God’s Word for You
Jonah 4:11 Whale and worm
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, January 12, 2019
11 So why should I not be concerned for Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Jonah ends the book by allowing God to have the last word. There is no unanswered human question; only God’s gracious concern for sinners and the whole of his creation. Jonah, setting down his experience later in life, understands that he was simply God’s tool to carry out God’s will. By the grace of God, Jonah was shown his own sin, permitted to repent, and was turned back to faith in his Saving Lord. If it hadn’t been him to go, God would have found someone else. Jonah understood that now, just as Mordecai would later say to his cousin Esther: “For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). Jonah is finally humbled that he was permitted to be the one to carry the message of repentance and salvation to Nineveh, so that they might know they have eternal life (1 John 5:13).
God mentions the population of the city as 120,000. Some excellent commentators, such as the late Cyril Spaude (who taught me Greek and Hebrew at Northwestern College) thought that this was the number of little children. He took “who cannot tell their right hand from their left” in its simple, literal sense, and that the total population of the city was “perhaps 500,000 inhabitants” (People’s Bible: Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, p. 66). Luther felt that 120,000 was the total population, and that “who cannot tell their right hand from their left” was a judgment of their religious ignorance. Either view could be correct and would speak to the actual meaning of the passage.
The book ends with a mention of the animals of Nineveh, and there are several things to say about that.
First, God is concerned for his creation. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). The Lord “gives food to every creature; his love endures forever” (Psalm 136:25). In his hand “is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:10). If he used a whale and a worm, he was also concerned for the safety of that whale and that worm, their well-being, and their lives. He was also concerned about the lives of all the animals in the city just as he is concerned about animals today. But we should remember that he gave the rule of the animals to Adam and Eve and to mankind: “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves along the ground” (Genesis 1:28).
Second, what is the place of the created world in God’s plan? We know that God has plans for man to join him in heaven. “If we are children,” Paul writes, “then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), and we will be summoned to God at the wedding feast in paradise (Matthew 25:10). But it is not only man who yearns to join God in paradise. “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:20-21). The rest of creation, all of which was subject to man’s rule from the beginning, is that which “will be liberated from its bondage to decay,” which was the bondage that sin inflicted on the whole world, and not just upon man. We don’t know God’s plan for the trees, plants, hills, streams, valleys, mountains, and also birds, fish, and animals in heaven, but we must not say that they cannot be a part of paradise; they were, after all, a part of the Garden of Eden to begin with. The tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month (Revelation 22:2), is there in heaven, where there will no longer be any curse. Will there not be songbirds in the branches of that tree? Will there not be a single squirrel, or sheep, or dog? On the holy mountain, “the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox” (Isaiah 11:6-7). Surely these words are figures of speech which teach us peace and a return to perfection and an ideal state in paradise, but does it need to exclude those very animals and only present the state of the blessed? If “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” (Psalm 46:4), is it a barren river, devoid of fish or rushes or flowers to adorn its banks?
Third, note the use God makes of animals in this book. We saw the largest of all creatures, the whale, and its mouth used by God to do only what God willed would happen. Then we saw the worm, one of the smallest and certainly one of the lowliest of all creatures—more despised than the ant, which even Solomon praises (Proverbs 6:6-8). And yet God opens the mouth of the unworthy worm and allows it to gorge itself on the qiqayon, the leafy vine, in a single morning. The whale rescued the prophet from death and from the sin of running away; the worm rescued the prophet from his own conceit and exposed further sin.
God’s use of their mouths—the huge and the tiny—was exactly in accord with his will. The same was true, finally, for the men of the Phoenician sailing ship and the people of Nineveh. The only mouth in the book that resisted the will of God was that of his prophet, Jonah. The prophet lets us see the truth of this as his pen finally lifts from the page and brings the book to its close. His confession tears a confession from our hearts as we read. Let my mouth do only your work, O Christ! Do not let me speak anything but your holy Word! Do not let my weak and sinful opinions get in the way of your holy will!
The story of Jonah teaches us that God works through his holy word, through natural means, through supernatural means, through miracles, through plants, and through animals. And it also teaches us that God works through his prophets, even when—even though—they are sinners, just as much in need of repenting as those whom they call to repentance. God works despite us as well as through us, and that is a preaching of the law just as the worm was a preaching of the law. Yet God chooses to work through us, and that is a preaching of the gospel, just as the whale was a preaching of the gospel—for Jonah, and for us.
Pastor Timothy Smith