The Book of Jonah

Jonah is not a book about a whale. There, I’ve said it! As G. Campbell Morgan once said:  Men have been looking so hard at the great fish that they have failed to see the great God. In this short story, there are multiple layers of truth, repentance and salvation but the main accentuation is upon the God who rules the world. This is a book that stresses God’s sovereignty over the prophets, the climate (storm), the animal kingdom (the great fish), horticulture (the plant) and the cities of men (Nineveh). Jonah is essentially a book about God’s providential dealing with men! The story of Jonah demonstrates how Yahweh can be worshipped, an adoration reserved to be expressed by the Jews, by those who first come to Him in repentance, regardless of their ethnicity. Yahweh demonstrates that even in the OT, God is the God of the Gentiles and not only of the Jews (Romans 3:29).


Jonah the prophet would have lived in the 8th century B.C. during the reign of Jeroboam II, king of Israel. He was a prophet of Israel from the northern kingdom rather than Judah. He predicted the extension of king Jeroboam II’s northern kingdom . He is said to be the son of Amittai, who is not mentioned elsewhere in scripture, but we are told that He came from the land of Gath which was the land ascribed to the sons of Zebulun (Joshua 19:13). The mention of his father does give us an indication that the book has historical overtones, and that the author was not simply thinking in parabolic or didactic terms.

His name means “dove”, and some have speculated that it might be associated with the Holy Spirit, but not us. While Jonah is mentioned during the reign of Jeroboam roughly around 780 B.C., this doesn’t inherently mean that this was the time the book was written. Did Jonah write the book or is the book simply written about Jonah? We aren’t sure but there is evidence that it could very well be the latter.

Jonah is mentioned in the NT in the gospels of Matthew & Luke. The Lord Jesus points to Jonah’s experiences as a type which represented His death, burial and resurrection as well as the condemnation upon Jerusalem (Matthew 12:39-41 / Luke 11:29-32) but we’ll get to that a little later.

The Word of the Lord

The word of Yahweh communicates a divine oracle that is used throughout the scriptures and generally in the context of a prophecy but not exclusively. These divine proclamations were generally received by prophets, those ordained to speak on behalf of Yahweh. While the priest represented the people to God, the prophet represented God to the people. While Jonah is a prophet, he is not a prophet in the same sense as some others. Jonah never received a prophetic prediction, but a prophetic message. The word of the Lord was not always in the form of a forecast but sometimes to simply communicate a message from Yahweh. There is generally for an intended recipient whether the person receiving the word (Abraham – Genesis 15:1,4) or as a message to communicate to another such as Pharoah (Exodus 4:28,30). In this case, we should note that the message was intended to deal with the sin of Nineveh (their idolatry) and God was going to hold this foreign nation accountable to his law.

The Content of the Word of the Lord

There are very few instances when a prophet had to deliver an oracle of God outside the borders of his home country. Jonah was expected to Arise & go to the Assyrians, who were a mighty people and who, in return, had little regard towards the Jews. It was a long journey from Joppa (Jaffa) to Nineveh, probably around 500 miles to the northeast.

The expression cry out against it   is an idiom used by prophets to declare the sin and transgression of a people. Isaiah uses it against the house of Israel (Isaiah 58:1). The idea here is not simply to call them out on their sin but also to call them to repentance. Jonah was expected to call these most pagan nation on earth to repent and turn to Yahweh. One can see where this was a daunting task. The pattern here should speak volumes to us as Christians. When we’re proclaiming the Gospel of peace, a declaration of sin and repentance is significant in turning people to God!


Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and situated on the banks of the Tigris River across from today’s Mosul in Iraq. It first appears in Genesis 10:11 as a city built by Nimrod which served as an extension of his empire after Noah’s flood. We are also told that it’s the place where king Sennacherib lived, who was a worshipper of the god Nisroch and who was killed by his sons (1 Kings 19:36; Isaiah 37:37). The Prophet Zephaniah predicted its desolation (Zephaniah 2:13) and the entire book of Nahum is focused upon the overthrow of the great pagan city. 

Nineveh was largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1800 B.C. and remained stagnate for many years until Sennacherib rebuilt it to its then glory. It was a great city and well known in history for its idolatry and being the centrality of the Assyrian Empire.

While their repentance saved them during that period (as we’ll see), Nineveh eventually fell between 616- 612 B.C. Nahum describes this fall in the 3rd chapter of his prophecy. The city obviously enjoyed a time of repentance but eventually fell back into sin and Yahweh’s judgment came upon them at a later time.

The Refusal

Jonah doesn’t verbally deny the commission but does so with his actions by fleeing from the presence of the Lord. There are many theories as to why he fled rather than obeyed. Was it perhaps out of fear of the habitants of the city? Was it fear in his ability to deliver the message? We aren’t told of the mindset behind his denial, but regardless this wasn’t exactly a brilliant approach on his part. As David wrote: Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. (Psalm 139:7-8). Ironically, he was going the complete opposite direction, to Tarshish, as far away from Nineveh as possible (Nineveh was 500 miles northeast, Tarshish was 2000 miles West). He was obviously going as far away as he could from God’s decreed destination. As we’re going to see, his attempted getaway was unsuccessful.

The Storm (vs.4-16)

The Sovereignty of God is demonstrated in utilizing His providential powers to bring about a great storm. Yahweh would not allow His purposes to go unfulfilled or for Jonah to escape Him. The storm put a little fear in the sailors heading for Tarshish and in their dire circumstances, they did two things: (1) emptied the cargo (A physical solution) (2) each called out to their god (A spiritual solution). These sailors were obviously polytheists or at the very least worshipped another god rather than Yahweh. Crying out meant that they were going to their god for help, but this was futile since there is only One God, and He was the initiator of that storm.

Jonah had fallen asleep inside the ship and noticed very little of the vessel being tossed and breaking apart. If only we could all sleep like that! The captain of the ship woke up Jonah and was in awe at his rock-hard sleeping pattern. In a state of emergency, asked him to call upon his god. This same God who Jonah had just previously denied and ventured to escape. Even the captain understood that His God may be able to save them.

The crew concluded that it had to be the sin of an individual that brought this calamity on them. They cast lots in hopes that the culprit responsible for the storm would be identified and they fell upon Jonah. An interrogation follows with the traditional who, where what questioning technique. “Tell us, now! On whose account has this calamity struck us? What is your occupation? And where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?” (v.8). Jonah answers their last question with the designation of being a Hebrew, a traditional term used to convey to foreigners of Israel that they were in fact from Israel (Genesis 14:13; 40:15; Exodus 1:15; 2:13). Jonah feared Yahweh, a term associated with worship. What he fails to tell them is that he was fleeing on the other side of the ocean to escape Him. They figured that out on their own (v.10). Yahweh was the God of Heaven, who made the sea and the dry land, which the sailors would have at least understood to a degree. It also implied that the storm was brought to them by none other than Yahweh. Jonah acknowledges this powerful truth about Yahweh yet seems oblivious to the fact that he can’t escape Him.

The reaction of the sailors was telling in that they became extremely frightened (v.9). They realized that it was Yahweh who had caused the storm and became aware of the reason for the storm. These pagan sailors recognized the power of Yahweh, and feared Him while Jonah, instead of obeying his God, fled from His presence. He feared the task more than His God. Jonah’s solution was to have the sailors throw him overboard as a sort of retribution for the guilt brought upon them (v.12). He acknowledges, in a sense, that he deserved to die! While Jonah recommended being thrown into the deep, the sailors don’t oblige his solution and decided to attempt rowing to land. This was one last physical attempt (v.13) instead of making him walk the plank.  But regardless of their human endeavors, the power of God was too great for them. They simply couldn’t save themselves from the storm and in return “the sea was becoming even stormier against them” (v.13).

The Mouth of a Sailor (Vs 14 – 17)

After seeing the power of Yahweh in the storm that ravaged them, these pagans, rather than Jonah the Hebrew, approached Yahweh in prayer. The captain of the ship had commanded Jonah to pray but he refused and now these frightened sailors took on the responsibility that he would not. In v.5, they were praying to their own gods, now, they acted like the people of God in praying to Yahweh. Jonah, on the other hand, acted like an unbeliever in not praying at all. We are not told that their calling on the name of the Lord was out of fear for their lives or their conversion but regardless they prayed a twofold petition:

  1. Do not let us perish on his account
  2. Do not put innocent blood on us

The end of their prayer is an acknowledgment of Yahweh’s sovereignty to do what pleased Him (v.14). Much like Nebuchadnezzar, who acknowledged that God does according to His will in the host of heaven And among the inhabitants of earth; And no one can ward off His hand Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’ (Daniel 4:35-36), the sailors have come to this realization as well. The sailors throw the prophet overboard and the result is that the storm ceases and they are saved!

The reaction of the sailors is telling. Their reaction was threefold:

  1. They went on fearing Yahweh
  2. They offered up a sacrifice
  3. They made vows

These were typical Israelite responses to the deliverance of God from danger (Psalm 116:17-19). These men were in awe at the power of Yahweh and recipients of Yahweh’s revelation to them. Truly, despite Jewish teaching on the Gentiles, Yahweh did reveal Himself to the nations.

Chapter 2

A Fish Tale (1.17)

Yahweh appoints (heb. mana– assigned or prepared) a great fish to swallow Jonah. Everyone and everything in this story seems to obey God except for Jonah. The demonstration of God’s sovereignty extends outside the storm over the animal realm. While it’s a dire predicament being swallowed by a fish, we should remember that the great fish saved Jonah from drowning in the sea. This fish was a grace of God towards a man who had rebelled and run away from serving Him. Trying to decipher the zoology of the fish is speculation at best since it’s hard to really know what type of fish could swallow a man and if it still exists today.  Regardless, we don’t want to miss the most significant part. We don’t want to ignore that Yahweh intervened in a divine way to preserve Jonah alive for three days and three nights. We don’t want to miss that a salvific miracle was produced through the power of Yahweh. God didn’t simply save Jonah from the depths of the sea but preserved him in the great fish to fulfill the mission. Yahweh also kept the sailors from the guilt of bloodshed. God’s providence is in full display here and we would be wise not to miss it.

The Sign of Jonah

It’s important to take a moment to review the NT application of the Jonah fish experience found in both Matthew 12:39-41 and Luke 11:29-32. The religious leaders, in confronting the Lord Jesus, asked for a sign to substantiate His claims of being the Messiah and that the expected Kingdom had actually come (v.28). They were a skeptical bunch and demanded such a sign even after He had just cast out a demon. The sign that He would give was a typological sign of Jonah. Jonah was confined within a sea monster (great fish) while the Lord Jesus within the earth. This was a representation of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Both allude to entering Sheol and both have a duration of 3 days & 3 nights. Both are miraculously delivered from their confines except while Jonah would be delivered from the pit while still alive, Jesus would be delivered from the pit while dead and made alive again. Jonah’s deliverance brought about a renewed messenger willing to bring a message of repentance, while the resurrection of Christ would renew the apostles to bring the message of the gospel to the nations.

The Prayer of Distress (Vs. 1-7)

The chapter could be broken up into 3 stanzas

  • The prayer of distress followed by the looking again at the temple (2-4)
  • The prayer of distress followed by the prayer coming into the temple (5-7)
  • The Salvation Summary (8-10)

During what he perceived as the end of his life; Jonah offered up a prayer to Yahweh. This invocation came in the form of a Psalm. This wasn’t a unique act by Jonah. Job could say “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him. Nevertheless I will argue my ways before Him. (Job 13:15), the Psalmist would cry out Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord. 2 Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. (Psalm 130:1-2) or even Jeremiah in his time of despair said They have silenced me in the pit And have placed a stone on me. Waters flowed over my head; I said, “I am cut off!” I called on Your name, O Lord, Out of the lowest pit. You have heard my voice, “Do not hide Your ear from my prayer for relief, From my cry for help.” (Lamentations 3:53-56). Jonah previously professed to being a Hebrew (1:9), now he was acting like one! A Hebrew in despair would pray in this way and as Christians, we sometimes avoid the formality but literally cry out to God.

Jonah calls out in desperation to Yahweh, and Yahweh answered Him. Again, there is nothing original in the Jonah’s words since they echo many of the Psalms (Psalm 18:4-6; Psalm 22:24). The idea of Sheol generally depicts the world or realm of the dead but it’s a complex term to define with certainty. Whatever sheol may be, it is clear that the righteous and the unrighteous go there. Examples of the former are Jacob (Gen. 37:35; 42:38; 44:29,31) and Hezekiah (Isa. 38:10,17-18). Examples of the latter are Korah (Num. 16:30) and the king of Babylon (Isa. 14:9,11,15)[1]. It should be noted however that the term seems to appear primarily in poetic literature and could very well be a lyrical way to describe the grave.  The prophets compare their distress to being “swallowed up by Sheol” (Prov. 1:12, 15; Isaiah 5:14) and in the case of Jonah, it certainly seems to be written to convey his going into the grave or perishing. The reason he cries out to God is to acknowledge that his quandary is God’s doing. The term “for” in v.3 gives reason for his supplication. Notice that Jonah concedes that the hand of God in this whole predicament when he says that “you cast me into the deep… all your breakers and billows passed over me” (V.3).  It should then be taken as a confession within the expression “I have been expelled from your sight”.

Notable, is the idea of looking again at the holy temple.  During the dedication of the temple, Solomon spoke of prayers being made by spreading hands towards “this house” pleading to Yahweh to hear in heaven Your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each according to all his ways, whose heart You know, for You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men, (1 Kings 8:38-39). During a time of exile, the people were to repent from their sins and pray towards the land and the temple asking for God’s forgiveness (2 Chronicles 6:38-39). Even though the Lord had cast him out of His sight, an allusion to an exile, Jonah would continue to look towards His temple seeking forgiveness.

Remembering the Lord (Vs.5-7)

Jonah then reiterates the details of being thrown overboard and sinking into the depths of the sea. The language is graphic, poetically detailing that he had sunk to the bottom of the ocean and that he had no hope in of himself to be saved. Jonah had only one hope, in calling out to the One whom he turned his back on. God, in His mercy, answered in the great fish! He brought him up to life from the pit. Jonah’s prayer was his demonstration of turning to God in faith in acknowledging that He would only live if God intervened. God uses means to save His people, prayer, repentance and even a great fish!

Believers have found themselves in troubles all throughout history, many brought to the point of death. Paul once wrote to the Corinthian church that we despaired even of life; indeed, we had the sentence of death within ourselves so that we would not trust in ourselves, but in God who raises the dead; who delivered us from so great a peril of death, and will deliver us, He on whom we have set our hope. And He will yet deliver us (2 Corinthians 1:8b-10). Paul’s solution was to continue to offer up prayer to God so that favour would be bestowed upon them (v.11). It was through prayer that Paul foresaw his salvation from those who were disobedient in Judea (Romans 15:30-31).

While earlier Jonah spoke of looking at the temple, this time he speaks of his prayers going into the temple. Jonah’s prayers (much like ours) went into God’s holy temple. This is not speaking of the temple in Jerusalem but God’s dwelling place in Heaven (Psalm 11;4; Micah 1:2; Habakkuk 2:20). The temple is described in quite some detail in the book of Revelation and our prayers going up to God in His temple are compared to the sweet incense offered up to God in the tabernacle (Psalm 141:2; Revelation 5:8). If the prayers of Jonah went into the temple, this establishes that Yahweh heard him!

 Repentance & God’s Salvation (Vs 8-9)

Jonah’s repentance is shown by contrasting himself to those who “regard” vain idols, such as the sailors or the Ninevite idolaters. The vanity in these idols is in their inability to help in such a way as Yahweh helped in both calming the storm and in saving Jonah through the great fish. These idols are useless! With that said, the language of faithfulness in contrast to the one who worships Yahweh properly may be that Jonah is thinking of an Israelite, maybe even himself. But we are not told that Jonah worshipped idols and hence this may be speculative. Ultimately, it is God and God alone who saved Jonah. Salvation is from the Lord! The acknowledgment of the salvation of Yahweh was a common way of expressing worship in Hebrew thought and many uttered those words in praise and adoration of their God.

Prior to leaving this chapter, we don’t want to miss the parallel between the reaction of God’s salvation to the sailors and that of Jonah:

  • Sailors: Prayed to the Lord (1:14) Feared Yahweh (1:15) – Offered Sacrifices (1:15) – Made Vows (1:15)
  • Jonah: Prayed to the Lord (2:2) – Sacrifice (2:9) – Made vows (2:9)

There is no difference between the Gentile and the Jew in that both require repentance, faith, and the worship of Yahweh. What is fascinating in this instance is the order through which it came. It was the Gentile idol worshippers who repented and worshipped Yahweh first then came Jonah. The Lord then brought Jonah safe to dry land through His sovereign hand over the great fish. That salvation was finally realized when he came out of the fish. Much in the same way, a believer who has been saved will truly see their salvation on the day when they come out of the pit, renewed in Christ for their final salvation and glorification (Romans 5:8-9)

In the end, the fish once again obeyed the command of the Sovereign God and vomited Johan upon the dry land. God’s favour was shown to Jonah and now he would be responsible to complete the task commanded by Yahweh to go to the Ninevites and cry out.

Chapter 3

A worthy summary of the following chapter could be the manifestation of repentance through obedience to the word of the Lord. This was the case of Jonah in his action in going to Nineveh and the Ninevite people including their leaders. We also read of Yahweh relenting from executing the judgment upon the people, but as we’ll see, God does not repent in the same way as a man or a nation.

The Word of the Lord Take 2 (Vs. 1-2)

Yahweh reiterates His original command to Jonah to go to Nineveh and utilizes the same formula as the initial directive to arise & go. This time, however, there is an indication that God will provide Jonah with the proclamation which I am going to tell you. Such as in the New Testament promises, God provides the words that are required just at the right time (Mark 13:11). When the prophet would speak, he wasn’t to concern himself so much about the result of that word but his task was simply to deliver it as a representative of His God (Jeremiah 1:17; Ezekiel 2:9). The very words of repentance themselves will be given in the form of an impending judgment.

Jonah’s Obedience (V.3)

Finally, after being through a raging storm, confronted by a sea captain, thrown overboard into the raging waters, sinking to his death to the bottom of the ocean, being swallowed by a great fish, and brought back to land, the prophet is now ready to take on the original task. It certainly demonstrates God’s chastising to lead a man to where He needs him to be and yes, He may go to those lengths to bring us to where we need to be as well. While it may seem like extreme measures to accomplish His will, not all prophets received a 2nd chance (1 Kings 13:26) but God in His grace gave him another opportunity to accomplish His will. Yahweh’s perseverance with Jonah lead to the repentance and relenting of judgment upon a city and its citizens. Truly, God does as He pleases on earth and in heaven (Daniel 4:35). Like the wind and the great fish, Jonah finally obeys!


In chapter 1, we saw that Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and situated on the banks of the Tigris River. The author moves to describe the greatness of the city in terms of its geographical mass. He remarks that it was an exceedingly great city or a great city to God. The latter expression is the more literal rendering, but it seems to be communicating anthropomorphically the significance of Nineveh. Its sheer size spoke to its greatness with the author revealing that it was a “three days walk”. This is certainly a challenging statement since the city bares no archeological evidence and the earliest inscriptions seem to indicate a smaller circumference than in the biblical record.  Understanding the dynamics of the city itself, even with its total circumference, it wouldn’t have taken three days to walk. With that said, we must also take into consideration that Nineveh in those days expanded beyond the borders of the actual city. The site of the metropolis might have extended to villages surrounding the great city and perhaps the city should be considered in with Khorsabad and Nimrud. After just one day’s walk (in the heart of the city), Jonah proclaims the message to its citizens.

The Call of Repentance (V.4b)

The call to repentance came in the form of God’s judgment against the city and a warning of being toppled. Jonah’s fear of the Ninevites ceased as he bravely “cried out” in the middle of the city. When we consider the amount of time that the Lord granted the city to repent, forty days, we must see this as a grace. Nineveh were given a much longer notice than Sodom & Gomorra, who were given just a few hours (Genesis 19:1,13). While I’m no numerologist, the 40-day time frame does seem to be generally related to a testing (Exodus 34:28; Matthew 4:2) or a judgment (Genesis 7:4). There is no explicit mention of repentance in Jonah’s message but a sharp Ninevite in those days would have understood that the warning of a coming judgment meant that the one who would require a change from their current idolatrous ways.

The People’s Response (V.5)

The reaction to the warning was telling in that in that the people of Nineveh believed God and showed visible signs of repentance[1]. What is fascinating is that much like our sailors in the first chapter, they acted like the people of God. The reaction took on the form of a fast and putting on sackcloth. Sackcloth was a raggedy garment made of goat’s hair worn by those who were mourning. It was used as a sign of submission (1 Kings 20:31-32) or to express grief (2 Kings 19:1). This was the same means of demonstrating repentance by the prophets. Daniel sought God with fasting and sackcloth and ashes (Daniel 9:3) and a similar reaction was taken by the elders of Israel (Joel 1:13)[2]. This was how the people of God repented! Notice that it was the people who called the fast, not the king. The same occurrence happened with the people of Israel and Judah in Jeremiah’s day (Jeremiah 36:9). We are told that when King David mourned Abner, he did so by girding sackcloth and lamenting (2 Samuel 3:31).

The King’s Response (Vs.6-8)

Faced with the consequences of a coming judgment, the king affirms the call of the people and actively participates in their mourning over their sin. He arises from his throne and covers himself in the sackcloth and sits in the ashes. To avoid such a judgment from Yahweh would take the repentance of the highest representative of the city. It was custom for animals to participate in the mourning of a people especially among the Persians. They too were to join in the fast and sackcloth. His reaction was also to take seriousness of the call to repentance by issuing a decree along with his nobles. The visible tribute to this mourning over their sins needed to be accompanied with an inner grieving. This repentance was a turning away from two things: their wicked ways and violence. The term violence can be defined as actions of cruelty and injustice. Yahweh called Israel, not only to cease these activities but to act in accordance with justice (Isaiah 1:17). It wouldn’t suffice to simply refrain from these actions, Yahweh expects us to reform our ways and our deeds (Jeremiah 18:11). What a change repentance would bring to a city that was defined by its brutality towards others!

A Possibility (V.9)

These actions and inner repentance from their wicked ways had potential. It gave the possibility that Yahweh might demonstrate restraint in His righteous judgment against them. Perhaps God, in His mercy, would not act and in return they’d be saved from their sins. If they turned from their sins, God might turn away from His wrath! That possibility was enough for the king and the people to do something. Notice, that it was the choice of God to grant them this mercy. There is an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty and human subjection to Yahweh. Yahweh’s response to their repentance was entirely based upon His own pleasure. His reaction lies hidden behind the clouds of mystery and glory that surround his throne, until it emerges into human experience[3].

Nations do repent and when the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ reaches the ears of a people in a town, city or nation, they should be called to repent and believe God. This is not shown simply by an external mourning but also in an internal change of heart which leads one who was on the road to judgment to find God’s favour and journey towards eternal life.

Yahweh’s Finds Favour (V.10)

Yahweh saw that they had repented, and this was clearly done with visible actions that accompanied that repentance. When the inner man repents, there is generally an outer outcome that follows it. In this case, they showed their repentance with sackcloth and ashes and turned from their wicked ways. Yahweh’s reaction was to relent from carrying out the judgment He had declared upon them. They would avoid the fate of many others in history who didn’t repent and bore the judgment of God.  The question of God’s relenting or changing His mind has brought to the forefront the question of His immutability. It challenges our view of God as an unchanging being. We read in several instances of God relenting from a proclamation that He has made. We read of the Lord changed His mind about the harm which He said He would do to His people (Exodus 32:14) when Moses interceded on behalf of the people at Sinai. The prophet Jeremiah could say that at one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning the calamity I planned to bring on it (Jeremiah 18:7-8)[4]. In this case, the nation that turned from evil was Nineveh. But there are other scriptural references that seem to indicate that God doesn’t change His mind. We read “God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent; Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good? “Behold, I have received a command to bless;
When He has blessed, then I cannot revoke it 
(Number 23:19-20). We also read that the Glory of Israel will not lie or change His mind; for He is not a man that He should change His mind.” (1 Samuel 15:29). What we should note right away is the language used in these passages seem to reflect the idea that God is speaking in human terms but ultimately, God’s purposes were already set. As an example, the scriptures attribute God as having arms, hands, a face, and feet. Yet God is a Spirit and God is not a man. The passages that speak of Yahweh relenting are usually in the context of testing. A command is issued with a warning and their obedience is exercised, then we are told that He relents.

Chapter 4

The Peeved Prophet (Vs. 1-4)

Nineveh’s repentance and subsequent salvation from its ruin was brought on by God’s mercy on the nation and this triggered a surprising reaction from Jonah. While Yahweh showed mercy to a pagan nation, Jonah showed displeasure and anger towards the whole situation. Truly, he exhibits the sin of pride. Jonah had just experienced God’s mercy through repentance after running away from his commission, yet he shows little understanding of Yahweh’s forgiveness when it comes to Nineveh. Jonah was as much a rebel as the great city. The prayer of thanksgiving that he previously uttered is now forgotten and, in a prayer of regret, the prophet turns against the recipients of his preaching. His prayer begins with the expression “is this not what I said” (v.2) which largely a statement of self-righteousness and demonstrates his frustration with the result. He knew this would happen!

Jonah explains in his petition to Yahweh the reason for his previous reluctance to go to Nineveh and taking a ship towards Tarshish. His reasoning for this neglect was to forestall this repentance. It was a disgrace to Jonah to see these enemies of Israel shown the mercy that belonged only to Israel. Jonah knew that he could not stop the hand of the Lord in showing mercy to this pagan nation, but he would do his best to at least hinder the event. He knew that Yahweh was a gracious God, slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, and one who relents concerning calamity (v.3). His knowledge of Yahweh’s character stems from God’s mercy upon Israel (Exodus 34:6-9) and Jonah quotes the prophet Joel almost verbatim (Joel 2:13-14). It seems that Jonah was reluctant to accept that Yahweh would ascribe the same mercy to the enemies of Israel as to his countrymen. Jonah now asks Yahweh to take his life since, at this point, death would be better (v.3). His petition for death demonstrates his testy disappointment in Yahweh for His forgiveness of Nineveh. The prophet had given praise to God for earlier saving his life is now arguing to take it.

A Gardening Lesson (Vs.5-8)

Yahweh’s response to this rebellious prayer is in the form of a question. What reason did Jonah have to be angry in the repentance of Nineveh? The question is repeated in v.9 creating a sandwich with the demonstration of his foolishness for his pouting right in the middle. The prophet then leaves the city and heads east to get a view of Nineveh. But what was the reason for wanting to see what would happen to the city? Did he expect for Yahweh to change His mind once more and destroy the city? The fact that he went to the east and visibly awaited its fate, shows that he still expected the city to fall at the hand of Yahweh. He then makes himself a shelter to await the calamity of the great city. Obviously, this shelter wasn’t adequate to protect him from the sun since Yahweh appointed a plant and it grew over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort (v.6). The Lord “appointed” the plant[1] in the same manner as the great fish. He is the God over the sea, land and air and what He appoints obeys. His Sovereignty extends even to the world of horticulture. The term “discomfort” is the same expression as in 3:10 rendered calamity so this plant was significant to the prophet. The plant must have been quite large to provide Jonah with the shade he needed. It brought joy to Jonah which was quite the change from his earlier displeasure and anger (v.1). Yahweh’s care and protection is exhibited in providing shade for Israelites (Isaiah 49:10). The Lord is your keeper; The Lord is your shade on your right hand. 6 The sun will not smite you by day, Nor the moon by night. (Psalm 121:5-6).

Overnight, Yahweh decides to teach Jonah a little lesson and appoints the worm to attack the plant and the result is that it withers. Worms in scripture seems to connotate some form of judgment (Exodus 16:20; Deuteronomy 28:39; Isaiah 14:11 and especially Isaiah 66:24) and in this case represents the retribution that would have been brought upon Nineveh. This passage also has striking similarities to Joel’s words of judgment against Israel The vine dries up And the fig tree fails; The pomegranate, the palm also, and the apple tree, All the trees of the field dry up. Indeed, rejoicing dries up From the sons of men (Joel 1:12). Much like the fig tree in the Lord Jesus’ Day (Matthew 21:19), it withered away, and poor Jonah lost his only means of avoiding the scorching heat. The east wind is mentioned elsewhere in scripture to signify a judgment (Ezekiel 19:12; Hosea 13:15). The sun suddenly begins to beat down on his head and he repeats his desire to die rather than face the circumstances of his current situation (v.3). This time, however, he does so “with all his soul”. The death wish echoes the prophet Elijah who desired to die after being pursued by Jezebel while he rested under a Juniper Tree (1 Kings 19:1-4) but we all know that Jonah was no Elijah.

The Circular Argument (Vs. 9-11)

We come to a full circle from vs. 3-4 and once again Yahweh asks, “do you have a good reason to be angry”? In Yahweh’s original inquiry, the prophet refused to respond out of self-righteousness but this time, perhaps out of self-pity, he replies “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” (v.9). Seemingly he really couldn’t handle the heat!  The rest of the chapter demonstrates the hypocrisy of the prophet. His beloved plant had perished but it wasn’t his love for the plant that caused his dismay, but his self-interest. Any plant would have sufficed, it was his benefit from the plant that caused his desire to perish. He didn’t create the plant, nor did he cause it to grow, and it was only around for one night hence what possible attachment could he have had? Yet, he had compassion on it. If Jonah could have compassion on a plant that he experienced for one night, that he didn’t grow himself, how much more could Yahweh have compassion on a people if He so chose to? With such a large population, and including a number of animals which God was the creator, how much more did Yahweh have a right to show them His benevolence? Especially to 120,000 people who didn’t know any better! They didn’t have the advantages that were given to Israel (Romans 9:4-5). Yahweh is a God who shows compassion towards both man and beast (Psalm 36:6) and compassion on a plant paled in comparison to the lives that would be taken should Yahweh have judged.  A fascinating observation is that the text ends with the question. There is no recorded response from Jonah.

We’ve all been in a similar situation as Jonah where we consider the blessing upon an unbeliever as unfair, and we are irked by the showering of common grace. But ultimately, God will bless whom He pleases to bless and curse whom He pleases to curse. While challenging, the Christian should envision God’s purpose in all things and see the hand of the Lord working in blessing and cursing all the while remembering the Christians ultimate blessing in eternity through Jesus Christ.

[1] It’s uncertain what type of plant is referenced. Most agree that it was probably a castor oil plant (Ricinus) which had large leaves to protect from the hot sun.

[1] Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment, Robert A. Peterson, P&R Publishing, 1995, Page 28

[1] Allen points out that there are generally three elements to God’s dealings with a sinful nation: The threat of disaster, acts of penitence and an aversion of the disaster through divine intervention (P. 223)

[2] Also see Isaiah 58:5

[3] The Books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah & Micah, Leslie C. Allen, New International Commentary on the Old Testament, Eerdman Publishers, 1976, Page 225

[4] Also see Micah 7:3,6