The well-known children’s story, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle, features a tiny caterpillar that can’t get enough to eat. Day by day, it chews its way through an impressive lineup of food, climaxing with a load of mostly desserts that gives it a stomachache. Then it eats a leaf to feel better, and we discover that it has now become a very large caterpillar. It makes a cocoon, crawls inside, and when we see it next it has become a beautiful butterfly!
An ancestor of The Very Hungry Caterpillar was apparently on the scene in the book of Jonah (v. 7). God sent it to gobble up a shady vine and teach His prophet a needed lesson. He had sent Jonah to preach repentance-or-judgment to the Ninevites. The fact that Nineveh was the capital city of Israel’s enemy, Assyria, illustrates the fact that God has always had a plan and love for the whole world. Jonah, however, didn’t see it that way; he saw instead a golden opportunity to get rid of an enemy, with God’s mercy as the only “barrier” to doing so. As a prophet and a leader, he should have known better. He should have shared God’s heart for the lost pagans of Nineveh.
Verse 2, which accurately describes God’s character, is in the mouth of a petulant man. Though eventually forced to deliver the Lord’s message, Jonah hadn’t surrendered. God used a man with a stubborn heart to lead an entire city to His mercy!
What’s more, He graciously kept trying to open Jonah’s eyes as well. The object lesson of the vine was meant to show the prophet that God had the right to do as He wished, that His good deeds didn’t depend upon human merit. How tragic that a leader could get angry over a plant for which he could take no credit, yet cared nothing for an entire city full of people whom God wanted to save (vv. 10–11).