The narrative of the life of the prophet Jonah is one of the best-remembered stories in all the Bible. Jonah clearly got to see the awesome power of God due to his defiant act of rebellion. The Old Testament reaches one of its highest points of revelation as God is clearly seen in His creation and in history. God reveals His tender compassion for all creation and we see more of God’s character revealed in this book than in almost any other book of the Old Testament. People through the ages have questioned whether Jonah was actually eaten by a whale or whether that symbolize Israel future plight. Various sides have debated in modern times and many discarded that the story of Jonah historically took place. Many say it is just symbolic of a much deeper message while others steadfastly believe that it occurred historically. They say if God wanted Jonah to live three days and nights in the belly of a whale, then God could make it happen. Regardless of the questions and debates, the book of Jonah is a divinely inspired literary masterpiece systemically developed along the lines of a short story. (Glaze, p. 155).
The book has no stated author, though tradition ascribes it to Jonah. Jonah means “dove”. Some claim that is a symbolic name for Israel while others discard it. The traditional view is that the book of Jonah was a straightforward historical account of the actual experiences of the eighth-century prophet, Jonah. The supporters of this view say that it was confirmed when Jesus made mention of the historical nature of the book (cf. Matt. 12:38-41; 16:4; Luke 11:29, 30, 32) and compared Jonah’s three days and three night in the belly of a whale with His own death and resurrection. They say the book was written in the eighth century during the time of the prophet Jonah who is mentioned in 2 Kings. They claim that 3:9 and 4:2 reflect Joel 2:14 and 2:13 and Joel dated around 803 BC.
While others consider the genre of the story of Jonah as a prose poetry in an allegory and parable form and not literal history. They say if it was meant to be a historical record, then the book would be much more precise. An example of this is when Jonah calls the king mentioned in the book, “King of Nineveh”, which was never used as long as the Assyrian empire stood. They claim that solely on the basis of the use of “to be” in the past tense in describing Nineveh in 3:3, it has usually been assumed that the narrator had to be someone living after 612, i.e., after Nineveh fell to the Babylonians and was destroyed. (Stuart, p. 432). That the actual composition of the book is not datable except within the broadest boundaries (ca.750-250 BC) because there are no certain indicators of the precise date. Some say 450-400 BC but there is no definite argument on it. They say that Jesus just referred to Jonah like he would the prodigal son or any other parable and the Jesus was not confirming the historical view of the Jonah account. Their main argument against the historicity of the book is, the alleged possibility of Jonah surviving three days and three nights in the belly of a whale (1:17). They believe there is no human way possible that that can occur and firmly believe that it was just symbolic. They focus on an adequate spiritual reason for it rather than on its historicity.
The purpose of Jonah clearly seems to be one of revealing God’s all-embracing love for all humanity. God seems to be the main character in the story revealing more and more about His own character. No less than thirty-nine times is He directly referred to while Jonah is mentioned only eighteen times. The main theme seems to be that God actively remains involved in the world not only to save the world but to preserve His people from evil. God’s sovereignty over life, elements, and circumstances is clearly seen. This book wants to show of God’s world-embracing love and universal redemptive desire for all of mankind.
The structure of the narrative is one of varying expectations and results. The hearer has certain presuppositions and expectations prior to this book. An example of this is that the reader would assume that 1) God approves (+) the destruction of the wicked city (-) announced by the good prophet (+) who lives. Or like Jonah’s possible presupposition, 2) God disapproves (-) the salvation of the wicked city (+) announced by the bad prophet (-) who dies. While God has His wishes and Jonah has his. God’s is 1) and Jonah’s is 2). 1) God approves (+) the salvation of the wicked city (+) announced by the good prophet who lives (+). 2) God disapproves (-) the destruction of the wicked city (-) announced by the bad prophet (-) who later probably dies (-). The number 1) solution is that of God’s. Notice how God’s structure is (+)(+)(+)(+). While number 2) solution is that of Jonah’s and (-)(-)(-)(-). Jonah’s reflects negatively on God. (Lacocque p.90-91).
Jonah is a book with a great message for all people to hear. The Yahweh God is one who has an all-world embracing love and He is a God who is actively pursuing us to protect us and bring redemption. Jonah remains indignant and fails to believe and accept that God should show love to all the world.
Critique and Commentary of Jonah 4:1-11. Scripture is written by the NASB version.
1 But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry.
Any doubt about Jonah’s reason for flight is dispelled when Jonah’s blunt statement in verse one that he was furious that God would spare Nineveh. Displeased comes from the verb which also means to be sad, injurious, or evil. The literal translation in Hebrew of this passage is “But it was evil to Jonah, with great evil.” (Gaebelein p. 384). The clause thus expressing Jonah’s dissatisfaction is about as strong as possible to say it in Hebrew. (Stuart p. 502). Now the term “evil”, which has been repeatedly applied to the Ninevites, now characterizes the prophet. “It is his very zeal for God that turns Jonah against God” (Lacocque p. 80). The narrator tells the story to shock us and arouse within us as the audience to disassociate ourselves from Jonah’s narrow nationalism.
Why was Jonah so angry? Jonah was angry because he had clearly expected the literal fulfillment of the destruction of Nineveh to come to fruition and felt that based on Deuteronomy 18:21-22, he would now be regarded as a false prophet. Jonah felt his honor was at stake. (Glaze, p. 178). For ancient Israel, being is inseparable from performing.
2 And 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 Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.”
Although Jonah is very disappointed, he is not really shocked. From the beginning, Jonah confesses that his proclamation would not come true of the destruction of Nineveh. He knew that God was “one who relents concerning calamity.” Although he was not surprised by God’s actions, Jonah told God exactly why he was angry. He was angry that God chose to spare Nineveh. Jonah did not want God to show Nineveh any undeserving grace, although God had granted plenty to Israel. Jonah wanted God to punish the people of Nineveh without any chance of repentance. Although Jonah knew that God might have shown grace and compassion, Jonah did not want God to do what was right and proper according to God’s own merciful nature.
In the descriptive phrase “a gracious and compassionate God”, the abbreviated form ‘el (“God”) shows that we are dealing with a very early formulation of God’s character, doubtless back to the patriarchs. (Gaebelein p.385). The word “gracious” is linked with the Hebrew word hen (“grace”) and expresses God’s attitude toward those who have no claim on Him and are outside of every covenant relationship. The Hebrew term “compassion” in practice is linked with rehem (“the womb”) and expressed the love and understanding of a mother to her child. (Gaebelein p. 385). The imagery here is very clear that God desperately cared for His children, whether they were from Israel or from Nineveh. God is sympathetic to all needs. Steadfast love is the chief characteristic of God in dealing with man, and the history of Israel stands as the demonstration of that principle. (Glaze, p. 179).
What is clear is that Jonah found fault in who God really is, not in what Jonah imagined Him to be. Jonah was arguing with God and complaining over God’s own goodness.
3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.”
Jonah clearly wanted to die. He echoes Elijah’s plea when he fled from Jezebel (1 King 19:4) following God’s powerful miracle at Mt. Carmel. The difference between Elijah and Jonah was “that while Elijah was jealous for Yahweh, Jonah was jealous of Him.” (Glaze, p. 179). Jonah felt that his world of understanding had been turned upside down. He felt discredited as a prophet and as an ardent nationalist, he did not want to live another day after the people of Nineveh were spared. A world in which God forgives even Israel’s enemies is a world Jonah does not wish to live in. (Stuart p. 503). Jonah would prefer death to serving this patient, merciful, forgiving God, the God who refuses to limit His grace just to Israel. (Stuart p. 503).
4 And the Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”
Another way of saying this, “Have you any right to be angry?” God was not rebuking Jonah but like Job and Jeremiah, God was rather suggesting that he might be wrong in his estimation of his reason to be angry. Jonah is angry without merit. Notice that God ignored Jonah’s request to die because it was a dumb request because it was one out of pettiness and frustration. The heart of the issue was not Jonah’s status, but his narrow attitude. (Stuart p.503).
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 went out still holding out hope that his prediction would somehow come to fruition. He chose east because the higher elevation would provide him a better observation point of what he hoped would be Nineveh’s destruction. (Craig, p. 766). Jonah was even hoping that Nineveh’s wickedness might prove to be too much for God’s grace. That is not possible.
With Jonah placing himself on the east, the Hebrew word is qedem, which means “the east” but also means “the past”. It could be interpreted that Jonah looked upon the city from the view of its past and he was judging them accordingly. (Lacocque p. 86). The word used here for shelter sukkah, is that of the Israelite shelters in the feast of Booths (Tabernacle), a simple hut. (Stuart, p.504).
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 word for gourd, “qiqayon” appears only here in the entire Bible. Instead of Nineveh being destroyed, it is the “qiqayon” that is being withered away. (Lacocque, p.89). This word appointed or designate, the verb “manah” (to appoint, to provide, to prepare) is the same one that God used when he appointed the whale to swallow Jonah up. (Gaebelein, p.387). God is acting specifically on Jonah’s behalf. It is then immediately mentioned that the gourd or plant “delivered him from discomfort.” This wording could apply to what God had decided to do for Nineveh, God is also providing for Jonah’s physical troubles. The text says literally that “Jonah rejoiced with a great joy at the climbing gourd.” (Stuart p. 505). Jonah could not miss the point God was trying to make to Jonah. That this gift of shade was a merciful gift to him from God but such a gift was fine with Jonah only as long as they were not also given to his enemies. A great rejoicing over the saving of hundreds of thousands infuriated Jonah while having his immediate need met out of mercy and grace, he “rejoiced with a great joy . . . “
In the rest of this chapter of Jonah, the divine name Elohim (“God”), which has been used consistently for God’s dealings with Nineveh, is now used for his dealings with Jonah. (Gaebelein p.387). The plant and shade were instruments in God’s lesson to save Jonah from his discomfort, or rather from verse 4:1, “to deliver him from his evil.” The author, arriving at the main theme of his narrative, asserts that God actively enters the time and space, not only to save but also deliver His people from evil. (Glaze, p. 180).
7 But God appointed a worm when dawn came the next day, and it attacked the plant and it withered.
The word for appointed in Hebrew is “manah” is the same one used when God appointed the use of the whale (1:17), the vine or gourd (4:6), now the worm, and later the wind (4:8). (Ellison, p. 387). The word for worm “tola’at” means something small.
God made the plant live long enough to provide Jonah relief and then killed it to teach Jonah a lesson about concern and compassion. Like the whale before it, the gourd and now the worm did an abnormal task at God’s beckoning.
8 And it came about when the sun came up that God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faith and begged with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.”
“A scorching east wind” is normally called a “sirocco,” which means “east wind.”
(Ellison, p. 387). When a sirocco arrives, the temperature goes about 16 to 22 degrees F.
above the average and scraps all moisture from the air so to make one’s skin drawn much tighter than usual. (Ellison, p.387). It easily caused sun stroke, heat prostration, and mental anguish. Before when Jonah wanted to die it was out of disappointment and how he felt empty as a prophet of God. Now he wanted to die based on common humanity. God once again appointed an element of nature to play a role in His nurturing and training up of Jonah. From Jonah’s point of view, everything in his life had gone wrong and he wanted to die.
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.”
This is the same wording from God’s last question to Jonah in verse 4:4 except He adds the plant. “What right do you have to be angry” is the challenge of this chapter and is central to the whole book. In other words, “Why should we demand that God should favor us and not others?” (Stuart, p. 506). Jonah’s reply could not have been more appropriately worded for God’s lesson he was trying to give. Jonah emphasized the importance of this plant to him and he insisted in the strongest terms he could how much it had meant to him. Jonah delighted in this plant. He is furious it is gone and he just wants to die now because of it.
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.”
Now that Jonah was focused on how wrong it was for God to kill his beloved plant, God points this question directly at Jonah and his pettiness. If it is not right for that plant to die, how then is it right for a whole town of people that God formed in His own image die? God’s speech focuses on Jonah’s lack of concern. God was only doing for Nineveh what Jonah insisted he had the right to do for the plant, to have concern for it and spare it.
Jonah once again missed the big picture in life. God showed that He could even meet Jonah’s personal, individual needs, all the while seeing the big picture of sparing Nineveh.
11 “And 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?”
Once again God focuses on His concern and shows how petty Jonah’s concern is for his plant and personal comfort. There are two main views over whether the “more than 120,000 persons . . . “ refers to the whole population of Nineveh or just to the small children. Since the usual expression for young children was one who did not know “enough to reject the wrong and choose the right.” (Isaiah 7:16) (Ellison, p. 389). Based on archaeological findings, it has been estimated that the town could not have been any larger than 175,000 people so the former seems to be the right view.
The book of Jonah is a tremendous book of proclaiming God’s divine, compassionate character to all the world. God is not just the God of Israel, He is the God of the world and one who deeply cares about all of His creation. Jonah shows how believers of Christ too often become so narrow and internally focused on those within the body while we lose our big, worldwide picture that God has always had. He is active and moving and working in His creation. This book is one in which we can cling to the grace and mercy of God and claim God’s redemptive love toward those who turn from their wicked way. Jonah changes presuppositions and shouts to the world that God compassionately loves it.