Jonah, the Worm, and the East Wind

In our last blog we looked at God's gracious provision of a shelter for Jonah in the book's final chapter. In this article we will see God very quickly reverse the comfort of the plant by "appointing" a worm and and east wind. Like the plant, these images evoke significance than the objects themselves. They are tied to a thread in the biblical story that says something significant about God's plan for Israel and for his people as a whole.

In our last article we saw God's promised provision of a "branch" in Isaiah chapter 4. Remarkably, in neither Jonah’s story nor Israel’s story in Isaiah 4, does the prophetic promise end on the positive note of God’s provision. While in both instances the recipient of God’s mercy ought to have received God’s help with glad, thankful, and repentant hearts, instead they showed themselves unchanged by His generosity.

Isaiah immediately follows the passage about God providing a booth and shelter with the damning prophecies of chapter 5, wherein God looks down at His people – at His “vineyard on a very fertile hill” (Isa. 5:1) – and depicts Himself as the owner of the vineyard at harvest time, “and He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (5:2).

And now I will tell you
   what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
   and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
   and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
   it shall not be pruned or hoed,
   and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
   that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of Yahweh of hosts
   is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
   are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
   but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
   but behold, an outcry! 
(Isaiah 5:5-7)

The prophetic imagery, both within Isaiah and typologically within Jonah, is complex, reminding us that these images are rarely as simple as “this means that.”

Through Jesus, God has once again tasked his people with His original call to Abraham (as we see most explicitly in the Great Commission of Matthew 28:16-20) – a mission carried out first by the twelve apostles (as sort of “torch bearers,” representing the tribes of Israel). While that message is delivered through Christ and His apostles with obedience and success, Israel herself remains remarkably unchanged.
Rather than destroying Israel for rejecting His work among the nations, God responds to Israel’s lack of humility and lack of humanity by removing His blessing from them, by allowing their hardness to lead to political rebellion and their eventual destruction at the hands of the Roman armies. This is the “worm” that destroys Israel’s shelter.

Jesus, for His part, did not rejoice over the coming judgment against Israel, but maintained a steady, but delicately balanced course, both weeping over Jerusalem’s hardness (Matt. 23:37) and crying out a message of imminent judgment (Matt. 23:38-39; 24:1-25:46). Both of these elements reach back directly to the Old Testament prophets, who likewise viewed the fate of Israel with a mixture of mourning and vindication.
To Jonah, it is bad enough that the plant miraculously provided by God has died (at the “hands” of a tiny worm, also “appointed” by God), but God follows this up by making him truly understand what it feels like to be outside of God’s blessing. Just as God first “hurled” a great wind of judgment upon Jonah while running toward Tarshish (1:4), now God “appoints” another wind, this one from the “east” (Jon. 4:8), originating from the arid deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Because anything coming “from the east” is coming, symbolically, from places outside of God’s Presence (this is a common theme in Biblical theology), there is a deeply antagonistic undercurrent to this wind, which is used symbolically throughout the Bible to indicate hostile or painful forces. It was the “east wind” that that once brought about seven years of famine (Gen. 41:6; 23; 27), and it was the “east wind” that brought the hail of locusts upon the Egyptians by the hand of Moses (Exo. 10:13). The east wind is connected with famine, death, destruction, and judgment (Ezek. 17:10; 19:12; 27:26).
Ultimately, the east wind becomes symbolic of God’s judgment upon Israel in particular: “Like the east wind I will scatter them before the enemy. I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity” (Jer. 18:17). Of particular note is Hosea’s prophecy, coming not long after Jonah’s ministry in the northern kingdom: “Ephraim,” the prophet declares (meaning the northern kingdom of Israel), “feeds on the wind and pursues the east wind all day long; they multiply falsehoods and violence; they make a covenant with Assyria, and oil is carried to Egypt” (Hos. 12:1).

Israel, Hosea warns, has come to rely far too heavily on Assyria (with Nineveh as its capitol); they have sought this empire, along with Egypt, for help and for sustenance. Even though this “east wind” blows hot and furious, the people have chosen it over relying on Yahweh alone for refuge.
In this final chapter of Jonah, the prophet (and the reader) is bombarded by symbol after symbol of God’s promises and providences. He built his own shelter, forgetting that God promised to always provide shelter. So God removed the shade and made Jonah taste the brunt of what life looked like outside of His blessing.

Jonah failed to understand God’s message. May we fully embrace the shelter of our God, and may we long to see that shelter extended over all people.