The Right To Give Life

Now the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort. So Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint. And he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” 10 And the Lord said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 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?” Jonah 4:6-11 ESV

This is the second time that Jonah has fled from Nineveh. On the first occasion, he had been somewhere in Israel, probably not far from his hometown of Gath-hepher, in the region of Galilee. This would have placed him more than 500 miles from Nineveh. But for Jonah, that was not far enough. So, when he received God’s call to go to Nineveh and announce their pending judgment, he refused and headed in the opposite direction. He attempted to avoid his commission by fleeing from the presence of the Lord. But his plan didn’t work out so well. God sent a storm to delay Jonah’s departure. Then, when the sailors cast lots to see who was the source of their troubles, God caused the lot to fall on Jonah. In a last-ditch effort to save their lives, the sailors cast Jonah overboard, at which point God appointed a large fish to swallow His disobedient prophet. Then, after Jonah had spent three miserable days in the belly of the fish, God caused the fish to disgorge Jonah on dry land. From there, Jonah made his way to Nineveh, where he finally delivered God’s message. And the people believed.

Now, Jonah sits outside the walls of the great city of Nineveh, waiting to see whether God will rain down judgment on the enemies of Israel or if He will show them mercy and compassion. Jonah hopes for the former but fears that the latter will be what takes place. Sitting in his man-made shelter, Jonah is burning with rage. He is furious that his message of God’s pending destruction of Nineveh had been met with repentance and mourning. Rather than turn on Jonah as the bearer of bad news, the people had turned to Yahweh in faith. And Jonah knew that Yahweh was “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Jonah 4:2 ESV). He was afraid that the repentance of the Ninevites would cause God to change His mind about destroying them. But Jonah still held out hope that God might do to Nineveh what He had done to Sodom and Gomorrah. He was still longing for their destruction and not their deliverance.

But as Jonah fumed in his makeshift shelter, “the Lord God appointed a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort” (Jonah 4:6 ESV). It’s important to recall that when Jonah had been thrown off the ship and into the raging sea, God had appointed a fish to rescue him from certain death. Now, as Jonah raged outside the walls of the city, God appointed a plant to relieve his “discomfort.” Once again, the God of the universe intervened in the life of His rebellious prophet. Yahweh caused a plant to appear, virtually overnight, providing His sun-baked, pitty-soaked prophet with protection from the sun and relief from his anger. 

Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant. – Jonah 4:6 ESV

The sudden and miraculous appearance of the plant had its intended effect. Jonah was relieved of his discomfort. But the author uses a very specific Hebrew word to describe the condition from which Jonah was relieved. It is the word, raʿ, which is most often translated as “evil” or “wickedness.” It can also mean “affliction.” It is the same word the author used in describing the behavior of the people of Nineveh.

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:10 ESV

And when Jonah saw the people of Nineveh repent of their evil way, he refused to see it as a good thing. Verse 1 of chapter four states that “it displeased Jonah exceedingly.” This phrase could actually be translated as “It was evil to Jonah, a great evil.” Jonah viewed the repentance of the Ninevites as evil or wicked. And yet, it was God who deemed Jonah’s reaction as evil. His anger was not only unjustified, but it was also unrighteous. That is why God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” (Jonah 4:4 NLT). Jonah’s response was not good or acceptable. He actually preferred that God do evil by destroying the Ninevites. That is exactly what he meant when he expressed his concern that God might be gracious to the Ninevites, “relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2 ESV). In Hebrew, that phrase reads nāḥam raʿ, which means, “repenting of evil.” In essence, Jonah wanted God to respond to the Ninevites with evil. He longed for God to devastate and destroy them.

But even in his fit of unrighteous and unjustified anger, Jonah was met with undeserved grace and mercy. God appointed a plant that provided Jonah with relief – and he was glad. But notice what the text says: “Jonah was exceedingly glad because of the plant” (Jonah 4:6 ESV). He gladly accepted the gift of God’s mercy but failed to show Him any gratitude.

So, “God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, so that it withered” (Jonah 4:7 ESV). All throughout this story, the author purposefully portrays the sovereign hand of God behind all that happens. God appointed the fish. He appointed the plant. Now, He appoints the worm. Every step of the way, God has been ordaining the events of Jonah’s life in order to accomplish His sovereign will. The Creator-God orchestrated the actions of a giant fish and a tiny worm, all to accomplish His grand redemptive plan. He caused the plant that had sprung up overnight to disappear just as quickly. And His removal of the plant was followed by His appointment of “a scorching east wind” (Jonah 4:8 ESV). The soothing shade was replaced by the searing rays of the sun and a scorching sirocco wind.

The sudden change in his circumstances left Jonah in a foul mood. While he had gladly accepted the gracious gift of shade without uttering a word of thanks, he immediately declared his dissatisfaction when the shade was suddenly removed. He bitterly informed God that he would rather die than suffer any further.

…he asked that he might die and said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” – Jonah 4:7 ESV

But Jonah was missing the point. He was failing to understand the lesson that God was trying to teach him. So, God asks him a second question:

“Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?” – Jonah 4:9 NLT

Did Jonah really have a right to be angry over the loss of his source of shade and comfort? Was he justified in expressing his desire to die? But before God could complete His thought, Jonah quickly interrupted and defended his actions.

“Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” – Jonah 4:9 ESV

Then God graciously exposes the absurdity of Jonah’s over-the-top response. He points out that Jonah was upset about the untimely demise of a plant he had done nothing to produce. He had no vested interest in the plant, other than the comfort he had received from it.

You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. – Jonah 4:10 NLT

Jonah was grieving over the loss of the plant, not because he had labored to produce it, but because he missed the benefit he had received from it. His motives were purely selfish and self-centered. Jonah’s only concern for the plant was in its ability to provide him with comfort – which was now gone. So, God uses the destruction of the plant to teach Jonah a lesson regarding His sparing of the people of Nineveh.

“But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” – Jonah 4:10 NLT

God describes the people of Nineveh as not knowing “their right hand from their left.” They are ignorant of the His ways. They were like children who lacked wisdom, discernment, and spiritual understanding. Unlike the people of Israel, the Ninevites had not enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Yahweh. They had not been given His law or instructed in His ways. The entire community was living in spiritual darkness, unaware of Yahweh’s identity and completely oblivious to the wickedness of their ways.

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul would provide a powerful reminder to the Gentile converts who were part of that local fellowship.

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. – Ephesians 2:11-12 NLT

Jesus would also emphasize the inclusion of those who were outside the nation of Israel.

“I have other sheep, too, that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them also. They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.” – John 10:16 NLT

The people of Israel had been chosen by God so that they might be a light to the nations. They were to shine in the darkness of the world, providing the Gentiles with a glimpse of God’s goodness, glory, and greatness. But they had failed to live up to their calling. The prophet Hosea declared of them: “Israel is swallowed up; already they are among the nations as a useless vessel” (Hosea 8:8 ESV). Just as Jonah had been swallowed by the fish, Israel would ultimately be swallowed by the Assyrians. They would fall to the very nation to whom Jonah had been sent. And God had proven to Jonah that He could redeem and rescue the worst of sinners. He could even use a reluctant and rebellious prophet to bring about the repentance of a city full of wicked and spiritually ignorant Ninevites.

God cared enough about Jonah to send him a fish and a plant. God cared enough about Israel that He repeatedly sent His prophets to call them to repentance. And He cared enough about Nineveh to send His reluctant prophet to deliver His message of redemption. But Jonah missed all of this. He failed to grasp the significance of God’s grand redemptive plan for His creation. Even the author’s reference to “much cattle” is intended to reveal that God has a plan to redeem and restore all that He has made.

The apostle Paul reminds us that the entire creation is living under the weight of the curse that came as a result of Adam’s sin.

For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are. Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:19-22 NLT

And the book of Jonah ends with God reminding His self-consumed prophet that He loves and cares for the people of Nineveh because He created them. Like the plant, they exist because God gave them life. And as the author of life, only God has the right to give or take it away. Jonah was asking God for the right to die. But God wanted Jonah to understand that He had the right to let the Ninevites live. Because He cared for them.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.