What Shadow? Juniper, Gourd, or God?
© C.O.Bishop 2014 THCF 3/2/2014
1st Kings 18; Jonah 4; Song of Solomon 2:3; Psalm 91:1
“Beneath the Cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand: the Shadow of a Mighty Rock within a weary land!”
There are a lot of references in scripture to shade, or shadow, in a positive sense: in a sunny, middle-eastern environment, shade is a thing of real value. Shadow can also refer to protection in general; not simply a cooler place to rest. But I would like to compare three different ideas regarding shade, or shadow, in reference to three different individuals: Elijah, Jonah, and the Shulamite woman from the Song of Solomon.
Elijah and the Shadow of the Juniper tree
Elijah had a pretty heroic ministry. We love to hear about all his miraculous victories, the chariot of fire that separated him from his protégé, Elisha, his exit from this world via the whirlwind, and the transfer of prophetic authority to Elisha, etc. But he had a low time, too…under the Juniper tree. So, how did he get there?
Elijah was a faithful servant of God. He did what he was told to do, and God worked wonders through him. The king of Israel at that time was Ahab, a wicked man, whose wife, Jezebel, a Zidonian pagan woman, was even worse than Ahab. Jezebel had ordered that all the prophets of God be killed. Some had escaped, including 100 prophets hidden in two caves, and fed by a high-ranking steward of the king’s household, Obadiah. But we don’t learn about that until after the fact. Ahab had built numerous pagan altars. Because of their animosity toward the God of Israel and disregard for His word through His prophets, God sent Elijah to curse the land (the northern ten tribes, specifically) for Ahab’s sake.
Elijah was sent with a very simple message: “It will not rain again until I say so!” Then he went off and hid where God sent him, beside the brook Cherith, near the Jordan river. “Cherith” apparently means “gorge” so possibly there was a small ravine there, in which he hid himself. At any rate, he stayed put, as God told him to do, and God had ravens bring him bread and meat, twice a day, morning and evening, so long as he was to stay there. Ravens are unclean birds: we are not told just where they got the bread or meat, but Elijah did not question God’s provision. He obeyed the Lord, and stayed put until God told him to leave. His water came from the creek; when the creek dried up, God told him to go to a city called Zarephath, as He had commanded a widow there to feed Elijah. I am assuming it was a small industrial town of that day, since the name “Zarephath” means a “workshop for refining metals”. Nothing more is said about it, though, so it is just an interesting side note.
Now, during a famine, we might not feel that was very fair to the widow, to command her to feed Elijah, when it was hard enough to feed herself. But, in the first place, take note that God had commanded her…so Elijah didn’t have to twist her arm much. In the second place, as it turned out, the food with which she was to feed Elijah was miraculously provided, and was sufficient to save her life and that of Elijah and her household as well.
When Elijah arrived, she had gone out to gather firewood to cook the very last of her meal (barley-meal, perhaps) with the very last of her olive-oil, and was expecting her son and herself to die of starvation thereafter. What a strange thing, that God had commanded her to feed Elijah! Elijah asked that she make a little loaf for him first, and then to do so for herself and her son. She did so, but I wonder what she was thinking. Elijah had promised her by the Word of the LORD that the meal in the barrel would not run out, nor would the oil in the jar, until rain came again in Israel. And it didn’t! She obeyed, and that barley-meal and oil were the supernatural sustenance for Elijah, the widow, and her household, throughout the remaining time of famine.
But at the end of the famine, God sent Elijah to meet Ahab, and through him, to challenge all the prophets of Baal, and the prophets of the Asherim (sacred groves dedicated to the female Babylonian deity—Ishtar: Aphrodite, and Venus were later names…different names for the same sex and fertility goddess). Elijah was calling them all to what amounted to a duel…only it was one prophet of Jehovah against all the false prophets Jezebel had been feeding during the reign of Ahab.
We all know the story, how Elijah offered the eight hundred and fifty servants of the pagan gods the first try at calling down fire from heaven. They spent all day trying to get Baal to ignite his own altar. But there was no answer. Then Elijah declared that it was his turn, and, at the time for the evening sacrifice, he built up the altar of Jehovah that had been broken down, using twelve stones—one for each tribe of Israel—and laid wood on it, and a cut-up ox…but no fire. He had the people soak down the wood and rock and meat with twelve barrels of water. Then he offered a very short prayer for God to vindicate Himself, and show the people that He was God. The fire of God immediately fell and burned up the water, the meat, the wood, the rocks and the dirt…left a smoking hole. The people fell on their faces and confessed that Jehovah was the true God. Then Elijah called for the slaughter of the false prophets, and killed them all. He called for rain, out of a clear sky, and it came very soon, with huge dark clouds and torrents of rain. He outran Ahab’s chariot 17 miles back to the gates of Jezreel, and then went home victorious. So…how did any of that end up with him out hiding again, under the Juniper tree?
Well, Ahab had arrived home, and said “Honey, I’m home, and I’ve had a bad day! Elijah and Jehovah won, and all your pet prophets are dead.” So, Jezebel sent a message to Elijah, telling him that by the next evening he would be as dead as they were. Elijah was exhausted, and probably his guard was down, since he had thought the battle was already won and over. So, instead of calling on God to “fry” Jezebel, he ran off into the desert to hide. He sat under that Juniper tree and begged God to take his life. God did not rebuke him, but he did ask him what he was doing there.
That is a good question for us to ask ourselves when we find ourselves in similar straits. “What am I doing here?” If the honest answer is “Nothing! I am just feeling sorry for myself, and am no longer willing to trust God and to try to serve Him”, then we need to confess that, and allow Him to encourage our hearts. Elijah was in the shade of that Juniper tree, and his needs were provided by God, just as when he was hiding at the brook Cherith, but this time it was an Angel, not a raven, who brought him food and guarded his sleep. After a couple of good long naps, and a couple of heaven-sent meals, he took a long walk with God; and afterward, God provided the necessary correction to his thinking, and gave him a new job to do. The shadow of the Juniper tree was not a “bad place” for Elijah—it was a place where he was re-directed by God. But what about Jonah?
Jonah and the Shadow of the Gourd
Jonah is somewhat of a “special case” scenario from start to finish. God sent Jonah to do a job: he was to pronounce judgment on Nineveh (which would ultimately result in repentance. Jonah rebelled and ran away, for what was, to him, a very good reason: Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the oppressor of his people, and he did not want those people to repent.
But, at every step of the way, God had prepared a solution for Jonah: it says that God had prepared a great fish to take Jonah back to the beach—not an elegant mode of travel, but it got the job done, and also brought Jonah to repentance. After his own repentance, Jonah preached in Nineveh, and the entire city repented of their evil behavior: the king proclaimed a fast, that both humans and animals should have no food or water, and that all, both humans and animals, should be clothed in sackcloth and cry out to God for mercy. That must have been a very strange sight, seeing all the animals of Nineveh clothed in sackcloth. But it had the desired result. God postponed the judgment.
After Jonah had delivered his message, he was deeply angered that God had changed his divine sentence because of their repentance, and had not destroyed the city as Jonah had predicted. He said, “You see, this is why I ran off in the first place: I knew you were going to do somethinglike this!” So Jonah asked that God take his life. God didn’t really respond; He only asked whether Jonah was doing right, to be angry. Jonah didn’t answer, but moved off to the east of the city, to watch, hoping God would change His mind.
He sat outside of Nineveh, some distance away, and hoped God would destroy the city in spite of their repentance. The sun was hot, and he was in danger of getting sunstroke, so he built himself a little shelter of branches or something, and tried to shade himself that way. God had prepared a gourd plant, with its broad leaves, to grow up rapidly and give him shade, specifically as an act of deliverance, to deliver him from his grief. Jonah was glad for the gourd, but still hoped to see the Assyrians die. So God prepared a worm the following day, that ate the stalk of the gourd plant and it died. Then, instead of deliverance, He added to Jonah’s suffering by preparing and sending a strong east wind, hot and dry. Evidently even his little hut blew away, because it says the sun beat directly on his head, so that he fainted from the heat.
Jonah was furious with God, and asked for death again. When God questioned him again, whether he was right to be angry, Jonah angrily claimed his own righteousness. God handled him pretty gently, considering all that had already occurred: He reasoned with him concerning his values; how he valued a gourd plant more than the souls of over 120,000 people. Pretty sad story, but evidently Jonah must have repented again, because he wrote the account of the whole story, including all his failures.
We tend to focus on the story of the fish, and Jonah’s repentance in the fish’s belly. But the Shadow of the Gourd is perhaps equally important, and just as miraculous. Yes, gourds grow fast, but they don’t naturally grow so quickly as to grow up overnight, enough to shade a man from the middle-eastern sun. The Gourd was prepared by God, as both a mercy to Jonah and a lesson to him and us. The Shadow of the Gourd was given to show Jonah his sin. He valued human life very little. He was forgetting that those people (the enemies of his people) were people that God created. He didn’t know that God had plans for Assyria. Isaiah later predicted that Assyria, Egypt and Israel would be blessed together by God. (By the way, Assyria included all of what is now Iran; think that one over….) So God had a purpose in sparing them. But Jonah saw his own comfort and his own desires to be more important than the lives and souls of over 120,000 people. Do we do the same? Where are our priorities? How do we respond to God’s call to be witnesses for him? Do we head for the beach, and say, “I’m outta here!”? Or do we look for the road to Nineveh, and at least try to lead the enemies of God to the foot of the Cross, to approach His throne in peace?
What shadow do you find yourself under, today? If you have been broken down by stress, worry, and fear (unbelief, really) in the midst of trying to walk in obedience to God, then perhaps the Shadow of the Juniper tree is where you find yourself.
If you are angry at God, and are sure He has somehow short-changed you (believe me, He hasn’t), then perhaps what you are experiencing, with limited blessing, but your needs still being met, is the Shadow of the Gourd. Remember that because Jonah was grateful for the provision of the Gourd, but not changing his heart-attitude regarding the lost, God took away the Shadow of the Gourd, and even Jonah’s own provision of shade, so that Jonah experienced some real chastening. I pray that we will all seek God’s face, and repent of our hard-heartedness, so that the small but sufficient blessings we now have will not be taken from us in order to teach us the Grace and Mercy of God toward our fellow humans. But what shadow should we seek?
Believers and the Shadow of God
There are a number of references that call us to shelter under the Shadow of God—Psalm 57:1 says that we can shelter under the shadow of God’s wings, until the calamity has passed. Psalm 91:1 and 2, again speaking of refuge, says that if we dwell in the secret place of the Most High, we shall “abide under the Shadow of the Almighty”. He gives a condition—how to abide there. It requires that we make our personal walk with God central to our lives. Dwell in the secret place of the Most High: that’s private fellowship and personal prayer-life and worship of God…our personal devotions. Don’t just visit there once in a while…make that your home base! Then you can abide under the Shadow of the Almighty…God Himself.
In Song of Solomon 2:3, we see another aspect of that Shadow of God: The Shulamite girl, the bride, a picture of the Church, states regarding her relationship with the King (a picture of Christ) that: “I sat down under His shadow with great delight, and His fruit was sweet to my taste!”
Are you approaching the Throne of God with great delight? Do you sit down under His shadow (this time not as a refuge from destruction, but as a sanctuary of joy) with great anticipation of basking in the Joy of His presence? Or is it a chore?
If we find that our relationship with God seems a chore, we need to confess that our hearts are not right. Israel saw their relationship with God as “wearisome” (Malachi 1:13), so God told them, “If that’s the way you feel about Me, then stay away! I don’t want your sacrifices, if they come from a polluted heart!” (Wow!)
I don’t want God to feel that way toward me! I want to see my relationship with Him as precious and Holy, so that I can enjoy it forever, and so that He is free to bless me and my service toward Him. The results of a right heart toward God should be:
- Great delight in His presence and in Prayer
- Sweet fruit from His Spirit and from His Word
- Urgent outreach toward the lost, and a genuine desire for their salvation
- Refuge from the Evil one, so that, even in time of trouble, we find Peace in Christ.
Examine the place in which you find yourself. Ask yourself: what “Shadow” is my current experience? Am I joyfully trusting in the refuge of the Shadow of God, and eating the fruit of that relationship? Or am I broken down in fear, depression or defeat, and afraid to try again? Worse yet, am I angry at God, and desiring the destruction of the wicked around me, not caring for their eternal souls? Wherever you are, today, God calls you to “come away” with Him. If you are a believer, then you are part of the Bride of Christ, and, as Solomon called to the Shulamite girl, Jesus calls to you, “Come away with Me, my Love!”
Listen to His call, and meet him in the “Secret Place of the Most High.” Abide under the shadow of the Almighty, in joy and in peace.
Lord Jesus, grant us the wisdom to understand your word, to hear your invitation, and to choose joyfully the shadow of the Cross.