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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 4

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-11


Jonah 4:1-11

HAVING illustrated the truth, that the Gentiles are capable of repentance unto life, the Book now describes the effect of their escape upon Jonah, and closes by revealing God’s full heart upon the matter.

Jonah is very angry that Nineveh has been spared. Is this (as some say) because his own word has not been fulfilled? In Israel there was an accepted rule that a prophet should be judged by the issue of his predictions: "If thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which Jehovah hath not spoken?-when a prophet speaketh in the name of Jehovah, if the thing follow not nor come to pass, that is the thing which Jehovah hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken presumptuously, thou shalt have no reverence for him." {Deuteronomy 18:21-22} Was it this that stung Jonah? Did he ask for death because men would say of him that when he predicted Nineveh’s overthrow he was false and had not God’s word? Of such fears there is no trace in the story. Jonah never doubts that his word came from Jehovah, nor dreads that other men will doubt. There is absolutely no hint of anxiety as to his professional reputation. But, on the contrary, Jonah says that from the first he had the foreboding, grounded upon his knowledge of God’s character, that Nineveh would be spared, and that it was from this issue he shrank and fled to go to Tarshish. In short he could not, either then or now, master his conviction that the heathen should be destroyed. His grief, though foolish, is not selfish. He is angry, not at the baffling of his word, but at God’s forbearance with the foes and tyrants of Israel.

Now, as in all else, so in this, Jonah is the type of his people. If we can judge from their literature after the Exile, they were not troubled by the non-fulfillment of prophecy, except as one item of what was the problem of their faith-the continued prosperity of the Gentiles. And this was not, what it appears to be in some Psalms, only an intellectual problem or an offence to their sense of justice. Nor could they meet it always, as some of their prophets did, with a supreme intellectual scorn of the heathen, and in the proud confidence that they themselves were the favorites of God. For the knowledge that God was infinitely gracious haunted their pride; and from the very heart of their faith arose a jealous fear that He would show His grace to others than themselves. To us it may be difficult to understand this temper. We have not been trained to believe ourselves an elect people; nor have we suffered at the hands of the heathen. Yet, at least, we have contemporaries and fellow-Christians among whom we may find still alive many of the feelings against which the Book of Jonah was written. Take the Oriental Churches of today. Centuries of oppression have created in them an awful hatred of the infidel, beneath whose power they are hardly suffered to live. The barest justice calls for the overthrow of their oppressors. That these share a common humanity with themselves is a sense they have nearly lost. For centuries they have had no spiritual intercourse with them; to try to convert a Mohammedan has been for twelve hundred years a capital crime. It is not wonderful that Eastern Christians should have long lost power to believe in the conversion of infidels, and to feel that anything is due but their destruction. The present writer once asked a cultured and devout layman of the Greek Church, Why then did God create so many Mohammedans? The answer came hot and fast: To fill up Hell! Analogous to this were the feelings of the Jews towards the peoples who had conquered and oppressed them. But the jealousy already alluded to aggravated these feelings to a rigor no Christian can ever share. What right had God to extend to their oppressors His love for a people who alone had witnessed and suffered for Him, to whom He had bound Himself by so many exclusive promises, whom He had called His Bride, His Darling, His Only One? And yet the more Israel dwelt upon that love the more they were afraid of it. God had been so gracious and so long-suffering to themselves that they could not trust Him not to show these mercies to others. In which case, what was the use of their uniqueness and privilege? What worth was their living any more? Israel might as well perish.

It is this subtle story of Israel’s jealousy of Jehovah, and Jehovah’s gentle treatment of it, which we follow in the last chapter of the book. The chapter starts from Jonah’s confession of fear of the results of God’s lovingkindness and from his persuasion that, as this spread of the heathen, the life of His servant spent in opposition to the heathen was a worthless life; and the chapter closes with God’s own vindication of His Love to His jealous prophet.

"It was a great grief to Jonah, and he was angered; and he prayed to Jehovah and said: Ah now, Jehovah, while I was still upon mine own ground, at the time that I prepared to flee to Tarshish, was not this my word, that I knew Thee to be a God gracious and tender, long-suffering and plenteous in love, relenting of evil? And now, Jehovah, take, I pray Thee, my life from me, for me death is better than life."

In this impatience of life as well as in some subsequent traits, the story of Jonah reflects that of Elijah. But the difference between the two prophets was this, that while Elijah was very jealous for Jehovah, Jonah was very jealous of Him. Jonah could not bear to see the love promised to Israel alone, and cherished by her, bestowed equally upon her heathen oppressors. And he behaved after the manner of jealousy and of the heart that thinks itself insulted. He withdrew, and sulked in solitude, and would take no responsibility nor further interest in his work. Such men are best treated by a caustic gentleness, a little humor, a little rallying, a leaving to nature, and a taking unawares in their own confessed prejudices. All these-I dare to think even the humor-are present in God’s treatment of Jonah. This is very natural and very beautiful. Twice the Divine Voice speaks with a soft sarcasm: "Art thou very angry?" Then Jonah’s affections, turned from man to God, are allowed their course with a bit of nature, the fresh and green companion of his solitude; and then when all his pity for this has been roused by its destruction, that very pity is employed to awaken his sympathy with God’s compassion for the great city, and he is shown how he has denied to God the same natural affection which he confesses to be so strong in himself But why try further to expound so clear and obvious an argument?

"But Jehovah said, Art thou so very angry?" Jonah would not answer-how lifelike is his silence at this point!-"but went out from the city and sat down before it, and made him there a booth and dwelt beneath it in the shade, till he should see what happened in the city. And Jehovah God prepared a gourd, and it grew up above Jonah to be a shadow over his head And Jonah rejoiced in the gourd with a great joy. But as dawn came up the next day God prepared a worm, and this wounded the gourd, that it perished. And it came to pass, when the sun rose, that God prepared a dry east-wind, and the sun smote on Jonah’s head, so that he was faint, and begged for himself that he might die, saying, Better my dying than my living! And God said unto Jonah, Art thou so very angry about the gourd? And he said, I am very angry-even unto death! And Jehovah said: Thou carest for a gourd for which thou hast not travailed, nor hast thou brought it up, a thing that came in a night and in a night has perished. And shall I not care for Nineveh, the Great City, in which there are more than twelve times ten thousand human beings who know not their right hand from their left, besides much cattle?"

God had vindicated His love to the jealousy of those who thought that it was theirs alone. And we are left with this grand vague vision of the immeasurable city, with its multitude of innocent children and cattle, and God’s compassion brooding over all.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jonah 4". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/jonah-4.html.
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