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Bible Commentaries

Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible
Jonah 4

 

 

Verses 1-11

Jonah 4. Jonah's Intolerance Rebuked and God's Mercy Vindicated.—God's clemency to Nineveh made Jonah very angry. It was not, as we might be tempted to suppose, that he felt his professional credit as a prophet to be ruined by the failure of his prediction. The mischief lay deeper than that. For it was patent enough even to the Ninevites that the message left a loophole of escape, and might have for its object to bring them to repentance. While the prediction had failed, its failure was the highest tribute of success to the prophet's mission; there was no cause for wounded vanity in the case of a man who had converted a whole city; and Jonah's reproach to God is not that in His incalculable caprice He has sent him on a fool's errand and made him ridiculous in the sight of the heathen. He suffers from a darker disease than wounded vanity, and has suffered from it all along; it was the ruthless and unrelenting hate of the heathen which made him dread that after all he would not see them destroyed. It is at first sight surprising that Jonah should refuse to take a message of destruction to Nineveh, the hated oppressing city. In the complaint he addresses to God, which the author calls a prayer (cf. Luke 18:10-12), he gives the reason. With wonderful daring the writer represents the prophet as flinging God's mercy in His face as responsible for the refusal of the mission. "Was not this my saying when I was yet in my country? Therefore I hasted to flee unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and full of compassion, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy, and repentest thee of the evil." No message could have given greater pleasure to this savage fanatic than that with which he was entrusted, had it not been for the feeling that he could not depend upon God to carry it out. Had Yahweh been a God after Jonah's own heart, then he would have joyfully undertaken the mission, with the blessed assurance that the doom he announced would be carried out to the letter. But He fell below Jonah's exacting standard of what the God of Israel ought to be. He was not only a stern and righteous God; softer elements were in His nature, and it was only too probable that, just when the prophet was about to slake his thirst for vengeance on the heathen, God would dash the cup of satisfaction from his lips. In his bitter disappointment Jonah felt that death would be better than to live any longer in a world governed by such a God. Yahweh does not, at this stage, reason with him. He asks him only if he does well to be angry, leaving him to ponder the question whether there might not be more to be said for the Divine action than he had yet surmised.

But while he is thus grieved and angry, he has not completely abandoned hope. He may have taken Yahweh's question, Doest thou well to be angry? as an encouragement not to despair of the destruction of Nineveh. However forlorn the hope, still he cherished it; and although he leaves the city that he may no longer be contaminated by contact with it, he stays near enough to see what may happen to it. And now God tries to bring home to him the nature of his conduct. He prepares a gourd, which springs up with magical swiftness, affording a grateful shelter to the prophet, and lifting him out of his depression. And then as swiftly it perishes, smitten by a worm. Having thus stripped him of his shelter, God exposes the prophet to a sultry east wind, and the sun beats on his head. Fainting under the heat, he prays once again that he may die. Then once again God asks him if he does well to be angry. But this time the anger which he asks him to justify is not anger that Nineveh had been spared, but anger that the gourd has been destroyed. This time Jonah, conscious of the justice of his cause, replies that he does well to be angry even unto death. The contrast between the prophet's tenderness for himself and his ruthlessness towards Nineveh is effective in the highest degree. His indignation is aroused equally by his own exposure to physical discomfort and the rescue of a vast population from destruction. And yet we catch a glimpse of the stirring in him of a better human feeling. His vexation at the loss of the gourd was, no doubt, mainly the self-pity of an almost wholly self-centred man. He was one of those in whom humanity has been almost killed out by religion. But Yahweh's word, "Thou hast had pity on the gourd," hints that Jonah was not wholly an egoist. The untimely fate of the gourd had moved some pity for it in his breast. And from this God starts in His effort to lift the prophet into sympathy with His higher point of view. The gourd had been but a transient interest in the prophet's life. For one brief day it had given him its shelter Yet even this had been enough to kindle some feeling of affection in his heart. And it was for a gourd which owed its being to no labour of his and had not grown under his watchful care. And if such was his feeling for the gourd, what must be Yahweh's feeling for Nineveh? It was a great city, of no mushroom growth, but rooted far back in history, with a large part to play in the plans of God. And with so long a past and so vast a place in the Divine government of the world, its interest for God was not faint and evanescent, but keen and lasting. He had watched over its growth and shaped its ends, and was it credible that its sudden disappearance should arouse no emotion within Him? And quite apart from its long history was its present condition. Its teeming multitudes were not for God as they were for Jonah, one indistinguishable mass. Each individual soul was as vivid and real to Him as the gourd was to Jonah, and the object of far deeper emotion. For while Jonah had no part in the creation of the gourd, nay, had not even tended its growth, each inhabitant of Nineveh had been the direct creation of God's hand, had lived in His love, had grown under His fostering care. If the whole people meant nothing to Jonah, each single individual meant much to God. If they must be destroyed, it must be only when all means to save them had been tried, and in spite of the pang God felt in their death. And if it might be urged that the Ninevites had sinned beyond forgiveness, yet the judgment Jonah longed for was utterly indiscriminate. In that city there were more than six score thousand children who had not come to years of moral discernment, and were therefore innocent of the crimes of Nineveh against humanity. "And also much cattle," the author adds in one of the most striking phrases of the book. It was possible even for Paul to ask, "Is it for the oxen that God careth?" But this writer knows of a pity of God from which not even the cattle of the Ninevites were excluded.

With artistic reticence the author says nothing as to the effect of God's words on Jonah. Such effect could not be measured by any reply he might make in his petulant and exasperated mood. Nor if he was silenced by God's unanswerable argument would his bitter prejudice be all at once convinced. It was a case which had to be left to time and meditation. Yet there was another and deeper reason why the writer broke off the story at this point. As Jonah corresponded to Israel, so these words of God to him corresponded to the Book of Jonah itself. And it was still uncertain what would be its effect. It remains to the author a question of deepest interest whether Israel will accept his call to cast aside its hate of the heathen, recognise their readiness to welcome the truth, and accept the mission long before assigned to it to preach the knowledge of Yahweh to the Gentiles. The future alone can solve it, and how it was solved is a matter of history. It might, no doubt, be fairly urged that the writer was unduly optimistic, that the heathen world was not ready for the truth, and would not eagerly welcome it if it came. Yet not only was his the nobler error, but it was nearer the essential truth, as the progress of Christianity abundantly proved. And the author stands beyond question among the greatest of the prophets, by the side of Jeremiah and the Second Isaiah. That out of the stony heart of Judaism such a book should come is nothing less than a marvel of Divine grace.

 


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Bibliography Information
Peake, Arthur. "Commentary on Jonah 4:4". "Arthur Peake's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pfc/jonah-4.html. 1919.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 15th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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