Jonah 3:10 – 4:11
This is one of those scripture passages where the preacher must know the underlying story to make sense of the lectionary reading. Fortunately, the story is familiar. Unfortunately, our memories do not always serve us well. For instance, we talk about Jonah and the whale, but there is no whale in this story—just a large fish (1:17; 2:10).
The story begins with these words: “Now the word of Yahweh came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach against it, for their wickedness has come up before me'” (1:1-2).
Jonah responded to that call by setting out “to flee to Tarshish from the presence of Yahweh” (1:3). He boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, but God sent a storm that threatened to sink the ship. The sailors cast lots to discover the culprit, and the lot fell to Jonah. He admitted fleeing from the Lord (1:10)—and told the sailors to throw him overboard to sooth God’s wrath (1:12). Reluctantly, the sailors did so, and the storm abated (1:15). But “Yahweh prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (1:17).
Chapter 2 is Jonah’s prayer of thanksgiving prayed from the belly of the whale—oops, fish. The prayer ends with Jonah’s pledge to offer a sacrifice to Yahweh and to perform the vows that Jonah has vowed. “Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah on the dry land” (2:10).
Chapter 3 tells the story of God calling Jonah (a second time) to go to Nineveh “and preach to it the message that I give you” (3:1). Jonah obeys this second call, proclaims the short message that God gives him. The king of Nineveh responds by issuing a royal decree requiring penitence—hoping that if Nineveh repents God will relent. Our lectionary reading picks up at that point with God changing his mind about destroying Nineveh (3:10).
The book of Jonah is listed among the Minor Prophets, but Jonah is nowhere in this book called a prophet. However, the opening words of the book, “Now the word of Yahweh came to Jonah son of Amittai” (1:1; see also 3:1), make it clear that the Lord intends to use Jonah in a prophetic role. Also, Jonah son of Amittai is called a prophet in 2 Kings 14:25.
The reference to Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25 has him living during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel. Jeroboam II reigned approximately 785-745 B.C. (eighth century B.C.). However, Nineveh did not become a large, prominent city until much later, which is one of the reasons why many scholars believe that this book was written in the fifth century B.C.
JONAH 3:10. GOD CHANGED HIS MIND
10God saw their works, that they turned (Hebrew: sub) from their evil way. God relented (Hebrew: naham) of the disaster which he said he would do to them, and he didn’t do it.
“God saw their works, that they turned (sub) from their evil way, God relented (naham) of the disaster which he said he would do to them, and he didn’t do it” (v. 10). The king’s great hope is realized. The people turn from their evil ways, and God responds by relenting of the punishment that he had planned to impose on them.
The word sub means to turn, to return, to go back, to do again, or to change. It is frequently used in the Old Testament for the people of Israel turning from its evil ways and returning to God (Deuteronomy 30:2; 1 Kings 8:33; 2 Kings 23:25; Isaiah 59:20; Jeremiah 4:1; 34:15; Hosea 3:5).
The word naham means to be sorry, to regret, or to pity. In this instance, God sees the people of Nineveh turning from their evil, so God pities them and regrets the punishment that he had planned for him. God turns from his fierce anger—decides to spare these Ninevites. The people turned from their evil ways, so God turned from the evil that he was planning to impose on them.
We should not be surprised at this outcome. God would not have insisted that Jonah go to Nineveh if God hadn’t wanted to spare the Ninevites. This story has been front-loaded with grace from the first verse.
The irony is that Jonah’s story parallels that of the Ninevites. He disobeyed God, and found himself on the verge of disaster. However, God gave him a second chance. When Jonah obeyed God by going to Nineveh and preaching the sermon that God gave him, he not only helped to save their lives—he helped to save his own life.
But Jonah isn’t insightful enough to compare his own disobedience and salvation to that of the Ninevites. In the next chapter, he will complain and sulk, furious that God has spared the Ninevites. He had been looking forward to fireworks, and is seriously disappointed to learn that there will be none.
But Jonah’s displeasure will give God the opportunity to teach him (and us) a lesson (4:6-11). The lesson is that God cares about even the most unlikely people. The lesson is that God’s grace is wider than we might imagine—even wider than we might desire. After all, we believe that some people should be punished. Some people should rot in hell. But God cares even about those people. He gives them every opportunity to repent. He calls us to proclaim the Gospel to them—whether we like it or not.
We should not imagine that the repentance of the Ninevites will be permanent. The prophet Nahum predicted the downfall of Nineveh (all three chapters of the book of Nahum deal with this subject), and Nineveh was totally destroyed in 612 B.C. We can assume, then, that their repentance was temporary—so that the respite offered by God also turned out to be temporary.
JONAH 4:1-5. BUT THIS WAS VERY DISPLEASING TO JONAH
4:1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 He prayed to Yahweh, and said, “Please, Yahweh, wasn’t this what I said when I was still in my own country? Therefore I hurried to flee to Tarshish, for I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness, and you relent of doing harm. 3Therefore now, Yahweh, take, I beg you, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”
4Yahweh said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” (Hebrew: harah)
5Then Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made himself a booth, and sat under it in the shade, until he might see what would become of the city.
“But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry” (v. 4.1). The contrast between this verse and chapter 2 is striking. In chapter 2, Jonah expressed great joy in the salvation that he had experienced at God’s hands after the sailors threw Jonah overboard. Jonah had been guilty of disobeying God—and was on the verge of paying a very high price for his disobedience—but then God sent a great fish to save Jonah from the storm. On that occasion, Jonah was happy to see God’s mercy in action.
But Jonah is not happy to see God’s mercy applied to these Ninevites. He is, in fact, angry—furious—fit to be tied. He hated the Ninevites and wanted them destroyed. Jonah was also angry that God used Jonah to deliver the Ninevites from destruction.
This book doesn’t spell out Jonah’s reasons for wanting the Ninevites to be destroyed, but it isn’t difficult to imagine why he felt as he did. First, the Jews were God’s chosen people, and tended to regard Gentiles as lesser beings—outside the realm of God’s care—unworthy of God’s attention. Second, the Jews often found themselves at war with Gentiles, and Jonah may have felt that the only good Ninevite was a dead Ninevite. Third, we all like to see justice rendered—as long as we aren’t the ones on the receiving end. Jonah saw that the people of Nineveh were evil, and he wanted God to punish them.
Jonah is very much like the elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). Both are selfish and self-righteous. Both have a vengeful spirit. Both become petulant when the father/God shows mercy to the undeserving person/people. Both seem quite unaware of their own disobedience and their personal need for mercy. Neither one experiences any joy at the repentance of the sinner. In fact, they both become bitter and angry when the father/God shows mercy to the penitent.
Jonah is also like the unforgiving servant in another of Jesus’ parables (Matthew 18:23-35). Jonah (like the unforgiving servant) experienced God’s forgiveness, but he wasn’t willing to extend that forgiveness to those who had offended him. In Jesus’ parable, the lord “delivered (the unforgiving servant) to the tormentors, until he should pay all that was due to him” (Matthew 18:34). Jonah will be more fortunate. God has forgiven him once already, but this book will close with Jonah being reproved but not being destroyed.
“He prayed to Yahweh, and said, ‘Please, Yahweh, wasn’t this what I said when I was still in my own country? Therefore I hurried to flee to Tarshish, for I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness, and you relent of doing harm‘” (v. 2). The last part of this verse paraphrases Exodus 34:6-7a, which says, “Yahweh! Yahweh, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness and truth, keeping loving kindness for thousands, forgiving iniquity and disobedience and sin.” In its Exodus context, that was great good news, because the Israelites were in need of forgiveness, and these verses assured them that God was disposed to forgive them.
But when Jonah quotes these verses, he turns them into an accusation that God has shown mercy where he ought not to have done so. Yes, God is merciful, and yes, that is a good thing when God’s mercy is directed toward the Israelites—or to Jonah personally. But it is not a good thing when God directs his mercy toward the Gentile heathen Ninevite scum. To show mercy to people like that is not a sign of strength, but of weakness.
In this verse, Jonah reveals that he is still the old Jonah of chapter 1. In that chapter, he fled to Tarshish in an attempt to avoid being caught up in this mercy venture. He did that because he knew God to be merciful, and he wanted no part of imparting mercy to Nineveh. Jonah finally went to Nineveh and proclaimed the message that God gave him, but only under duress. While in the midst of the storm on the ship (chapter 1), Jonah learned how it feels to be on the receiving end of God’s wrath—and he didn’t want to go through that again—so he obeyed God—but his heart wasn’t in it. His actions have improved, but not his heart.
“Therefore now, Yahweh, take, I beg you, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live“ (v. 3). Jonah’s ego-centrism is reflected in his frequent use of the words “I” and “my” in verses 2-3.
Jonah’s prayer is modeled after a prayer by Elijah. When Elijah was fleeing from Jezebel, he sat under a broom tree and prayed, “It is enough. Now, O Yahweh, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4). Elijah had become weary trying to battle the evil King Ahab and his wicked wife, Jezebel. He was tired of the constant struggle. He was physically tired. In his depression, he became convinced that he could not expect to succeed where his ancestors had failed—so he might as well join them in death. Even though we know that Elijah had recently seen God prevail over the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-40), we can sympathize with him.
But Jonah isn’t depressed because of a long, footslogging battle. By the grace of God, Jonah had succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation—and he had done so on his first try. Jonah is angry, because he had not wanted to succeed. He had not wanted to save the Ninevites. He had wanted to see God wreak vengeance on them. That is why he is angry. Not only have things turned out so that God is going to spare the Ninevites, but God has made Jonah the agent of their salvation.
Jonah seems to have forgotten that he himself had only recently been the recipient of God’s mercy. He seems to have forgotten his own rebellion and his own sin. He seems to have forgotten that, if God were not a God of mercy, he himself would be dead.
“Yahweh said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?'” (harah) (v. 4). The irony is that when God was angry with the Ninevites, Jonah was happy. When the Ninevites repented and God’s anger dissipated, Jonah became angry. Jonah’s feelings are completely out of synch with God’s.
We might expect that God would punish Jonah for his recalcitrance. However, in this case, God decides to show Jonah mercy a second time—mercy that God showed the Ninevites only after they demonstrated their repentance. Jonah is not at all repentant, but God shows him mercy in spite of his attitude. Instead of punishing Jonah, God simply asks if it is right for Jonah to be angry. The Hebrew word harah means to burn hot. Figuratively, it means to be angry.
Jonah doesn’t respond to God’s question—or his response isn’t recorded.
“Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city” (v. 5). Jonah carefully removes himself from the danger zone—or what he hopes is still a danger zone. He sets up a makeshift shelter far enough from the city to be safe from the destruction that he still hopes God will wreak on the city—but close enough to observe what happens.
Jonah provides no evidence that he is repentant. His actions demonstrate his rebellious spirit. It is as if God had never asked him the question of verse 4.
JONAH 4:6-8. THE LORD GOD APPOINTED A BUSH
6Yahweh God prepared a vine, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to deliver him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the vine. 7 But God prepared a worm at dawn the next day, and it chewed on the vine, so that it withered. 8 It happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a sultry east wind; and the sun beat on 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.”
“Yahweh God prepared a vine, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to deliver him from his discomfort“ (v. 6a). Just as God earlier provided a great fish to save Jonah, God now provides a bush to shield him from the sun.
Scholars have wondered what kind of plant this might be. They have guessed that it could be a gourd or ricinus, a castor-oil plant. For our purposes, that is both unimportant and unknowable. God could have created a new specie of plant for the purpose of shielding Jonah—a plant that would quickly grow tall enough to provide shade. Apparently the rude shelter that Jonah has built for himself doesn’t provide sufficient shade for the 100+ degree heat (40 degrees Celsius) that is common in that area.
“So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the vine” (v. 6b). This is only the second time that we have seen Jonah happy. The first time was when God provided the great fish to save his life (chapter 2). Now he is happy—very happy—that God has provided a plant to shade him from the hot sun. So the two occasions on which we have seen Jonah happy are both occasions when God has done something really nice for Jonah. Jonah really is ego-centric.
Anyone who has experienced baking in that kind of hot sun can appreciate how glad Jonah would have been to be given some shade. Under those circumstances, shade is more than a convenience. It can make the difference between life and death.
“But God prepared a worm at dawn the next day, and it chewed on the vine, so that it withered“ (v. 7). Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh, but God instead destroys the plant that he had provided to give Jonah shade. This is the only destruction that takes place in this book.
We could make guesses concerning the kind of worm that God used, but that isn’t important. Any insect that would cut the stem of the plant would kill it quickly—especially in that hot, sunny climate.
“It happened, when the sun arose, that God prepared a sultry east wind“ (v. 8a). This sounds like a sirocco wind—a wind common in that part of the world. Sirocco winds are typically hot, dry, and dusty. They often reach speeds of 60 mph (100 km/hr), and have the potential to strip paint from cars. They sometimes last for several days, and cause people both physical and emotional misery.
“and the sun beat on 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’“ (v. 8b). When Job lost everything, he responded, “Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away” (Job 1:21a). That has been Jonah’s experience with the plant. God gave the plant to Jonah for shade, and God then took it away. Now God is adding another layer of misery—a hot wind.
But when Job said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away,” he added another line that demonstrated the depth of his loyalty to God. Do you remember what it was? It was this: “Blessed be the name of Yahweh” (Job 1:21b) Hear that once more: “Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away. Blessed be the name of Yahweh.”
Now listen again to Jonah’s response when God takes away Jonah’s God-given shade. Jonah says, “It is better for me to die than to live.”
Oh, please, Jonah! Spare us the histrionics!
JONAH 4:9-11. SHOULD I NOT BE CONCERNED ABOUT NINEVEH
9God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the vine?”
He said, “I am right to be angry, even to death.”
10 Yahweh said, “You have been concerned for the vine, for which you have not labored, neither made it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night. 11 Shouldn’t I be concerned for Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred twenty thousand persons who can’t discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much livestock?”
“God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the vine?’ (Jonah) said, ‘I am right to be angry, even to death'” (v. 9). When Jonah first asked God to take his life (v. 3), God responded with a question (v. 4). Now God answers Jonah’s second request to die (v. 8) by repeating his original question—”Is it right for you to be angry” (v. 4).
In the first instance, Jonah was angry that God had changed his mind about destroying Nineveh (3:10; 4:1). Now Jonah is angry that God has taken away Jonah’s shade.
In the first instance, Jonah did not answer God (or his answer wasn’t recorded). In this instance, Jonah responds, “I am right to be angry, even to death.”
If God were to ask Jonah why he was angry, what could Jonah have said? How could he justify his anger? Jonah might say that God had violated the sacred covenant that he had established with the Jewish people by showing mercy to the Ninevites—but nothing in the covenant tied God’s hands so that he couldn’t show mercy to people outside the covenant. Or Jonah might have responded by reminding God that God had taken away Jonah’s shade—but that would surely sound petty, even to Jonah.
Let me make this observation. In recent decades, we have acted as if we are captive to our feelings. If we happened to be angry, we would have to get in touch with our feelings of anger—probably through many expensive hours of counseling—before we would have any hope of moving past those feelings.
That idea has been way-oversold. We have a great deal more control over our feelings than we have been willing to admit. Jonah illustrates this in stark detail. He could have been glad to see God spare the Ninevites, but he chose to be angry instead of happy. Let me say that one more time—Jonah chose to be angry instead of happy. He made a decision to be angry, but he could just as easily have made a decision to be happy. It was his choice—his decision—that put him at odds with God. Jonah’s bad choice was responsible for the misery he was feeling. His bad choice (anger) led to bad consequences (misery). That is a pattern that we see people repeating nearly every day. It is entirely avoidable.
As noted above, Job was faced with a far more devastating situation. He had been wealthy and had a large family. All of that—as well as his health—was taken away from him. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he decided to be happy, I know that he decided not to be angry. Instead of saying, “It is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah’s response to a far smaller provocation), Job said, “Yahweh gave, and Yahweh has taken away. Blessed be the name of Yahweh.”
In modern times, we have seen victims decide to forgive those who victimized them. We have seen parents forgive the person who killed their son or daughter. In keeping with Jesus’ teachings, they have decided to love instead of being vindictive. In making that decision, they have avoided the soul-killing anger that could have overwhelmed them.
Frederick Buechner said it best (in his book Wishful Thinking):
“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun.
To lick your wounds,
to smack your lips over grievances long past,
to roll over your tongue the prospect
of bitter confrontations still to come,
to savor to the last toothsome morsel
both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back—
in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.
The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself.
The skeleton at the feast is you.”
We need to help people understand that they do not need to be victims of their feelings. We need to help them understand that they can make choices about their feelings. We need to help them understand that, if they make good choices (the kinds of choices that Jesus teaches us to make), they will be far happier—far less miserable.
“Yahweh said, ‘You have been concerned for the vine, for which you have not labored, neither made it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night’“ (v. 10). Jonah has just finished telling God that he has every right to be angry—angry enough to die (v. 9). Now God, who created the shade-plant, at least in part, as an object lesson for Jonah, very patiently begins to peel back the layers to give Jonah a glimpse of Jonah’s pettiness.
God begins by reminding Jonah that the source of his anger and his death wish was the death of the plant that had shaded him. God reminds Jonah that Jonah had neither planted the shade-plant nor nurtured its growth. Jonah had done nothing to earn the shade that he had received. That shade was God-given—evidence of God’s mercy toward a very recalcitrant, bitter, petulant Jonah.
Yahweh said, “You have been concerned for the vine.” While I would never contradict God, who surely knows what Jonah felt, I probably would have said, “You are concerned about the shade—your personal comfort.” Throughout this story, Jonah has given no evidence that he cares about anything except himself. He didn’t give a twit about the plant. He cared only for the shade that it provided him—for the comfort he derived from its presence.
“Shouldn’t I be concerned for Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred twenty thousand persons who can’t discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much livestock?“ (v. 11). Now God drops the bomb. Jonah made a decision to be angry because God took away a shade plant that Jonah had not labored to create. God, however, has labored to create the Ninevites, and is concerned about his creation. The contrast between the non-creative Jonah and the creative God could not be starker.
God goes on to spell out the dimensions of the problem. Nineveh is a great city with more than a hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants. Those inhabitants “do not know their right hand from their left.” In other words, they have acted badly, in part, because they didn’t know any better. God was set to destroy them if they refused to listen to the message that he sent Jonah deliver to them, but his purpose in sending Jonah was to save the Ninevites. The Ninevites responded favorably to Jonah’s short sermon, so God spared them. What about that, Jonah? Is your head so thick that you can’t understand that? Is your heart so hard that you can’t care?
“and also much livestock.” This is the clincher. If Jonah doesn’t care about the city or the people who inhabit it, what about the animals? Can’t Jonah at least care a little bit about the innocent livestock who were about to be caught in the conflagration if God were to destroy Nineveh?
This story is clearly intended to help us to understand the wideness of God’s mercy.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible(WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, New International Biblical Commentary: Minor Prophets I (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1996)
Alexander, T. Desmond in Alexander, T. Desmond; Baker, David W.; & Waltke, Bruce K., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Vol. 23a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Allen, Leslie C., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah, and Micah (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976)
Baldwin, Joyce, in McComiskey, Thomas Edward (ed.), The Minor Prophets: An Exegetical and Expository Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1992, 1993, 1998)
Brown, William P., Westminster Bible Companion: Obadiah through Malachi (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996)
Emberling, Geoff, “Nineveh,” in Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Irvine, Stuart, “Nineveh,” in Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: Me-R, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009)
Limburg, James, Interpretation Commentary: Hosea-Micah (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1988)
Ogilvie, Lloyd, The Preacher’s Commentary: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 22 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2002)
Page, Frank S., in Smith, Billy K. and Page, Frank S., The New American Commentary: Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Vol. 19b (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995)
Simundson, Daniel J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005)
Stuart, Douglas, Word Biblical Commentary: Hosea-Jonah, Vol. 31 (Dallas: Word Books, Publisher, 1987)
Trible, Phyllis, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature, Daniel, the Twelve Prophets, Vol. VII (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Copyright 2011, Richard Niell Donovan