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In Jonah 4:5-11, God uses an unpredictable plant to teach Jonah an important lesson about spiritual priorities.
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 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?”
Yesterday, I wrote that Jonah’s anger was irrational, hypocritical, and unrighteous. Today, I need to add that it was based on spiritual priorities that were out of whack. Indeed, Jonah’s priorities were a perfect inversion of the Great Commandment, which teaches us to love God, neighbor, and self in that order (Matthew 22:37-40). Jonah loved himself more than the Ninevites and—his actions speaking louder than words—even more than God.
How do I know this? First, notice that throughout this passage, what determines Jonah’s mood is his personal comfort. When God caused the unpredictable plant to grow, Jonah was “very happy.” But when God caused the plant to shrivel, Jonah became suicidally angry. At no point does the book say that Jonah was personally angry at the Ninevites’ sins or happy because of their repentance. We only see his happiness and anger on display when it comes to his personal comfort.
Second, notice what Jonah does not do. After having preached the message God gave him, Jonah does not help the Ninevites seek God’s grace through repentance. He does not disciple them on how to live a godly life. Instead, he marches outside the city in order to see “what would happen” to it. He is indifferent to the fate of 120,000 people. If you had the ability to change the lives of that many people at the cost of some discomfort to yourself, would you do it? Of course you would! But not Jonah.
And third, notice how unlike God’s reaction Jonah’s reaction is. According to Jonah 3:10, God “had compassion” on the penitent Ninevites. But God’s prophet didn’t. Jonah didn’t want to share grace; he wanted it all for himself.
If we claim to love God, our priorities must show it. And since God is “concerned” about the lost, we should be too.