Editor’s note: This post is part of a series featuring outstanding excerpts from student papers at the BibleMesh Institute, which offers affordable online training for local churches, schools, and ministries. The author’s name has been withheld for privacy and security purposes. He is preparing to serve as a missionary overseas.
Some Christians, if they are brutally honest, may get excited by the prospect of God’s judgment against certain people or groups of people living in blatant sin, desiring a ringside seat. This appears to be the mentality of the biblical prophet Jonah as we enter the fourth chapter of the book Jonah. However, God vividly reminds Jonah that there is far more to his character than serving judgment. The primary meaning of Jonah 4:1-11 is that God demonstrates his great compassion for any who repent, and believers should relish that compassion.
The author, quite possibly Jonah himself, uses several different literary features in vv. 1-11. First, we see repetition and comparison/contrast. For example, we see repetition used when Jonah is “exceedingly displeased” by God’s decision to save the Ninevites (Jon 4:1). He is so angered, that he literally wishes for his life to be taken from him. The Hebrew the text states that “it was evil to” Jonah. Literally, Jonah felt that what God did in saving the Ninevites was an evil act. Then, Jonah is “exceedingly glad” at his own salvation from discomfort when the plant appears (Jon 4:6). Finally, Jonah asks to die again as a result of the plant’s death and the extreme heat (Jon 4:8). The original reader likely would have sympathized with Jonah. Given the strong national identity of Israel as God’s chosen people and the stern warnings to avoid paganism, original readers probably would have felt Jonah was justified in his disgust with God for not destroying the wicked Assyrian pagans. However, the author does not allow the audience to stay in such a position. Rather, the author strongly challenges the views of the original audience by again using repetition.
In the midst of Jonah’s fury with God, God asks Jonah a simple question. In v. 4 God says “Do you do well to be angry?” God uses this same wording again in v. 9, saying, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” What was God trying to make Jonah realize through repeatedly asking this question? Delving further into the question in v. 4, it is evident that God is asking Jonah why he finds God’s relenting from destroying the Ninevites to be such a seeming injustice. The character of God, affirmed by Jonah in v. 4, shows that God was indeed perfectly just to show compassion to the Ninevites.
To prove his point even more vividly, God turns the tables and gives Jonah a simple object lesson using a plant. The plant reaches full size in one night and provides shade from the heat. Then it is immediately killed by a worm, exposing Jonah to the elements. Jonah is furious at the death of the plant and asks to die (Jon 4:8). It is here that God repeats his earlier question to Jonah: “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” Jonah asserts that his anger is certainly justified over the loss of this miraculous plant. God then reveals the object lesson to Jonah. God says, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow…and should not I pity Nineveh, that great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jon 4:10-11). It is here, at the very climax of the narrative, that the author of Jonah leaves his audience grasping for answers and a resolution.
While most narratives provide a neat and tidy resolution to the plot, Jonah causes much more pondering. Readers, both original and current, may consider questions ranging from, “Did Jonah finally see the point of what God was trying to communicate?” to “Did Jonah’s life change after being confronted with this final question?” to “Why did God reference cattle at the very end?” As chapter four concludes, God clearly points out the stark hypocrisy in Jonah’s own life. Jonah feels God is unjust to show compassion to the Ninevites. God then compares Jonah’s pity over the loss of a simple plant with his response over the potential of Nineveh’s destruction. Jonah was furious that a plant he had nothing to do with died while Jonah was eager for the destruction of an entire city of people. Jonah was thrilled with his own deserved (in his mind) salvation, both from the whale in 3:9 (despite his own sinful actions which lead to that predicament) and the scorching heat (3:6), while he longed for destruction of the Ninevite enemies.
God wants Jonah to understand that while Jonah had pity for a mere plant, God was certainly justified to have pity for an entire city of people who were lost. God contrasts the miniscule value of a plant with the incredible value of human life. Finally, as if Jonah has still not understood the depths of his hypocrisy, God finishes v. 11 with the line, “and also much cattle.” This is as if God was saying, “Jonah, even if you refuse to recognize the value of these people, surely you see the value of the animals in the city, given your pity for a plant.”
While the temptation is to wonder how Jonah responded to God’s final question, “the real issue is how you and I today are answering God’s question.” Do we have compassion for the lost? Do we rejoice when sinners repent and trust the Savior?
 Charles Ellicott, “Jonah 4 Ellicott’s Commentary For English Readers,” Biblehub.Com, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/ellicott/jonah/4.htm. “Jonah 4 Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges,” Biblehub.Com, https://biblehub.com/commentaries/cambridge/jonah/4.htm.
 Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary: Old Testament Prophets, 1st ed. (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2002), 387.