metaphor throughout Scripture for Christ, God’s salvation provided for us. It contained God’s Law (Jesus was the one perfect keeper of the Law) and the evidence of God’s provision and life within (the jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod budded). God’s presence met with man (the high priest, once each year) above the Mercy Seat (the lid of the Ark, whereupon the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled. Christ’s sacrifice, once and for all, created a situation where God now sees us as the righteousness of Christ, and paved the way for us to have permanent access to the Holy of Holies (God’s presence). Remember the Temple veil, torn asunder from top to bottom when Christ died on the Cross?
Carved golden angels were at both ends of the Mercy Seat, looking inward upon the blood of the sacrifice. Likewise, after Jesus was resurrected, two angels stood, one at the head and one at the foot, of the bloodstained slab where His body had lain, sacrificed for us.
What a glorious, beautiful picture of the Son of God, who existed in eternity with God (as God), then because of God’s love for us was “made flesh” and “dwelt among us!”
By Larry Short
If I asked you to brainstorm a list of biblical metaphors for Christ from the animal kingdom, some would probably come quickly to mind: lion and lamb among them. And now, of course, you can add the crimson worm to that list. But there is another symbol for Christ in the Old Testament which seems even more counter-intuitive, and it’s found in Numbers 21.
Because of their bitter complaining and sin, verse 6 says that “God sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people, and many Israelites died.” The people came to Moses and confessed they had sinned, and begged him to save them from the snakes. So Moses prayed, and the Lord told him: “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.
This seems counterintuitive because we (rightly) associate snakes with sin. Personally snakes don’t bother me that much (perhaps that means I’m too cozy with sin?), but for my wife it’s a different story. If she is driving her car down the road and sees a harmless grass snake, she will try to run it over … then back up the car and run it over again to make sure she’s finished it off.
This vehemence against a relatively sad little creature has to be the result of some sort of archetypal memory from that Garden of Eden incident, I tell myself.
But the snake certainly did get a bad start in the Garden, as the creature who (inhabited by Satan) led Eve and Adam astray. And was cursed as a result. Well, Genesis says that creature was a serpent … which may be different than a snake … but it’s probably a fine distinction.
The uncanny thing is that it is clear that the bronze snake upon a pole was indeed intended to represent sin. The snakes were, after all, what was killing them. Just as it is our sin that is so poisonous to us.
So, why did God direct Moses to use the image of a bronze snake, upon a pole, to cure the problem of the venomous snakes? This seems a contradiction. Look upon a snake, so you can be saved from snakes.
Some light is shed on the mystery in the New Testament, specifically in John 3:14 and following:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
Jesus places himself willingly in the position of that snake on a pole. He who knew no sin, became sin for us. He was “lifted up on a pole” (crucified on the Cross), that we might look upon Him and, believing, live.
It’s also interesting to know that this caduceus of Moses, the bronze snake upon a pole, was apparently revered and kept safe in Israel for something like 700 or 800 years. It wasn’t until Hezekiah’s day, when the pole became an object of idolatrous worship (with Jews burning incense to it, instead of to God) that it was intentionally destroyed by this passionate king of Judah (2 Kings 18).
We do have a tendency to worship graven images, don’t we? Even visual depictions of Christ can create a distraction. I think this is one reason why God has been very strategic about not leaving us with any physical object to focus our adoration upon. (One reason I am skeptical about the so-called “Shroud of Turin.”)
It’s also interesting to me that our modern-day medical symbol, the caduceus, is comprised of two snakes wrapped around a pole. (Though most recent historical research into the meaning behind this symbol has reached the conclusion that it was a case of mistaken identity.)
The truth is, we have all of us, each and every one, been bitten by the snake of sin. And there is but one cure: to fix our gaze upon the Son of Man, lifted high upon the Cross, bearing our sins in His own body. This was the crucifixion Scripture says occurred “before the foundations of the earth.” Praise God for providing the cure for my fatal disease, in the form of His crucified Son!
By Larry Short
Westboro Baptist Church (which is picketing some churches here tomorrow), says that God is really angry and He hates the vast majority of mankind. With the exception of a few “elect” (and Westboro members are few in number indeed, about 70, mostly from one family containing a disproportionately high number of attorneys), God hates us so much that He can barely wait to send us to hell and watch us fry for all eternity.
One shouldn’t have to ask … but I will anyway: Is this an accurate picture of what God is like? When you look at word pictures of God in both Old and New Testaments, do they paint a picture of an angry, vengeful, hateful, spiteful God who created us but was so taken aback by our sin that (except for a few choice, predestined elect) He can hardly wait to torture us for all eternity?
I think today’s word picture addresses that question quite nicely. If you were an angry, vengeful God and you wrote a letter trying to communicate in word pictures what you were like, which would you choose?
a) Fire-breathing dragon or other godzilla-like monster who burns entire villages or squashes buildings without thinking about it
b) Stampeding rhinoceros, blind with rage, who mindlessly mows down all that stands in its way
c) An innocent lamb, soft and tender, laying without bleating before the upraised knife of the slaughterer
Let’s look at which word-picture God selected for Himself …
6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”
“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.
“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”
8 Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.
3 Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household …. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.
29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
18 For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.
6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb ….
11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
This Ain’t No Ordinary Lamb
This last passage is the most interesting of all to me, because here the description of the Lamb begins to depart somewhat from the soft, cuddly animal we all know and love. Seven horns and seven eyes? No ordinary Lamb here.
And in Revelation 6 this Lamb begins to open a series of seven seals, with frightening judgments being poured out from each upon an unbelieving humanity. The final few verses of chapter 6 sum up the extraordinary scene:
15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”
This Lamb, slain before the foundations of the world, somehow becomes something truly more terrifying than Godzilla. This Lamb who was silent before His oppressors now executes God’s wrath against the sin of a fallen humanity that spurned His blood.
But the good news is in the next chapter:
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”
The Lamb slain, blood applied to the doorposts in the shape of a Cross, has become our salvation. The wrath of the Lamb is against sin; but the love of the Lamb is for us!
By Larry Short
My primary intent for this blog is to investigate scriptural word-pictures of Jesus. But there are lots of different and very interesting word-pictures in Scripture, and two weeks ago in our young adults Bible study of 2 Kings, I think we stumbled across one of them.
In chapter 7, we found ourselves in the walled city of Samaria in the midst of a terrible siege by Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram. The Israelites inside Samaria were so hungry they were cooking and eating their own children. It’s hard to imagine a famine so severe that the head of a dead donkey was sold for about two pounds of silver. (Silver is currently selling for about $292/pound … so imagine paying nearly $600 for a dead donkey head! You’d have to be pretty darned hungry.)
In the midst of this siege, the prophet Elisha prophesies one day that the very next day, the siege would be ended and food would be plentiful. The prophecy seems so preposterous that no one really believes him. But late that night, the encamped Aramean soldiers in the besieging army are awakened to a terrifying noise, the thundering sound of hooves and chariots. They assume Israel has hired a mercenary army of Hittites and Egyptians, and flee in terror, leaving their stuff strewn about the path of their terrified departure.
Meanwhile, four lepers are sitting outside the walls of Samaria, a city which has heard nothing of any of this commotion and assumes nothing has changed. Reasoning among themselves, the four lepers say, “Okay, enough of this. Let’s go give ourselves up to the Arameans. The worst they can do is kill us; if we stay here, we’re dead anyway.” But when they arrive in the Aramean camp, they find nothing but tents empty of soldiers … and full of all kind of plunder, free for the taking.
From the first tent (of many) they come to, they eat and drink their fill, then plunder silver, gold, and clothing. They then move on to the second tent, and start in.
But the plight of their hungry fellow Samaritans weighs heavily on their minds. Conscience-stricken, they say: “What we’re doing is not right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. Let’s go at once and report this to the royal palace.”
So the four lepers — so outcast from Samaritan society that they are apparently not even allowed to stay inside the safety of the city walls — go to the city gates and inform its officials of the bounty they have discovered.
I’ll let you read the end of the story for yourself … but it may have already occurred to you (as it occurred to us) that the four lepers and their discovery are a rather unflattering word-picture of we as Christians, God’s people. Scripture says we are “aliens” in this world, sojourners only, outcasts of a sort. As such we have found a great treasure … the grace and mercy and forgiveness of the Cross … but while we are enjoying this blessing, a not-so-blissfully unaware world slumbers onward toward oblivion, gnawing on donkey heads and boiling their children.
We have a choice. We can horde the good news all to ourselves, for personal gain and our own ease and enjoyment, or we can take the risky and costly move of going back into a starving world and sharing the Good News (for that’s exactly what the Gospel is, good news for the perishing) with those who hold us at arm’s length. They may or may not believe us; most of the Israelites didn’t believe the lepers, and it wasn’t until a contingent sent by the king returned to confirm the truth that a stampede ensued.
But what happens if we horde the good news to ourselves, if we ignore the cries of a dying world? The lepers could have done so, but not only would they be violating their conscience in the knowledge that their countrymen were dying, they also (interestingly enough) feared punishment if “they were overtaken by daylight.”
And rightly so. Can you imagine how angry you would be if you found out only too late about the bounty that awaited just outside the city gates?
Jesus made it clear what our job as Christians is: to go into all the world and make disciples of all people groups. To share the Good News! He alone is responsible for the outcome. Our job is simply to share.
I’m not sure exactly what it means for us as Christians to be “overtaken by daylight” and caught plundering the bounty that God intended for all mankind, but I don’t like the sounds of it.
I once heard a Christian aptly described simply as “One beggar, showing another where to find bread.” As I look at these four lepers, I realize the description fits.
By Larry Short
In the last couple of blogs I’ve taken a look at tolah, the Bible’s crimson worm, which I believe is identified in the Old Testament as a type of Christ because of its self-sacrificial provision for its young and other characteristics discussed last time.
So, in addition to Psalm 22, where does the crimson worm show up in the Old Testament?
One interesting place is in the book of Jonah. We all know the story. God sends a reluctant emissary to the nasty and brutish people of Nineveh to warn them of impending judgment. After a detour in the belly of a large fish, Jonah ends up in Nineveh carrying out God’s command to warn the city of the wrath to come. He then retires to a nearby hillside to await the fireworks.
An interesting twist occurs when the people of Nineveh, from the greatest to the least, actually pay heed to his warning, and repent in sackcloth and ashes. Our gracious and merciful God relents of the warned-about judgment and spares the city.
Back to Jonah, sitting on a hill near the city, waiting for fire to fall. Upset that God has relented, he has expressed his anger, as we read in Jonah 4:1-3 …
“Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
God’s response, in verse 4, was simple and patient and to the point: “Is it right for you to be angry?”
It’s interesting that Jonah suspected all along that God might cave and not smack the Ninevites. Why did he suspect this? I think it’s because God has been gracious and forgiving to him. He is getting to know what God is like. He’s not the mean old man the uneducated and ignorant might take him to be. Scripture says God is, to the contrary, “longsuffering and kind.” So much so that Jonah now feels that, as the prophet who warned of destruction, he is in an awkward spot.
So, for a reason I’m not sure I completely understand, other than the fact that we know he’s pouting and angry, Jonah goes off to one side of the city to sit atop a hill and wait. Why? God has already relented. Perhaps he thinks God will choose: him or the Ninevites. “Just let me die.”
This would be baffling except that it strikes a resonant chord somewhere deep within me. So often, when I’m angry and feel wronged, I have a tendency to think self-destructive thoughts. “My wife doesn’t appreciate me. How would she feel if she knew she made me so depressed I crashed this car into a tree? Surely she’d be sorry then that she was so insensitive.” Like small children, we adults certainly know how to pout when we’re mad.
What happens next is almost funny. Sad, but funny. Jonah, who says he’s ready to die, actually gets quite uncomfortable sitting in the sun. (No doubt his skin was bleached by the inside of the fish, and that has to make a sunburn itch.) So Jonah, who earlier in the story was quite ready to die, now seems fairly appreciative when “God provided” a nice leafy plant “and made it grow up over Jonah” to shade his head from the scorching sun. (Hmmm … death suddenly doesn’t look quite so romantic, does it?)
But then, in one of those annoying object lessons which life so readily gives out, Scripture says, “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.”
For years I passed over that statement, “God provided a worm …” But, guess what the Hebrew word for “worm” is in this sentence? Tolah.
It is often said that one of the things God is so good at is “comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable.” It’s amazing how quickly Jonah took that leafy green plant (which God provided) for granted. And, of course, once again, he was mad.
However, this time I think the object lesson began to sink in. The final verses of Jonah’s story read:
“But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
There are so many lessons in this story. First, it’s interesting how God describes the Ninevites. Their spiritual poverty and ignorance is so great they “cannot tell their right hand from their left.” And we wince (for Jonah) with the irony of God’s not-so-subtle little addendum: “and also many animals.”
Reminds me of O Brother, Where Art Thou? — “No, not the livestock!”
The second lesson is aimed right between Jonah’s (and our) eyes. Even though we don’t deserve everything that we enjoy, that God blesses us with, to make us happy and comfortable and healthy, we still get so attached to them that we come to see them as “rights.” We think, I have a right to food, and medicine, and shelter, and clothing, and fundamentally to be happy and free. God has provided all those things we enjoy, but we take them for granted. Did Jonah say “thank you” for the leafy shade plant?
Tonight I watched a fascinating video called “More Than Dreams.” It presents five true-life case studies of Muslims to whom Christ was sent, through dreams which revealed Him to be the answer to their prayers.
I found it interesting that in each case, their lives were not simply made better. To the contrary, they were cast out by their families, rejected by their societies, abused, scorned, some even suffering attempts on their lives. Their immediate shade, their comfortable circumstances, were destroyed by the newfound reality of Christ in their lives. But a deeper blessing awaited each — a connection with the One True God who had been drawing them to Himself.
We are certainly comfortable. So comfortable that God may choose to provide the Crimson Worm to destroy all that shades us from the truth and expose us to the nitty gritty realities of life. But Jesus didn’t say, “I come that they might be comfortable.” No, He said, “I come that they might have life, and more abundantly.”
Are we willing to let God reclaim the the shade and become truly uncomfortable, if that’s what it takes to make us into the kind of people we need to be?