Commentary on Jonah 4

English Translation

1But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. 3Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

5Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. 6Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. 7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. 8When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” 9But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (ESV)

Notes

1But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2And he prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.

Whereas God is slow to anger, Jonah is quick to become angry (4:1). This description of God echoes other passages in the Hebrew Bible where God’s mercy is viewed as a positive1. The reason for Jonah’s anger is not made explicit but he is probably angry that God has shown mercy to the Ninevites and that his prophecy will go unfulfilled.

3Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

There is a contrast between Jonah’s request for death and Elijah’s request for death in 1 Kings 19:4. Elijah asks for death because his preaching fails to effect conversion, but Jonah asks for death because his preaching brings conversion.

4And the LORD said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Jonah does not answer the question.

5Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city.

The next verse indicates that the booth did not provide adequate shade. Jonah still hopes for Nineveh’s destruction (perhaps thinking it will return to its evil ways).

6Now the LORD God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant.

Just as God had appointed the fish in 1:17 so he appoints the plant here, the worm in v. 7, and the scorching east wind in v. 8. The plant here is probably the castor oil plant, “a shrub growing over 12 feet high with large, shady leaves”2. Jonah’s gladness in this verse contrasts with his displeasure in verse 1.

8When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

The wind (Hebrew ruach) recalls the divine spirit (ruach) that inspired the prophets3.

9But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.”

God’s question backs Jonah into a corner. If Jonah answers No, he admits he is wrong to question God’s sovereignty as creator and God’s freedom to deal with Nineveh as he chooses. If Jonah answers Yes (as he in fact does), he admits the validity of pity as a motive for sparing a creature from destruction.4

10And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”

In verses 2-3 Jonah used 39 Hebrew words to complain to God and in verses 10-11 God uses 39 Hebrew words when speaking to Jonah5.

God notes Jonah’s lack of insight: he pities a plant, but begrudges God’s pity over an entire city of people. Jonah bears no responsibility for the plant, unable to control its growth or withering. God, however, as the universal creator god, does bear responsibility for humans (in this case 120,000 of them) and also animals (a final phrase that should elicit a chuckle). If Jonah’s pity is appropriate, how much more so God’s? Jonah does not speak again; the author leaves readers to answer the book’s final question for themselves. 6

God seizes upon Jonah’s response and drives home the lesson. As sovereign Lord of creation he asserts his freedom to spare even Nineveh from destruction. God’s question here focuses on the issue of divine freedom, not in a theoretical sense but in a concrete case of the experience of one man faced with the reality of God’s mercy bestowed on a people who, by any definition of justice, seem totally unworthy of such mercy. Other issues are touched on as well: the universal, indeed cosmic, scope of God’s saving purposes; indirectly, God’s dealings with Israel; and the very mystery of God himself, who ultimately eludes and transcends any attempt to define or limit him . . . .

The inclusion of the innocent children and the city’s animal population here gives added reason to God’s pity on Nineveh and underlines the wider, cosmic scope of his saving purpose for all of his creation.7

Bibliography

NIVSB: Kenneth Barker, NIV Study Bible, 1995

NJBC: Raymond E. Brown, New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1990

HCSB: Wayne A. Meeks, HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, 1993

HCBC: James L. Mays, HarperCollins Bible Commentary, 2000

1Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; Joel 2:13; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17

2[NIVSB] 1362

3Numbers 11:24-29; 2 Kings 2:9, 15; Joel 2:28-29

4[NJBC] 584

5[HCSB] 1378

6[HCBC] 659

7[NJBC] 584

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