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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Jonah 4

 

 

Verse 1

‘But it displeased Jonah greatly, and he was angry.’

Jonah was not at all pleased that God had had mercy on the Ninevites, indeed he was more than displeased he was very angry. The greatness of his anger is stressed by the repeating of the idea. But why was he so angry? There are a number of possibilities:

Firstly it may have been because he considered that it made a mockery of his prophetic ability. He had prophesied the destruction of Nineveh but it had not happened. And the consequence of that was that he could well have been described by some as a ‘false prophet’. He may have felt that God had made a fool of him.

· Secondly it may have been because he did not believe that YHWH’s mercy should be available to non-Israelites. However, as he had clearly expected YHWH to have mercy on the mariners, and had himself been willing to die to make it possible for them to be spared, this seems not to be a likely option.

· Thirdly it may have been because the Assyrians had at some stage performed atrocities in northern Israel which had affected Jonah’s family so that he did not like the idea of Assyrians being forgiven. But as he will now tell YHWH that he knew all the time that He would forgive the Assyrians that may be seen as weakening this idea, although as his thinking was clearly not too rational (he knew that he was opposing YHWH) it may be that he was simply irrationally angry at being connected with the forgiving of Assyrians.

The truth is that we are given no clue as to why Jonah was angry so that it is difficult to dogmatically determine between the options. That therefore makes it clear that that was not the issue that the prophecy was strictly concerned with. Indeed, as we have seen, the issue that is emphasised in the prophecy is that of the fact that God will show His mercy to all who are truly repentant. This is what is emphasised in all four chapters. Jonah’s anger only had to be mentioned because it led up to emphasising that fact. The silence would, however, be strange if the point of the prophecy was as a polemic against Jewish exclusivism.


Verses 1-11

YHWH Uses An Illustration In Order to Demonstrate To Jonah The Reasonableness Of His Mercy (Jonah 4:1-11).

The mercy of YHWH having been revealed in chapter 1 to the mariners, in chapter 2 to Jonah, and in chapter 3 to the Ninevites, His mercy is now underlined as God seeks to teach Jonah a lesson in mercy. Jonah was clearly still very angry that YHWH should show mercy to the Assyrians. This may have been because of what they had done to his family when they had previously invaded northern Israel, so that he was unable to forgive them, or it may have been because he felt that the sparing of the Assyrians after he had proclaimed judgment against them demeaned him as a genuine prophet. But his very words to YHWH prove that he had all along seen it as a good possibility that YHWH would spare the Ninevites. After all, why else should He send Jonah to speak against them whilst giving them a forty day period of probation? He thus did not see YHWH as exclusivist.

The way in which YHWH got over His point to Jonah was by initially providing him with genuine shelter from the burning sun, and then causing that shelter to be removed by means of the destructive activity of a worm. When Jonah was angry at the injustice of what had happened to the gourd which had sheltered him, YHWH pointed out to him that if he could have compassion on a mere gourd, which he had had no part in producing, how much more should YHWH, Whom he himself had declared to be merciful, slow to anger and abundant in compassion, have mercy on a whole city of people whom He had created, numbering over one hundred and twenty thousand people, not forgetting their domestic animals.

Analysis of Jonah 4:1-11.

a But it displeased Jonah greatly, and he was angry, and he prayed to YHWH, and said, “I pray you, O YHWH, was not this what I said when I was yet in my own country? Therefore I rushed to flee to Tarshish, for I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repent yourself of the evil” (Jonah 4:1-2).

b “Therefore now, O YHWH, take, I beg you, my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3).

c And YHWH said, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4).

d Then Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made for himself a shelter, and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city (Jonah 4:5).

e And YHWH God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, in order that it might be a shade over his head, to deliver him from his evil situation (Jonah 4:6 a).

f So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the gourd (Jonah 4:6 b).

e But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd, that it withered (Jonah 4:7).

d And it came about, when the sun arose, that God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat Jonah’s head so that he fainted, and requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8).

c And God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the gourd?” (Jonah 4:9 a).

b And he said, “I do well to be angry, even to death” (Jonah 4:9 b).

a And YHWH said, “You have had regard for the gourd, for which you have not laboured, nor made it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night, and should not I have regard for Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11).

Note that in ‘a’ Jonah reveals his chagrin and outlines the wonder of the mercy of God, and in the parallel YHWH points to that mercy as the reason why He has spared Nineveh. In ‘b’ Jonah asks to die, and in the parallel declares that such an appeal is justified. In ‘c’ YHWH asks him whether he does well to be angry, and in the parallel whether he does well to be angry with the gourd. In ‘d’ Jonah sought to avoid the heat of the sun by making a shelter, and in the parallel he was exhausted by the sun because his shelter does not fulfil its purpose. In ‘e’ YHWH God prepared a gourd to shelter Jonah, and in the parallel God prepared a worm to destroy the gourd. Centrally in ‘f’ Jonah was delighted with the gourd, which was a picture of God’s sheltering mercy.


Verse 2-3

‘And he prayed to YHWH, and said, “I pray you, O YHWH, was not this what I said when I was yet in my own country? Therefore I rushed to flee to Tarshish, for I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repent yourself of the evil. Therefore now, O YHWH, take, I beg you, my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.”

So in his anger Jonah prayed that YHWH would take his life from him because he felt it better to die than to live. That may have been because he felt that he had been discredited as a prophet, or because he could not bear to think of Assyrians as having been forgiven. What is certain is that it was because he regretted having been involved in what had happened. And he pointed out that the reason why he had been in such a hurry to flee to Tarshish was because, being aware of YHWH’s propensity for mercy, he had wanted to avoid having anything to do with YHWH’s plans.

We should note the reason that Jonah gives for his anger. It was because he had known that if he preached in Nineveh and declared their destruction within forty days, God, with His soft heart, would inevitably spare them thus making a fool of Jonah. And he said that he knew this because God was gracious and merciful slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and so much so that if the Ninevites repented He would change His attitude towards them and be gracious to them.

This then was Jonah’s picture of what YHWH basically was, and is one of the points being underlined in the prophecy. That YHWH is merciful to all who call on Him in repentance and faith.


Verse 4

‘And YHWH said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

YHWH then asked him if he really thought that he was doing well by being angry. This is leading up to the main message of the book, that what is right is for the strong to have compassion on the weak, and it is thus right for the strong to be forgiving and merciful, and for Him to have mercy on ignorant man. (As Jonah 4:10 brings out, it is not all Assyrians who are in mind as such, but those who are helpless and weak, although that might indicate all religiously).


Verse 5

‘Then Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made for himself a shelter, and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city.’

Perhaps Jonah had taken YHWH’s words as signifying that maybe he was being too impatient when in fact YHWH had plans to deal with Nineveh after all. This is really the only thing that can explain why Jonah went out to a mountain on the east of Nineveh in order to ‘see what would become of the city’. And because it was very hot he made himself a shelter of boughs and leaves, and sat under its shade awaiting events.


Verse 6

‘So Jonah was extremely glad because of the gourd.’

We are told that Jonah was extremely glad because of the gourd. It had made his wait much more comfortable, and in the mercy of God had relieved him from his ‘evil situation’.


Verse 7

‘But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd, so that it withered.’

However, next morning a worm ‘prepared by God’ chewed away at the gourd with the result that it withered and died, thus providing no more shade. Jonah now had no protection from his evil situation. The mercy of YHWH had been withdrawn. This is the first use of ‘God’ on its own in relation to Jonah. This may have been because He was now not acting as his covenant God (compare ‘YHWH his God’ in Jonah 2:1) but as God over nature, either in an act of chastening, or because He was now treating Jonah as a foreigner for illustrative purposes. In the latter case the withering of the gourd and the subsequent result might be being compared with the ‘evil situation’ of the Assyrians (and previously the mariners) when they were without the shelter of the mercy of God.


Verse 8

‘And it came about, when the sun arose, that God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat Jonah’s head so that he fainted, and requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

Furthermore when the sun arose He prepared a sultry east wind which increased the heat levels so that the burning sun beat down on Jonah’s head even more devastatingly, making him faint. Indeed he found it so uncomfortable that he prayed that he might die, saying that, without the protection that had been provided by God’s mercy it was better for him to die than to live. Whether he meant it seriously we do not know, but in the mood that Jonah was in anything was possible. Perhaps he had Elijah’s request to God in mind, but if so he had far less excuse than Elijah who was being pursued by determined enemies and felt that all had failed. Jonah’s problem was that he had succeeded too well for his own good.


Verse 9

‘And God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the gourd?” And he said, “I do well to be angry, even to death.”

God knew that the reason for Jonah’s request was that he was angry that the gourd had been destroyed or because it had been removed from protecting him, and He therefore asked him whether that was so, and if so whether he thought that a reasonable thing. A disgruntled Jonah basically replied, ‘Yes, and I do well to be angry even if it means my death (or ‘even until I die’).’ In other words he saw the removal of the gourd as possibly leading to his own destruction because of the excessive heat.

Note the continued use of ‘God’. This time God was speaking to Jonah as the One Who alone has authority in natural affairs, and as still acting in severity, or as the One Who was responsible for whatever judgments came on all men. As we saw in the introduction, the usage of terminology in respect of God in Jonah 4:4; Jonah 4:9 is interesting. In Jonah 4:4 YHWH is speaking to Jonah as his covenant God in response to Jonah’s grumble, and asks him, ‘Do you well to be angry?’ about a matter that concerns God’s mercy, and a desired removal of His protection from the Assyrians. It is a matter that is within the covenant relationship because Jonah is His prophet. In Jonah 4:9 God is speaking to Jonah after chastening him when He is speaking severely as God over all Who has just acted in relation to ‘natural events’, possibly also illustrating His activity with regard to all mankind, including the Assyrians. So He again asks him, ‘Do you well to be angry?’ But this time it is ‘for the gourd?’. This parallels what has happened to the gourd with what He was saying in Jonah 4:4 (‘do you well to be angry that I have not moved my protection and mercy from the Assyrians?’). He is speaking as God over all and as the One Who is responsible for all, when dealing with a matter that concerns ‘nature’ and ‘the whole world’, but which is not directly Jonah’s sphere of responsibility. Why should he be angry over what is after all a natural event? And the point is undoubtedly being underlined that Jonah can get so het up about the fate of a gourd which was of such little significance to him (how easily we get upset about little things), and yet not get het up about the fate of the inhabitants of a large city for which as a prophet he should have shared responsibility with YHWH its Creator. It was an indication that Jonah was totally out of line with God’s (and YHWH’s) way of thinking. Once, however, matters turn back to the question of God’s mercy in Jonah 4:10 it will once again be as YHWH.


Verse 10-11

‘And YHWH said, “You have had regard for the gourd, for which you have not laboured, nor made it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night, and should not I have regard for Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?”

YHWH then applies the object lesson that He has been building up to. He pointed out to Jonah that he had become so grateful for the helpless gourd and what it had done for him, that he had become greatly concerned for it, even though it was only a weak, natural object and one which Jonah had not even laboured over or caused to grow. Its destruction had moved him to compassion. (It is often strange what human beings can become over-fond of). Was it not then reasonable that He, YHWH, Who had created the weak Assyrians and their animals, and had caused them to grow, should be equally concerned for them, especially when he considered how much they depended on Him. For if Jonah would but consider the situation he would recognise that Nineveh contained over one hundred and twenty thousand people who could not discern their right hand from their left, in other words who were rather ignorant and helpless people, at least religiously speaking, (or possibly children under a certain age), on whom he should have pity because of their helplessness and need, as well as being a city which had a large number of helpless cattle. The mention of the cattle emphasises the weakness of what He is referring to. And they were ‘natural’ things like the gourd which Jonah had had compassion on. And it was these who were benefiting by God’s mercy and compassion. Was that then so wrong? Thus His rebuke of Jonah was because he had no concern for the weak and needy. He who had had compassion on a mere gourd, was lacking in compassion and mercy when it came to men and women (even if they were Assyrians).

Thus the central message of the prophecy of Jonah is precisely this, that God is of such a nature that He has mercy on all who are weak and admit their weakness, (whoever they are), when they truly turn from sin and seek Him in repentance and faith, a situation which all should be concerned to bring about. This was a vitally important message in 8th century BC Israel for in that land were many Canaanites and followers of false religions (such as Baalism) who needed to know that God had a welcome for them if only they would repent, turn from sin and seek His face.

Indeed the fact is often overlooked that the existence of a prophet like Jonah (and Elijah and Elisha) was proof positive that in the northern kingdom true worship was being continued apart from the Temple at altars presumably set up by the prophets. That was why Elijah had been able to ‘repair the altar of YHWH that had fallen down’ (1 Kings 18:30) and had spoken of other altars wrongly destroyed by the Baalists (1 Kings 19:10). We may assume that they were altars set up under the provisions of Exodus 20:24-26. It was partly in order to win adherents to the worship at these altars that the prophecy of Jonah was written, with a promise that anyone of any nation could come and find acceptance if they came in repentance and faith, in the same way as the mariners and the Assyrians had.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Jonah 4:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/jonah-4.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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