Jonah and the Shelter of Yahweh

As we read the story of Jonah – and particularly the fourth and final chapter of Jonah – we might find ourselves actively rooting against God’s prophet. He is rebellious, defiant, narcissistic, and blind to anyone outside of his national bubble. That he would argue with God – going so far as to beg God to kill him – after God showed mercy to Nineveh marks the nadir of his story. Maybe God should just kill him!

God, however, doesn’t strike Jonah down. God reasons with Him, taking a surprisingly gentle approach that expresses the very nature of God Jonah despises. In fact, God even provides Jonah with a miraculous plant that springs up to provide shade, leading Jonah, at least for a brief moment, to be “greatly pleased” (4:6).

This is an easily overlooked detail in the story, but one that carries far more weight and significance than we might first imagine.
God’s provision of a shelter for Jonah comes only after Jonah attempts to do the same for himself. When Jonah first leaves Nineveh, he “sat to the east of the city and made a booth (shelter) for himself there” (4:5). As he sits uncomfortably in the shelter of his own making, God takes the initiative to offer a reminder that for an Israelite to make his own shelter is like the son of a cobbler trying to fashion his own shoes.

God has always offered Himself to Israel as a God of shelter, which, in the Bible’s ancient Near Eastern context, was inextricably linked to geography and climate.

In that hot, arid region the sun, rather than being a pleasant force that causes plants to grow, was easy to see as a malevolent and dangerous force. Its heat could be oppressive, its rays strong enough to burn the skin, and, if not respected, it could easily kill.

This is the imagery that we ought to have in our minds as the Psalmists describe Yahweh.

  • “He will hide me in His shelter in the day of trouble; He will conceal me under the cover of His tent...” (Psa. 27:5)
  • “Let me dwell in  your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!” (Ps. 61:4); 
  • “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty” (Ps. 91:1); 
  • “The Lord is your keeper, the Lord is your shade on your right hand (Ps. 121:5).

Throughout the Old Testament in particular God’s provision is depicted as a tent, a tree, a source of shade, a windbreak. Neither the forces of nature nor the forces of man can harm Israel while under the protection of her God.

Israel, like Jonah, had been accused by God of either neglecting or refusing His offer of shelter. With the oppressive heat of international conflict beating down on them, they were accused of taking shelter in the shade of foreign nations, through treaties and covenants, rather than in their true defender and true shelter.
“Ah, stubborn children,” declares Yahweh,
“who carry out a plan, but not mine,
and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit,
    that they may add sin to sin;
who set out to go down to Egypt,
    without asking for my direction,
to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh
    and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!”
(Isaiah 30:1-2; cf. Jer. 2:18)
Ultimately, this image of Yahweh as a source of shelter would evolve in the prophets to point to a future hope. There is a strong Messianic thread that begins to grow clearer as the prophetic narrative unfolds. As God causes a plant to grow and provide shade over Jonah, the Israelites must have been reminded of how Isaiah envisioned the promised Messiah, who would Himself become the branch that would grow up and provide shade and shelter:

"In that day the branch of Yahweh shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when Yahweh shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then Yahweh will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain." (Isaiah 4:2-6)

This same reality is depicted as consummated in John’s Revelation, wherein he sees the people of God serving as priests within the heavenly temple. These New Covenant priests are depicted as standing “…before the throne of God,” serving Him “day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His Presence” (Rev. 7:15).

God had long promised to do for all Israel just as He did here for Jonah, and through the prophets He promised to do the same for all the saints. Though Israel would continue to attempt their own makeshift shelters (as we still do), Yahweh Himself would continue to provide them with a shelter that was far better and far more lasting. Like Jonah, those who find themselves under His shelter would be “greatly pleased.” But unlike Jonah, the shelter we have in Christ is one that will never be destroyed.

In our next blog, we will look at two other significant images from Jonah chapter four: the worm and the east wind.