So Jonah 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 might see what would become of the city.
And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd.
But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd that it withered.
And it came pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.
And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.
Then said the Lord, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
Having turned his back on God (Jonah 4:4, 5) and left Nineveh, Jonah stayed around to watch “till he might see what would become of the city” (v. 5). We do not know what Jonah expected, but perhaps he thought God would destroy Nineveh after all. Perhaps with his bad attitude he did what we so often do and went outside the city to wallow in self-pity and self-justification as if his sulking would somehow prove that he was right and God wrong to spare the city. The latter seems more likely in view of God’s final word to Jonah: “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (v. 11).
Whether he stayed the full forty days of his prophecy we do not know either, nor do we know when, after he was finished preaching, he was taught the lesson of the gourd. It would seem from the passage that it took place shortly after he left the city. Whatever the time frame, Jonah was in need of another lesson, a lesson that lasted two days (v. 10).
Scripture does not even tell us whether Jonah repented of his mercilessness, his back-talking, his rebellion against God, his complaining and sulking. We believe he did in light of his former prayer, but Scripture says nothing about it. We do not even read of his return to his own country, if he did return, or of any continued work as a prophet. Jonah disappears from the Word of God at this point; not surprising, because Jonah is not the focus of the Word but only an instrument God used to show His marvelous and sovereign grace. The great God of grace and mercy is the central figure of the book.
After leaving the city, Jonah went to the east side of Nineveh, for the east was traditionally the direction from which God came for judgment and for salvation: “And, behold, the glory of the God of Israel came from the way of the east: and his voice was like a noise of many waters: and the earth shined with his glory” (Ezek. 43:2). The tabernacle and later the temple faced east for that reason. Perhaps that is evidence that he was still hoping God would destroy Nineveh; but there he built his booth, there he waited, and there he learned the lesson of the gourd.
Many identify the “gourd” as the castor-oil or castor- bean plant, a fast-growing vine with large leaves, but we do not know if it was a plant that still grows in that area. Its sprouting and growth were a miraculous work of God, and the plant may only have been seen that one time before disappearing forever. The identity of the plant is of no account. What matters is the word of God to Jonah, “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” (vv. 10, 11).
Jonah felt more pity for the gourd than he did for the citizens of Nineveh, including 120,000 children and many beasts. What an example he is, in his hatred of Nineveh, of the need for God’s word in Micah 6:8: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God!” What a shame it is for us when we have more feeling for some creature than for those who are perishing under the wrath of God. How like Jonah when we wish death and destruction on those who have in some way injured us, while we fawn over a beloved pet. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:44, 45).
That there were 120,000 small children in Nineveh who could not “discern between their right hand and their left hand” is further proof that Nineveh was indeed a great city. On the basis of that figure some estimate its population as a million people. That God showed mercy to children magnifies His mercy as does His salvation of these Gentiles, for the children were unable to understand Jonah’s preaching or to humble themselves in repentance.
Finally, though, it is not the number of small children in Nineveh, the number of its citizens, or their character that makes God’s mercy greater. For the greatness of His mercy is measured not by the number or character of those to whom He shows it, but by the source of that mercy in the coming and work of Christ and in the undeservedness of His mercy. That He for Christ’s sake shows mercy to one lost sinner, great or small, Jew or Gentile, bond or free, male or female, is as wonderful as His showing it to a million citizens of a great city.
Rather than having the same pity toward Nineveh that God had toward the city, Jonah was consumed with hatred for Nineveh and eaten up with bitterness for what Nineveh had done to his own nation. Jonah did not even have the same pity for Nineveh that God had for him, stubborn and rebellious as he was, when God made the gourd grow: “And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief” (v. 6). Pity for Jonah’s physical discomfort did not rouse any pity in Jonah for Nineveh’s spiritual condition. How shameful!
The Word tells us that Jonah was glad, very glad, for the shade the gourd gave. That is the first time in the story of Jonah and Nineveh that Jonah was glad about anything. Unhappy with his calling, grudging the repentance of Nineveh, angry at a merciful and gracious God, he is a sad example of how we so often become trapped in a sinful and bad attitude, are negative about everything and everyone, and will not be corrected. We must realize then, that our self-pity, our anger and frustration, our stubbornness and persistence in our sin are directed against God, as Jonah’s anger and frustration were. God keep us from such evil!
Anger at the circumstances of life, often of no more account than a gourd plant, is anger with God and sin against Him, for it is God who arranges all the circumstances of our lives as the same sovereign God who granted repentance to Nineveh. Great sin it is, too. Jonah’s problem was that God had not done what Jonah wanted either in Nineveh or with the vine. How foolish and how wicked even to think that we have any right to dictate to God or think that He must do what we want and to be angry when things do not go our way. Our prayer must always be, following the saving example of Christ Himself, “Not my will but thine be done.” And that prayer must be offered cheerfully and in humble submission to God.
We may assume on the basis of Luke 11:30, which calls Jonah a sign to the Ninevites—a sign that pointed to the saving work of Christ—that Jonah did repent of his sins. His prayer in the belly of the fish leads to the same conclusion, but the Bible does not tell of it. Yet we should not be too hard on Jonah, for how often are we not like him—in spite of clearer revelation—full of self-pity, consumed by hatred and bitterness, refusing to accept God’s ways when they are hard, unbending in the face of His sovereignty, rebellious, if not in speech then in mind and heart, fuming over what we do not like and cannot change.
What makes Jonah’s lack of mercy a greater sin is the mercy God showed Jonah himself. The growth of the gourd was itself mercy, a miraculous display of mercy that was entirely undeserved: “And the Lord God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shadow over his head, to deliver him from his grief. So Jonah was exceeding glad of the gourd” (v. 6). Laughing at Jonah’s efforts to find some shade for himself by building his poor “booth,” the Lord shows how much better is His own mercy by causing the gourd to grow.
The heat of the sun must have been brutal if Jonah’s hut alone was not enough to shelter him. But God sent a worm to destroy the gourd and an east wind off the desert because Jonah needed another hard lesson. Sadly, we read that though Jonah fainted and wanted to die, he did not repent of his bad attitude, his bitterness and hatred, and his lack of mercy. Rather, he argued with God and, wallowing in self-pity, insisted that he was right and God wrong.
God showed mercy to Jonah, too, when the gourd died, teaching him a lesson and rebuking him only very gently: “Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?” God remembered that Jonah (and we with him) are but dust and did not deal with him as he deserved but showed His great mercy (Ps. 103:8-14). Even that did not move Jonah but only produced an angry reply: “I do well to be angry, even unto death.” There was not only a worm destroying the gourd but a worm eating away at Jonah’s soul, the worm of bitterness and selfpity from which he needed deliverance. He is an example of what Hebrews 12:15 warns against: “Lest any root of bitterness springing up trouble you.” So God showed Jonah his own need for God’s sovereign mercy in sending the worm, and demonstrated the sovereignty of His mercy to Jonah by taking the gourd away, just as He had miraculously given it.
The lesson God gave Jonah, however, was not just about Jonah’s lack of mercy but about God’s sovereignty in all the works of His hands. He emphasizes that to Jonah by speaking to him of the fact that the gourd grew without any effort on Jonah’s part, meaning that just as the life of the gourd was in His hands, not in Jonah’s, so also was the life and eternal well-being of Nineveh’s citizens. Just as Jonah had nothing to say about the growth and death of the gourd, so he should have had nothing to say about God’s dealings with Nineveh.
In His sovereign mercy God chooses some and not others. Sovereign in salvation, He sends His Son to die for some and not for others, and gives faith and repentance to those only for whom Christ purchased those blessings. Sovereignly He saves some we would rather see perish and does not save others for whom we have often agonized and prayed. We have no right to question His ways, to complain of them, to charge Him with injustice, or to insist that He ought to have done otherwise: “Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” (Rom. 9:20, 21).
In His sovereignty He chose, too, to use a Jonah for the salvation of Nineveh, as He does always, both when He uses weak and sinful men to preach the gospel, and under the preaching to save those who from a human perspective are least deserving of His mercy. For “not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence” (I Cor. 1:26-29). And lest we think that we are more than foolish, weak, base and despised, the Word of God tells us that this is “our calling” (I Cor. 1:26).
God shows us the sovereignty of His mercy in all the circumstances of our lives, both giving and taking away as it pleases Him, but always making all things work for our good and for the glory of His eternal Name. He shows the sovereignty of His mercy in saving us, the weak and despised of this world, and in using us, wretched and miserable creatures that we are, in His service and for the good and coming of His kingdom. All glory be to Him. He shows us the sovereignty of His mercy in saving us by the weakest of means, the preaching of the gospel and the gospel preachers.
The lesson must eventually have gotten through to Jonah but, in the concluding verses of Jonah 4, God is still speaking to a man who had not humbled himself before God and before the sovereignty of His mercy, but was still arguing, complaining, rebelling, and replying against God. Is He, in the book of Jonah and by the lesson of the gourd, speaking to you as one who has bowed or as one who is still stiff-necked and unhappy because God’s way is not your way?