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Jonah 4:1-11 | Werner Bible Commentary

Jonah 4:1-11

Submitted by admin on Sat, 2013-10-12 12:36.

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To Jonah it “was greatly displeasing” that YHWH had spared the Ninevites from the threatened judgment. In this context, the Hebrew verb that may be understood to mean “displease” (ra‘á‘) basically denotes “to be evil” and could denote “to be badly inclined,” “pained,” or “grieved.” To indicate that this was a very intense feeling on the part of Jonah, the Hebrew expression that is linked to ra‘á‘ is the noun form of ra‘á‘ modified by the adjective meaning “great.” These two Hebrew words are commonly translated as an adverb modifying “displeasing” (“greatly,” “highly,” or “exceedingly” displeasing). The Septuagint rendering reflects a literal reading of the Hebrew text, and the beginning of the verse may be translated, “And Jonah was grieved with great grief.” (4:1)

According to the Hebrew text, Jonah also became angry (literally, “it burned to him”). The Septuagint refers to him as “confounded,” “troubled,” “disturbed,” or “confused” (synchéo). (4:1)

Jonah’s reaction may have been prompted by his belief that the Ninevites were undeserving of being shown mercy. An inscription of Assyrian monarch Shalmaneser III mentions receiving tribute from Israelite king Jehu, the great-grandfather of Jeroboam II (during whose reign Jonah prophesied). (For the picture of the Assyrian monument and accompanying description, see black obelisk.) So it is very likely that Jonah considered Assyria as a potential threat to the Israelites. (4:1; see the Notes section.)

In his troubled state, Jonah prayed to YHWH, saying, by implication, that he thought that the Ninevites would be forgiven at the time he was still in his own land. Not wanting this to happen, he determined to flee to Tarshish. Jonah continued, “for I knew that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and great in kindness (chésed) and repenting of evil.” These words reveal Jonah to have been fully aware that YHWH did not desire anyone to be destroyed but wanted to show mercy, granting individuals and nations the opportunity to repent so that he could choose not to bring the threatened judgment against them. Therefore, Jonah’s plan to make an escape to Tarshish so as not to carry out his commission suggests that he had resolved not to share in motivating the Ninevites to repent and to become recipients of YHWH’s mercy. (4:2; see the Notes section regarding chésed.)

Jonah may have felt indignant that his ordeal, including the long journey to Nineveh, served a purpose that he personally resented. Yet he must have known that it was wrong for him to find fault with YHWH for sparing the Ninevites. His attitude placed him in direct opposition to his God as a bitter complainer. Frustrated and angry, he wished that he was dead, for everything had worked out in a manner that was not to his liking. So he prayed to YHWH to take away his “soul” or life, believing that it would be better for him to die than to continue to live. (4:3)

YHWH is represented as responding with a question as to whether it was right for Jonah to be angry (literally, to “burn”). According to the Septuagint, the question is, “Are you exceedingly grieved?” (4:4)

Jonah left Nineveh and seated himself “to the east of the city,” where he constructed a booth for himself, probably from tree branches and their leaves. There he sat under its shade, waiting for what would happen to the city. (4:5)

YHWH “appointed,” assigned, or “commanded” (LXX) a plant to come up over Jonah to provide shade over his head, delivering him from his “evil,” calamity, or discomfort. “And, because of the plant, Jonah rejoiced with great rejoicing.” (4:6)

There is no way to establish just what kind of plant grew so rapidly overnight (verse 10) as to provide Jonah with welcome shade the next day. Without a miracle, the fastest-growing bamboo (which is not native to the region around Nineveh) can shoot up nearly three feet (about 90 centimeters) in a single day. So it need not be considered incredible that God could speed up the development of a different plant, possibly a large-leaved plant of the gourd family. Indicating that the amazing growth came about through divine intervention is the fact that the plant is described as one that God “appointed,” assigned or commanded to grow. In the Septuagint, the designation for the plant is kolókyntha (“gourd”). (4:6)

Jonah was very happy about the plant, as its shade contributed to his comfort. It may also be that he recognized the plant as a kindly provision from YHWH. Despite his bitter complaint, he had become the recipient of God’s compassionate attention. So he may have taken this to mean that YHWH had not rejected him, contributing to his great joy. (4:6)

Early the next morning, God “appointed,” assigned, or “commanded” (LXX) a worm to “strike” or feed on the plant, causing it to wither. Based on the wording in verse 10, the worm appears to have chewed on the plant before sunrise or early in the morning while it was still dark. Again this development is represented as having taken place on account of divine intervention. (4:7)

When “the sun rose, God appointed,” assigned, or “commanded” (LXX) a “scorching” [charishí] east wind to blow, and “the sun beat upon Jonah’s head,” causing him to become faint or to swoon. Having been deprived of the plant’s welcome shade, he was miserable and “asked for his soul [he himself] to die,” saying that death was better for him than life. According to the Septuagint, Jonah became disheartened or depressed, and he “renounced” his “soul” or despaired of his life. (4:8)

There is considerable uncertainty about the meaning of the Hebrew word charishí, for it is not found elsewhere in the Scriptures. The words in the Septuagint about the wind could be translated, “God commanded a hot wind to scorch.” Winds blowing from the east are hot and dry, unlike the westerly winds that can bring rain. (4:8)

God asked Jonah (as he had previously [4:4]) whether it was right for him to be angry (literally, “burn”) “over the plant.” Jonah felt justified about his reaction to the situation, saying that he had rightly “become angry” (literally, “burned”) even “to death.” The loss of shade from the plant made him more miserable on account of the heat, and he may also have concluded that God had done this to him. From the standpoint of his personal discomfort and the absence of favorable attention from his God, Jonah thought that it would be better for him to die than to continue to live. (4:9)

In response, YHWH reminded Jonah that he had neither labored upon the plant for which he had pity nor had he made it grow. It was a “son of night” and “perished in a night.” The idiomatic expression “son of night” identifies the plant as having grown in one night. In another night (early in the morning while it was still dark [4:7]), this plant had perished on account of the harm a worm did to it. (4:10)

Especially since it had provided him with pleasant shade, Jonah felt “pity” for the plant. It just did not seem right to him that a plant that had brought him pleasure should die so quickly. As far as he was concerned, it was too bad that this had happened. (4:10)

YHWH is then represented as making Jonah aware of a vital lesson. While Jonah had done nothing for the plant, he felt bad about its having withered. YHWH, on the other hand, was the Creator, and the Ninevites and their animals were part of his creation. So, as he asked Jonah, “Should I not pity Nineveh the great city in which there are more than 120,000 men [adhám (earthling), a collective singular referring to men or people] who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals?” (4:11)

Some commentators have concluded that the reference to more than 120,000 people not knowing their right from their left applies to small children. This, however, would be a departure from the usual meaning of the Hebrew word adhám and the corresponding Greek word in the Septuagint (ánthropos [“man”]). Unlike the Israelites who had received the law that clearly set forth what constituted upright conduct from God’s standpoint, the Ninevites did not enjoy this benefit. The environment in which they lived also contributed to making their consciences less sensitive respecting moral judgments. Accordingly, as it pertained to moral discrimination and what was acceptable to YHWH, the people of Nineveh could be described as not knowing their right hand from their left hand. As humans who had responded to Jonah’s proclamation and as part of his creation, YHWH could rightly spare them. They had repented and so had ceased to be the kind of people against whom punitive judgment had been threatened. (4:11)


For pictures of Assyrian sculptures, see Assyrian galleries.

As in verse 8(9) of chapter 2, the Hebrew word chésed in verse 2 of chapter 4 can denote “graciousness,” “enduring loyalty,” “steadfast love,” “kindness,” or “mercy.” It is a compassionate care and loving concern that expresses itself in action. In this case, the Septuagint translates chésed (modified by the word for “great”) as the compound noun polyéleos (meaning “abundant mercy,” pity, or compassion).

Tarshish is commonly linked to the Iberian Peninsula, but this identification is not certain. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities, IX, x, 2) understood the place to be Tarsus in Cilicia, a region in the southeastern part of Asia Minor.