Read the Passage: Jonah 4
Jonah’s Despair (4:1–3)
Jonah 3 records the result of Jonah’s ministry in Nineveh, which was, “The people of Nineveh believed God. . . . Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said he would bring upon them, and He did not do it” (Jon. 3:5, 10). Apart from prior knowledge of the book of Jonah, we might expect Jonah 4, which serves as a type of epilogue to this book, to report Jonah’s praise of God for His long-suffering and mercy upon the Assyrians, as well as upon himself (cf. 1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Yet, surprisingly, Jon. 4:1 records that the Ninevites’ repentance “displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he became angry.” Jonah’s anger indicates that his repentance in Jon. 2:2–9 was either illegitimate or, more likely, still in process. Indeed, the reason for Jonah’s despair seems to be his hatred of the Assyrians and his desire to see them judged by God.
While it is honest, Jonah’s prayer in Jon. 4:2–3 is almost unbelievable. In this prayer, Jonah discloses that the prospect of the Ninevites’ repentance is the very reason why he was initially disobedient to God’s call in Jon. 1:2, as Jonah attempted to flee to Tarshish. Incredibly, although with accurate theology, Jonah declared, or rather complained to God, “I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness” (Jon. 4:2). Clearly, although Jonah had personally received God’s grace and mercy, he did not think his enemies were worthy of being afforded the same benefits. Note that the difficulty of loving one’s enemies is not a problem that is unique to Jonah. Indeed, in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught his followers to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:12). Note, too, the teaching on neighbor-love in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Luke 10:29f).
Jonah’s Misery (4:4–9)
In Jon. 4:3 Jonah stated to God that he preferred to be put to death over living and seeing the Assyrians receive God’s grace. Since Jonah had earlier taken a vow to God to pronounce His salvation (cf. Jon. 2:9), it may be that Jonah’s request to die was a declaration that he intended to break his vow, knowing that it would provoke divine displeasure (cf. Deut. 23:21; Eccl. 5:4–5). Given the audacity of Jonah’s prayer, we might expect God to destroy the prophet; yet, in a further manifestation of His mercy to Jonah, God simply asked, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Jon. 4:4). God’s question did not immediately result in Jonah’s repentance. Rather, we read that Jonah left Nineveh and found a place to rest to the east of the city. Jon. 4:5 reports that Jonah’s rationale for staying within eyesight of Nineveh was that he wanted to see what would become of the city.
While Jonah had constructed a shelter for himself on the east side of Nineveh (cf. Jon. 4:5), in yet another manifestation of God’s grace toward the prophet, we’re told, “The Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery” (Jon. 4:6). Although we’re not told what kind of plant this was, many commentators suggest it was the broad-leafed, indigenous, castor oil plant, which grows rapidly in hot climates. Regardless of the species of plant, it was clearly prepared by God. Furthermore, we’re told that “God prepared a worm” (Jon. 4:7) to destroy the plant. The withered plant, as well as the effects of a scorching desert wind prepared by God, moved Jonah to again declare, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jon. 4:8). Note that in this book God prepares a fish, a plant, a worm, and a wind–all in order to prepare Jonah.
God’s Rebuke (4:10–11)
The events of Jon. 4:4–8 show God’s continued grace and mercy toward Jonah, including God’s preparation of Jonah for further (or deeper) repentance. God’s rebuke of Jonah begins with a second divine question, which is, “It is right for you to be angry about the plant?” (Jon. 4:9). Jonah’s affirmative response to God betrays his self-centeredness and the depth of Jonah’s unjust hatred of his enemies. In response, God rebukes Jonah by showing that Jonah cares more about the plant than about God’s image-bearers who dwelt in Nineveh. In speaking of “more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left” (Jon. 4:11), God was likely referring to young children—that is, the inhabitants of Nineveh who had not reached a point of moral rationality (cf. Deut. 1:39). The population of the city of Nineveh, then, likely exceeded 600,000 people; perhaps, even, exceeding a million people.
- Why was Jonah’s reaction to the Ninevites’ repentance one of anger? How ought God’s grace toward us to shape our interaction with the lost?
- Do you find it difficult to treat your enemies with kindness? What does the Bible teach elsewhere about the treatment of one’s enemies?
- Why did Jonah stay within eyesight of the city of Nineveh? Given his disobedience and attitude, why did God not kill Jonah for his self-righteousness?
- In what ways can we see the grace and mercy of God upon Jonah in the midst of the prophet’s rebellion and sin? Do you believe Jonah’s repentance was genuine?
- Who are the 120,000 persons in Nineveh who cannot discern between their right hand and their left? Why does God mention “much livestock” at Jon. 4:11?