Back in Jonah 2:1 (Eng., 1:17), the LORD “appointed” a great fish to do his bidding. Now in Jonah 4:6–8 he appoints a little plant, a worm, and then an east wind. There is nothing unrealistic about this at all. God is in control of his own creation. The appointment of the plant sets up an object lesson for Jonah and ultimately for the reader. The plant becomes a welcome replacement for the insufficient shade of Jonah’s shelter, thus delivering Jonah from his “bad situation” (רעה). Jonah is naturally very pleased about this, but it exposes the fact that Jonah has a double standard. When God relented concerning the “calamity” (רעה) that he spoke to do to the Ninevites, Jonah was very displeased (Jon. 3:10–4:1). He did not rejoice for them then as he does for himself now. God then appoints a worm early the next morning to kill the plant, thus removing Jonah’s shade. With the rising of the sun and the appointment of an east wind (a symbol of judgment [Exod. 10:13; 14:21; Ezek. 19:12; Hos. 13:15]), the hot sun becomes unbearable for Jonah, and he faints (cf., Amos 8:13; Jon. 2:8 [Eng., 2:7]). Jonah asks a second time to die, asserting once again that his death is better than his life. And so, while Jonah would like nothing more than to see “calamity” (רעה) come upon the Ninevites, his own “misfortune” (רעה) makes him despair of life itself. Jonah’s attitude reflects an unbalanced view of himself and the Ninevites, and it amounts to a denial of God’s right to have compassion on the Gentiles on his own terms.
God asks whether Jonah is rightfully angry about the plant (Jon. 4:9), echoing his earlier question about whether Jonah was rightfully angry about the fact that he relented concerning the judgment of the Ninevites (Jon. 4:4). But this time Jonah defiantly responds that he is rightfully angry to the point of death. This is not simply an idiom that means Jonah is extremely angry (contra NET). It is clear from Jonah 4:8 that Jonah literally wants to die. The LORD then drives home the point of his object lesson by means of the contrast between Jonah’s action (Jon. 4:10) and his own action (Jon. 4:11). Jonah had pity on the little plant, which really represented his own personal comfort, even though he had made no real investment in it. The plant was gone as quickly as it came. On the other hand, does not God have the right to have compassion on a great city like Nineveh consisting of more than 120,000 people, especially when they repent (cf., Matt. 6:30; Luke 12:18)? The designation “who do not know their right hand from their left” is likely not a way to describe the children of the Ninevite population (cf., Isa. 7:16), in part because the introduction of such a consideration at this point in the narrative would be extraordinarily odd. God relented because the general populace repented, not because there were too many children. Rather, those who do not know their right hand from their left are those who are in need of special revelation such as what Jonah delivered to the Ninevites. They are simply not in a position to know how to respond to God unless he reveals himself to them. The addition of “many animals” at the end can be explained by the inclusion of the animals in the decree of Jonah 3:7–8. The lack of response from Jonah at the end of the book is significant because it gives God the last word (cf., Gen. 34:31). It also invites the reader to consider how he or she might respond. As far as the author is concerned, the point of the object lesson has been conceded. God does in fact have the right to show compassion to the Gentiles. Only one other book of the Twelve concludes with a rhetorical question—Nahum (Nah. 3:19). There the question has a similar effect, but Nineveh represents the unbelieving Gentiles in that context. According to Hosea 3:5; Amos 9:12; Mic. 4:1–5; Zech. 8:20–23, the inclusion of the Gentiles will ultimately take place in the last days. The following book of Micah likewise sees Assyria as a type of the Gentile domain to be possessed in the messianic kingdom (Mic. 5:1–5 [Eng., 5:2–6]).
This post is adapted from A Commentary on the Book of the Twelve: The Minor Prophets. Learn more or request a faculty examination, media, or blog review copy.
“Michael B. Shepherd is my favorite Old Testament exegete. I had high expectations for this commentary and they were gloriously exceeded. It is bursting with biblical insights. I could not commend it more highly.”
— Jason C. Meyer, pastor for preaching and vision at Bethlehem Baptist Church and associate professor of New Testament at Bethlehem College and Seminary