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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 4

Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral EpistlesFairbairn's Commentaries

Verses 1-4


FROM the effect produced on the mind of God by the repentance of Nineveh toward him, we now pass to the effect produced on the mind of Jonah by the repentance of God toward Nineveh. This at first sight appears strange, so strange as to seem almost inexplicable in a man who had passed through such singular experiences, and had been so peculiarly honoured in his work. “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry (or rather, he was very much grieved or vexed (This is evidently the affection meant to be noted here. The word in the original properly denotes being hot, usually hot with anger; but as a person may be hot with grief or vexation as well as anger, the expression is used also of this. So, for example, of David in 2 Samuel 6:8, where David is said to have been displeased (hot) at the breach God had made on Uzzah; the meaning plainly is that he was distressed and grieved.) ). And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, 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. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live. And the Lord said, Doest thou well to be angry?” The marginal reading here is nearer the proper meaning, but it should be, as the Septuagint correctly renders it, Art thou very much grieved? (The rendering of the expression here, and in the other verses where it occurs, given in the authorized version, Doest thou well to be angry? has been an unhappy error, as it has tended greatly to countenance and keep up the mistaken view that has prevailed regarding Jonah’s character. As the words stand in the original, they form a sort of phrase, or idiomatic turn of expression, and every one knows, that what seems to be a literal translation of such modes of speech, will often be very far from a correct representation of the meaning. For example, the expression, “He is at great pains to improve his mind,” would perhaps be very naturally turned by a German or an Italian into words which signified, that the person meant put himself to severe agony to secure his improvement; yet a less literal rendering would give a much correcter idea of the meaning. So here. The Greek translator of the Septuagint, by much the oldest version of Old Testament Scripture, perfectly understood the expression, and expressed it well by words answering to those given above, Art thou very much grieved? The Syriac expresses the same meaning, and so also the learned Jew, Kimchi, who adds, “As for הישב , it imports the strengthening of a subject;” i.e., merely denotes here that the grief or vexation was very great. Henderson, in his work on the Minor Prophets, properly renders it, “Art thou much vexed? “though he still fails to take a just estimate of the character and feelings of Jonah. The mistake, so often repeated in the versions, arose from not adverting to the use of the infinite absol. of the Hebrew verb ישב , which is often taken as an adverb, and can then only be rendered by very much, greatly, or exceedingly. See the Lexicons.)

Why should Jonah have been so displeased and vexed, and rendered even weary of life, by an event which one would think fitted to inspire thankfulness and joy into every well-constituted mind? “Because,” says Calvin, expressing the general view of commentators, “he was unwilling to appear as a vain and lying prophet.” And Dr Adam Clarke, whetting the matter a little more sharply upon poor Jonah, says, “He had more respect to his high sense of his own honour, than he had to the goodness and mercy of God. He appeared to care little whether 620,000 persons were destroyed or not, so he might not pass for a deceiver, or one that denounced a falsity.” This, indeed, is the view that very naturally suggests itself on a somewhat hasty and superficial consideration of the subject; and yet there is something about the circumstances of Jonah, something even in the very account given of his vexation, which can scarcely fail to beget a conviction of there being a still deeper ground for the painful feelings that agitated his mind. For, if Jonah was so greatly to blame here, if his own credit with the world stood so high in his esteem, that he would rather have seen the largest city on the earth buried in ruins, than that he should be exposed to the taunt from thoughtless and inconsiderate persons (for such alone in the circumstances could express it) of having spoken what had not literally taken place, he must have belonged, we shall not say to the lowest class of saints, but to the worst specimens of humanity; he must have had the breast of a demon, rather than of a man. And such Dr Clarke not obscurely insinuates was the case, when he asks, “Who but he who is of a fiendish nature will be grieved because God’s mercy triumphs over judgment?”

But this is plainly to give a darker view of Jonah’s character and conduct than the circumstances of the case warrant, or than is borne out by the later allusions of scripture respecting him. Had such been really the ground of Jonah’s uneasiness he would have deserved the severest rebuke and chastisement, especially considering what he had already suffered from warring against the mind and purposes of God. And yet the Lord does no more than mildly expostulate with him, and, by a course of treatment much more remarkable for its gentleness and condescension than for its severity, tries to convince him of his mistake. Not only so; but, when we come down to New Testament times, we find such honourable mention made of Jonah, and such a close resemblance drawn by our Lord himself between his own mission as a prophet and that of Jonah’s, that we cannot rest with satisfaction in the view suggested above. We cannot believe such marked and honourable reference would have been made to him, if he had been the selfish, perverse, unreasonable creature he is represented to have been; but are rather driven to the conviction, that deeper views and less discreditable feelings gave the tone to his behaviour here, than such as a hasty glance might naturally dispose one to imagine.

Besides, viewing the matter even on the lowest ground, and with reference to the prophet’s repute in the world, it must surely have appeared to any one but the most depraved or childish being, a far more ennobling distinction to have been, under God, the reformer of a great people and the saviour of their city, than simply to have been known as the herald who had truly announced its doom. Though what he proclaimed had not literally taken place, his preaching was still the instrumental cause of saving the city from ruin; and if carnal ambition had wrought in his bosom if worldly honour, in reality, was the jewel so dear to him it seems hard to understand why he should have wished an opposite result, at least so passionately wished it as to have longed for death because he had been disappointed in the object of his desire.

But what reason have we to suppose that Jonah’s vexation and concern turned at all upon the point of his own veracity, and, as connected with that, his reputation in the world? This is nowhere expressed, nor even hinted at in the text, and is but an inference hastily and unwarrantably drawn, from there being apparently no other motive at hand to account for such keen dissatisfaction and pungent sorrow in the prophet’s bosom. It is carefully to be noted, however, that in his address to God not only is no stress laid upon the failure of the prediction, but no mention whatever is made of it; the exercise of the divine clemency, and the saving of Nineveh from destruction, is the whole that is brought into view. So much had the thought of this weighed upon the prophet’s feelings, weighed even as a depressing load upon the energies of his mind, that he alleges it now as the main reason why he had at first shunned the charge committed to him, and fled to Tarshish. But the charge then given, it will be remembered, did not require Jonah to announce the destruction of Nineveh; it simply required him to cry against the Ninevites, because their sins were crying for vengeance in the ear of God. This would certainly have betokened that they were in danger of the divine judgments; but it would not have placed Jonah in a position in which he run any risk of having his veracity impeached. It was only on the second commission being given that the word put into his mouth took the definite form of a proclamation, that the city should be overthrown in forty days. Yet, in the expression he now gave to his feelings, he appears to have entirely overleapt this new turn of affairs, and throws himself back upon the original ground of dissatisfaction he is vexed and chagrined for no other “reason, so far as we can judge, than that there was here a new exercise of the divine forbearance, and a city spared that had deserved to go to perdition. This precisely is the point we have to account for: Why should such a manifestation of the divine goodness have sunk so heavily upon the soul of this man of God? why, when apparently gaining, beyond all reasonable expectation, the great end for which he had come to exercise in Nineveh the calling of a prophet, should he have regarded the very success of his mission as taking from him all that was worth living for?

It is manifest, from the simple stating of the question, that Jonah must have viewed his mission to Nineveh, not as an ultimate thing, but as occupying the relation of means to an end as connected with some other object of pre-eminent importance, to which he thought it should have been made altogether subservient. If Nineveh alone had been concerned, he could not but have rejoiced in the result actually obtained; but there was an ulterior and higher object in his eye, on which it seemed to tell so unfavourably, that sorrow the most pungent filled his heart. And to learn what this object was, we have no need to travel into the regions of conjecture; we have only to think of his calling as a prophet in Israel, and to suppose him bent on the attainment of its great end, the spiritual and temporal good of the people like every true prophet, finding in that the thing for which he lived and breathed. This we are not only warranted, but bound, to regard as the paramount consideration in Jonah’s mind; and he must somehow have come to regard the destruction of Nineveh as fitted to act most powerfully in promoting it, and the preservation of Nineveh most disastrously in hindering it. How should he have thought thus?

We must bear in mind, while we inquire into the matter, that the book which contains the record of Jonah’s relation to Nineveh, possesses for the Church somewhat of the nature of a parable; what it reports is to be regarded as an acted lesson an instruction from God under the cover of a history. Like every thing of this description, it has a deeper meaning than meets the eye at first; it requires to be thought upon and pondered by the people of God, otherwise they are sure to fail in catching its true design, and to miss the important truths with which it is fraught. This is evident from the use our Lord makes of it, gathering, as he does, from this history of Jonah and his work at Nineveh, a voice that reached even to the men of his own generation, and discovering in it a sign which called for their especial notice and regard. How much more must the things it records, when known as current transactions, have been a sign to the generation itself in Israel, among whom the prophet lived and laboured! And how much did it concern them to listen to the voice which spake through these events for their instruction and warning, and to make themselves acquainted with its fullest import!

The people of that generation, as we before saw, were in the last stages of degeneracy, and trembling on the brink of ruin. All efforts had hitherto failed to recover them from idolatry and corruption; and the Lord, before finally abandoning them to their fate, sought once more to move them from their course, by working upon them through feelings of jealousy and shame. For this purpose he stept out of the usual tenor of his way, and did the marvellous work in Nineveh we have already discoursed of exhibiting there the example of a people, who repented at the preaching merely of one prophet and on the deliverance of one message and were thereby saved from impending ruin. What God really meant to teach the people of Israel by this example, was the inexcusable character of their own impenitence if they should still continue to persevere in it, and the inevitable certainty of the destruction which in that case must alight upon them. Repenting Nineveh had proved herself more deserving of the divine favour than backsliding and apostate Israel; the children of the covenant had not only sunk to a level with the heathen, but in comparison of this particular people had fallen visibly below them: therefore the outward relations also must be changed Israel go down, the heathen rise to distinction.

Now, it is surely not unreasonable to suppose, that when Jonah saw how bent the Lord was on sending him to Nineveh, and what a wonder had been wrought in his own experience to have a work of God accomplished there, he might have come to understand that the work was intended to have an important bearing on the kingdom of Israel; while yet it is more than probable, from having his eye intent only upon one great point, that he might misapprehend the precise kind of bearing which the Lord chiefly intended it to have. Living in the days of the second Jeroboam, when a new tide of prosperity had been constantly flowing in upon the kingdom of Israel, and had given rise to an almost universal dissoluteness and profligacy, he had the mortification, not only to labour long comparatively in vain, but also to witness a growing declension among the people, who thought they could afford, amid the fulness of their sufficiency, to slight his admonitions and despise his warnings. In such painful circumstances, how could he avoid sighing for some remarkable suspension of the forbearance and goodness of God, which they were so shamefully abusing? some salutary visitation of judgment which might startle them from their false security, and convince them effectually that destruction was certain to overtake the transgressors? Oh! where we can conceive him to have exclaimed where is the Lord God of Elijah? Where is the arm of might that in his days caused its thunders to be heard by the deadest heart, and with terrible things in righteousness arrested the people when they were rushing onward to the gulf of ruin? The awful retributions of justice which were then inflicted, are too long past to be remembered now; overflowing prosperity has filled the hearts of the people with madness; and if the Lord does not speedily avenge his cause by some new displays of severity, all will soon be irretrievably lost.

Thus we can easily understand how Jonah might feel discouraged and oppressed most of all by the thought of the Lord’s clemency and goodness how this might even hang as a deadening load upon his mind, when the commission was first given him to go to Nineveh, leading him to regard the work of reform assigned to him there as a hopeless undertaking; and how he might despair of any thing effectual being done in the cause of God, unless there were first given a striking example of severity. We can also easily understand how readily he would imagine, when he actually stood within the precincts of Nineveh, and had received the command to proclaim its downfal in forty days, that now at last he was to obtain that very example of severity which he had conceived to be so needful that the Lord was indeed going to vindicate the honour of his name upon wicked transgressors, by making even proud Nineveh, like Sodom and Gomorrah, a monument of ruin and that, from witnessing this awful display of judgment, he would go back to resume his labours among his own people, with such an argument as he never had before, and could never expect to have again, to persuade their return from sin to the love and service of God.

Such then, being, as we have every reason to believe, the state of Jonah’s mind, it requires no stretch of imagination to conceive what a grievous disappointment it would be for him to see Nineveh still spared, and the very weapon wrested out of his hand by which he had hoped to prevail with his thoughtless and rebellious countrymen. It was not that he was a man of a proud humour, or a merciless disposition, and could have looked with fiendish delight on the overthrow of that great city; but that he loved his own people so intensely, and was so firmly persuaded that an act of severity was required to arouse them from their false security it was this, which caused his bosom to burn with vexation when he found Nineveh was still to be spared. For how could he return again to speak to his degenerate countrymen? What hope could he any longer have of labouring with success among them? How certainly would they look to the outward result merely of the case, and take new courage to go on in their sins by this new manifestation of the mercy and forbearance of God? Instead of having reached a higher vantage-ground, from which to urge their return to God, he felt as if a signal discouragement had been thrown in his way;’ and it seemed now, that nothing more remained for him to say or to do it were even better for him to die than to live.

Jonah’s state of mind on this occasion appears to have been very similar to that of Elijah, at the memorable period when he fled from the face of Jezebel into the wilderness. After long waiting for some decisive turning-point in the grand controversy that was then proceeding between Jehovah and Baal, he had at last found what he sought; in the presence of all Israel the fire of heaven had come down and consumed the Lord’s sacrifice on Carmel, so that the hearts of the people seemed to be at once turned back again to Jehovah, and with one consent they rose up and slew the prophets of Baal. In the exultation of the moment Elijah thought the conflict was now ended; Jehovah had given the most striking display of his presence and glory that could reasonably be expected, and apparently with triumphant success. But when he heard that the immediate effect on Jezebel was only to rouse her enmity into greater fury, and that she had vowed to be revenged on him by the shedding of his blood, the disappointment was too great even for that iron-nerved prophet to bear with equanimity; and in the recoil of feeling which arose from seeing such hopes and efforts vanishing in fruitlessness, he besought the Lord to take away his life. He had spent his last arrow, and it proved unsuccessful why should he live any longer on the earth? Such precisely seems to have been Jonah’s feeling. After long labouring in vain, and enduring much faintness of spirit on account of the prevailing heedlessness and profligacy, he had been brought to the very verge of an event which promised, if it had occurred, to operate with mighty power upon the hearts of the people, and bring, as it were, a new element of life into the corrupting mass and all suddenly failed! he found himself again where he was, and with prospects even worse than before; so that life was no longer desirable.

In the case of neither of these prophets was this state of feeling right. It was the offspring of infirmity, such as naturally arose from partial views of the purposes of God, and hasty judgments respecting his procedure; but still it was the infirmity of noble minds minds consumed with zeal for the glory of God and the spiritual good of men, and feeling as if life for them had ceased to be a boon, when the high ends for which they mainly held it appeared to be no longer attainable. Such a state of feeling is indeed too lofty, it moves in too elevated a region of spiritual being, to be properly sympathized with by the common run even of religious persons. But they can sympathize with it who have known what it is to have had their hearts set upon the doing of some great work for the welfare of their fellow-men, and have seen a cloud of chilling disappointment coming between them and the object of their beneficent labours. Especially can they sympathize with it who have dedicated themselves with their whole heart to the work of the ministry, and have known in their own experience the crushing effect of labours defeated of their design, and hopes most fondly cherished becoming for ever shipwrecked they can understand how the men of God, who, against fearful odds and in evil times, had to maintain the cause of righteousness, might experience, when the conflict went sore against them, such a sinking of soul as would lead them to prefer death rather than life; and God himself, who knows our frame, can also understand and sympathize with it. Hence his method of dealing with the infirmity in the instances referred to, is so remarkable for its tenderness and condescension; while we see him throwing no cloak over it, on the one hand, we hear him bringing against it no severe reproach or heavy condemnation on the other; he graciously stoops to press the fainting spirit to his bosom, and, like an affectionate parent, plies it with such gentle and timely correctives as are fitted to restore it to healthfulness and vigour.

It is well, indeed, for persons of a soft and easy sentimentalism to denounce such moods of soul in heaven’s nobler witnesses for the truth, as wild outbursts of passion or the workings of a gloomy fanaticism; and to reserve their sympathy for those who can coolly wait upon the tides of mercy, and, with evil only appearing, can still please themselves with the hope that all may come right at the last. Theirs is a cheap philanthropy. They know nothing of that vicarious benevolence which identifies itself with the objects of its regard, and makes their interests and dangers its own. But wherever the spirit of this higher benevolence breathes, men feel that they have to do with stern realities when handling the burden of sin and the woes of retribution; there is a deathlike earnestness and severity in their struggle with evil; their very life and happiness is bound up with the issue. Hence, so long as the hope of success animates their bosom, there is nothing in labour or suffering they will not readily undergo; and if, when that hope fails them, their hand should forget its skill to work, their heart become faint, life itself cease to be desirable, they but prove themselves to be still compassed about with human infirmity; they have not reached the matchless virtue which no discouragement can overpower. But never surely can men be fitter objects of tenderness and pity than when thus broken and oppressed in spirit; and never can railing accusation be more grievously misplaced than when directed against them in such a time of nature’s weakness and misgiving.

Let us learn, however, even from the failures of such giant warriors in the service of God. Elijah and Jonah both erred from taking too limited and partial a view of God’s power and purposes, though by looking in somewhat different directions. Elijah had seen a display of God’s severity; but was disappointed and grieved because the spiritual result had not sprung from it so immediately and to such an extent as he had expected. He did not yet know, though he came in process of time to learn, how deep a work of reformation had already commenced, and how much he might still be enabled to do to help it forward, not so much by weapons of terror, as by the “still small voice” of counsel, admonition, and encouragement, uttered from house to house among the thousands of Israel. Jonah again erred, because, not being permitted to see a display of severity, he thought the only measure was withheld which could effectually promote the interests of godliness, and nothing remained for him but to witness anew, and on a still larger scale than before, the wanton abuse of God’s mercy and forbearance. He did not yet know that the Lord had important purposes to serve by this example of mercy to the penitent, such as could not have been accomplished by an example of severity on the unbelieving and profligate. He did not know this; but he should in faith and patience have waited for the development of God’s purposes, believing that there were important purposes to be developed, only lying beyond the ken of his present apprehension. Indeed, he was too outward in his view he looked too little to the repentance of Nineveh perhaps was at too little pains to make himself acquainted with its earnest and extensive character fixed his eye too exclusively on the mere external movements of providence; and with his soul bent only on one great end, took no thought how the result actually obtained might be made to tell on other ends still more important, and how it might serve beyond any other plan to display the manifold wisdom of God. Could Jonah have foreseen the place those transactions at Nineveh were to hold in the history of the world, and the use to be made of them by the incarnate Word himself, how readily would he have acquiesced in what was actually done! How cheerfully would he have exclaimed, “He hath done all things well; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working!”

The lesson for us, then, is, that God’s way is still the best; for he sees the end from the beginning, and directs all with infinite skill and unerring wisdom. If we could alter in any particular the plan of Providence, it would not be for the better, but for the worse. And though there are trials at times meeting us in the path of duty, for the present painful to be borne, yet it is at once our duty and our wisdom to take all patiently. In due time we shall reap, if we faint not; and as God’s will must prevail, there is no burden which impatience will not aggravate, no labour or affliction which, through patience, may not become a blessing.

Verse 5


IT would seem, from the concluding portion of the narrative, that the Divine purpose respecting Nineveh had been communicated somewhat gradually to Jonah, and that he had not been at the first certified of the absolute recall of the threatened judgment. A present suspension of the judgment appears to have been all that meanwhile became known to him; and the apprehension still lingered in his bosom, that some display of severity would take place, only at a later period, or in a less appalling form than had been announced. He could not yet believe that matters would be allowed to resume their former course of peace and prosperity, without a strong demonstration given from above of the guilt of former iniquities. And in this belief not from any sullenness of temper, as is often gratuitously imagined, but merely with the design of observing, as from a watch-tower, the march of Divine providence, yet imperfectly disclosed to him “he 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.”

The brief account of this part of the transactions renders it impossible for us to speak with certainty of the ground of Jonah’s views and expectations. We cannot suppose that he was so utterly ignorant of the repentance that had taken place among the people, or so little acquainted with the principles of the Divine government, as to have looked for precisely the same kind and measure of severity now, that would have been suitable if no decided effect had been produced by his preaching. Neither of these suppositions can be regarded as in the least degree credible. But there is no improbability in supposing, that, both from his position as a stranger, and from the peculiar character of the mission given him to discharge in Nineveh, Jonah was but imperfectly acquainted with the spirit of repentance awakened among its people; nor is it unlikely that he was aware of many who had not undergone any real change so many as might warrant, in his own mind, the belief that judgment, to some extent, might still righteously be executed. And there is also room for entertaining another thought respecting him. With all that he felt and spake of the richness of God’s mercy and goodness, he might, even with a conviction of the general penitence of the people, have judged a certain degree of severity perfectly compatible with God’s righteousness. This, it must be remembered, was a point on which the economy of the Old Testament shed a comparatively defective light. There is nowhere in that portion of God’s revelations which had been given before the time of Jonah, such a manifestation of sovereign grace, freely and at once restoring the penitent sinner to the full enjoyment of God’s favour and blessing, as can once be compared to that unfolded in the parable of the prodigal son. The dispensation of Moses peculiarly failed here, being adapted throughout and, from its shadowy and imperfect nature, necessarily adapted to impress more upon men’s convictions the evil and condemnation of sin, than to lay open to them the riches of Divine beneficence. Accordingly, David’s repentance, though betokening the most intense sorrow and remorse on account of sin, did not save him from certain painful executions of judgment. And Jonah’s own experience also, driven forth, as he had been, like a forlorn outcast into the deep, after the most pungent feelings of contrition had been awakened in his bosom, had only brought a new proof of the judgment which was then wont to mingle so much with mercy in the procedure of God. Can we, then, be surprised if he should have deemed it probable that Nineveh, even when repenting, might be visited with tokens of displeasure, though the doom originally threatened was no longer to be enforced? We must endeavour to picture his state of mind, not from a New, but from an Old Testament point of view; and remember that, though he was a prophet, he still had to take his ideas of God’s character and dealings from the comparatively imperfect pattern of things belonging to the dispensation under which he lived.

These considerations appear to me perfectly sufficient to account for a state of mind in Jonah such as might induce him, without any disobedience to the will of God, so far as that had yet been made known to him, to go and erect a booth at some distance from the city, where he might wait in anxious expectation to see what would become of it. What he still needed to learn, and what he must also be taught to acquiesce in, was the largeness of the mercy to be extended to Nineveh that it amounted to an entire remission of the threatened penalty. And, partly to convey to him this instruction, partly also to commend it to him as reasonable and just, nay, as of essential moment to the best interests of the Divine kingdom, his temporary lodging was turned for him into a school of discipline, and he was taught, from the things of his own experience, to rise to higher and more enlightened views of the procedure of God.

Verses 6-11

In transcribing the account of this transaction, we must take leave to substitute the Septuagint rendering, for that in the common version, of the peculiar phrase explained in a note at the beginning of last chapter, and simply notice, by way of information to those who may need it, that what are called booths in Scripture are temporary frames or sheds, hastily run up with slender bits of wood, and presenting many openings, through which either wind or heat may penetrate. “And the Lord God prepared a gourd, (It is of no moment, as to the meaning of the passage, what the particular plant might be which is here denominated gourd, or whether this may be its proper designation. The Hebrew name is kikajon, and seems to be the same with the Egyptian kiki, the common ricinus, or castor-oil plant, sometimes also called palm-crist, the name adopted in the margin of our Bibles. This plant is known to be very common in the East, and, from its broad foliage and the softness of its stem, answers well to the description of the text.) and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might he a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. [Mark here the proof incidentally given of the real affection under which Jonah laboured grief, not anger.] So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd. But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered. And it came to pass, when 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. And God said to Jonah, Art thou very much grieved for the gourd? And he said, I am very much grieved, even to death. Then said the Lord, 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: and should I not 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?”

While undergoing this salutary and instructive process, Jonah appears at different stages in two very different, and even opposite, frames of mind. But in both alike it has fared with him according to the proverb, “We have piped to you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned, and ye have not wept.” For in the one he has been represented as a poor sensual creature, “rejoicing in his creature-comforts,” and thinking all was well if he could but enjoy himself a little under the refreshing shade of his temporary gourd; while in the other he is charged with giving way to pettish and malignant humours, having “a bosom that swelled with anger,” and continuing still self-willed, and “so intractable as even to contend with God.” So the author of Jonah’s portraiture; (The Rev. Thomas Jones.) and another, but much older, delineator, handles him a little more roughly still: “Was there ever man under heaven so testy and peevish, to chop thus with his Maker, and still the further he goeth, the more to be out of square?” The author denounces “the rigour of his fury and the cruelty of his stomach,” and holds him up to reprobation as one “so filled with choler that he fretted and chafed with the Lord.” (Abbot’s Exposition upon the Prophet Jonah, vol. ii, lect. xxvii. xxviii.) Matters have not grown better for Jonah as the world has grown older; for a more recent delineator than either of the preceding, the late venerable author of a practical exposition of the book of Jonah, represents the prophet as exhibiting at this time “a proud, sullen, and discontented spirit” as a person of such rare and desperate malignity, that “he could turn the very goodness of God into a ground of accusation against him” as presenting a sight so odious that imagination cannot picture to itself one more revolting and needlessly plunging himself into distress from the violence of his own unhallowed temper. (Dr Peddie’s Lectures on Jonah, ix and x.) But if the case were so with Jonah, we surely must, in consistence, forego his claim to be considered even yet a subject of grace; for he must then be regarded as going off the stage in a most presumptuous opposition to God not only rebelling against the Divine will, but also “defending his rebellious conduct.” And if the man of whom this could be said in truth and said, too, at the close of a most remarkable train of providences, fitted, if any thing could be, to cure a perverse spirit of its waywardness if that man was still a child of God, there must have been a peculiarity in his case, for which we shall look in vain for any parallel in Scripture; and the worst symptoms of nature’s depravity must be held quite compatible with the existence of the life of God.

By much the greater portion of these hard charges against Jonah arise from the mistaken view entertained of his character, as being a man chiefly concerned about his own reputation, coupled with the false translation, which not only ascribes to him the passion of anger, instead of grief, but also gives him the appearance of justifying himself in his anger. Having already removed these grounds of misapprehension, we have the less difficulty in viewing the behaviour of Jonah on the present occasion in a more favourable light, and also in discerning some higher reasons for the treatment of God toward him, than if it aimed merely at the dislodgement of a foolish and fretful humour from his bosom. Jonah was disconcerted and downcast because the example of severity had been withheld, which he thought would operate so beneficially upon the minds of his countrymen, and without which he seemed to have no means of attaining the great end and object of his life. What, in such circumstances, was needed to rectify his mistake and restore him to a better mind? It was plainly something that would turn his thoughts out of that one channel in which they were so determinately running, and presenting to him other ends to be accomplished by the transactions at Nineveh than had yet entered his imagination to conceive.

For this purpose the Lord permitted him to go and construct his frail booth in the neighbourhood of the city, and to experience there for a time great uneasiness from the glowing heat of a vertical sun and a parching wind. He then suddenly brought over him the shadow of a broad foliage, by the extraordinary growth of a little plant, but this only to make him feel more intensely the force of the noxious elements to which he was exposed, by again as suddenly causing the plant to wither, so that Jonah fainted under the distress that came upon him, and would have found death itself a happy release. The instrument through which this overpowering effect was produced may seem very small in itself, and scarcely adequate to the occasion; but it must be viewed in connexion with the attendant circumstances, and especially with the mental depression under which Jonah laboured. It was, besides, precisely such a thing as was fitted to shut his mouth in regard to God’s dealing with Nineveh; and not only to do that, but, at the same time, to let in a flood of light upon his soul respecting the purposes which that dealing was destined to advance. For what room was left for dissatisfaction or complaint when the Lord proceeded to ask him how since he would so willingly have spared this little gourd, and grieved so much for its loss because its presence had been refreshing to him he could not much rather justify God in sparing the large city of Nineveh, the dwelling-place of such myriads of living beings, and the subject of so much paternal anxiety and care? Must there not be some unhappy bias in the mind which so keenly felt the destruction of the one, and so ardently longed for the destruction of the other?

Yes; but perhaps it may be thought that this scarcely meets the point mainly at issue. For the matter seems here to be put simply on natural grounds; the appeal is only made from the comparative insignificance of the plant to the gigantic magnitude of the city, and the little concern Jonah had with the one to the great concern God had with the other; and in these respects there was no room even for a moment’s hesitation as to the answer that should be returned to the question addressed to the prophet. But might not Jonah still have rejoined, or at least silently reflected in his mind, that it was not on natural, but on spiritual, grounds he had sought the execution of judgment on Nineveh that he had desired this merely on account of the vindication it was fitted to give of God’s righteousness, and its tendency to promote the advancement of his kingdom in Israel; while the sparing of the gourd or the city, considered in respect to the littleness of the one and the magnitude and importance of the other, was a thing confined only to the region of nature? No doubt, he might have so rejoined if he had looked to the mere surface of the transaction; but viewing what was said and done as he could not avoid doing in the light of a parable, concealing under the outward veil a deep moral import, he would soon discover the entire suitableness of the instruction to the matter in hand. The natural, which is alone in both cases distinctly brought into view, was but a ladder through which the mind of the prophet might rise to corresponding spiritual reflections; and the key to the spiritual lies in the need which Jonah for the time had of the foliage of the gourd. In other circumstances it might have been a matter of entire indifference to him what happened to the plant, whether it had been spared or destroyed; but, situated as he then was, depending for his comfort, and in a sense also for his life, on its ample foliage, its sudden destruction necessarily came upon him as a sore calamity. And such now the Lord would have him to consider was the case in respect to Nineveh, as a city that feared the name and obeyed the voice of the Lord: in the sad degeneracy of the times, God’s cause had need of it, and would suffer damage by its overthrow, much as Jonah’s material wellbeing had suffered by the withering of the gourd.

If Israel had been faithful to his calling, and had fulfilled aright his original destination, to be himself holiness to the Lord, and a light amidst the surrounding heathenism, then, indeed, the Lord might have dispensed with any special service from Nineveh. Or, if there had been any hope of the people in the kingdom of Israel being still brought permanently to a better mind by some great example of severity falling out in their neighbourhood, he might have been less intent on the repentance and preservation of Nineveh. But this hope could no longer be entertained. Every thing had already been tried with them of that description which was likely to tell, with effect on their spiritual condition. Judgments of the most appalling kind had time after time been wrought among themselves, and had once and again reduced them to the brink of absolute and utter ruin, yet never with any thing more than a very partial and transient effect: as soon as prosperity again returned, the evil broke forth anew as foully and flagrantly as before. It was by other means than even the most stunning judgment on such a city as Nineveh that God must now work, if any important result was to he achieved among the profligate subjects of Jeroboam; he must call their jealousy into exercise; and by the example of a great people suddenly reformed and spared as a token of Divine favour and blessing, arouse them, if possible, to the alarming consideration, that the kingdom of heaven was ready to retire from its ancient seat, and be transplanted to another which would more willingly yield its spiritual fruits. Yes, the Lord at this time peculiarly had need of Nineveh in its now reformed condition; the cause of righteousness in the earth could ill afford to spare so singular a witness to the truth; the spiritual good of Israel itself in particular required it; and the tidings which the prophet could now carry back of Nineveh’s repentance and happy rescue from impending destruction, would he found, if properly understood and believed, far more fitted than the news of its overthrow could have been, to operate with power upon the hearts of his countrymen, and recall them to the true worship and service of God.

This was the course of procedure specially adapted to the condition of backsliding Israel; and yet the Lord knew well beforehand, that even this would fail to produce any general and permanent effect upon their minds. He knew that the time must speedily arrive when the seed of Jacob those of Ephraim first, and then those of Judah should be cast out of the inheritance, and scattered among the nations. And though the event would necessarily fall as a terrible disaster upon the people at large, yet for the small remnant who feared the Lord, or such as might then be inclined to turn to him, it was not by any means to prove an unmitigated evil; there would be hope for them even in what might seem to the eye of sense to be their latter end; and in the background of this dealing of God with Nineveh there lay a promise of good for the period of exile itself. The thought that, however the things which had happened in Nineveh might tell upon Israel, they must first be viewed in respect to its own people; that in this primary point of view they possessed an inherent importance, and were fitted to conduce most materially to the glory of God this thought, which the Lord plainly sought from the first to impress upon Jonah, and which was embodied anew in the matter-of-fact parable of the gourd, provided for all the faithful among the coming exiles a sure ground of consolation and hope. They were thus taught beforehand, by a most illustrious example, that something might be done for God beyond the bounds of the land of Canaan, which might greatly tend to spread the knowledge of his name and advance the interests of his kingdom. They had failed, as a people, in Canaan to fulfil their destiny to be witnesses for the truth of God in the world, and a blessing to the nations of the earth; but this destiny, they would now see, might still in great part be accomplished even when they were banished from Canaan and scattered among the nations; the work of Jonah at Nineveh might on a small scale be perpetually repeating itself. And this reflection would lie the nearer to them, as Jonah himself, before he was so highly honoured of God in Nineveh, had also undergone the treatment of an outcast and borne the punishment of his sin; his history stood before them as a palpable proof, that their outcast condition would prove no obstruction to their future usefulness in the service of God. If they would but faithfully apply themselves to what God required at their hands, he would, notwithstanding the evils that befell them, give effect to their testimony and render them a blessing. So that the result of Jonah’s mission to Nineveh, while it rung a solemn warning in the ears of the backsliding and wicked in Israel, proclaiming the certainty of their overthrow if they repented not, opened up at the same time for the good a way to honour and enlargement in the things of God, which the darkest events in providence might not prevent them from occupying with honour and success.

Indeed, we cannot but think that this prospective lesson, furnished by the transactions at Nineveh and the parable of the gourd, though not the most immediate and direct, was still a very prominent object in the divine purposes. There are tides in the history of the world, as well as in the private affairs of men; and matters were now approaching a great crisis in that region of the world, which required to be met by a new turn in the outward destination of his Church. How the course of providence might have been ordered in respect to the nations of the earth, if the Israelites had continued a holy and united people, diffusing light and blessing around, it is not for us now to conjecture. But as it had become too clearly manifest that this was no longer to be expected, the Lord permitted a succession of huge monarchies to arise, over which it was in the nature of things impossible for Israel to obtain a political ascendancy, or, while standing apart, to exert any important influence. Yet Israel must still be, as God had promised to Abraham, the appointed channel of blessing to the nations; and the question was, how could this calling now be best fulfilled? Not simply by maintaining their ancient position in Canaan; they must get somehow nearer the helm of affairs, and have the opportunity of reaching the springs of action in the world; and this they could only do by being broken up and scattered, and to some extent intermingled with the nations. Jonah in Nineveh now, Daniel and his holy comrades in Babylon afterwards, were to serve for signs to Israel of the manner in which the people of God were henceforth to display his banner, and influence for his glory the current of events.

Besides, in process of time the great stream of power and dominion among men was to take a new direction, and flow into other channels than it had hitherto done. Long before the era of redemption, Nineveh and Babylon were to be laid in ruins, and the sceptre which had been wielded by them was to be transferred to entirely different regions of the world. At that era it was not Syria, or the adjacent countries to the north, but Asia Minor, Northern Africa, Greece, Rome, and the southern parts of Europe, which formed the seats of intelligence and power, and from which the influence was to come that should mould the future destinies of the world. Hence, however necessary it may have been for the Jews as a separate people to regain possession of the land of Canaan, and sojourn there till redemption was brought in, it was not less necessary and important, that they should also be found scattered in considerable numbers through the regions referred to, so as to be able to spread abroad the leaven of a living faith and a pure worship. And by this means, much more than by their re-settlement in the land of Canaan, taken by itself, was it in their power to bend the current of men’s views into the right channel, and to prepare the way for the diffusion of Christianity.

That the Jews really employed the power and the opportunities thus placed at their command to the extent they might have done, it is impossible to believe; and yet, that they did so to a very considerable extent, is put beyond a doubt by the records of New Testament Scripture itself. We see plainly enough that it was not so much the people living in Jerusalem or Judea, as those belonging to the regions already mentioned, who chiefly contributed to the establishment of the Christian Church in the world. Wherever Paul and the first heralds of the gospel went, they found at every influential position a nucleus of devout Jews and proselytes from the Gentiles, ready to hail the tidings of salvation, and erect the standard of the cross. Had these preparatory elements been wanting had the gospel of Jesus been left to make its way through the dense heathenism of the ancient world without the help of such persons in the more important places it would doubtless have succeeded in the end, but it would probably have taken ages to effect what in less than one was actually accomplished.

For, in the short space of thirty years after the death of Christ, we find that his religion had spread, not only through Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, but also through the numerous districts of Asia Minor, through Greece and the islands of the AEgean Sea, the sea-coast of Africa, and had extended itself to Rome and to Italy. And at the close of little more than a century, Justin Martyr boldly affirms, that “there was not a nation, either Greek or Barbarian, or of any other name, amongst whom prayers and thanksgivings are not offered to the Father and Creator of the universe in the name of the crucified Jesus. (See Paley’s Evidence, Part II., ch. 9, where much more to the same purpose is to be found.)

It is true that the greater portion of the Jews, and some also of the proselytes, every where offered the most determined opposition to Christianity. But it is not the less true, that there was always a spiritual portion who became its zealous adherents, and who, by the diffusion of the knowledge of God as disclosed in Old Testament Scripture, had already, amid the declining influence of heathenism, done much to predispose the minds of men for the blessed realities of the gospel. They had not only witnessed for the truth of God among the idolatrous nations, but had been also so active and successful in the propagation of the truth, as to incur many a taunt from heathens on the subject, as well as to receive the approving testimony of their own historian. (Josephus says in Apion II., c. 36: “We choose not to imitate the institutions of other people, but we willingly embrace all that will follow ours.” In the 20th book of his Antiquities, he gives an account of the conversion of an entire people, those of Adiabene, to the Jewish faith; and in his Wars, vii. c. 3, § 3, he says of the Jews at Antioch, that they were “continually bringing a great number of Greeks to their religion,” and incidentally reports of Damascus, ii. c. 20, § 2, that nearly all the women there were devoted to the Jewish religion. In regard to heathen authors, Horace, for example, Sat. 1. 1:4, alludes to the Jews as the very personification of active and energetic zeal in constraining others to be of their way. Seneca too, as quoted by Augustine, De Civ. Dei, l. vi. c. 11, speaks of the Jewish religion as having been received every where, and adds, “the conquered have given laws to the conquerors” (vioti victoribus legis dederunt); thus partly and in the noblest sense executing the vengeance which, according to Psalms 149:0, they were to practise among the heathen. This subject, however, has not yet been thoroughly investigated; but what has been said is sufficient for our present purpose.) And as it was by means of their dispersion that they were thus enabled to operate so extensively in the great centres of heathenism, and to break up the fallow-ground for the seed of the gospel, the event itself of the dispersion should not he regarded by any means as an unmingled evil; it was an evil only in the first instance, but was both designed and overruled by God for a higher good than could otherwise have been attained. Their partial separation from Canaan and scattering among the nations, proved but another and more effectual way of securing the grand end for which most of all they had been at first planted in the land of promise.

Surely, when we reflect on all these things when we see how wonderfully God had planned his operations in providence, contemplating the end from the beginning how even, when thwarting the desires of his servant Jonah, he was still taking the most effectual method of promoting the objects which Jonah had chiefly at heart and how he was at the same time lighting the way to operations and results such as Jonah had probably never so much as dreamt of it well becomes us to exclaim in humble adoration with the apostle, “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor? or who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed to him again? For of him, and through him, and to him are all things, to whom be glory for ever. Amen.”

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Jonah 4". "Fairbairn's Commentary on Ezekiel, Jonah and Pastoral Epistles". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/fbn/jonah-4.html.
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