The Great Parable

Jonah’s anger emerged after the 40 days had expired. He had spent that time preaching impending doom throughout the Assyrian heartlands and the fact that central Assyria was not destroyed evidently comes as a shock to him. The Hebrew (4:1) is emphatic.1

  • “displeased” – properly to spoil (literally by breaking to pieces); figuratively to make (or be) good for nothing
  • “angry” – to glow or grow warm; figuratively (usually) to blaze up

A purely emotional response: his heart has overpowered his head.

Apparently, Jonah enjoyed those 40 days preaching and expounding God’s character to attentive audiences with the king’s support. Now this positive mood is spoiled; Jonah’s whole world is shattered. What follows is blazing, uncontrolled anger (see Gen 4:5) and his prayer is uttered in the burning heat of this passion (v2). Debate and protest against his commission had evidently occurred prior to Jonah fleeing to Tarshish. Now Jonah makes his case for Israel’s continued mercy and Assyria’s destruction, with no justification other than his emotions.

In his prayer Jonah partially quotes Exodus 34:5-7 (the section emphasising only God’s merciful characteristics) and asks God to remember what had previously happened at Horeb. He is highlighting God’s mercy following Moses’ intercession for Israel (Exod 32:7-14), and appeals (after 40 days expiration) for God to repent of His repentance (3:10). His chief problem remains; the Assyrians have responded to God’s Word and his own people will not (see Hos 11:5-8). Jonah is distraught and fears the worst, namely a destroyed Israel with the length and breadth of recovered territory lost (see Amos 6:13-14).

Jonah’s view of God’s character is imbalanced. He believes God is bound to show mercy if intercession is made for Israel. By quoting this history, Jonah says preserving Assyria (endangering Israel) shows God is inconsistent with His own character. But he doesn’t acknowledge the balance of goodness and severity in God’s character. While intellectually acknowledging God’s prerogative to bless and curse by alluding to Deuteronomy 32 (ch 2), he can’t cope emotionally with the reality.

This is understandable. All through this story Jonah has been buying time for Israel. He has spent the best part of his life seeking their response to God and was prepared to die to buy them time (ch 1). Now he will willingly see terrible calamity befall the Assyrians to do the same. Jonah is clearly wrong; he has overlooked other key principles expressed in Exodus 32–34:

  • 32:26-28 – exclusive separation to Yahweh’s service is mandatory;
  • 32:30-33 – personal responsibility for salvation is required;
  • 33:7 – sin separates us from God;
  • 33:11 – a relationship with God is based on obedience to His will and response to His goodness;

33:18-19 – it is God’s sovereign prerogative to extend grace and mercy to whomever He will;

  • 34:12-17 – God is a jealous God demanding all our hearts (cp Deut 32:21); and
  • 34:24 – wholehearted obedience to God alone is required to maintain the enlargement of national borders.

Similarities between Jonah and Elijah are strong, to the extent (v3) that Jonah quotes Elijah’s lament following his disappointment on Carmel (1 Kings 19:4). Jonah experiences the same spirit of despair. A difference, however, exists: Elijah despairs because of his failure with Israel; Jonah despairs because of his success with Assyria. Both men had amazing single-minded zeal and passion to accomplish their mission. Their love of the Truth was so great, that apparent failure brought such a depth of despair they preferred death rather than witnessing the result of their fears.

Jonah’s attitude is questioned (v4); the context shows Jonah is angry about God’s mercy being shown to Assyrians, the issue he protested earlier (v2). The problem is that Jonah has just been a recipient of God’s mercy and compassion so he could demonstrate those qualities to others. Jonah doesn’t respond to God’s question but the answer is inferred (v1) and there is no compassion in, “Yet forty days, Nineveh overthrown…”

Jonah went east of “the [great] city” (v5), probably the hilly country east of Arbela where he sat having judged repentant Assyria unworthy of mercy and unrepentant Israel worthy. His case was evident; God is inconsistent in showing mercy to Gentiles and at the same time fails to respond to intercession for Israel based on Exodus 32. In constructing a booth he reflects the lessons of the Feast of Tabernacles. He is reminding God that the booth represents Yahweh’s favour and merciful care toward the nation. Jonah knew Israel had not displayed any works or response of faith worthy of God’s mercy. Yet he sat, angry and indignant, waiting for fiery judgment to fall on the great Assyrian cities as proof that God would show Israel mercy.

The scene is set for God’s response and Jonah’s education. Elijah and Jonah both accused God of not being true to His character. God deals with Jonah (v6-11) as He dealt with Elijah (1 Kings 19). The gourd (v6) is a creeping vine prepared by God, which, growing in a night, climbed over the booth and provided significant shade to Jonah (v10) and “Jonah rejoiced over the gourd with great rejoicing” (Roth). This euphoria shows that Jonah saw the gourd as a sign his intercession on behalf of the nation has been successful and God will show mercy to them. But Jonah is wrong; and so is Israel, whom Jonah represents. Infinite mercy without response is not how God behaves.

The Feast of Tabernacles symbolises the Millennium, the eighth day when the “last enemy” is destroyed. Booths made from the boughs of “goodly trees” represent Yahweh’s favour and merciful care protecting His people. But the key lesson is found in noting that Israel sheltered in booths by the Red Sea as Pharaoh’s elite chariot division bore down on them (Lev 23:43). The contrast is stark between the people’s fear (Exod 14:10-12) and Moses’ faith (Exod 14:13-14). Booths are flimsy in man’s estimation but dwelling beneath them highlights the need for complete trust in Yahweh’s protection and results in expressions of thanks for His bountiful blessings (Exod 15).

The gourd is an adjunct. Growing in a night; providing shade for a day and then dying in a night; and its appearance is an unnatural event with profound but transitory effects representing, undoubtedly, the protective power and mercy of God, preserving and providing for the nation. Though supported by the booth, the gourd is separate from it and has both an unnatural and transitory effect on the nation. In 2 Kings 13:23, grace and compassion were extended to the nation; words found together in Exodus 33:19 and Jonah 4:2. God had already responded to Jonah’s intercession made over 40 years previously2 because He loves the fathers and had provided the gourd.

This is the unnatural event: God’s intervention into the affairs of the nation came at Jonah’s request. The booth is ineffectual (v8) in Israel’s case because it didn’t induce their trust or thankfulness. Although Jehu’s dynasty gave the northern tribes political stability, the worm of sin was eating away at the nation (2 Kings 10:31-32). Jehoahaz (generation two) repeats the error of his forebears (2 Kings 13:2-3) but received reprieve from God (v4-5). Jehoash (generation three) follows suit in his evil (2 Kings 13:11) and Yahweh intervenes at Jonah’s request (v23). Jeroboam II (generation four) followed his namesake (2 Kings 14:23-24), but this time, evidence of God’s protective power is seen clearly (v25-27). Israel experienced the shade of a fully developed gourd during the reign of Jehoash and then Jeroboam, perhaps lasting 45–50 years. They were relieved of oppression (shaded), having opportunity to repent and thank Yahweh for His evident blessings. But Israel mistook these blessings and protection to mean that God accepted them no matter their lifestyle or quality of worship.

The end of the gourd comes in Jonah 4:7 when a worm (Heb toleah) smites it so that it withers and dies as quickly as it sprang up. This worm provided red dye, representing the sinfulness of human nature (Isa 1:18). Jonah is horrified, sinking again into anger and despair (v8-9). He had been confident the gourd indicated his renewed intercession was successful; that God would show mercy to Israel by destroying Assyria.

The gourd is smitten and withers in Zachariah’s reign (generation five), a man who persisted in error (2 Kings 15:9). Zachariah (“Yahweh has remembered”) reigned six months (v8) when Shallum (“retribution”) the son of Jabesh (“to dry up” i.e. to wither; same root word “wither” Jonah 4:7) “smote” him (same word Jonah 4:7). The house of Jehu disappeared overnight as God’s protective care for the nation was removed. Yahweh’s gourd withered because of the worm: “the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin.” The people did not respond: God’s shelter could and would be removed to teach Israel that it was God who provided their protection.

The east wind that God prepared (v8) dried out Jonah while he endured the sun’s full strength without the gourd’s shade. “Vehement” means silent or sultry, referring to the sirocco, an oppressive and sultry wind that saps the energy from everything. So miserable is Jonah’s lot, he thinks it better to die and requests that God take his life from him. Losing the gourd’s shelter exposed Israel to the consequences of their behaviour.

The sun’s full strength (oppression, economic privation, and war) is exacerbated by Assyria, the vehement east wind (2 Kings 15). Pul (Tiglath Pileser III) exacts tribute, annexes territory, and deports people. Shalmaneser and Sargon II take the northern kingdom into captivity (2 Kings 17). Forty-one years after Zachariah’s death, the Assyrians had completely dried up Israel so much so that it perished entirely.

God questions Jonah’s attitude (v9) and corrects him (v10-11), but he refuses to move (v9). He thinks God is inconsistent: first mercy (v6), then judgment (v7-8). He believes God should have changed His mind about Assyria at his intercession. His stubborn refusal to change mirrors Israel’s stubborn refusal to repent and demonstrate faith despite enjoying the blessing and protection of Yahweh’s gourd.

God shows us Jonah’s inconsistency (v10-11). He needed God’s mercy himself but would deny that to the Assyrians. God asserts His sovereign right to show grace and compassion as He sees fit. Jonah had no role in developing the gourd during Jehu’s dynasty or the shade it provided to the nation. But God created it—He can, and will, remove it. The gourd had not realised its promise—that relief from the burning sun would cause Israel to respond and return to God.

The word “pity” in verse 10 means compassion, and is translated “spare” in verse 11. God compares the relative merits of His compassion to Jonah’s. Jonah would gladly save one plant but ignore the fate of a nation; Jonah would gladly save one nation but ignore the fate of the world. God says there is no inconsistency in Him showing mercy to the Assyrians. They had 40 days to repent and did; Israel had 45–50 years to repent and would not. Besides which, 120,000 innocents are amongst the cities of Assyria. Youngs Literal Translation translates this, “more than twelve myriads”—the number of Israel. God can create spiritual Israel—every tribe—out of the worst Gentile nations (cp Psa 87:4-6). God was prepared to spare even the children in Nineveh along with their livestock because the parents had responded. And then the book just stops with no reply recorded from Jonah. What could he say further?

Like Elijah (1 Kings 19), we assume Jonah learned his lesson and accepted God’s judgment. Elijah learned 7000 Israelites were in covenant relationship with God and God exercises His sovereign right to show judgment or mercy on whom He will. Jonah learned God can create spiritual Israel out of all nations. Elijah realised he was not the only faithful one in the nation. Jonah realised Israel is not the only nation in the world God is calling. It seems the story of 1 Kings 19 is played out to the end and Jonah is dismissed. He wanted to be Elijah to Israel. God wanted him to be Jonah to the Gentiles, understanding and preaching the sovereign mercy and compassion of God.

Peter was instructed not to call that which God had cleansed unclean (Acts 10) and opened the door of hope to the Gentiles. Similarly, Jonah must have understood, “they are not all Israel, which are of Israel” and God has visited “the Gentiles, to take out of them a people for his name.” God’s mercy is extended throughout all the earth, and “in every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted with him.”

Jonah and Elijah

Jonah and Elijah have many similarities and differences, perhaps nowhere as clearly as here.

Elijah (1 Kings 19)Jonah (Jonah 4)
v4 – request to diev3 – request to die
v9 – first questionv4 – first question
v10 – first responsev1 – (implied) first response
v11-12 – three miraculous signs (strong wind, earthquake, fire)v6-8 – three miraculous signs (gourd, worm, vehement east wind)
v13 – second questionv9 – second question
v14 – second response (same as the first, indicating a stubborn refusal to change)v9 – second response (same as the first, indicating a stubborn refusal to change)
Intercession against IsraelIntercession against Nineveh

Elijah learns judgment won’t convert Israel, but the mercy of the still small voice may. Jonah learns that if Israel remained unrepentant after continued mercy, divine judgments must fall.

1 Word meanings taken from Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance

2 Based on 2 Kings 13&14 it is suggested that Jonah prophesied during the reign of King Jehoahaz and is about 60-70 years old when sent to Assyria.