When you mention Jonah, lots of people think immediately of the account about the great fish or whale. Not many people think about the worm. But the worm should be considered, don’t you think?
Our verse is Jonah 4:7 in the Holman Christian Study Bible: “When dawn came the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, and it withered.” We’ll obviously need to provide some context for that statement!
Before we do, I want to draw attention to one word. It is the word “appointed.” That is an absolutely accurate translation of the Hebrew verb. And it is used earlier in 1:17 where “the LORD had appointed a huge fish to swallow Jonah.” Interesting, isn’t it, that the prophet used the same word to introduce the worm as he earlier used to introduce the whale! It even makes it nicer that whale and worm both begin with “w,” but you’ll notice that our HCSB translation doesn’t use that alliteration and neither does the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew really calls it “a great fish.” But whale and worm are more catchy when we speak English even if not technically correct. (I’m surprised I wrote that!)
So God appointed a worm. Did He really? Some people doubt that He prepared a whale, but could you allow that He might prepare a worm? I think both would be difficult for you or me, but not for God who is after all omnipotent and love. If you are not sure about that, you try it.
Now for the context. You may remember the account of Jonah. God wanted him to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Gentile Assyrian Empire, and preach judgment. He didn’t want to go, so he took a cruise the other direction. That was when the situation became stormy, and he was rescued by the whale. Eventually he did change direction and head off to Nineveh.
He delivered God’s message. But he was like the little boy who was told to sit down and finally did, but that boy said that inside he was still standing. Jonah would have been happy enough if judgment had come to Nineveh, but, lo, and behold, the entire city from the king down to the animals evidenced repentance, and God withheld the judgment. God is like that!
Since Jonah didn’t get what he wanted, he did what many of us do. He pouted as he was watching over the hoped-for destruction of Nineveh which didn’t come. He would discover that it can be wrong to pout.
God sent a plant to provide shade, and Jonah was grateful! (I’m grateful for “plant” here, because that is what the Hebrew says generically, while some translations pretend to know what kind of plant!) And here is where the worm enters. God appointed a worm to come and eat the plant after only one day of enjoying the shade. So the plant dried up, and the sun beat on Jonah mercilessly. Here in Arizona we understand that, and it can be that way on the other side of the world, too. In fact, the heat made him want to die. And Jonah was like that!
So you say, Why would God appoint a worm to kill the plant? That doesn’t seem like a nice thing to do. It was nice to send the whale to rescue Jonah, but not a worm to bring him misery. But it was appropriate as part of the lesson.
The account of the whale some say is just a fish story, and so we might dismiss it out of hand, thinking that surely God couldn’t do something like that. For the sake of your argument, let’s forget about the whale, even though it’s really not more difficult than the worm. Let’s look at the lesson brought by the worm.
Jonah appreciated the plant, and that’s fine. But Jonah would have also exulted over the death of thousands of people via divine judgment, and that’s wrong. We can be so self-centered that we don’t care what happens to anyone else. Well, we might be like that, but God isn’t. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” That is a message for others and for you and me.
Jonah needed to learn that. The worm God appointed was a key part of that lesson. Have you learned it yet?
Arlie Rauch has retired from forty-one years as a pastor, is the author of Mercy for Me, and can be reached at email@example.com.