Jonah Chapter 4 Bible Study God's focus versus man's comfort

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Bible Studies in Book of Jonah

Jonah Chapter 4 Lesson: God's focus versus man's comfort

by I Gordon


When we left Jonah at the end of chapter three he had just witnessed what could well be the greatest revival recorded in the Bible. Chapter 4, the last in the book of Jonah, should be filled with great thankfulness and rejoicing then. But, well it's not. It is fair to say that it does not go as expected. If this was a movie or someone writing a fictional book, you wouldn't end the way this book does. But this isn't a Walt Disney movie. In fact, if I was writing this book about myself (as the traditional view of Biblical scholars is that Jonah himself wrote this book) then I wouldn't have included chapter 4. But that is what makes the Bible so unique. Its human authors were inspired by God and led by His Spirit and He doesn't leave out the unfortunate, uncomfortable or ego deflating parts of the story! Now I've started the last couple of studies on Jonah with a corny little poem so why stop now? Here is a quick review of the chapter before us, this time coming in the form of a couple of little limericks.

Not-so-flash Jonah Limericks

Grace made Nineveh's hearts so glad
While Jonah fumed, he's livid & mad
It's never that funny
When saints spit the dummy
And rejoice not but just pack a sad  [1] 

But God has His ways to affirm
The truth that can make us all squirm
So stop this malarkey
And don't get all snarky
Lest He's forced to make use of His worm!  [2] 

A hot under the collar prophet

Jonah 4:1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry.

As mentioned, Jonah has just participated in the largest revival known in biblical times. He'd seen the highest down to the lowest in the land repent and call on God. Boy is Jonah going to be happy! He will be on cloud nine as they say! Over the moon! He'll be skipping and singing all the way back to Israel! Argh, wait a minute... what's this? But what do we read? He wasn't just displeased - he was angry about what happened! The Hebrew word here for angry is literally, 'to be hot, blaze, burn' You've heard of being hot under the collar. Well Jonah is all that and more!

There is an anger that comes upon some when good things happen, or when God is kind, to those that they would rather didn't experience such good fortune. It is evidence of a religious spirit  [3]  . An example of this is expressed in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Do you remember the reaction of the older brother when he saw how the father treated his prodigal son upon his return? You would think he would be pleased to see his younger brother home safe and well but that is not what happens.

Luke 15:25-28 Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. (26) So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. (27) 'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.' (28) The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.

The Bible tells us to 'rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn' (Romans 12:15) It doesn't say be annoyed when others rejoice and be positively angry when others find salvation! But that is where Jonah is at the moment. We shall soon find out why.

Jonah wanted judgment not mercy for the Assyrians

Jonah 4:2 He prayed to the LORD, "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.

'I told you so! Didn't I tell you? I told you... I know I did. I told you so. Argh... I knew you would forgive them!' Here is the first person that I have heard of being annoyed that God is gracious and compassionate. Had Jonah already forgotten that he himself had just required that same graciousness from God? Had he not just required God's compassion when he ran from his master? Why are we slow to see our own issues, failures and constant need for God's grace and be so quick to see the problems others have?

Jonah knew God well. He knew He is gracious, compassionate and slow to anger. He knew that God abounds in love and relents from sending calamity if possible. And that is what worried Jonah. You see, Jonah didn't want God to relent. He didn't want God to be compassionate. He didn't want God to be gracious. Well, not with the Assyrians anyway  [4]  . He certainly wanted those things for himself... just not with those whom he didn't like  [5]  . What tricky, mixed up people we can be!

That's it! I'm through. It is too much... take my life!

Jonah 4:3-4 Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live." (4) But the LORD replied, "Have you any right to be angry?"

Jonah, it seems, is not only hot under the collar. He is angry to the point of not wanting to live anymore. It seems that he believes a great injustice has occurred. Jonah's thoughts were along these lines: 'The Assyrians should have received the judgment that they deserved. And if that isn't going to happen then what is the point of carrying on and being your spokesperson? You might as well take my life.' Different people in the Bible, even great saints, have wanted to die for different reasons:

Saints who have desired to die

Elijah became discouraged and fearful thinking he was the only believer left in Israel, so he suggested that the Lord should take his life too. (1 Kings 19:1-18)
Job struggled under the weight of great suffering and desired to die (Job 6:4-9)
The Apostle Paul desired to depart for a different reason altogether. He had seen the glories of Heaven (2 Cor. 12:2-4) and eagerly longed to be with Christ which is better by far! (Phil 1:21-25)

What about Jonah? Well, he is just plain angry with God! So God asks him the simple yet thought provoking question - 'Do you have any right to be angry?' Now Jonah didn't have a right to be angry but he was so nonetheless. Do we get angry? Do you get angry? What brings such anger on? Often God doesn't act like we would like Him to. Sometimes we get angry when bad things happen or prayers seem to go unanswered. Maybe it is when we are made to wait for far too long (in our own oh-so important opinion!) Maybe it seems that God is blessing others while you go overlooked. The fact is, even believers can have a tendency to get annoyed and angry at times.

What about God? How does He react to this little dummy spit from His prophet? He who showed tremendous patience towards the Ninevites, once again shows the same patience with His prophet. But He doesn't want this experience to pass without Jonah learning something though! It's always the way. He begins with a question. God has a wonderful knack of asking thought-provoking questions.  [6]  And you often count on Him to provide a real life object lesson as well, just to ram the point home (as we shall now see!)

Waiting for the fireworks to begin 

Jonah 4:5-6 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. (6) Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine.

When God asked Jonah if he had a right to be angry, no response from Jonah is recorded. Angry people who blame God often stop talking to Him. They may even say that they are through. Jonah just took himself off to the east of the city to get a front row seat and watch what happened. I believe that he is still hoping to see some fireworks. Maybe he thinks that the Ninevites will go back to their old ways. Maybe he thinks that God might have listened to his previous whine and will return to His initial intention of judging the city. Either way, Jonah still hopes that Nineveh will still experience one of God's shock and awe displays!

But we do finally read that Jonah is happy. Why? What made him 'extremely happy'? Well, God appointed a plant to grow over Jonah and give him shade from the hot sun. It is a little pleasure and relaxation in what you could say has been a trying few weeks! The repentance of the Ninevites certainly didn't make him happy but a growing plant does. To Jonah, it is some temporal comfort as well as an indication that God still cares for him; which is true of course. Never underestimate the ability of God to bless you at a time when you don't expect it or even deserve it. His faithfulness and love surprises us. But God had a second purpose in mind here. This wasn't just about temporal comfort. More importantly it was about Jonah learning eternal principles.  [7]  An object lesson was in progress and it was one that would require the actions of another of God's great, though smaller, servants...

It's your time... Enter stage right Mr. Worm. 

Jonah 4:7-8 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. (8) When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah's head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, "It would be better for me to die than to live."

As Job once famously declared, 'The Lord gives and the Lord takes away.' He provides comfort and He provides a worm when required! God has appointed a few things in this book. He appoints a storm, a fish, a plant, a worm and a wind. Which is harder for God? Is it harder to appoint a fish to obey Him and swallow Jonah or to appoint a worm to eat a plant? Neither! Maybe you don't see a worm eating a plant as such a miraculous event but tell me - how many worms do what you command? God doesn't just have to use what we see as 'supernatural means' to get our attention. He can also use what we see as simple natural processes to teach us as well.

Now, the withering of his beloved beautiful plant is a tipping point for Jonah. He survived the storm on the boat. He handled getting thrown overboard into the sea. He didn't give up though swallowed by a great fish. He was willing to walk into the enemy's city of Nineveh and proclaim God's message. All these things he coped with. But his plant dying-- leading to the sun beating down on him is just too much! 'I want to die!' he says. 'Take my life!' Really? Are things truly that bad? Or are his priorities jumbled and his focus blurred? I think it is the later. Well, I know it is the later. And so does God who is about to help re-focus his prophet.

Conclusion and God's last word

Jonah 4:9-11 God said to Jonah, "Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?" "I do," he said. "I am angry enough to die." (10) But the LORD said, "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. (11) But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?"

From verse 8 above you could think that Jonah was just getting sun-stroke and starting to lose it. But from God's question and Jonah's reply, there does seem to be a genuine anger over losing the plant and what it stood for. Jonah's comfort has been removed and he doesn't like it one bit! As mentioned earlier there is large percentage of those that call themselves 'Christians' that think God is there to bless them with an easy comfortable life, with a great marriage and kids, health and wealth and well, blessing upon blessing. God is trying to teach Jonah an important lesson. And it is this - 'You are focusing on what brings you comfort and are angry when you lose it. But you don't care about those that matter the most to me - people!' God's love, even here in the Old Testament, stretches far wider than just the nation of Israel. He was concerned about the wicked Ninevites! He is saying that He loves the lost, and wants Jonah to do so as well. We all need to be careful that we don't forget this and have our focus blurred by things as Jonah's was.

Jonah had earlier learned that 'Salvation is of the Lord' (Jonah 2:9). He had learned this from the most trying of circumstances being in the belly of a great fish! He had learned that there is no place or situation that a person can find themselves in that is outside God's means of salvation. But now God was teaching him even more about this salvation. That there is no one that is outside the bounds of His salvation either, should they desire it. God's love extends even to the wicked Assyrians. Or the Islamic State for that matter. God's salvation has no exceptions based on race, religion, sex or creed.

This book ends rather abruptly. God has the last word. That is how it should be. It is a word reinforcing His love for all. We don't know how Jonah responded to this. The Bible doesn't tell us. So here is what I hope happened based and pure speculation and wishful thinking. I hope that Jonah forgot about his plant. I hope he let go of his anger. I hope he was able to walk down into the city again and rejoice with those who now rejoice. I hope he was able to tell them a greater message than he did before... one about the God who is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Here's hoping!

[1] ↩  'Pack a sad' is an odd Kiwi expression similar to 'spiting the dummy'. It means to be moody or throw a tantrum.

[2] ↩  While it looks like I ran out of words that rhyme with affirm and squirm, the humble little Mr. Worm shall play an important role in this chapter as it is used by God to remove one of Jonah's pleasures to help him see what is most important in this life.

[3] ↩  There is also the Parable of the Workers in Matt 20:1-16 where the initial workers grumbled at the land owner for being kind to those that started work later; or the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50 who wasn't pleased with the kindness shown to Jesus by a woman who was a 'sinner'.

[4] ↩  In David Guzik's commentary he sums up this spirit by using a little poem of Jonathan Swift.

We are God's chosen few, All others will be damned;
There is no place in heaven for you, we can't have heaven crammed.

[5] ↩  It should be remembered that Assyria was Israel's enemy and they were very wicked and very violent. It would be the equivalent of someone today not wanting the so-called Islamic State to repent and come to the Lord and instead for God to wipe them out in judgment. Given the atrocities that they have committed in the Middle East I can understand how some people, especially those who have lost loved ones to the IS butchery, would feel this way. So in this regard we can understand why Jonah felt as he did. But the problem remains that this still isn't how God sees things as we shall soon see. It is simply looking at a situation from a temporal, human, simple eye-for-an-eye type of mentality. And God acts on none of those levels. Thankfully, His ways are far higher than all of them.

[6] ↩  I've recently done a three part study on the best questions (IMHO!) asked in the Bible. God's question here to Jonah makes the list. If interested look here: 

[7] ↩  Often this is not an easy process or point to learn. Our flesh just desires temporal comfort most of the time. We often just look for our blessing. Most of our prayers are just based around things going easy and well for ourselves. Christianity as a whole in the West displays this. Our songs are becoming more 'me' focused and less 'Him' (and hymn!) focused! Books are the same. I went into my local Christian bookstore yesterday (Jan 2015) and there were so many books on the whole Joel Osteen 'Your best life now', 'It's your time', 'Become a better you', 'Be blessed more' type of line. Jonah wanted his temporal comfort and God wanted to teach him something far greater. Something's gunna give!