If the book of Jonah would have been nothing more than a narrative of a man, then the story would have ended with Jonah 3. Could there be a more beautiful ending with the climax of the conversion and salvation of Nineveh? What a victory for God and for Jonah! But the great (anti)climax is yet to come and it comes in this chapter. That climax is the lesson about the narrow mindedness of man – even if that man is a servant of God – and about the immense greatness of God’s heart, both for Nineveh and Jonah and … for me and you.
1 Jonah’s Reaction to God’s Goodness
1 But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.
Only if we don’t know ourselves well, we can’t imagine that Jonah’s attitude here is possible. He has forgotten his stay in the fish. Here we see in practice what we possibly have already discovered ourselves, that no experience of God’s goodness will ever improve the flesh. The flesh is so hopelessly depraved that only the death and resurrection of Christ can bring about a change. This change is not an improvement of the flesh, but the provision of a new nature to live through it.
Jonah begrudges Nineveh the forgiveness of God which he himself experienced so particularly after his own disobedience (cf. Mt 18:23-35). If there is “joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” (Lk 15:7), how the joy there must have been exuberant over the conversion of a whole city. But Jonah does not share in that joy. On the contrary. He would have preferred to see hundreds of thousands of people die rather than his reputation be damaged. He has no control over his own mind. It is the spirit of the Pharisees who also could not bear that the Lord Jesus ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners either (Lk 15:2).
2 The Second Prayer of Jonah
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.
This prayer of Jonah is very different from what he prayed in the fish. This time it is a complaint. It is not a prayer in accordance with God, it is a wrong prayer (cf. Jam 4:3). He accuses God of being how He is and because of His actions. Herein lies the pride of Jonah. He thinks he could govern the world better than God. He tells God what occupied him all this time about God and that this was the reason for his runaway. He seems to hold it up to God in a way that he tells Him something He didn’t know.
Jonah reveals himself here. He, and this applies to man in general, cannot bear the grace God grants others as long as he still considers himself important. The person who is filled with his own importance is merciless and cruel. Not only does he begrudge others compassion, but he grants them that they perish.
Jonah here is reminiscent of the eldest son in Luke 15. He is that son’s spiritual twin brother (Lk 15:28-30). Jonah reproaches God that He is as He really is and that He does not correspond to how Jonah thinks He should be. The characteristic shown by Jonah here is more common among religious people than we sometimes suspect. It explains why those who boast of their devotion to Scripture maintain doctrines that clearly contradict what God has revealed of Himself. An example of this is sectarianism.
Jonah differs from the slave about whom the Lord Jesus speaks in a parable, who found his Lord a hard master and therefore did not go to work (Mt 25:24). But there is also a similarity and that is that in both cases reproaches are made to the Lord because He does not correspond to the natural taste of His servant.
3 Take My Life From Me
3 Therefore now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.”
In Jonah 2 he prayed for the salvation of his life, but life no longer makes sense to him if his word is not fulfilled to the letter. Elijah also once prayed to die (1Kgs 19:4). While Elijah is the discouraged prophet who sees that his message remains without result, Jonah is a prophet who is angry precisely because of the expected result of his preaching.
Paul’s desire to go to the Lord was quite different. He was not tired of life, but he longed for the Lord Himself. Yet he agreed to continue to live for the sake of the believers, to serve them (Phil 1:23-25).
4 A Question From the LORD to Jonah
4 The LORD said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”
We see not only the grace of God toward His servant, but also His tremendous patience with him. God does not speak a word of reproach, or it should be contained in the question. But more than a reproach we hear in the question how God tries to free Jonah from his egoism. The LORD wants to put the anger of Jonah and his sinful discontent in the right light, His light. To this end, He asks His question. Every question He asks has a purpose.
If the LORD were as Jonah wished He were, it would have meant the end of Jonah. The LORD would then have judged him, for morally he was now on the level of Nineveh. They defied God before they were converted. Jonah defies Him here, too.
The conversation that the LORD enters into with Jonah we also see in Luke 15. There is an eldest son who begrudges the grace with which the father has received back home the youngest son. The father talks to the eldest son, to involve him in what has moved his father heart (Lk 15:31-32).
5 Jonah, the Observer
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.
Jonah does not answer God’s question. He remains stuck in his own views about God and ignores God’s question. His answer is to build a shelter from where he can oversee the city and await the fate which will hit the city (cf. Gen 19:27). By leaving the city, Jonah places himself outside the work of God. He is alone there, while the inhabitants of Nineveh will gladly have housed him.
Jonah obviously does not know the depth and authenticity of the conversion of the inhabitants of Nineveh. In any case, he does not know God’s heart. He is not aware of God’s goodness with regard to what is happening in Nineveh, because he has closed himself off from God’s goodness. There is no room in his heart for this. Instead of his heart being filled with joy because a whole city has been converted, his heart is filled with his own reputation.
Probably few of us are aware of what a strong place our own ‘I’ has until something occurs that affects our personal dignity. At that moment we reveal which spirit fills us. There is more of the ‘Jonah spirit’ in us than we want to admit. How little space is given to the Spirit of the Lord in us. Jonah cries, as it were, about the loss of his reputation at the expense of the conversion of the city of Nineveh, while the Lord wept when He saw that the city of Jerusalem was unrepentant (Lk 19:41).
6 A Plant Grows Up
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.
The name “LORD God” does not often appear in the Bible, except in Genesis 2-3. This name is the transition from “LORD” in verse 4 to “God” in verse 7. The LORD, Who answers the prophet’s complaint, is also the Creator-God Who makes a plant grow in a miraculous way. The name “LORD God” refers to His special relationship with Jonah to whom He reveals Himself in His creative power to win His favor. He wants to deliver Jonah from his discomfort. God is so concerned about His servant that He is concerned about his wellness and therefore He lets a plant grow at amazing speed.
In verse 1 Jonah is angry, now he is extremely happy. It is the only time we read of Jonah’s happiness. His happiness does not reach the height of the joy in heaven over the conversion of so many people. It is a selfish, shabby happiness about his own comfort. He focuses more on his own convenience than on the interests of people who would perish. His gladness is as selfish as his discomfort.
He is not aware of the miracle of God in this and even less does he thank Him for it. It is clear from God’s later statement that He, with the joy He gave Jonah with the plant, wanted to point out to him His own joy because of Nineveh’s conversion and saving.
7 A Worm
7 But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day and it attacked the plant and it withered.
Here it is not the “LORD God”, but “God”, the Creator. Here God appoints “a worm”. Thus, as the LORD God has appointed a plant in the previous verse, so in the next verse He appoints as God a scorching east wind, and in Jonah 1 as the LORD He appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah (Jona 1:17). God appoints nature according to His pleasure.
Nature, His creation, is at His disposal. In all cases, nature immediately obeys God’s command to the shame of man over whom God can dispose as well. This is all the more embarrassing when it comes to a man who says that he puts himself at the disposal of God.
8 Repetition of the Request to Die
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.”
When the sun comes up, Jonah painfully feels the loss of the plant. The miracle of the growth of the plant did not lead him to God. He rejoiced in the pleasure he had of it. Now that he has to miss the enjoyment of it as suddenly as he has received it, he turns to God, but not to confess his rebellion to Him. Instead, he says once again that life no longer makes sense to him (verse 3). Egoism is a stubborn evil.
We are no different. In our case, the comfort with which we are surrounded can have the function of a miraculously grown up plant. We enjoy sitting in its shade and measure life around us with the ideas we have about God. Just like Jonah, these are ideas about how we think God should be and act, and not about how God really is. Instead of complaining that not everything in our lives goes as we like, we had better be grateful that we do not get everything we deserve.
If our ‘miracle plant’ is taken away, it can also happen that we grieve more about it than about the perishing of the people around us. This happens when we are more interested in our own conveniences than in the things God is interested in. When our interests are not parallel to those of God, our feelings go up and down with the prosperity and luxury we enjoy or miss.
9 Again the Question and Its Answer
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.”
Again God asks whether his anger is justified. The first time God asks this (verse 1), we read no answer from Jonah. This time Jonah answers. With great emphasis he says that he has good reason to be angry. Jonah is not tuned to heaven. He does not agree with God, just as Peter once refuses a command from the Lord and says: “By no means, Lord” (Acts 10:14).
Jonah has, as it were, closed the door of Nineveh with a bang behind him. That angry he was after completing the task that the LORD had forced him to do despite all his resistance. God knew all that. Jonah’s anger has increased over time. This is because he did not judge the sin of bitterness in himself. In such cases, bitterness overgrows the whole of one’s emotional life. Everything is then seen from this bitterness. The ability to distinguish between good and evil – for that is what God asks for – is lost.
Jonah’s answer is no surprise to God. But perhaps we are surprised about his answer. Perhaps we wonder in amazement how it is possible that a servant of God is so stubbornly holding on to his conviction. Then there is still a lot to learn for us. A mirror is held up here before the face of anyone who receives a task from the Lord.
We see here a proof of the enormous grace of God, Who wants to teach His sulking servant yet a lesson. Did Jonah learn it? There is a much more important question: Am I willing to learn that lesson?
10 The Lesson
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.
Here it becomes clear why God has created such a fast-growing plant. If it had been a slow growing plant, Jonah should have cared for it and watered it. But Jonah did not have to make any effort for the growth of the plant. He had no personal relationship with it.
God has a personal relationship with the inhabitants of Nineveh, that is, they are His creatures. He made His sun rise over them and made it also to rain over them (Mt 5:45). He has given them rain from heaven and fruitful seasons (Acts 14:16-17). Through Jonah He warned them. Only with people who are in hell does God have no relationship at all anymore.
The lesson is that we are more interested in our own convenience, which has fallen into our lap like that, than in the need of crowds of lost souls on whom God is constantly working to lead them to conversion. It is about God’s creatures that live in darkness and will die if to them is not told about the Savior.
Jonah felt sorry for the plant, which had a life span of one day. But he had no compassion for a hundred and twenty thousand immortal, precious souls of children alone (verse 11). Therefore: Away with all pride, selfishness and self-interest! With Paul we must learn to say: ‘I am nothing’ (2Cor 12:11).
11 Sharing in the Compassion of God
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?”
With the words “should I” God points with emphasis to Himself in His great compassion. He is moved with compassion. We see God’s compassion in the Lord Jesus with regard to the spiritual needs of the people (Mt 9:36) and with regard to their physical needs (Mt 14:14). But the disciples do not share in His feelings (Mt 14:15).
Jeremiah did share God’s feelings about Gentiles. We hear how God is concerned about Moab and how Jeremiah shares these feelings (Jer 48:31; Isa 15:5; 16:11). And how far away is Jonah from the feelings of the Lord Jesus about Jerusalem: “When He approached [Jerusalem], He saw the city and wept over it” (Lk 19:41).
Would the king of Nineveh have known how many children there were? The LORD knows it exactly. There are more than 120,000 persons in Nineveh who do not know the difference between their right hand and left hand, it means these are children. This does not mean that the children are innocent, but that the extent of their responsibility is limited. They often cannot yet distinguish between truth and falsehood. It makes it clear, that also in the heathen world, God does not let children die for the sins of their parents (Deu 24:16). God is moved about the fate of children, He is greatly interested in them.
The animals are also dear to Him. He is the righteous One Who has regard for the life of His animals (Pro 12:10a).
Jonah’s answer to God’s question is not in Scripture. The judgement seat will make his reaction clear. God has the last word. The sudden end of the book makes its contents and lessons all the more impressive.