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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 4

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verse 1

The whole situation displeased Jonah and made him angry: the Ninevites’ repentance and God’s withholding judgment from them.

"Jonah finds that the time-fuse does not work on the prophetic bomb he planted in Nineveh." [Note: Allen, p. 227.]

This is the first clue, after Jonah’s initial repentance and trip to Nineveh, that his heart was still not completely right with God. One can do the will of God without doing it with the right attitude, and that is the focus of the remainder of the book. The repentance and good deeds of the Ninevites pleased God, but they displeased His representative. They made God happy, but they made Jonah unhappy. A literal translation might be, "It was evil to Jonah with great evil." Until now evil (Heb. ra’ah) described the Ninevites, but now it marks the prophet. Consequently Jonah now became evil in God’s eyes and in need of punishment as the Ninevites had (cf. Romans 2:1), but God showed Jonah the same compassion He had shown the Ninevites.

"The word but points up the contrast between God’s compassion (Jonah 3:10) and Jonah’s displeasure, and between God’s turning from His anger (Jonah 3:9-10) and Jonah’s turning to anger." [Note: Hannah, p. 1470.]

Contrast the Apostle Paul’s attitude in Romans 9:1-3. Why did Jonah become so angry? Who was he to complain? He had only recently been very happy that God had saved him from destruction (cf. Matthew 18:23-35). It was not primarily because his announced judgment failed to materialize and so raised questions about his authenticity as a true prophet (cf. Deuteronomy 18:21-22). Almost all prophecies of impending doom in the Bible assume that those being judged will remain unmoved. Divine punishment is avoidable provided people repent (cf. Jeremiah 3:22; Jeremiah 18:8; Jeremiah 26:2-6; Ezekiel 18:21-22; Ezekiel 18:30-32; Ezekiel 33:10-15). [Note: Pentecost, p. 180.] Jonah undoubtedly became angry because he wanted God to judge the Ninevites and thereby remove a military threat to the nation of Israel. If he was aware of Hosea and Amos’ prophecies, he would have known that Assyria would invade and defeat Israel (Hosea 11:5; Amos 5:27).

"Countless numbers of modern-day believers miss much of the joy of being involved in God’s wonderful work because of self-centeredness." [Note: Page, p. 276.]

Verses 1-4

C. Jonah’s displeasure at God’s mercy 4:1-4

The reader might assume that the Lord’s deliverance of the Ninevites from imminent doom is the climax of the story. This is not the case. The most important lesson of the book deals with God’s people and specifically God’s instruments, not humanity in general.

"Though Jonah hardly comes across as a hero anywhere in the book, he appears especially selfish, petty, temperamental, and even downright foolish in chap. 4." [Note: Stuart, p. 502.]

Verse 2

To his credit Jonah told God why he was angry (cf. Jonah 2:1; Job). Many believers try to hide their true feelings from God when they think God will not approve of those feelings. Even though the prophet had been rebellious he had a deep and intimate relationship with God.

Contrast this prayer with the one in chapter 2. This one is negative and defensive; the former one is positive and praiseful. This one focuses on Jonah, but the former one on God. This one contains no fewer than nine references to "I" or "my" in the Hebrew.

"The heart of every problem is the problem of the heart, and that’s where Jonah’s problems were to be found." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 385.]

Jonah’s motive in fleeing to Tarshish now becomes known. He was afraid that the Ninevites would repent and that God would be merciful to this ancient enemy of God’s people. By opposing the Israelites her enemies were also opposing Yahweh. This is why a godly man such as Jonah hated the Assyrians so much and why the psalmists spoke so strongly against Israel’s enemies.

"Some dismiss biblical references to God ’relenting’ from judgment as anthropomorphic, arguing that an unchangeable God would never change his mind once he has announced his intentions. But both Jonah 4:2 and Joel 2:13 list God’s capacity to ’change his mind’ as one of his fundamental attributes, one that derives from his compassion and demonstrates his love." [Note: Chisholm, Handbook of . . ., p. 414.]

Jonah’s description of God goes back to Exodus 34:6-7, a very ancient expression of God’s character (cf. Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; Psalms 103:8; Psalms 145:8; Joel 2:13; Nahum 1:3). "Gracious" (from the Heb. hen, grace) expresses God’s attitude toward those who have no claim on Him because they are outside any covenant relationship with Him. [Note: Ellison, "Jonah," p. 385.] Compassion, one of the themes of this story, is a trait that Jonah recognized in God but did not share with Him as he should have. Lovingkindness (Heb. hesed) refers to God’s loyal love to those who are in covenant relationship with Him. The prophet was criticizing God for good qualities that he recognized in God. He wished God were not so good.

"It was not simply the case that Jonah could not bring himself to appreciate Nineveh. Rather, to a shocking extent, he could not stand God!" [Note: Stuart, p. 503.]

"Jonah sees the deferment of judgment on Nineveh as a weakness on God’s part and disapproves strongly of sharing the Lord’s compassion with the unlovely." [Note: Baldwin, pp. 584-85.]

Even the best of people, people such as Jonah, wish calamity on the wicked, but God does not (cf. 2 Peter 3:9).

Verse 3

Jonah felt so angry that he asked God to take his life (cf. Jonah 1:12; Jonah 4:8-9). Elijah had previously voiced the same request (1 Kings 19:4), but we must be careful not to read Elijah’s reasons into Jonah’s request. Both prophets obviously became extremely discouraged. Both evidently felt that what God had done through their ministries was different from what they wanted to see happen. Elijah had wanted to see a complete national revival, but Jonah had wanted to see complete national destruction. The sinfulness of people discouraged Elijah whereas the goodness of God depressed Jonah. How could Jonah return to Israel and announce that God was not going to judge the nation that had been such an enemy of the Israelites for so long? God had to teach Elijah to view things from His perspective, and He proceeded to teach Jonah the same thing.

Verse 4

God did not rebuke Jonah nor did He ask what right he had to criticize God. Rather, He suggested that Jonah might not be viewing the situation correctly. God also confronted Job tenderly by asking him questions (cf. Jonah 4:9; Jonah 4:11; Job 38-39). The Jerusalem Bible translation, "Are you right to be angry?" captures the intent of the Hebrew text. Jonah had condemned God for not being angry (Jonah 4:2), but now God challenged Jonah for being angry. Jonah was feeling the frustration of not understanding God’s actions in the light of His character, which many others have felt (e.g., Job, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, et al.).

When God’s servants become angry because God is as He is, the Lord deals with them compassionately.

Verse 5

We might have expected Jonah to leave what so angered him quickly, as Elijah had fled from Israel and sought refuge far from it to the south. Why did Jonah construct a shelter and sit down to watch what would happen to Nineveh? The same Hebrew word for shelter (sukka) describes the leafy structures that the Israelites made for themselves for the feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:40-42; Nehemiah 8:14-18; cf. Mark 9:5). Did Jonah think that judgment might fall anyway, or was he waiting for God to clarify His actions? Perhaps he hoped that the Ninevites’ repentance would evaporate quickly and that God would then call him to pronounce the judgment that he so wanted to see. Jonah did not know if the Ninevites’ repentance would be sufficient to postpone God’s judgment (cf. Genesis 18:22-33). He evidently took up residence somewhere on the slopes of the mountains that rise to the east of Nineveh to gain a good view of whatever might happen. Perhaps he expected to witness another spectacular judgment such as befell Sodom and Gomorrah. His shelter proved to be a classroom for the prophet similar to what the town dump had been for Job.

Verses 5-9

D. God’s rebuke of Jonah for his attitude 4:5-9

The Lord proceeded to teach Jonah His ways and to confront him with his attitude problem.

Verse 6

God continued to manifest compassion for Jonah by providing him with a shading plant that relieved the discomfort (Heb. ra’ah) of the blistering Mesopotamian sun. This is the only time that we read that Jonah was happy, and it was because he was physically comfortable. His anger grew out of his personal discomfort resulting from God’s mercy on the Ninevites. The Hebrew word ra’ah, translated "discomfort" here, is the same word translated "evil" when it describes the Ninevites’ evil (Jonah 1:2; Jonah 3:8) and "displeased" when it describes Jonah’s displeasure over God’s decision to spare the city. Jonah’s attitudes were as evil in God’s sight as the Ninevites’ actions. It is impossible to identify the exact plant that God provided, and it is inconsequential. Some commentators speculate that it was probably the castor bean plant, which in Mesopotamia grows rapidly to 12 feet tall and has large leaves.

Notice the shift in the name of God again from Yahweh to Elohim in this verse. This is one of the rare appearances of the compound name "LORD God" in Scripture (cf. Genesis 2; Genesis 3; et al.). Its use here may help make a transition. God dealt with Jonah as He deals with all humanity in what follows.

Verse 7

The stress on God’s sovereignty continues. God had provided (Heb. manah, to appoint, provide, or prepare) a storm, a fish, a plant, and now a worm to fulfill His purpose. A different Hebrew word occurs in Jonah 1:4 describing the storm. He would provide a wind (Jonah 4:8). Clearly God was manipulating Jonah’s circumstances to teach him something. He uses large things such as the fish and small things like the worm. There may be some significance in the chiastic arrangement of the things that God provided beginning and ending with natural forces, then animals, with a vegetable (that made Jonah happy) in the middle.

Verse 8

The scorching east wind that God provided was the dreaded sirocco. The following description of it helps us appreciate why it had such a depressing effect on Jonah.

"During the period of a sirocco the temperature rises steeply, sometimes even climbing during the night, and it remains high, about 16-22˚F. above the average . . . at times every scrap of moisture seems to have been extracted from the air, so that one has the curious feeling that one’s skin has been drawn much tighter than usual. Sirocco days are peculiarly trying to the temper and tend to make even the mildest people irritable and fretful and to snap at one another for apparently no reason at all." [Note: Dennis Baly, The Geography of the Bible, pp. 67-68.]

Why did Jonah not move into the city and live there? Apparently he wanted nothing to do with the Ninevites whom he despised so much. He probably still did not know if God would spare Nineveh or destroy it catastrophically. Earlier he had wished to die because, as God’s servant, he was not happy with God’s will. Now he longed for death because he was unhappy with his circumstances. Divine discipline had brought him to the place where even the loss of a plant affected him so deeply that he longed to die.

"The shoe Jonah wanted Nineveh to wear was on his foot now, and it pinched." [Note: Allen, p. 233.]

Verse 9

God’s question here was very similar to His question in Jonah 4:4. Was Jonah right to be angry about the plant, God asked? Jonah’s reply was a strong superlative. [Note: D. Winton Thomas, "Consideration of Some Unusual Ways of Expressing the Superlative in Hebrew," Vetus Testamentum 3 (1953):220.] He felt that strong anger was proper. Evidently Jonah believed that God was not even treating him with the compassion that He normally showed all people, much less His chosen servants.

"The double question in Jonah 4:4 and Jonah 4:9 . . . is unmistakably the key to the book’s central message. The climax of the story comes here-not with the repentance of the Ninevites in chap. 3 or at any other point-when God challenges Jonah to recognize how wrong he has been in his bitter nationalism, and how right God has been to show compassion toward the plight of the Assyrians in Nineveh." [Note: Stuart, p. 435.]

In this pericope God was setting the stage for the lesson that He would explain to His prophet shortly.

Verse 10

Compassion (Heb. hus, concern [NIV], be sorry for [NEB], pity [RSV, RV]) is the key attitude. Jonah had become completely indifferent to the fate of the Ninevites. He knew His God well (Jonah 4:2). Nevertheless his appreciation for God’s love for Israel had evidently so pervaded his life that it crowded out any compassion for these people who lacked knowledge of and relationship with Yahweh. Furthermore, Jonah had announced that Israel’s borders would expand under King Jeroboam II (2 Kings 14:25). To reveal his lack of compassion to him God dealt with him as any ordinary person. He exposed him to the pleasures and discomforts that everyone faces and made him see that his theology made him no more compassionate than anyone else. It should have. Knowledge of a sovereign, compassionate God whom He feared should have made Jonah more submissive to God’s will, more compassionate toward other people, and more respectful of God.

Verses 10-11

E. God’s compassion for those under His judgment 4:10-11

The story now reaches its climax. God revealed to Jonah how out of harmony with His own heart the prophet, though obedient, was. He contrasted Jonah’s attitude with His own.

"In these last verses the great missionary lesson of the book is sharply drawn: Are the souls of men not worth as much as a gourd? Like Jonah, God’s people today are often more concerned about the material benefits so freely bestowed upon us by God than about the destiny of a lost world." [Note: The New Scofield . . ., p. 942.]

Verse 11

God had invested much work in Nineveh and had been responsible for its growth. This is why it was legitimate at the most elementary level for God to feel compassion for its people. Jonah’s compassion extended only to a plant but not to people.

"It is the choice between gourds or souls." [Note: J. H. Kennedy, Studies in the Book of Jonah, p. 97.]

God’s compassion extended not only to plants but also to people. The 120,000 people that God cited as the special objects of His compassion were probably the entire populace that did not know how to escape their troubles. The expression "do not know the difference between their right and left hand" is idiomatic meaning lacking in knowledge and innocent in that sense (cf. 2 Samuel 19:35; Isaiah 7:15-16). [Note: Stuart, p. 507.]

"Not to be able to distinguish between the right hand and the left is a sign of mental infancy." [Note: Keil, 1:416.]

It would be unusual if this referred only to chronological infants, however.

"Their inability to discern ’their right hand from their left’ must refer to their moral ignorance. Though responsible for their evil deeds and subject to divine judgment (see Jonah 1:2), the Ninevites did not have the advantage of special divine revelation concerning the moral will of God. Morally and ethically speaking they were like children." [Note: Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 416. Cf. Wiseman, "Jonah’s Nineveh," pp. 39-40.]

We normally have compassion for those with whom we can identify most closely, but God also has compassion on people who are helpless. Spiritually they are those who do not know God, those who are "lost."

People naturally go to one of two extremes in their attitude toward animals. We either look down on them and treat them inhumanely, feeling superior, or we elevate them to the level of persons and grant them rights that they do not possess. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tries to guard us from the first attitude. The "animal rights movement" tends to promote the second attitude. God has compassion on animals as creatures living below the level of humans that need His grace. This should be our attitude to them too (cf. Genesis 1:26; Genesis 1:28; Psalms 8:6-8). The reference to animals concludes the book and is the final climax of God’s lesson to the prophet and through him to God’s people in Israel and in the church. If God has compassion for animals, and He does, how much more should we feel compassion for human beings made in God’s image who are under His judgment because of their sins (cf. Jonah 3:8)! We must never let our concern for the welfare of God’s people keep us from reaching out with the message of hope to those who oppose us.

"It is possible of course, that the animals are mentioned because animals are ipso facto innocent and also lack intellectual prowess. Thereby Jonah and the audience would understand that the Ninevites, likewise, are innocent and stupid. But a more likely reason for the mention of animals is that they constitute the middle point in the worth scale upon which the argument of Yahweh is based. That is, the people of Nineveh are of enormous worth. They are human beings (’dm), and they are the citizens of the most important city of their day. The animals (bhmh) in turn are of less worth, but still significant in the economy of any nation or city. . . . The gourd, on the other hand, is of minor worth. . . . Jonah has furiously argued for the worth of a one-day-old plant (Jonah 4:9 b). He can have no good argument, then, against the worth of Nineveh, with all its people and animals." [Note: Stuart, p. 508.]

"God’s question captures the very intention of the book. The issue is that of grace-grace and mercy. Just as Jonah’s provision was the shade of the vine he did not deserve, the Ninevites’ provision was a deliverance they did not deserve based upon a repentance they did not fully understand." [Note: Page, p. 286.]

The book closes without giving us Jonah’s response, but that is not the point of the book. Its point is the answer to the Lord’s question in Jonah 4:11 that every reader must give. Yes, God should have compassion on the hopeless Ninevites, and we should have compassion on people like them too (cf. Luke 15:25-32; Matthew 20:1-16). Only two books in the Bible end with questions, and they both have to do with Nineveh. Jonah ends with a question about God’s pity for Nineveh, and Nahum ends with a question about God’s punishment of Nineveh. [Note: Wiersbe, p. 386.]

"Every hearer/reader may have some Jonah in him or her. All need to reflect on the questions God asks, including the final, specific, ’Should I not spare Nineveh?’ (Jonah 4:11). Anyone who replies ’Why is that such an important question?’ has not understood the message. Anyone who replies ’No!’ has not believed it." [Note: Stuart, p. 435.]

"It is not only the unbelievers in the Ninevehs of today who need to repent; it is also we who are modern Jonahs. For no one begins to understand this profound and searching little book unless he discovers the Jonah in himself and then repentantly lays hold upon the boundless grace of God." [Note: Gaebelein, pp. 126-27.]

"As so often, the effect of this OT book is to lay a foundation upon which the NT can build. ’God so loved the world’ is its basic affirmation, which the NT is to conclude with the message of the gift of his Son.

"Throughout the story the figure of Jonah is a foil to the divine hero, a Watson to Yahweh’s Holmes, a Gehazi to Yahweh’s Elisha. The greatness and the goodness of God are enhanced against the background of Jonah’s meanness and malevolence. Look out at the world, pleads the author, at God’s world. See it through God’s eyes. And let your new vision overcome your natural bitterness, your hardness of soul. Let the divine compassion flood your own hearts." [Note: Allen, p. 194.]

Does this book constitute a call to foreign missionary service? It records God’s call of one of His prophets to this type of ministry. However, we must remember that this was a rare ministry in the Old Testament period. Typically Israel was to be a light to the nations by providing a model theocracy in the Promised Land that would attract the Gentiles to her. They would come to Israel for the knowledge of God that they would take back home with them (e.g., Exodus 19:5-6; 1 Kings 10; Isaiah 42:6; Acts 8:26-40). In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) Jesus changed the basic missionary method by which people are to learn of God. Now we are to go into all the world and herald the gospel to everyone rather than waiting for them to come to us for it. The Book of Jonah shows an Old Testament prophet doing reluctantly what Christians are now to do enthusiastically. It was not God’s plan that all Old Testament prophets, much less all Israelites, were to do what he did. Nevertheless they were to have a heart of compassion for those outside the covenant community and to show them mercy, as this book clarifies (cf. Boaz in the Book of Ruth). Christian missionaries can use the Book of Jonah, therefore, but they should do so by stressing its true message, not by making Jonah’s call the main point.

"This book is the greatest missionary book in the Old Testament, if not in the whole Bible. It is written to reveal the heart of a servant of God whose heart was not touched with the passion of God in missions. Does it strike home . . .? Are we more interested in our own comfort than the need of multitudes of lost souls . . . dying in darkness without the knowledge of their Messiah and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ? Are we more content to remain with the ’gourds,’ the comforts of home and at home, than to see the message of Christ go out to the ends of the earth to both Jew and Gentile?" [Note: Feinberg, p. 48.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Jonah 4". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/jonah-4.html. 2012.
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