Locate the passage
Jonah 4:5-11. This passage is comprised of the last seven verses of Jonah.
Historical Narrative. This particular passage highlights the climactic dialogue between the LORD and Jonah the prophet.
- Determine the structure of the passage
The passage has at least three discernible movements. In verse 5, the reader is informed of Jonah’s immediate response to the sparing of the city. Next, verses 6-8 recount a series of instructive appointments (plant, worm, wind) from the hand of the LORD God (Yahweh Elohim). The final movement of the narrative encompasses verses 9-11. Here, through the device of an inquiring dialogue with Jonah, the LORD discloses the dramatic contrast between His view of the city and Jonah’s view of the city.
- Exegete the passage
Note the three-fold repetition of “city” in verse 5. Jonah went out of the city and sat east of it. “East of the city” implies distance and separation. Jonah proceeded to prepare as shelter or “booth” for himself, presumably to provide some shade from the heat of the day. Some commentators conjecture that perhaps Jonah was waiting to see if the LORD would destroy the city rather than spare it. Whatever the case, Jonah was displeased because the LORD had not acted in accordance with his expectations. As a result, he became a spectator who sat outside the city under his self-made shelter.
Verse 6 signals a subtle shift in the narrative with the word “Now.” The story shifts its focus by recounting a series of the LORD’S instructive “appointments.” The LORD God “intentionally appointed” (piel imperfect) a plant to give shade to Jonah. Apparently, this plant was of the gourd variety (qiqayon). Such plants grew rapidly and had leaves sufficient to offer significant shade. The LORD “caused the plant to grow” (hiphil) over Jonah to “deliver” him from “his evil.” The Hebrew word for “evil” or “discomfort” here is the same word that is used in 1:2 (evil of Nineveh) and 3:10 (God relented of the “disaster”…). Such a connection implies that the LORD is more committed to Jonah’s character than his comfort. The last part of verse 6 records Jonah’s great delight in the plant. He “rejoiced with a great joy” over it. However, his joy was short-lived. Verse 7 indicates that, at dawn on the next day, God “intentionally appointed” a worm that “struck” the plant so that it withered or “dried up.” Then, with the rising of the sun, verse 8 informs the reader that God “intentionally appointed” a scorching east wind. Jonah had such exposure to wind and sun that he became faint or “weak.” Through the LORD’S instructive appointments, the “shoe” Jonah wants Nineveh to wear (discomfort and disaster) is now resting securely on his foot! Jonah now repeats his earlier wish for death: “Better my death than my life” (nephesh).
Verses 9-11 include a dialogue between Jonah and the LORD God. In verse 9, God asks, “Is it good for you to be “hot” or “burn” about the plant?” The phrasing of the question expects a negative reply. However, Jonah declares that his “burning” is appropriate, even to the point of death. In verse 10, the LORD drives His truth home through a dramatic contrast between His compassion for the people of Nineveh and Jonah’s compassion for a plant. Jonah has pity or “compassion” (hus) for a plant over which he did not labor. He did not cause or enable it to grow. Additionally, the plant did not last or endure (“son of the night it was and son of the night it perished”). Verse 11 contains a final question which concludes the book of Jonah. Should not the LORD pity (hus) Nineveh…? Again, Nineveh is described as a “great” city. It has 120,000 “persons” (adam). The reference to not knowing the right from the left hand is likely best understood as moral confusion/lack of insight. The use of “adam” (man, persons) rather than “children” would lend support to this perspective. The reference to cattle or “livestock” may point to the reality that, not only does the LORD create and labor over people made in His image, but also sustains them as they exercise dominion over created things.
The reader is not informed about what happened ultimately to Jonah. Instead, he is left to ponder his own response to the merciful compassion of the LORD.
- Let the structure of the text drive the structure of the sermon
This passage should be preached inductively. The preacher may re-tell the story with the following text-driven structure:
- Consider Jonah’s response to the city. (5)
- Observe the LORD’S instructive appointments. (6-8)
- Catch the dramatic contrast. (9-11)
After re-telling the story, the preacher should deliver the main idea/thesis. It should stress the idea that God’s heart for the “city” (masses of people without direction) must govern our heart for the “city.” Specific applications should be included that highlight the need to prioritize people over “plants” (non-human, temporary and even trivial pursuits). Believers should be challenged to live out the implications of the “wideness” of God’s mercy and His provision of that mercy in Jesus Christ.