The following paper was prepared for Dr. Steven McKinion’s Hermeneutics class, with the constraint that it be between 600 and 625 words.
The meaning of the text
Jonah spends the chapter in self-inflicted misery: he hates that Yahweh relented from the promised disaster against Nineveh. He never repents; even after Yahweh provides him an illustration with a pitiable plant, Jonah holds onto his anger rather than praise God for his goodness. This refusal is all the more striking in light of Jonah’s clear knowledge of the character of Yahweh—knowledge that seems to have driven all his actions throughout the book, as he explains in verse 2: he knew that God would forgive and relent, and wanted no part of it.
Righteousness is not a matter of being an Israelite or even a prophet, but in repenting and obeying Yahweh. Jonah provides in himself the contrast between the two: his disobedience which opens the book, his repentance while in the belly of the fish and obedient proclamation, and then his internal and verbal rebellion against God in this section at the end. In the book more broadly, the contrast between the Nineveh and Jonah could not be more clear. “Wicked” Nineveh proves righteous by repenting and obeying God; “righteous” Jonah proves unrighteous by disobeying God and then rebelling against what God accomplishes.
Yahweh has the right to forgive whom he wills, and his mercy and kindness are very great indeed; he pities in particular those who are ignorant and helpless (the 120,000 who do not know their right hand from their left, and even the cattle).
The passage’s parallel structure sets up a number of links within the text itself. First, Jonah is twice exceedingly something: first angry that God did not destroy Nineveh (4:1) and then that a plant grew up and added to his shade (4:6). Second, the idea “displeasure” (which could and I believe should be translated as “evil”) appears twice as well: it seemed evil to him that God relented, and Yahweh appointed the plant to save him from his evil. Third, Jonah twice prays that he would die—again because of Yahweh’s kindness to Nineveh (4:3) and because of the death of the plant (4:8). God asks Jonah in both instances, “Do you do well to be angry?” (4:4, 4:9). The contrast, though implicit, is obvious.
The context of God’s mercy to Nineveh (“God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it”, Jonah 3:10) is of course the immediate baseline for everything that occurs in the chapter. His prayer for life in chapter 2 and his prayer for death rather than see Nineveh delivered here stand in implict contrast with one another.
Jonah’s complaint about God’s relenting (4:2) looks also directly references Joel 2:12–14, where Yahweh enjoined Israel to return to him precisely because he is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster”—precisely the language of Jonah’s complaint. More broadly, the book’s situation in the Book of the Twelve highlights how God deals with all peoples: the word to Israel and the word to Nineveh are the same; so is God’s response.
Jonah’s complaint against God is, at its core, a simple restatement of the self-declaration of God in Exodus 34:6–7. Yahweh’s grace and mercy applied to the wicked nation of Nineveh demonstrates that the covenant love of God, though specially lavished on Israel, was for all nations.
The significance of the text
That Jonah would rejoice over a plant, and mourn its death, yet feel nothing for even the cattle of Nineveh—still less the hundreds of thousands of young people not complicit in their nation’s deeds who lived there—was profoundly wicked. Yahweh’s people should rejoice in his mercy to all nations.