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Lessons from Jonah

by Mark Yarbrough

Vines, Worms, and People (Jonah 4)

If you drive southwest from Cortez, Colorado for 38 miles on U.S. Highway 160, turn right onto Monument Road, and go one-half mile you will find the only place in America where you can stand in four states at one time. It is called Four Corners. There, a granite marker says, “Stand Here.” When you do, you are in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah. There is absolutely nothing else there; it is in the middle of nowhere among rocks, boulders, and desert. But according to recent statistics, 2,332 people stand on that spot every day, just to say they are standing in four states at one time. You’ve got to be kidding, it’s in the middle of nowhere; but people do it anyway. Unfortunately, we do the same thing spiritually. As believers, we are drawn to our walk with God, but our hearts are often far from him – standing in many other places. The hymn writer has eloquently spoken, “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” There are moments in scripture where God pulls back the curtain and we see Him. He doesn’t want us with a foot in and a foot out; He wants all of us. It’s a question of total allegiance according to the Lord. That is why Jonah is such a great case study for us.

In Chapter 4 we put a bow on this project, because the story of Jonah comes to a rapid conclusion – a very tragic conclusion. “Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry” (4:1). A literal translation of this verse suggests that “it was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and it burned within him.” Jonah was there to witness the repentance of the king and he somehow knew that God had turned from impending judgment to compassion upon Nineveh (3:10) – that burned within Jonah. He was angry and displeased. It is amazing that the most unlikely candidate had received God’s mercy, while the most likely candidate rejected it. The one who should rejoice is fuming.

Finally, Jonah spoke: “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home” (4:2)? This is a play on words. Jonah said, “Is this not my ‘word?” It is the same phrase at the beginning of the book when the ‘Word’ of the Lord came to Jonah. So when Jonah finally spoke, he said, “Now God, was that not my word?” “That is why I was so quick to flee 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”(4:2). Jonah must have thought that he never was taught this while in “Children’s Church.” There is something very frightening going on in the text. What Jonah really feared was that the Lord might be the Lord. He feared that God might be God and not himself. Do you catch that? He feared that God might actually be who He is – the Creator and Sovereign Lord of All. I think Jonah was really mocking God. He said, “I knew you were gracious, compassionate, loving, forgiving, and slow to anger.” His words were straight out of Exodus when God passed in front of Moses and said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin”(Ex. 34:6). Jonah was passing the word of the Lord back to him. He was saying, “God, I knew this about You; that’s who You are; and in my heart I didn’t like that because I hate the Ninevites.”

Do not run from this point. Jonah was a Hebrew and he knew the holy clichés. He could say all the right words, quote the Psalms, understand the scriptures, and preach the word. But he didn’t know how to love. Oh, we dare not stand in the position of Jonah. We can do all the right things, we can go through the motions, we can quote it, we can recall the books of the Bible and the ten commandments. We are great with our sword drills. We can say holy prayers, and quote scripture; but can we love our neighbor? Jonah couldn’t love because he did not understand God’s love for him. Friends, let us never lose the truth that Christ died for our sins because we are sinners. The Bible says, “God demonstrated His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us”(Rom. 5:8). When we fully grasp that, then we can love, because God loves us. Observe the next growth indicator.

7. A life that is growing spiritually strives to love as God loves.

This is a characteristic that we want in our lives. We want to love like God. We want our hearts to be full of compassion and slow to anger. God puts us in contact with people all the time because He calls us to love. It is the greatest sign of Christian maturity. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another” (Jn. 13:35). Jonah knew that quality about God, but he didn’t want it to be true because he was not that way – he hated the Ninevites.

Instead of rejoicing, notice what Jonah did. “Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). But the Lord replied, Have you any right to be angry” (4:4)? God is not saying that to the prophet alone; He is saying that to us also. Do you have any right to be angry? The answer is no, not at all! God has given us absolutely everything in Christ. Then the narrative continues: “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” (4:5). It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what is going on here. Jonah thinks that perhaps his words can sway the Lord. Maybe God would change His mind. After all, those evil, wicked, sinful Ninevites deserved the wrath of God. So Jonah built a shelter and waited. He waited for a holy lightening bolt to come down and hapak (3:4) the city. He sat back in his little tent and waited for God to get them, and he was ready to rejoice when He did. But how interesting! Nineveh was not overturned, it was changed, because we have a loving, compassionate God who is slow to anger but rich in mercy. So the king of Nineveh led his people in repentance and, at least for that generation, the nation was spared God’s judgment.

Then a strange thing happened. “Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort (literally, to ease his burning), and Jonah was very happy about the vine” (4:6). I can imagine he was just sitting there waiting for Nineveh to explode from God’s wrath. There he was with a little “pop-up” tent and a big vine covering his head, waiting for the fireworks to begin and the city to explode. Then, another strange thing happened. First, God provided a vine; now God provided a worm. “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’’”(4:7-9)? God was using his own methods to get Jonah’s attention. Jonah had been sitting there waiting for God to destroy Nineveh. But God is a compassionate God and relents when the people repent. So now in quick succession, God provided a vine, a worm, and a strong east wind in order to get Jonah’s attention because his priorities were askew. Notice the next growth indicator.

8. A life growing spiritually evaluates his heart, removing that which hinders service or perspective.

Jonah was tragically out of perspective. He was much more concerned about himself than he was others. He was camped out on a hill with thousands down below. If you are growing spiritually you are evaluating you heart regularly and desiring to remove that which hinders service or proper perspective. Aaron Ralston was a mountain climber. Before his 25th birthday he had climbed over 20 of the “Fourteeners” in the state of Colorado. Once, when preparing for another great climb, he made the tragic mistake of going out by himself to climb a smaller peak even though he was an experienced climber. On his final descent from the sheer face of the mountain, a boulder shifted and his arm literally became lodged between “a rock and a hard place.” He could not move. Five days passed and he still could not move. By day six he realized that he was in no location to be spotted because of the overhang of the cliff. It was then that Aaron Ralston made the hardest decision of his life. Was his arm more important than his life? Brace yourself. With his left hand he reached into his pocket and pulled out his pocketknife, and then began to amputate his right arm just below the elbow. Don’t ask me how he did it, but he did. Not only did he amputate his arm, he repelled down the face of that cliff sixty feet, and then walked six miles before being rescued by a search helicopter.

Recounting this story of physical heroics; I thought, “Maybe that is what we are supposed to do spiritually.” We are certainly challenged by this growth indicator. If there is something that is hampering you from service to the Lord from a proper perspective, then it is time we pull out the spiritual pocketknife. Graphic? Yes. Life saving? Potentially. We are told in scripture that we are to use “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God”(Eph. 6:17). It “is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword”(Heb. 4:12). God asked the question to Jonah again. “Do you have any 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 that a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well’” (4:9-10).

Notice, Jonah was only concerned about the vine, or more precisely, about himself. God brings this into stark contrast for him to see. Jonah was concerned about his own well-being, but God reminded Jonah that there were 120,000 people that did not know their left hand from their right. There are several suggestions as to what that phrase means. It could be that there were 120,000 people that did not know God. Most likely it means that there were 120,000 young children who had not yet learned handedness. God brings a great contrast for Jonah to see. While he was sitting on the hill all bent out of shape over a vine that has withered and eliminated his comfortable shade, down below were thousands of people who needed a relationship with the God of Israel. Jonah, which is more important? People?, or your comfortable shade? There is an inverted scale of values that occurs in this statement from God. Jonah was more concerned about shelter and plants than he was about human beings. Notice the next growth indicator:

9. A life that is growing spiritually is concerned about people, not things.

One of the things that we struggle with in our affluent western culture is worshipping things rather than worshipping God and serving Him. Years ago I read a great illustration by Dr. James Dobson which helps us understand this growth indicator well. He wrote,

“When my daughter, Denae, was a teenager she came home one day and said, Hey, Dad. There’s a great new game out. I think you’ll like it. It’s called Monopoly. I just smiled. We gathered the family together and set up the board. It didn’t take the kids long to know that old Dad had played this game before. I soon owned all the best properties including Boardwalk and Park Place. I even had the Baltic and the Mediterranean. My kids were squirming and I loved every minute of it. About midnight, I foreclosed on the last property and did a little victory dance. My family was not impressed. They went to bed and made me put the game away. As I began putting all the money back in the box a very empty feeling came over me. Everything that I had accumulated was gone. The excitement over riches was just an allusion. Then it occurred to me. Hey! This isn’t just a game of Monopoly that has caught my attention, this is a game of life. You sweat and you strain to get ahead, but then one day after a little chest pain or a wrong change of lanes on the freeway, the game ends. It all goes back in the box and you leave this world just as naked as the day you came into it. I once saw a bumper sticker that proclaimed, ‘He who dies with the most toys wins.’ That is very wrong. It should say, ‘He who dies with the most toys dies anyway.’’

There is one final statement that concludes the book. God asks another question to Jonah, “Should I not be concerned about that great city”(4:11b)? The book closes just as it opened – with the word of the Lord. The prophet does not answer, and the author doesn’t care at this stage that the prophet doesn’t answer. Jonah had his own relationship with God to deal with. Literarily we now have been trapped. We are placed in the position of the prophet to stand in the corner because ultimately for you, it does not matter what the prophet said. What matters is what you say in your relationship to the living God. We end with the next growth indicator.

10. A life that is growing spiritually is concerned about souls who do not know God.

All ten growth indicators are not only for the prophet Jonah; they are for you and me. As we close this study we leave you with this final thought. If you are standing in the position of the granite marker at Four Corners with a foot in and a foot out, God wants you to stand in His country, and I’m not talking about the state of Colorado. God wants all of our heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37), not just a corner of it. He wanted all of the heart of Jonah. He wants us to be concerned about the thing He is concerned about. Look again closely at the last question. It was asked to the prophet. He did not answer, but we must. For your review and encouragement the intentional growth indicators are listed together:

A Life that is Growing Spiritually:

  1. Moves toward God’s commands, not away from them.
  2. Shows a consistency between words and works.
  3. Exhibits a testimony to the non-believing world – not the reverse.
  4. Confesses sin – not pious words of religiosity.
  5. Responds to God in humility, not in arrogance and pride.
  6. Extends grace to and rejoices in the maturity of others.
  7. Strives to love as God loves.
  8. Evaluates his heart, removing that which hinders service or perspective.
  9. Is concerned about people, not things.
  10. Is concerned about souls who do not know God.


Dear Lord, we don’t like this book because is shows up our sins. As we look at these ten growth indicators, they remind us of whom we need to be. Father, we confess that we are more like the prophet Jonah than we care to admit. Father, the questions you asked at the end of this book are halting. May we answer them in the way that you desire. We know that you want all of us – our hearts, our minds, our very being, so that you can transform us into your servants in our walk with you. Help us to be concerned about your things. We want to go in your direction, not away from you. It’s not about us; it’s about you and your word. Lord, we want to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the name of Jesus, Amen.


(Note: the previous three lessons from Jonah are on the previous month’s archived web articles.)

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Philippians 4:13