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Jonah's Petulance

This is the sequel to Jonah's mission to Nineveh,
narrated in the last issue.

* * *

"So the people of Nineveh repented, and God saw that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil that he said he would do unto them, and he did it not. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry." (Jonah 4.1).

Jonah is the only one of the prophets and great men of the Bible of whom it is said that he dared to be angry with God. Moses expostulated with God when the Lord proposed to disown rebellious Israel and make a great nation of Moses' family instead, reminding the Lord of the effect such action would have upon Israel's enemies, who would conclude that God found himself unable to fulfil his intention of bringing Israel into the land of promise and so had cut the knot by slaying them in the wilderness. Abraham pleaded with God to avert the threatened destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, if so few as ten righteous men could be found there, desisting only when even ten could not be found. Elijah, despondent at the apparent failure of his life's work, besought the Lord to gather him to his fathers. The Lord instead sent him back to perform yet other great deeds for his Cause. Of no other man is it said that he presumed to be angry with God. He must have felt very bitterly that the Almighty had, as we would say today, let him down.

Reluctantly, and against his will, he had come to Nineveh in obedience to the Divine mandate, to announce the onset of Divine judgment for their misdeeds. He did not want them to repent; he hoped they would not repent; he did not expect them to repent. Because of the threat they posed to his own people he would rather they reaped the penalty of their evil ways and be removed from this earthly scene and Israel be secure. They should get what they deserved and that would be the end. And now, most unexpectedly, they had responded to his preaching and come before the Lord in sackcloth and ashes, beseeching the Lord for forgiveness; and the Lord had answered the plea and lifted the judgment. If later on the Ninevites relapsed into their old ways the threat to Israel would remain, and even so the unrighteous would escape the penalty of their sins because of the leniency of God, and Jonah was exceedingly angry.

So "he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before thee unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil. Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; it is better for me to die than to live".

What marvellous testimony is this to the love and forbearance of God! Gracious, merciful, slow to anger, of great kindness, ready to forgive and restore where there is repentance, irrespective of the past! How many Christians in modern as well as in ancient times fail after this same fashion! More solicitous for the condemnation and punishment of sinners than for their reformation and reclamation! Much more inclined to dwell with gusto upon the vision of Paul "the Lord himself shall be revealed from heaven in flaming fire, taking vengeance on them that know not God" than the lovely words of John "for God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." Some, in all sincerity, endeavour to gain converts by preaching the terrors of Hell for the unregenerate, failing to realise that the Lord will never, on any account, accept the allegiance of one who comes to him only because of fear of the consequences if he does not. The only ones who will ever win acceptance with him and enter the shining portals of eternity are those who have heard and answered the call "My son, give me thine heart'".

And the Lord looked down upon his loyal but at the moment definitely disgruntled servant with (who can doubt it?) very understanding sympathy. After all, he knows the hearts of all men and he knew that a little object lesson which he now proposed to give Jonah would put the matter right. "Doest thou well to be angry?" He asked the wrathful prophet. The AV rendering does not give the true inflection of the question. What the Lord really said was "Art thou greatly angry?" As much as to say, as one would express it in twentieth century vernacular, "Poor old chap, are you really so upset about it all?" The Lord always understands, "He knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust", and he takes note, not of the words we say, but of the sincerity of our hearts.

But Jonah was in no mood for parleying, nor, apparently, for further conversation with the Lord on the matter, for the next verse (v.5) tells us that he "went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shadow, till he would see what might become of the city". It looks very much that he was cherishing a secret hope that the Lord might yet reflect that He could have been a little too generous in accepting this admittedly tardy repentance of the Ninevites and decide after all to impose the threatened judgment, and the least Jonah could do was to wait a little to see what was going to happen. How long the evangelistic campaign lasted is not indicated. It is possible that there were still twenty or thirty days of the forty days time limit yet to expire so that Jonah was probably endeavouring to make himself reasonably comfortable in his sylvan retreat until he could see which way things were going to turn out.

It is here that we come across one of the many evidences of the historical accuracy of the Scriptures which the critics so often miss. Jonah "sat on the east side of the city" and there sat "until he would see what might become of the city". Since the city, with all its suburbs, is known to have covered an area of about twenty miles along the river and more than ten miles across, an observer having this intention must needs occupy a position fairly high in altitude and a suitable number of miles away in order to have the entire city in his field of vision. Now the ruins of Nineveh ‑ which was situated on the eastern side of the River Tigris opposite the present Iraqi city of Mossul ‑ are in the middle of an extensive flat plain with no high hills nearer than the Kurdish mountains some fifty miles away. In the whole of this plain there are only two eminences, minor mountains. One of these heights, known today as Jebel Satra, some two thousand feet high and about a mile across, lies exactly due east of Nineveh at a distance of sixteen miles. The view from the summit of this eminence would see the horizon at fifty-eight miles away, with the entire city plainly in view below. Without any doubt it was to this locality that Jonah made his way, and built his little booth of tree branches and foliage at a height on its slopes from which he could view the city spread out, as it were, almost at his feet. Here, safe from interference, he could await the outcome. Who, but someone who was actually there and experienced this incident, could have described so accurately what the topography of the countryside reveals to have been the position?

It was while sitting here and waiting that Jonah became conscious of the shade afforded by a quick-growing shrub which began to offer a welcome palliative to the noonday heat. The AV calls it a 'gourd', which is incorrect, and adds that the Lord 'prepared' it. This word actually means 'appointed', and the implication is that the Lord had arranged for this all along Probably Jonah was led to erect his little booth just at the point where the shrub was already growing. There has been a lot of discussion as to the nature of Jonah's 'gourd'. The Hebrew word is kikayon, occurring only here, and is generally agreed to refer to the castor oil tree, which has large flat leaves and according to a more modern resident of Kurdish Iraq is still employed as a wind-break. It is renowned for its rapidity of growth and equally rapid withering when cut. According to the story, the Lord had arranged this "to be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd". Apparently the booth was his shelter for the night and he sat outside during the day with the city in full view, hoping against hope that the threatened judgment might yet be inflicted upon the sinful though now repentant city, and this increasing mantle of shady leaves became a welcome protection from the midday sun. Considering Jonah's present attitude, the Lord was being exceedingly understanding.

But Jonah's contentment was short-lived. "The Lord appointed a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered". The word used, talaath, denotes the type of insect that lives on the ground and feeds on decaying vegetable matter. Apparently a horde of these insects attacked the young tree ‑ it would still be relatively immature and succulent ‑ and before long it succumbed and withered, leaving the prophet without shelter, angry and resentful. And then, as the sun began to beat down upon his head, there arose "a vehement east wind" ‑ the word means hot or sultry ‑ and Jonah just gave up. "I wish I could die; it is better for me to die than to live". Came that soft voice from Heaven, impinging itself upon his consciousness, "Art thou greatly angry because of the shrub?" And in his frustration and resentment he made answer in a tone no other prophet ever dared to use to the Almighty. "I am greatly angry, deadly angry". The shrub had sprung forth according to the dictates of Nature and was quietly pursuing its appointed course, fulfilling its useful function in affording shade to the prophet and withal contributing something to the beauty of the environment. It could have had a useful future, Jonah may have thought crossly, but now the Lord had callously cut its life short and ended all hope for its future, and he himself had lost his shelter from the noonday sun into the bargain. He was deadly angry, and in his mind justifiably so, and now he wanted nothing more to do with this mission to Nineveh or with the whole matter of Nineveh's future. He just wanted to die and be out of it all and what the Lord would eventually do with the Ninevites he neither cared nor wanted to know. It had been a very fine shrub and it had served a very acceptable purpose so far as he himself had been concerned and now the Lord had quite arbitrarily and unnecessarily destroyed it and he was bitterly resentful. Which is where the Lord came back to him.

"Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on that shrub, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither made it grow, which came up in a night, and perished in a night. And should I not spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?".

Paraphrasing: You are concerned about the well-being of a shrub which is destined to grow quickly in its season and to perish as quickly (Heb. idiom "A son of the night it was, and as a son of the night it died") of which you were not the creator nor have you done anything towards its creation or growth. Why then should I not be equally concerned about Nineveh, a great city of a hundred and twenty thousand inhabitants who are so ignorant of moral values that they cannot discern between good and evil ‑ not to speak of much cattle who have just as much right to life as your shrub?"

That is where the Book of Jonah ends. Jonah's reply, if in fact he made any reply to the Lord at all, is not recorded. Perhaps he did not reply. What could he have said? The God he served is a God of love and mercy, and Jonah had not displayed much of either towards the Ninevites. He was in fact not so very different from a good many modern Christians, devoted to the service of the Lord they love, but more zealous for the punishment of sinners than for their reclamation. "The wages of sin is death" looms rather more prominently in their theology than does "l am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly". With God, the act of repentance cancels the judgment, and the opportunity for repentance is always open. He will only leave the sinner to the error of his way in face of full and final refusal to accept the Divine laws of righteousness as the rule of life, and that, too, only after there is full light and understanding of the Divine standards. And not many men have had that light. The men of Sodom had not, for although they rejected the message of the one righteous man among them, and the Lord therefore took them away, it was even so for their ultimate good. "I took them away as I saw good" He said, and through the prophet Ezekiel (ch.16) He reveals his intention to extend the opportunity of grace to them once again ‑ when they "return to their former estate" in conjunction with their neighbour Israel. That involves a resurrection from the dead, in the days of the Messianic kingdom ‑ and Jesus did say once that if the men of Sodom had seen the mighty works He did in the First Advent in Israel then Sodom would have remained to that day. He also said that the men of Nineveh would rise in the judgment with his own generation, and condemn it, and that must indicate an element of contrition and repentance for their own past and it is that which God will work upon if perchance they can be fully and finally recovered for his salvation. So the reprieving of Nineveh in the days of Jonah was an illustration of the overriding wisdom and love of God, who "desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn from his evil ways, and live".

Did Jonah realise his error, and make peace with the Lord, and serve him still in further fields of service? Nobody knows. His life after this is a blank. Whether he ever went back to Israel or remained in Nineveh is unknown. Perhaps, after all, the rather abrupt ending to the book, in which Jonah makes no rejoinder and God has the last word, was by design. Did Jonah indicate, by his silence, the justice and the intrinsic wisdom of the Lord's way? And is it not true, as in this case of the Book of Jonah, that God always does have the last word?

An indication that he did in fact return to Israel is the fact of the existence of the Book which bears his name and its place in the Old Testament canon. He must have been the writer; much of the contents could not have been written by anybody else. Jesus in his references to Jonah shows that He viewed the Book and the prophet as strictly historical. There is an interesting reference to Jonah in the apocryphal "Book of Tobit", thought to have been written by a Median Jew about four centuries before Christ and therefore four centuries after Jonah, and very possibly an example of the quasi-historical "religious fiction" of the day based upon past Biblical history ‑ unless, of course, Tobit really did live, which is possible. Tobit is depicted as an Israelite of the tribe of Napthali, taken captive at the fall of Samaria, when the "Ten Tribes" were carried into captivity, a century after Jonah! Talking to his son, Tobit says (Tobit 14.4) "Behold, I am aged, and am ready to depart out of this life. Go into Media, my son, for I surely believe those things which the prophet Jonah spake of Nineveh, that it shall be overthrown, and that for a time peace shall rather be in Media". This 400 BC literary work does at least verify that the Book of Jonah was known at that time and believed to antedate the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. And, of course, Nineveh was eventually overthrown by the Medes; and Babylonians in 612 BC, two centuries after Jonah's prediction, by which time the Ninevites had long since returned to their bad old ways, and this time without repentance.

But it still holds good that the Lord did say "Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city of people who have not yet learned to distinguish between good and evil?" At least until they have so learned and made their choice.


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