Jonah’s anger at the Ninevite response to the Word emboldens him to the point where he presumes to remonstrate with his God. He takes up station outside the city where through the triple miracle of gourd, worm and east wind Yahweh teaches him that his own devices and his own thinking are quite inadequate. The prophet will allow God’s mercy in principle but not in practice. He would rather God’s power to save was exercised on a plant, than on one hundred and twenty thousand newly repentant Ninevites.
4:1–4 Jonah’s Anger at Nineveh’s Repentance
4:1 “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.”
The language is extreme. Jonah is simply furious. He is displeased “exceedingly”. The word appears fourteen times in the book, including four times in relation to Nineveh the “great” city. It is used of the storm and to describe the fear of the sailors. It does service for the great fish. And now here in the fourth chapter it describes firstly the extremity of Jonah’s anger and then in pointed contrast his great joy at the emergence of the gourd in verse six.
Further, he was “very angry”. This word is first used of the murderous rage of Cain in Genesis 4:5,6. As Cain, in his fury, wanted his brother dead, so Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh and slay his new brethren.
4:2 “And he prayed unto Yahweh, and said, I pray thee, O Yahweh, was not this my saying when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.”
Here is Jonah’s first clear statement of his motives in fleeing to Tarshish. He had anticipated just such an outcome. And now his worst fears have been realised. As we have seen, he had none of the uncertainty of the Ninevite king (“Who can tell…?” ch 3:9); “I knew…”, says Jonah, the character of his God.
Jonah brings together three passages of Scrip- ture in his declaration of the Divine character. He begins with the words of the angel to Moses at Sinai. “Thou art a gracious God and merciful” (Exod 34:6). There is a telling irony in the circumstances. In Moses’ absence, Israel had shown their unfaithfulness in the matter of the golden calf (Exod 32:1–7). Moses intercedes on their behalf, being prepared to forfeit eternity for his people. Finally Yahweh reveals to Moses His character and the principles which will govern His dealings with His people. Jonah understands, but is not happy to see the principle of Divine mercy to repentant sinners applied to Nineveh.
Jonah adds a phrase from Psalm103:8: “slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy”; identical in the Hebrew to Jonah 4:2 “slow to anger and of great kindness”. Jonah had alluded to the words of Psalm 103:4 in Jonah 2:6, The Psalm demonstrates that though God’s purpose begins with Israel, it extends to all, including the Gentiles: “His kingdom ruleth over all…Bless Yahweh, all his works in all places of his dominion”(verses 17–22)
The composite quotation concludes with the words of Moses in Exodus 32:12, “repent of this evil”, and “repented of the evil” (v14). Jonah is clear in his understanding of the character of his God. He recognises the principles revealed to Moses, but more, he has clearly understood that these are principles having equal application to all flesh, not Israel alone. Then how can Jonah show anger? Does he really want God to act against His revealed character and destroy Nineveh despite their repentance? Then what hope for anyone?
Jonah’s use of Scripture is picked up over one hundred years later by the prophet Joel who quotes precisely from Jonah 4:2 in Joel 2:13. As noted previously, Joel is calling upon Judah to emulate the contrition and repentance demonstrated by the Ninevites in the days of Jonah. Joel not only quotes the words of Jonah, but those of the Ninevite king: “Who knoweth if he will return and repent…?” (Joel 2:14).
4:3 “Therefore now, O Yahweh, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”
In his petulance and self pity, Jonah sees his position as akin to that of Elijah fleeing the wrath of Jezebel, and like him seeks to die (1 Kings 19:4). There is a similar despair and a similar response from God. Twice God directs the same question to Elijah: “What doest thou here Elijah?” and twice the same question is directed to Jonah: “Doest thou well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:3,9). The real similarity lay in the fact that each prophet was for a time thinking more of his own position and his own feelings than the work of God with His people and his own responsibility in relation to that work. We, too, in times of personal distress, need to remember that we are associated with a larger work and set the things of God above our own concerns.
4:4 “Then said Yahweh, Doest thou well to be angry?”
Jonah’s fury and defiance are a direct challenge to what God has done with the Ninevites. These words of gentle reproof are merciful indeed. But Jonah’s only response is a brooding silence. He remains furious. Does he seriously imagine that he understands the world-wide issues better than God? Or that he loves Israel more than the Creator?
4:5–11 The Lesson of the Gourd—Reproof for Jonah, Mercy for Nineveh
4:5 “So Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he might see what would become of the city.”
Jonah was still waiting for the destruction of Nineveh. ‘Oh yes; if judgment is to come’, thinks Jonah, ‘it will come from the east’—and he wants to be there to see it!
To make his wait a little more comfortable he made a booth for shade. Jonah, like the faithful in Israel, was engaged in a familiar task. The “booth” was the expression of the feast of “booths” or “tabernacles”. The record of Leviticus 23:34–43 sets out the details of this feast. It commenced on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, following the Day of Atonement on the tenth day. It celebrated the end of harvest and pointed to the final Millennial harvest of Jew and Gentile. It will be celebrated in the Kingdom age (Zech 14:16), looking forward to the eighth day, the complete ingathering at the end of the Millennium.
There had been in Nineveh a Day of Atonement response by the people in fasting and repentance. Now there follows this act of Jonah as he follows the pattern of the Feast of Tabernacles and makes a booth. But this is no celebration of a great harvest of new servants of God. The Feast of Tabernacles was to be marked by great rejoicing (Lev 23:40; Deut 16:13–15).
But there sat Jonah under his booth, not rejoicing, but filled with anger and frustration, at odds with his God, and waiting with growing impatience for the flaming sword of Divine judgment to come from the east!
4:6 “And Yahweh El prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.”
Another miracle. It is the work of Yahweh El. The title speaks of almighty Divine power, exercised not in destruction, but in creation as He “prepared a gourd” to give shelter for Jonah, relieving his situation and improving his attitude. Jonah responded as anticipated—‘yes, this is much better’.
This verse illuminates the ways of God with His people. Mercy rejoiceth against judgment. It is not God’s way to judge and destroy, although finally He will do so for His name’s sake. “The longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah” (1Pet 3:20). It is men who are the sons of thunder wishing judgment on their fellows, not God or His Son. “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world”, said our Lord (John 12:47). How desperate would be our plight if this were not so.
There is more to learn from this miracle. Yahweh prepared this gourd “that it might be a shadow over his head”. But haven’t we just read that Jonah made a booth “and sat under it in the shadow” (v5)? So we are being pointedly told that Jonah’s self made covering was inadequate for the task. How true this is of all man’s efforts. Here is a lesson that goes all the way back to the fig leaf coverings of the garden of Eden. The psalmist points out the principle: “Except Yahweh build the house, they labour in vain that build it” (Psa 127:1). If only we would bow before this truth what a world of trouble we might avoid, but we struggle on through life, like Jonah, building our booths, and finding them useless.
Jonah, now under the better booth of Yahweh’s building, stands for Israel sheltering under Divine protection.
4:7 “But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.”
In the second miracle of this series, the worm destroys the gourd. The word for worm or ‘crimson grub’ here is used of the scarlet coverings in the Tabernacle. It is sin as scarlet (Isa 1:18)) that will result in Divine protection being lost in the end. So it proved for wayward Israel.
4:8 “And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.”
Under the influence of this miraculous east wind and the oppressive heat of the sun, Jonah wilts again. He repeats his bitter statement of verse 3, “It is better for me to die than to live”. The lesson seems to be that Israel would be safer while Nineveh was repentant and seeking God, but the time would come when Israel again would feel the hot wind of Assyrian aggression. Fifty or so years on, Hosea picks up this thought as Israel faces ruin from Assyria (Hos 12:1; 13:15,16; Isa 10:5,6). The ultimate security for God’s people, of course, lay in obedience to Him; but none of these issues concerns Jonah right now; he is too bound up in his own discomfort.
4:9 “And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.”
Yahweh’s question of verse 4 is repeated with the allusion to the gourd added. Think about Jonah’s reply as he snaps back like a sulking child. First there was fury over Nineveh, now rage because of a plant! Oh, Jonah, where are you going?
4:10 “Then said Yahweh, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night.”
Here now the matter is summarised with Divine authority. This fleeting plant—in two days come and gone. And Jonah you cared so much for it. What a moody, impulsive, temperamental man. God provides, and then it is taken for granted. But there are larger issues at stake.
4:11 “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”
“Should not I spare”, that is “have compassion”, the same word in verse 10 for “had pity”. The contrast is between a single plant, and a great city and its large population. Though in the absence of God’s truth they were really no better than the “much cattle”.
Jonah is now silent. Yahweh has spoken—there is an end to the matter. Jonah saw mercy to Nineveh as woe to Israel. God showed Jonah that Nineveh in the truth was a blessing, like a shade over his head. And Nineveh out of the truth was disaster, the blast of a hot east wind. So it proved. Nineveh returned to its old ways and became the Divine instrument of punishment for idolatrous Israel.
Nevertheless there will doubtless be Ninevites, Jonah’s converts, in the Kingdom, Jesus’ words being witness: “The men of Nineve shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonas…” (Lk 11:32).
God willing, we shall conclude our review of Jonah next time with a summary of the elements of the sign of the prophet Jonah, and an appendix on the history of the times, especially in relation to Nineveh.