The Book of Jonah
Jonah’s Displeasure – Jonah 4:1-4
Jonah 4:1 – But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.
In Hebrew it reads literally, “But it was evil to Jonah with great evil.” In other words, the term
“evil” (ra‘ah), which has been repeatedly applied to the Ninevites, now characterizes the prophet.
By objecting to the character and actions of God, Jonah as effectively put himself out of
fellowship with God as the evil and ignorant heathen.1 But God showed him the same
compassion as he had shown Nineveh. Why was Jonah angry? Rabbinic writings contain the
idea, still popular today, that on the basis of Deuteronomy 18:21-22 Jonah would be regarded as
a false prophet.2 Once Nineveh had not been destroyed, perhaps the city thought that Jonah was
not a prophet of God at all. While a view with some merit, the true reason Jonah is angry is
found in 4:2.3 Jonah had not come to seek Nineveh’s repentance, but to announce their doom.4
How Jonah came to know that Nineveh would not be destroyed is unknown. Did he hear from
God? Did he have a vision? In some fashion God spoke to His prophet.5 Given that he waits to
see if the city would really be spared (4:5), we doubt that it had been forty days since he
prophesied. Did Jonah tell the city they were to be spared? Probably, since he did not leave the
city before his conversation with God (4:5).
Jonah 4:2 – He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I
was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew
that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in
lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.
The fact is that, with minor but most important exceptions, prophecy is conditional. See 2 Samuel 12:14-23; 1
Kings 21:27-29; 2 Kings 20:1-6; Jeremiah 18:1-11.
Often times we are so obsessed with pure doctrine that we are not satisfied when we meet obvious repentance but
seek to ensure that it is accompanied by right doctrine. In circles where the doctrine is too rarefied to be understood
by ordinary man, which are more common than the trained theologian realizes, stress may well be laid on
charismatic gifts or other outward manifestations of God’s grace to act as a divine Amen to the repentance. Jonah,
however, knew God well enough to understand that the man who really said, “God be merciful to me a sinner,” i.e.,
a failure (Luke 18:14), would be justified in God’s sight. God has extended His grace to the Ninevites, though they
are outside of the covenant relationship. – Ellison, p.384-85
Some speculate whether Jonah was supposed to preach repentance and did not for his personal bias against
Compare Amos 3:7.
The Book of Jonah
Jonah enlightens us to a conversation he previously had with the Lord concerning Nineveh,
“…was this not what I said while I was still in my own country?”6 Jonah here tells us he fled, not
out of fear of the Ninevites, but to prevent them from being saved for as long as possible. It was
as if Jonah knew that God would still send him to Nineveh, but Jonah hoped he would travel far
enough away that Nineveh would be destroyed before he could arrive. Jonah wished for the
Ninevites to be destroyed. Perhaps it was because of the hostile relationship that existed between
his countrymen and Assyria.7 Perhaps Jonah held to the same biased tendencies his countrymen
held against Gentiles. Jonah knew that the character of God was gracious and compassionate and
objected to God being as such towards the Ninevites.8 God being “gracious and
compassionate…slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness…and who relents concerning
calamity” is essentially a quote from Exodus 34:6-7. It is the central expression of God’s
character in the Old Testament.9 “Gracious” expresses God’s attitude to those who have no
claim on Him. “Compassionate” is linked to the Hebrew word ‘rehem’ and is used to express the
understanding and loving relationship a mother has with her child. “Lovingkindness” is the
Hebrew word “hesed” for which we have no true equivalent. It usually describes God’s behavior
and attitude in a covenantal relationship.10 Here it cannot possibly be treated dogmatically as
referring to only those in a covenant for Nineveh had entered no such covenant with God. It
might be best understood as God’s love, mercy, kindness, and loyalty to any who would call on
Him and strive to be right with Him regardless of covenantal status.11 God will do everything He
can to spare man from disaster. God does not wish for any to perish, physically or spiritually.12
His nature is not of destruction and self-righteous indignation, but of mercy and love.
Jonah 4:3 – “Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me
“while I was still in my own country” tells us that Jonah was in Israel when he was initially commissioned by God.
Compare notes at 1:3.
It could be that Jonah had preached to an unrepentant Israel that would not be spared and did not think that the
Ninevites deserved a salvation his own people could not attain.
Compare the savage exultation over Nineveh’s fall in Nahum 2-3 and similar rejoicing over the fall of Babylon in
Isaiah 47 and of its kings in Isaiah 14:4-20.
Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Nehemiah 9:17; Joel 2:13
Compare note at Jonah 2:4 and Exodus 20:5-6; 34:6-7. hesed is found 247 times in the Old Testament, mainly in
contexts involving God.
In saying this we are not negating the importance of being in a covenant relationship with God. What is clear,
though, is Jonah was finding fault with God as He really is, not as he imagined Him to be. That trait is more
common among godly men than we sometimes realize. It explains why those who pride themselves on their loyalty
to Scripture hold doctrines to the point that the stand in plain contradiction to the revealed character of God. Right
teaching is to be emphasized and adhered to, but we should not be so quick to make judgments concerning those
who are not within the covenant of God. While it is best to be within that covenant, God may deal with those outside
of it any way He pleases. He is a merciful and loving God first and foremost.
Compare John 3:16; 2 Peter 3:9. Some believe that Jonah feared God, by sparing Nineveh, would be ridiculed and
not praised by the Gentiles.
The Book of Jonah
Jonah would rather die than see Nineveh spared. Jonah essentially quotes Elijah’s plea to die as
he escaped the soldiers of Jezebel.13 Considering Elijah, there may be more to Jonah’s words
than we see on the surface. He was virtually saying to God, “I have devoted my life to Your
service as your servant, as Your prophet. But what I have experienced of You just does not make
sense of the world order in which I find myself. Why should I go on living, for to leave Your
service would make my life purposeless. Once, in the past, You showed Elijah that there was a
deeper purpose in life than he realized. Have You perhaps a similar message for me?”14 Neither
Jonah nor Elijah were right. Both of them were out of harmony with God’s will. Both of them
misunderstood God’s plan and had only a partial view of His purposes and therefore made hasty
judgments as to how God should govern.15 Compare Jonah and Elijah with Paul’s desires
expressed in Philippians 1:21-26. Whereas Jonah and Elijah would rather die than continue to
serve the Lord, Paul also wishes to be with the Lord, but understands his life can be used for the
good of others.
Jonah 4:4 – The Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”
The Lord responds to Jonah by asking him for a just cause in his anger, to which Jonah has no
reply that we can read. As Jonah said it would be good for him to die, the Lord asks what would
make that outcome good. The language does not imply a rebuke, nor was God asking Jonah what
right Jonah had to criticize Him. God was suggesting that Jonah may not be correct in his
position and desires for Jonah to take an opportunity to think, pray and learn something of the
character of Yahweh.16 Why does God choose mercy over judgment?17
God’s Rebuke of Jonah – Jonah 4:5-11
Jonah 4:5 – Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for
himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city.
Rather than answer God, Jonah leaves the city and heads to the east of it. Perhaps the direction
implies that Jonah did not wish to return to the “presence of God” in Israel. His stubborn
contempt for the Ninevites and God’s gracious treatment of them has caused him to be further
from God and His people. Outside of the city, Jonah creates a shelter and hopes to witness
Nineveh be destroyed. We are given the impression that Jonah is awaiting the end of the forty
day probationary period God put over Nineveh. To the east of Nineveh is much high ground that
would enable Jonah to overlook the entirety of Nineveh. Maybe there is some chance God would
still destroy the Ninevites. Perhaps they would fall right back into their sins. We do not see Jonah
1 Kings 19:4
Scripture has many examples – Job and Jeremiah being the most obvious – of men in agony who, as they tried to
understand the ways of God, used language others might consider blasphemous (Jeremiah 15:15-18; 20:7-18). God
shows His compassion with all such, Jonah included.
The Book of Jonah
as a blood thirsty prophet, but certainly a vindictive one. He likely desires justice against Assyria
for the wrong they wrought on Israel.18
Jonah 4:6 – So the Lord God appointed a plant and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over
his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant.
Sometime while Jonah was waiting for the destruction of Nineveh, God appointed this plant to
provide shade for Jonah. What kind of plant is unknown, but it is implied by the language of 4:7
that the plant grew in a day’s time over Jonah’s head.19 The Middle East has a hot, desert-like
climate in which the sun punishes travelers without shelter or shade. Even the experienced Arab
seeks shade during the day and travels by night. While Jonah had built a shelter for himself, we
are to assume it was not adequate to protect him from the elements. It was likely composed of
branches interlaced.20 Likely Jonah understood the plant came from God, for what plant grows in
a day? Perhaps Jonah thought God had come to agree with him. By providing him with shade,
Jonah may have misinterpreted the purpose of this kind act from God to mean that God would
listen to His prophet and destroy the city. God had a different plan in mind.21
Jonah 4:7 – But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the
plant and it withered.
Jonah had enjoyed the shade and protection of the plant only to wake up to find it was gone!
Certainly the plant was not anything like a bush or tree since only a worm took its life, but the
plant was large enough to cover Jonah’s head. The Hebrew may speak of “a worm” as a
collective of worms, which was common in the language. If a collective of worms is meant, it
does not take long for these creatures to strip a plant of all its leaves. Even the smallest of
creatures can be used to serve God’s purposes. Without access to the soil or water the ground
gives, the plant would only wither in the sweltering heat.22 Just as God had given the plant, He
took it away. Just as the Lord caused the plant’s life, He caused its death.
Jonah 4:8 – When the sun came up God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat
down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying,
“Death is better to me than life.”
Just as God had appointed the fish to swallow Jonah and a plant to grow over Jonah’s head and a
worm to kill the plant, God also appointed the wind and the sun to come down on Jonah. Just as
God controlled the wind at sea, He controlled it also over land. Without any shelter, Jonah was
Jonah may also have in mind that though Moses and David repented, the consequences of their sins still followed
and hoped the same for Nineveh.
Jerome describes this shrub as an elkeroa, a common plant in the sandy regions of Palestine. It is a shrub that has
large leaves and can grow to a considerable height in just a few days, so that a mere shrub becomes quickly a small
tree. The scientific name for it is Ricinus communis. Its seeds are used to make castor oil. But this plant was not ever
used by Orientals for shade. It may be the plant was a gourd, which was commonly used for shade by Oriental for
shade and screening from the sun. Either way, the miraculous growth of the plant suggests it could be anything,
though not a plant too large for a worm to kill.
Leviticus 23:42; Nehemiah 8:14
We have here literally the metaphor of Psalm 121:5-6.
The average temperature of the noon sun in the Middle East is 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Book of Jonah
vulnerable to the elements. Refusing to go into the city because of both his distain for it and his
expectation it would be destroyed; Jonah would have no protection or hope to survive. Again,
Jonah begins to beg for death. It is amazing how quickly Jonah forgot his thankfulness for God
sparing him from the sea. Jonah now wishes to die not only because Nineveh lives, but because
of his own poor condition. He had suffered from the heat, possibly even sunstroke. A “scorching
wind” is normally called a “sirocco.” God had directed the wind to come from the direction that
Jonah sat from the city, giving him no protection from its onslaught. That he begged “with all of
his soul” tells us that there was no part of Jonah’s being that wished to live. He wished to
become as nothing. Note that Jonah did not take his life into his own hands, but asked for God’s
Jonah 4:9 – Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?”
And he said “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.”
God again asks Jonah if he has a good reason to be upset. This time it is not concerning Nineveh,
but the plant. Anger as a result of pity is meant. Jonah this time responds to God’s question,
where previously he had not. Jonah claims to have good reason to be upset about the plant
though he gives none.23 Jonah remarks he is upset enough that it could kill him. He believes he is
justified not only in being angry, but also to the degree that he is angered.24
Jonah 4:10 – Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not
work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight.
The Lord uses plant as a logical and practical lesson for Jonah to help the prophet understand His
concern for the people of Nineveh. The Lord drives home the point of the story with
unanswerable force and leaves Jonah to answer for himself what is right. God had been the cause
of the plant and of Nineveh’s existence. That the plant came up and perished overnight expresses
how attached Jonah had become to something that had barely existed. Why should Jonah be
more concerned with a plant he only had a day and not the eternity of a person’s soul?
Jonah 4:11 – “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are
more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand,
as well as many animals?”
God brings the moral of the plant and the worm to light. He had not given them for Jonah’s
physical benefit, but for his spiritual benefit. Jonah had taken part in a living parable. Why
should Jonah have pity and compassion on a plant and not people who are made in the image of
God? Why should Jonah expect God to have compassion on a plant and not people? Why should
Jonah care more for a plant he had no investment in and not the Ninevites who he had invested
in? Why should Jonah care more about a plant with no sentient quality and not a city teeming
with it? Why does Jonah care more for a plant God sustained only a day than a people God
sustains daily? Some believe that God is sparing Nineveh because of the amount of children who
Commentators remark on the variety of names used for God in 4:6-9. The production of the plant was attributed to
Jehovah-Elohim (4:6), a composite name which serves to mark the transition from Jehovah in 4:4 to Elohim in 4:7
and 8. Jehovah, who replies to the prophet’s complaint in 4:4, prepares the plant as Elohim (the Creator), and the
worm as ha-Elohim (the personal God). Elohim, the ruler of nature, sends the east wind to correct the prophet’s
impatience; and in 4:10 Jehovah sums up the history and teaches the lesson to be learned from it.
Jonah’s words remind us of Christ’s in the Garden of Gethsemane. See Mark 14:34.
The Book of Jonah
live there. Children do not comprehend the difference between right and left. They do not favor
any particular part of their body over another. If this is true it means Nineveh consists of over
600,000 people. Archaeological evidence seems to suggest that Nineveh only contained around
175,000 people, and if we include the four cities of “Greater Nineveh” the population still was
not quite that large. In all likelihood, God is not referencing physical children, but spiritual
children. Nineveh has no Law from God. They do not understand right from wrong. God is
metaphorically speaking to the spiritual state of Nineveh.25 God’s mercy also extends over the
beasts that live in Nineveh. The animals had also worn sackcloth and fasted. We do not believe
that they were in repentance, or needing salvation. The importance of the passage is not the
animals were in rebellion to God, but that God is conscious of all of creation, not just man.26
Jonah should recognize that even animals are of more importance than plants, and as man is
worth more than animals had pity on the city and animals over the simple plant. Nineveh also
stands as an example to Israel. If God would spare a heathen nation upon their repentance, He
would certainly spare His own people. Israel would have no excuse!
Butler notes the following 4 lessons from the Book of Jonah.27
1. Beware of letting our ideas of the results of God’s work interfere with carrying out His
present will for our lives.
2. Beware lest we belittle what can be or what is accomplished for God by our ideas of the
significance or insignificance of the place of service.
3. Wherever and whenever God is pleased to manifest His grace and goodness it is our
obligation and privilege to acknowledge and rejoice in that manifestation.
4. God’s ways are not our ways. God does not change; man must change!
The Book of Jonah ends abruptly leaving no mention of Jonah’s reply, but no reply is needed.28
Jonah cannot answer, for he is silenced by the wisdom of God. Jonah has related the lesson he
learned to Israel, as was his entire purpose in writing. God desires all men to be saved. Who are
we to withhold the grace and mercy of God from those who are far off? To deny the opportunity
of salvation to any is displeasing to God and to not rejoice when an unbeliever repents is to live
in opposition to the very heart of God.29
Compare Deuteronomy 1:39 and Isaiah 7:16. The presence of children never before spared a wicked city or a
nation from destruction.
Compare Genesis 6-8; Psalm 36:6; 145:9.
The Jewish Midrash suggests that Jonah fell on his face and said, “Govern your world according to the measure of
mercy, as it is said, ‘To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness.’”
Compare Luke 15. We should not draw from Jonah the illogical conclusion that all men will be saved, but that
God’s mercy may extend to those who either err in doctrine or find themselves outside of a covenant relationship