Minor Prophets: Jonah 4, A Scholarly Approach


Jonah is associated with the giant fish, a reluctant prophet of hope to the enemies of his people.

In chapter 4, Jonah’s suffering acts as foil to the nature of God’s compassion.

Jonah was now hunched miserably in his hut, being baked alive in the desert. The beautiful vine God had caused to grow hung withered and crinkled, having been eaten up overnight by a worm God had also sent. Outside, the vine was luxuriant with life, rich and robust. Inside, however, the worm was at work, silently devouring the very pith.

Through the dark of night, unseen and unheard, as Jonah slept peacefully, the balance shifted, and the plant began to die. By morning, there was nothing left but the shriveled remains of what once was.

Because the first three chapters have been building up to this chapter, I am going to take it slowly. Last week covered verses 1-4. This week I will look at the whole chapter and approach it as a scholar and theologian. Next week will complete chapter 4 by bringing God’s lessons home to you and me.


The whole point of the Book of Jonah is found in these last eleven verses. The narrator used a triptych presenting a

  • Problem: Jonah’s anger.
  • Parable: the withered plant.
  • Principle: God’s concern for people and creation.

The objective was to convey the heavier weight of importance on knowing God’s character and internalizing God’s core values than simply being known as God’s called and chosen people.

This triptych juxtaposes God’s character and core values with the character and values of God’s people.

This is nothing new! People have been leaning heavily on some aspects of God’s nature, word, attributes, and promises while shying away from other aspects. To some, the only visible God is the righteous judge who will punish the wrongdoer. To others, the only visible God is the compassionate merciful lover of people who gives grace.

In fact, we do not just do this with God. We do this with each other, too. Think about it!

In his prayer, Jonah put claim to God’s promise in the Abrahamic covenant—“God, You promised to curse those who curse us! Well, there they are, sitting in ashes and sackcloth in the city down below. Do not be fooled by the Ninevites. They are a ruthless brutal people who have savaged us mercilessly. Be the God You said You would be, and crush them.”

Jonah relied upon God’s priority of Holiness“God, put them under the ban! Destroy them all, the city and the flocks and herds, the treasure, and every man, woman, and child. Burn them with fire.”

Jonah appealed to the penalties outlined in Torah, the Law—”God, they have done evil in Your sight. They are anathema, the very land would vomit them out if it could. They deserve the penalty of death.”

And finally, Jonah petitioned God for Holy War, “God, these are the enemies of Your people, who defy Your Law, and threaten the boundaries of the Promised Inheritance. They must be wiped out so that Your people might live in the land.”

But is that the sum total of Who God is, and what God has spoken? Is this the full theology of God?

The narrator of Jonah would say no. There is much to balance this reading of God’s nature.

God’s Character

  • Merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.
  • In the tension between God’s mercy and justice, God is weighted towards mercy.

God’s Core Values

  • Justice and righteousness.
  • Restoration will be committed to these values.

God’s Commitment to Creation and Shalom

  • Creation is to live in harmony with the created order.
  • Human beings are to internalize God’s core values and live in harmony with each other.

In this last chapter, the narrator points to God’s Name, and God’s power as Creator.

God’s Name

God is Elohim, the author and source of all that is, and therefore the sole rightful Judge and Sovereign. God is divine, already other and apart (holy), as Elohim, and it is God Who set into motion the cosmos, and the course of human history.

God is also YHWH, covenant maker and keeper with the Hebrew people. God covenanted with Abraham to bless and curse those who blessed and cursed Abraham and his offspring.

God is present with God’s people, having chosen them, redeemed them, established them, is protecting and fighting for them, and invested in them. God elevated them as God’s own holy people, literally living with them on God’s holy mount Zion, in God’s holy city Jerusalem, God’s glory settled upon the mercy seat within God’s holy temple.

God’s Power

God’s ability to judge and punish, forgive and bless in meaningful and tangible ways is portrayed in the parable, and in the lack of divine damages visited upon Nineveh. In contrast, Jonah is impotent, for he cannot meaningfully judge the Ninevites, nor command creation.

Two “but’s” signal the triggers for Jonah’s displeasure, both involving God’s activity

  • Jonah 4:1 indicates God’s forgiveness of Nineveh
  • Jonah 4:7 discloses God’s destruction of the shade-giving bush.

Jonah 4:1-4 Presents the Problem

Jonah was enraged that YHWH has not brought punitive damages upon Nineveh, but rather had instead forgiven the Ninevites in response to their repentance. In a startlingly canny understanding of human nature, the narrator showed Jonah’s extreme umbrage as amplified by God’s sanguinity.

Because Jonah had judged Nineveh and found them guilty without reprieve, it incensed him that God should judge them and find them worthy of mercy.

With continued insight, the narrator knew such violent fury can only go in one of two directions—outward towards the object of Jonah’s wrath (God, not Nineveh), or inward with suicide. (modern-day research bears out both of the narrator’s insights)

Jonah prayed to YHWH, but used Elohim’s name in the part of Exodus 34 that describes God’s mercy, compassion, and forgiving nature. Still, it is YHWH who responded, but not in anger.

Jonah 4:5-9 Portrays the Parable 

YHWH-Elohim was at work, and it was Elohim who dominated this object lesson. Elohim, the Creator, sole Sovereign, and rightful Judge, has creation at God’s command. God appoints a bush and a bug, and prepares the wind and sun first to bless, and then to ‘curse’ Jonah.

  • Perhaps the blessing was evocative of God/Elohim’s loving and compassionate nature.
  • The withered bush, sultry wind, and hot sun, then, became evocative of God/YHWH’s right to judge and punish.

Interestingly, Jonah received the blessing without thanks or even acknowledgement of the God Who gave it, as though he wereventitled to the blessing. But he was certainly enraged when the gift was removed, though he had originally been content with the booth of his own making. Once again, Jonah prayed for death, and this time it was God/Elohim Who questioned the validity of Jonah’s fury.

Jonah 4:10-11 Provides God’s Principle

God’s principle of concern is based upon God’s care for creation. Jonah’s concern for the plant that gave him pleasure, a gift he did not earn or deserve, and was taken without his permission and against his will, was compared to God’s concern for a people and creation God cared for, had compassion on, whom God created, and had the power to preserve.

Jonah’s appeal to those theologies which should have excited God’s punitive judgment instead revealed Jonah’s own sense of entitlement to God’s favor of him and rejection of his enemies. He had been nursing his own legitimate anger and pain into an unhealthy desire for death (either for the Ninevites, or for himself). Jonah had a profound lack of understanding Shalom.

He did not yet understand that violence only further destroys Shalom, no matter how seemingly deserved, and forgiveness and restoration actually brings Shalom, no matter how undeserved (perhaps even more so when undeserved).


[Withered vine | Photo by Shess Khan Afridi on Unsplash]

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