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Jonah’s Lesson of Grace

An Exegetical Study of Jonah 4:1-11

Ben Wulpi

Old Testament II

Dr. Bergdall

April 23, 2007


Everyone knows the story of Jonah and the whale. It is told as bedtime stories to

our children. But not many people are aware of the real purpose behind the book of

Jonah, which is illustrated in chapter four of the book. Chapter four is where Jonah

expresses his reasoning for fleeing from God when given the assignment to prophecy at

Nineveh and his anger at God for sparing the city. It reveals Jonah’s character, tarnished

by his jealous nationalism and personal pride. The message of this short chapter, and thus

of the whole book, is of God’s grace extending to all people. “…God is interested in all

people whatever their nationality or race and expects those who know him to dedicate

themselves to sharing that knowledge” (Reed 161). It is about judging based on a system

of merit versus God’s mercy. God’s mercy is ultimately sovereign over any amount of

merit.

There is no information in the Book of Jonah as to the author’s identity, and

scholars debate the time period in which the book was written. The information must

have come from Jonah himself, but since it is written in third person, and there is no clue

as to authorship, it could have been written by another. Some suggest Jonah was written

in a postexilic time period based on the usage of past tense when referring to Nineveh

(“Nineveh was a great city”), the allegedly exaggerated picture of Nineveh, and

differences in style between Hosea (a contemporary of Jonah) and Jonah.

The time setting of the book is estimated at somewhere between 782 and 745

B.C., during a time of Assyrian weakness, which could help to explain Jonah’s success

there. “The consciousness of weakness and possible defeat would go far to explain the

readiness of Nineveh to accept the prophet’s message” (Gaebelein 361). Nineveh was the

capital of Assyria, a brutal enemy of Israel. It was known as the greatest city in the world,
a metropolis filled with prosperity and great wickedness. Assyria’s enemy status to Israel

plays a part in explaining Jonah’s anger toward God for sparing the city.

Jonah son of Amittai was from the town of Gath-Hepher in Zebulun. He was a

prophet during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel (about 786-746 B.C.). He is mentioned

in 2 Kings 14:25 as a prophet who predicted prosperity and territorial gains for Israel,

which would have given him a good reputation as a popular, highly esteemed prophet in

Israel. The people always loved to hear good news prophesied, so those prophets that

bore good news were highly regarded. Jonah may also have been the shy, young prophet

of 2 Kings 9:1-11 who anointed Jehu king over Israel. Jonah represents Israel, as well as

all of humankind, in its selfish rebellion against God’s sovereignty. “There is no character

in the Bible who epitomizes humankind quite like Jonah” (Pickard 91). Jonah is depicted

as narrow, vindictive, nationalistic, and bitterly exclusive. His attitude can be compared

to that of the prodigal’s elder brother in Luke 15, who is angered at the Father’s

unconditional love, forgiveness, and acceptance for his long lost son. Jonah also appears

to be very depressed throughout the book, going through intense swings of emotion.

“Jonah ben Amittai is quite possibly the most persistently and intensely dejected

character in literature” (Perry 52).

Jonah is the fifth book of the Minor Prophets, and it is unique among the latter

prophets in being almost completely narrative, with the exception of Jonah’s psalm in

chapter 2. The book is either (a) historical or (b) allegorical or parabolic. Most view

Jonah as undoubtedly a historical figure, based on the accurate descriptions of the

historical setting and the fact that he was mentioned by Jesus as a historical figure

(Matthew 12:39-41, Luke 11:29-32). But many people have trouble viewing Jonah as
historical because of the alleged impossibility of a human surviving three days and nights

in the belly of a great fish (Gaebelein 362-363).

The fourth chapter of Jonah is generally divided up into three distinct sections.

The first is verses 1-3, which show Jonah expressing his anger towards God. The second

is verses 4-9, in which God counsels Jonah, questioning his right to be angry by using an

object lesson. And the third section is verses 10-11, where God expresses His concern for

all people (Reed 182-185).

Chapter three ends with God relenting of his impending destruction of Nineveh

when he sees their genuine repentance. The first verse of chapter four continues with

Jonah’s reaction: “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry” (KJV).

Jonah was actually angry because of God’s grace toward the Ninevites. This is the same

grace that Jonah had been the recipient of earlier, when God spared him from death at sea

by providing the fish to swallow and protect him. Instead of rejoicing over God’s

kindness, Jonah gets angry.

In verse 2, Jonah cries out to God, directing his anger towards him. He says to

God, “…is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to

flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger

and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (NIV). In essence, this

is Jonah saying to God, “I told you so!” He knew that God is a merciful God who would

not follow through on his judgment of destruction. So Jonah is blaming God not only for

sparing the Ninevites, but for his own disobedient flight to Tarshish. This confession of

God’s character may be some sort of creed in ancient Israel, since it is repeated

throughout the Old Testament some ten times (Exodus 34:6-7, Joel 2:13, Numbers 14:18,
Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 145:8-9, etc…). It is a representation of the God of the covenant,

the one who has revealed himself to Israel. Jonah doesn’t disagree with the confession;

his problem is that God is indiscriminate in the exercise of his mercy (Fretheim 119). He

is trapped by the covenant. He can no longer argue, so he gets mad. But what is the real

source of his anger? Why is he so angry at God for showing mercy? In sparing Nineveh,

God has done three things:

• He has wounded Jonah’s pride. A prophet’s reputation depended on

the fulfillment of his predictions. Jonah had failed and now he

would be an object of ridicule.

• Through his actions, God had declared that Jonah must forgive the

Ninevites for all their horrible atrocities, and

• God made clear that Ninevites and Israelites were equal in his

sight. Hebrew superiority is struck by a fatal blow (Pickard 76).

In light of these, Jonah couldn’t take it. He got angry. “His feelings were so deeply

ingrained that he simply could not accept God’s demand….It destroyed the foundation on

which his entire life had been built” (Pickard 77). Jonah had so much hatred for the

Assyrians for their past oppression of his people that he could not rejoice over their

salvation.

Jonah continues his prayer in verse 3, begging the Lord to take his life. “Now, O

Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live” (NIV). He is so

distressed by God’s actions that he doesn’t want to live anymore. Life is offered to the

wicked Ninevites, while Israel continues to suffer much distress? It seems as if God has

taken his promise away from Israel and given it to the Ninevites. This is what compels
Jonah to wish his own death. This verse is often compared to Elijah’s request for death in

1 Kings 19:4, when he was fleeing from Jezebel. But Elijah wishes to die because of his

failure, while Jonah was in despair over his success in turning people to God (Fretheim

122).

In verse 4, the Lord displays his patience with Jonah, asking him, “Have you any

right to be angry?” (NIV) Instead of openly rebuking Jonah, God patiently works to

convince Jonah of his childish attitude, showing tenderness in the face of Jonah’s

judgmental anger.

In verse 5, Jonah does not answer the Lord’s question, but he goes eastward of the

city, builds himself a shelter (Hebrew succah, probably made out of branches and leaves)

and sat in its shade to see what would happen to the city. This is Jonah’s attempt at

challenging God with the firmness of his resolve, showing his unchanged mindset and

feeble attempt at independence from God. Jonah is so angry that he doesn’t want to

accept gifts from anyone. The Ninevites would have been grateful for Jonah’s warning

which led them to their repentance and salvation. They would have gladly offered him

suitable dwellings and given him honor. In his book Jonah, Jack Sasson asserts from the

Hebrew text that Jonah is almost tentative in his pouting: “This is a rather belabored

verse: Jonah exits, sits, builds, sits, then stares at the city. The effect is once more of

movements coming in spurts, as if Jonah is taking his time or is not sure how best to

proceed” (287). The usual view is that Jonah sat down to watch, hoping that God would

change his mind again and destroy the city, but it is more probable that Jonah was

expecting something to happen that would explain God’s ways a little more clearly to

him.
And that is what God did. Verse 6 says that God provided a plant (Heb. kikayon)

that grew over Jonah’s head to give him further shade, delivering him from his grief.

Jonah was “exceedingly glad” because of the plant. The exact identification of the plant is

uncertain based on the Hebrew, but some scholars say that it might be a ricinus or castor-

oil tree. Different translations call it a gourd, a tree, or simply a vine, but the botanical

identification of the plant doesn’t really matter to the message of the passage. Jonah was

very joyful over this plant. This sudden drastic change of emotion is surprising. Both

verses 1 and 6 use the modifier “exceedingly,” showing the wide spectrum of Jonah’s

emotions. It wasn’t just because the plant protected Jonah from the heat, because he had

already set up a shelter for himself. He was also joyful at the miraculous growth of the

plant, for it had sprung up overnight. But this was not a joy of gratitude. It was selfish.

This is the first step of God’s object lesson. “The kikayon thus becomes an instrument of

God’s connivance, for God has indeed tricked Jonah into enjoying or feeling contentment

for something that he hasn’t worked for and thus doesn’t deserve” (Perry 57). This is God

showing Jonah that his attempt at independence isn’t going to work.

The next verse (7) continues God’s object lesson. “But at dawn the next day God

provided a worm, which chewed through the vine so that it withered” (NIV). Here again,

God provided (Heb. manah: “to appoint” “to provide” “to prepare”) something for Jonah.

Earlier he provided the fish to protect him (1:17), then he provided the plant to give him

shade, and he provided the worm to destroy the plant, along with his joy.

In verse 8, God provided (manah) a sirocco, a vehement east wind common to the

Middle East, which is described as “a dust-laden, furnace-like blast of heat that parches

the body by evaporating perspiration” (Fretheim 124). The sun beat down on Jonah so
that he grew faint, and he “wished in himself to die” (KJV), saying once again that it was

better for him to die than to live. The difference in this death wish is that Jonah

“requested for himself that he might die” (ASV, emphasis mine), rather than requesting of

God (v. 3). Jonah is still trying to assert his independence. From Jonah’s perspective,

“God can apparently no longer even be depended upon to take his life. He would prefer

to keep Jonah alive and miserable” (Fretheim 125). And the reason for Jonah’s anger is

different this time. The first time he was angry because Nineveh was not destroyed, but

here he is angry because the plant is destroyed. God is trying to show Jonah the

inconsistency of his position. But instead of getting God’s point, Jonah reverts back to his

anger, wishing for death once again.

In verse 9, God asks Jonah the same question: “Do you have a right to be angry?”

This time though, God is questioning Jonah’s anger for the loss of the plant that had

shaded him and brought him so much joy. Jonah responds, “I do. I am angry enough to

die” (NIV). Jonah responds with anger, showing that he thinks God’s actions are not just.

“What makes Jonah even more angry here and wish even more intensely for his death is

his perception of the contrasting ways of God’s dealings with him and Nineveh. God is

not just” (Fretheim 126).

It is in verses 10-11, the final verses of the book, that God drives home his point.

He says to Jonah, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend to it

or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a

hundred thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle

as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (NIV). Jonah had been given

the plant as a pure gift, not as something that he had earned or deserved. And it was just
one lifeless plant, ephemeral in nature, passing away quickly. The plant stands in contrast

to God’s relationship with the Ninevites. He created and nurtured them over a long period

of time, and there were large masses of them, human beings created in God’s own image.

Jonah has no claim to the plant, so there can be no question of injustice whatsoever in

God’s taking the plant from Jonah. If Jonah can make no claims of justice for the plant,

he can definitely make no judgments concerning what God has done with Nineveh

(Fretheim 127).

There are a few things to point out in God’s final response to Jonah. First, the

phrase “…who cannot tell their right hand from their left…” warrants some closer

inspection. In the Bible, the right hand is the symbol of the good realm, the hand that

symbolizes power and righteousness. The left hand, by contrast, is the symbol of evil, the

hand used to curse and used to clean oneself. Each realm is opposite to each other and

should not be mixed. So when it is said that Nineveh cannot tell their right hand from

their left, it is saying that they have no discernment, no knowledge of ethics or the basics

of life (Bachmann 54).

God asks Jonah, “Should I not pity Nineveh?” (ESV). The verb translated “pity”

has the literal sense “the eye flows on account of.” In beautiful imagery, it shows that the

Lord sees Nineveh and is moved to tears of compassion for its people (Limburg 155).

The seemingly innocent words “…and also much cattle” (KJV) give even further

evidence of God’s far-reaching grace. God is concerned even with the animals of

Nineveh. The animals were included in the king’s decree for repentance, given in chapter

3: “Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock taste anything…” (3:7 NIV). God does not

forget that, and honors Nineveh’s repentance in full.


“The abrupt ending of the book leaves a picture forever etched in the memory:

Jonah pouting over his pitiful puny plant, while the great heart of God reaches out to his

lost children. The Ninevites are saved, not because they are good, but precisely because

they are unworthy and have recognized it” (Pickard 91). That is the message of Jonah:

that God’s grace is offered to all, not because we have done anything to deserve it, but

because God loves us in spite of our wickedness, in spite of our rebellion from him. He is

the Creator, the Sustainer, the One who gave us life, and who wants us to turn back to

him. The Lord does not want anyone to perish, but wants everyone to come to repentance

(2 Peter 3:9). Anyone and everyone include our enemies, those that would harm us, or

whom society would look down upon as inferior. God does not discriminate in his

offering of free grace. Colossians 3:11 says, “In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are

a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, salve, or free.

Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us” (NLT).

I think the modern church needs to be refreshed of this message from time to

time. We should not be proud of our status as Christians, looking down on those who are

not in our “inner ring.” There is no “us” and “them” when referring to Christians and

non-believers; the only thing that separates us is this free grace offered by God, which we

did nothing to earn, and therefore no right to be proud of. Like Jonah, sometimes we as

Christians tend to be selfish in our faith, and we sit comfortably under the shelters we’ve

made that give us security, such as our arrogance in our faith, and we sit idly, watching

for the destruction of those whom we see as “wicked.”

But the real focus of the book of Jonah is not Jonah, or us. The real focus is on the

grace of God. I think it’s important to remember that as Christians, we were once
Ninevites. We were lost, didn’t know our right hand from our left, and we were headed

for destruction. But God offered us his grace, and once we repented, we were given new

life in Christ. “So great a love, allows us to clear our messy lives before God, once and

for all, regardless of our previous history and of any pre-condition on our own, and get a

new start!” (Bachmann 53). Praise God that he has given us a fresh start by offering us

salvation through His free grace!

Works Cited
Arnold, Bill T., Bryan E. Beyer. Encountering the Old Testament: A Christian Survey.

Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1999.

Bachmann, Mercedes Garcia. “Conflicting Visions of Jonah – Or Rather Diversity?”

Mission Studies: Journal of the International Association for Mission Studies Vol.

23 Issue 1 (2006): 45-59. [electronic version]

Fretheim, Terence E. The Message of Jonah: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis,

Minnesota: Augsburg Publishing House, 1977.

Gaebelein, Frank E. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Volume 7 (Daniel-Minor

Prophets). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985.

Limburg, James. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Hosea-

Micah. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.

Mitchell, Hinckley G., John Merlin Powis Smith, Julius A. Bewer. The International

Critical Commentary: Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi and Jonah. New York: Charles

Scribner’s Sons, 1912.

Perry, T.A. The Honeymoon Is Over: Jonah’s Argument With God. Peabody,

Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.

Pickard, William M. Rather Die Than Live – Jonah, 1974.

Reed, Oscar F., Armor D. Peisker, H. Ray Dunning, William M. Greathouse. Beacon

Bible Commentary: Hosea Through Malachi. Kansas City, Missouri: Beacon Hill

Press, 1966.

Sasson, Jack M. The Anchor Bible: Jonah. New York: Doubleday, 1990.