- Locate the passage
Jonah 3:10-4:4. The passage includes the last verse of Jonah 3 and the first four verses of Jonah 4.
- Determine the structure of the passage
This passage essentially has three key movements. The first movement is centered in Jonah 3:10. The verse records God’s sparing of Nineveh after its inhabitants turned from their evil way. The second movement is found in Jonah 4:1-3. Its focus is on Jonah’s displeasure with the sparing of Nineveh and his subsequent prayer to the LORD. The final movement is contained in Jonah 4:4. This verse recounts the incisive question which the LORD poses to Jonah.
- Exegete the passage
Verse 10 describes God’s (Elohim) response to the repentant actions of the people of Nineveh. Pay attention to the repetition of the word “turn.” It is used in the two verses preceding verse 10 and highlights a crucial emphasis in the narrative: The people “turned” from evil and God “turned away” from His fierce anger. Once again, the preacher should be careful not to ascribe fickleness or uncertainty to the Almighty (see 1 Sam. 15:29). Rather, stress should be placed on the fact that God is merciful and that, in His all-knowing providence, He is free to extend mercy to those who cry out for it. In verse 10, one also finds a repetition of the word “relent” (nacham), which was used previously in verse 9. It conveys the ideas of compassion and pity. Such compassion and pity result in the averting of God’s judgment upon Nineveh.
Jonah 4:1 records the response of Jonah to the sparing of wicked Nineveh. It displeased (literally, “it was evil to Jonah”) him and he “burned” or “was hot.” Note that the Hebrew word translated “evil” in this verse is the same word used in 1:1 and 3:8. Jonah views God’s extension of mercy to Nineveh as an evil act. In 4:2 Jonah “caused himself to pray” (hithpael imperfect) and impugned God for displaying the same mercy to Nineveh which had been extended to him. Adopting an “I told you so” mentality (Jonah literally declares, “Was this not my word…?”), Jonah even stressed that the reason for his flight toward Tarshish was rooted in his knowledge of God’s gracious and merciful character which, in turn, would result in the sparing of Nineveh from judgment. Pay particular attention to the character attributes of God disclosed in verse 2: gracious (hannun), compassionate (rahum), slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (hesed). These same qualities are attributed to God elsewhere in the Old Testament (see Exodus 34:6-7 and Joel 2:13). In 4:3, the second key movement in the narrative concludes with Jonah’s request for “divine euthanasia.” He asks the LORD to take or “lay hold” of his life (nephesh). Apparently, he would rather expire then continue living in light of the extension of mercy to Nineveh. His assertion, “better my death than life,” sounds similar to the request of Elijah in 1 Kings 19:4. However, one should note a key distinction between the two requests. Elijah’s request was motivated by his zeal for God’s honor. Jonah, on the other hand, was motivated by displeasure with God’s actions related to Nineveh.
Jonah 4:5 represents the third and final movement of the narrative. It records the LORD’S response to the displeasure of Jonah. Rather than indicting Jonah, the LORD graciously inquires about the legitimacy of his anger. He asks, “…is it good for you to be angry (hot)?” The question is posed in such a way as to expect a negative reply.
- Let the structure of the text drive the structure of the sermon
Like the passages preceding it, Jonah 3:10-4:4 should be preached inductively. The preacher can re-tell the narrative according to the following text-driven structure:
- God shows mercy to Nineveh. (3:10)
- Jonah vents his anger and asks for death. (4:1-4)
- God questions Jonah’s anger.
After re-telling the story, the preacher should deliver the main idea/thesis and follow it with specific application statements. Both thesis and application should reflect the awareness that Jonah begrudged the showing of the same mercy to Nineveh which was the source of his own deliverance. Rather than praising God for His mercy, Jonah offered a protest to it. Of course, the ultimate demonstration of God’s mercy is centered in the cross of Jesus Christ. This mercy must be treasured and transmitted to others.