The Heart | Jonah 4

The existence of this chapter is one of my favorite aspects about the book of Jonah. It is very easy when recalling the events of this book to leave out the final chapter. To be fair, I understand why it is easy to forget. Chapter three would have been a great ending for the book. After Jonah’s rebellion, rescue, and submission to God, the exceedingly evil city of Nineveh turned in mass repentance to God. What is not to love about the tale ending on such a grand miracle! However, the Bible is not primarily about giving us a neat and pleasant ending to every story. Ultimately, the Bible ends on a glorious and splendid note, but in the middle, life is contaminated by sin and is, therefore, messy. And this chapter is Jonah at his messiest. The Holy Spirit dives right into the heart of the matter, giving us a display of Jonah’s bitter heart and the gracious and compassionate heart of God.

JONAH’S ANGER // VERSES 1-4

In view of the mass repentance that occurred in the previous chapter, we would not expect to find Jonah’s reaction to be anger. It seems that after such a spectacular event, this bitter and disobedient prophet would have marveled at the great grace and mercy of God. Instead, Jonah was exceedingly angry, which is interesting because Nineveh was called an exceedingly wicked city and the sailors were exceedingly afraid of the LORD.  Furthermore, the ESV footnote for verse one reveals that this verse could be translated as “it was exceedingly evil to Jonah.” The prophet saw God’s willingness to relent of destruction as a displeasing form of evil. Completely overlooking the grace and mercy that God had already shown to Jonah, this son of Amittai became ferociously bitter at God’s display of grace to pagans. This simple contrast between God’s turning-from-anger heart and Jonah’s turning-to-anger heart sets the scene for the interaction in remainder of the book.

Jonah then explicitly states his reason for fleeing from the presence of the LORD in chapter one: he knew that God would show mercy to Nineveh. The depth of the prophet’s embittered cry to God is almost ridiculously laughable. After all, Jonah is expressing his anger over the very attributes of God that we sing praises about on Sunday mornings. This whole prayer just comes across like a child throwing a particularly senseless tantrum. And of course, Jonah’s answer to his great anger is equally laughable: just kill me now. Jonah is literally taking the stance that he would rather die than live serving such a good, gracious, and loving God!

Jonah’s heart is stunningly opposite of God’s heart. The LORD delights in sinners coming to repentance and in the relenting of His punishment upon them. 2 Peter 3:9 clearly states, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” God also declares through the prophet Ezekiel in chapter 18 verses 30-32: “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, declares the Lord GOD. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed, and make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” Likewise, God’s servants must reflect the heart of the LORD. In Romans 9:3, Paul writes about his Israelite brothers and sisters: “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”

However, before we take our seat too high in judgment upon Jonah, let us give him credit for one aspect of his prayer: Jonah was not afraid to be honest before God. To be fair, there is a fine line between honesty and disrespect; however, as the Psalms show over and over, God wants us to be honest in our prayers. If we feel abandoned by God, we should tell Him so. If we are disciplined by God, we should ask Him to reveal our sin. If we have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit and made into children of God, we should not be hesitant to be honest with our Father. In all things, we must remember that God is in heaven and we are on earth (Ecclesiastes 5:2), but we must also be willing to come with confidence to the thrown of grace, knowing that God will receive us with grace and mercy by Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:16).

How glorious and gracious is God’s response to Jonah! Would God not be entirely justified in giving Jonah the death that he so desired? The LORD could have responded to Jonah with all the wrath and anger that Jonah longed to see poured out upon the Ninevites, but God refrained. Instead, the LORD simply asks Jonah if his anger is justified.

The Jerusalem Bible Translation, “Are you right to be angry?” captures the intent of the Hebrew text. Jonah had condemned God for not being angry (v. 2), but now God challenged Jonah for being angry.[1]

This is also true of how God deals with us. Like Jonah, we always deserve for God to turn upon us with wrath and judgment; however, He repeated responds with grace, love, and mercy instead.

JONAH’S PLANT // VERSES 5-9

Jonah offers no verbal reply to God’s question in verse four; instead, the prophet exits the city, builds a booth, and watches to see what is going to happen to the city of Nineveh. Many have read this verse and pondered what Jonah’s reasoning for looking upon the city might be. The logical conclusion, based on the nature of Jonah that we have read so far, seems to be that Jonah was hoping that God would change His mind once more.Perhaps Jonah hoped that the repentance of the Ninevites would be so fleeting that God would turn back once more, delivering the destruction that He had previously promised.

Lest we forget, Nineveh is located in the north of present-day Iraq; therefore, Jonah had great sense to build a shelter for himself to hide from the powerful Middle-Eastern sun. Nevertheless, Jonah’s shelter was obviously fairly inadequate at saving him from the heat. Thus, God appoints a plant to grow from the ground and cover his head. The expressed purpose of this plant was for sparing Jonah from the discomfort of the sun. God gave to Jonah a small, gift of grace, and it made Jonah exceedingly glad. This is small act of physical comfort leads to the only occurrence of Jonah being happy.One commentator expressed Jonah’s circumstance as follows, “The reach of God’s mercy to the undeserving is a theme that continues to elude Jonah even as he experienced it.”[2]

Jonah’s moment of pleasure is quickly undone by this quick series of events that God orchestrates. Just as the LORD appointed the plant to shelter Jonah from the sun so does He beckon a worm and the wind to purpose. The worm kills the plant, and the scorching wind beat down upon the prophet until he becomes faint. Some suggest that this eastern wind is the sirocco, a wind that arises from the Sahara. The presence of this wind, combined with Jonah’s lack of shade from the sun, caused the prophet to once more ask God for death.

During the period of a sirocco the temperature rises steeply, sometimes even climbing during the night, and it remains high, about 16-22 ̊F. above the average . . . at times every scrap of moisture seems to have been extracted from the air, so that one has the curious feeling that one’s skin has been drawn much tighter than usual. Sirocco days are peculiarly trying to the temper and tend to make even the mildest people irritable and fretful and to snap at one another for apparently no reason at all.[3]

Jonah now has requested his own death twice now, and God responds similarly to last time. However, God now specifically asks if Jonah is justified in his anger concerning the plant, and Jonah offers a rebuttal this time, insisting that his anger is justified. The repetition and the emphasis upon the plant all hint that the climatic message of the book is quickly approaching.

JONAH’S LESSON // VERSES 10-11

Throughout this chapter, we have seen a change in how the author refers to God. The chapter began with the author referring to God as the LORD. As we discussed in the first verse of the book, the LORD is God’s personal and holy name. Thus, throughout the book, God is referred to as the LORD (or Yahweh) whenever He is dealing with Jonah, but He is called God (or Elohim) whenever He is dealing with the Ninevites. However, as the LORD appointed the plant and wind, He is called God. However, now as God brings home the message of this book, He is once more called the LORD. The difference between these two names is subtle but worth our notice.

The LORD now calls into question Jonah’s pity for the plant that God had appointed. God is very intentional in reminding Jonah that the prophet did not labor for the plant or make it grow. The plant simply appeared without warning one night, and God destroyed it the following night. The plant was for all practical purposes nothing about which to be concerned. It was no great miracle of God to grow the plant nor to destroy it. However, Jonah showed great concern and pity for the plant. In fact, Jonah’s pity for the plant can actually be translated as compassion. Jonah had great compassion for this small and insignificant work of God.

If Jonah was able to have such a deep compassion for a simple plant, God reasons that He is completely justified for having compassion upon the city of Nineveh. The compassion of God seeps through His wording of this question. In the second verse of chapter one, God described Nineveh as a great city whose wickedness had come up into His presence. However, now God calls them a great city with 120,000 people “who do not know their right hand from their left.” By speaking this way, God is implying that the Ninevites were ignorant of spiritual matters. Though ignorance is not a warrant for the compassion of God in and of itself, the LORD is using it as a point of reasoning with Jonah.The child-like ignorance of the Ninevites only emphasized their humanity, and even though Nineveh was an evil city, its inhabitants were still image-bearers of God. Regardless of the depravity of their sin, people are still more valuable than plants. Jonah’s values were severely out of place.

“and also much cattle” This is one of the strangest phrases in the entire book. It is easy for us to understand why God would have compassion upon 120,000 people because, after all, they are people. They are humans that were created in the image of God, but cattle are not image-bearers. Thus, why would cows be the final thing that God mentions in this book? Some hypotheses have been offered regarding the intention of this phrase. One of the more common explanations is that God is indeed showing compassion for the cattle as well as the humans.

Though I agree with mightily with the thought of caring for all of God’s creation, I do not think that God is necessarily making that case here in Jonah. Instead, I would argue that God is giving Jonah a sort of light banter to point out the prophet’s ridiculously mindset. I believe that God’s intention for this phrase is kind of like God saying, “You cared deeply for the plant, and so don’t you think that I have the right to care deeply for 120,000 people that are completely blind spiritually? But if you don’t care the people like I do, maybe you will care about their cows.”

THE END OF THE MATTER

Ultimately, Jonah wanted God to destroy the city of Nineveh because he hated them. They were notorious for their evil and brutality and were a direct threat to the kingdom of Israel. However, God wanted to show Jonah that no people are too far from His sovereign reach or love. As bearers of His image, the LORD had compassion upon the Ninevites, even though they were a barbaric people.

The book ends without us ever hearing Jonah’s response, which leaves us with a distinctive feeling of incompleteness; however, such is the point of Jonah. The book began as though it was continuing a larger narrative, and now it ends with the thought that it should continue on. As we stated in the first verse of the book, Jonah was not meant to be read alone; rather, like all books of the Bible, it is intended to be read within the context of the grand story that unfolds throughout all of Scripture.

Thus, Jonah leaves us with an unanswered question that is meant to challenge our concept of compassion and its recipients. It is a question of who is worthy of the love of God. Of course, we learn from the rest of Scripture that the answer is no one. Not one person has ever been deserving of God’s compassion, not Jonah, not the Ninevites, and not us today. Every person would be like the people of Nineveh, not knowing their right hand from their left, unless the LORD intervened and brought us His grace. This is the glory and work of Jesus Christ. Though none of us deserved the love of God, the LORD became a human, lived the sinless life that we were supposed to live, died the death that we were meant to die as punishment for our sin, resurrected to life to conquer sin and death, and ascended to the Father to serve as our high priest. Because of that marvelous grace of God, we must long to have compassion on the compassionless, just as the Father did with Nineveh. The heart of Jonah selfishly accepted the grace of God yet refused to show it to others. The heart of God, however, looks upon the sinful world with pity and compassion, longing that people would turn to Him in repentance so that He can show them grace instead of wrath.May the LORD ever make us more like Himself.


[1] Constable. p. 37

[2] The Nelson… p. 1499

[3]Dennis Baly, The Geography of the Bible, 67-68.

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