Understanding God’s Compassion


Sunday School Lesson for December 28, 2003


Focal Teaching Passage: Jonah 4:1-11


Jonah’s Response to God’s Mercy (4:1-4)


Verse 1

After Jonah had delivered God’s message to the people of Nineveh (3:4), a spirit of repentance swept through the entire city from the greatest to the least of the citizens (3: 5-9). After the people had turned away from their evil deeds, the Lord had mercy on them and did not destroy Nineveh as He had threatened (3:10). Remarkably, however, this divine act of mercy and compassion  greatly displeased Jonah,” or more literally as the Hebrew suggests, it was “evil” to Jonah.  The prophet was fiercely angry and deeply offended at the pardon God had granted to Nineveh. His bitter reaction in the face of God’s grace exploded within him “like that of a child throwing a temper tantrum  [Baldwin, 583].


Verses 2-4

The reason for such a response to the Ninevite revival becomes clear as Jonah’s prayer of protest is examined.  Once more Jonah “prayed to the Lord” and confessed that he “knew” of Yahweh’s nature as a “gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness” (v. 2).  Jonah fully understood, from both His revealed Word and His mighty actions in the history of the nation of Israel (Ex. 34:6-7; cf. 2 Chron. 30:9; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; Joel 2:13), that God’s mercy would fall upon the brokenhearted and repentant—“was this not what I said while I was still in my own country?” Strangely, the prophet could not accept nor come to terms with “the character of the God he was to represent in Nineveh” [Baldwin, 583]. 


Note that Jonah admitted that this attitude—one that betrayed a basic belief that the Jews alone were the special objects of God’s redemptive love—led him to attempt a detour to “Tarshish” (v. 2).  It is very possible that Jonah was personally embarrassed by such divine attributes as mercy and compassion and had come to view them as “regrettable weaknesses in the divine make-up” [Alexander, 127]. At any rate, Jonah wanted Nineveh destroyed just as he had announced. Yet forty days later, when it was still standing, he fell into a fit of selfish anger and despair—“O Lord, please take my life from me” (v. 3).  The obvious irony is that Jonah’s rage was triggered by the goodness and compassion of God “which he himself had experienced so dramatically when he was saved from drowning” [Baldwin, 584]. 


The first section comes to an end with a simple, yet penetrating, question from the Lord—“Do you have good reason to be angry?(v. 4).  Again, it is ironic that Jonah had just expressed his frustration with God concerning His lack of anger. Now, however, the Lord confronted the prophet with the presence of his own self-serving wrath. 


Jonah’s Response to the Withered Vine (4:5-9)


Verses 5-6

Apparently having no satisfactory answer to the Lord’s question, Jonah departed to the “east” of Nineveh to a desert area and sat down under a home-made shade.  There he waited to “see what would happen in the city” (v. 5).  Perhaps Jonah believed that given sufficient time, the Lord would “reconsider his position and exact retribution upon the Ninevites” [Alexander, 128].  As the prophet observed the action (or lack thereof) in the city, “the Lord God appointed a plant” to grow “over Jonah” providing him with additional shelter from the “discomfort” of the hot sun (v. 6).  Note that this is the exact same language of divine action as employed in 1:17. The word “appointed” is used exclusively in this book with God as its subject and “stresses God’s sovereign rule over events for the accomplishment of his purpose” [Baldwin, 566].  The timely growth of the plant, perhaps a type of gourd, made the prophet “extremely happy.”  


Verses 7-8

However, in the same way that the Lord had “appointed” the plant to shield the prophet from the sun, He likewise “appointed a worm” to attack it (v. 7).  Eventually, the plant “withered” and died leaving Jonah fully exposed to the blistering heat.  To make matters even worse for Jonah “God appointed a scorching east wind” to come up. (v. 8). With this, the conditions became completely unbearable to the point that Jonah “became faint and begged with all his soul to die” (v. 8). Having tasted of the goodness and mercy of the Lord with the provision of the shade, Jonah was suddenly confronted with the reality of God’s judgment, albeit on a small scale.  His ensuing despair—“Death is better to me than life”—resulted from “a deep spiritual malaise, from which the Lord [was] seeking to rescue him” [Baldwin, 587].  Among the many truths revealed in this episode is the critical lesson that “God’s sovereignty is not limited to acts of compassion. As the one who gives life, he also has the right to bring it to an end” [Alexander, 129].    


Verse 9

As before, the Lord confronted Jonah with a searching question regarding his attitude:  Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” Jonah’s response, however, once more revealed a futile attempt at self-justification and rationalization—“I have good reason to be angry, even to death.”  Baldwin makes the interesting observation that by “questioning and quarreling with God [Jonah] loses all that makes life worth living” [587].  With his selfish expectations thoroughly frustrated, the prophet finally arrived at the point where he believed his life was over.


The Lord’s Response to Jonah’s Anger  (4:10-11)


At this point, the real spiritual lesson being brought to bear upon Jonah was fully exposed. The Lord challenged the despairing prophet with the fact that he had demonstrated “compassion for the plant” which had been provided for him—one that “came up overnight and perished overnight” (v. 10). Yet, Jonah was deeply angry with the Lord for displaying His “compassion on Nineveh” (v. 11). This was precisely the point at which the “real absurdity” of the whole situation revealed itself [Alexander, 130].  Jonah was completely self-absorbed. He was more concerned with the demise of the plant than he was with the potential destruction of “more than 120, 000 persons” in the city of Nineveh (v. 11).  Even more ridiculous was the fact that Jonah dared to find fault with God for being overly gracious and merciful [Baldwin, 589]. Rather than rejoicing in the incomprehensible love and mercy of God for helpless sinners like those in Nineveh—“who do not know the difference between their right and left hand”—Jonah spiraled into a pit of self-serving arrogance and presumption.  Obviously Jonah had forgotten what he had previously exclaimed in 2:9—“Salvation is from the Lord.” While Jonah, and perhaps most of his fellow-Israelites, would have considered the people of Nineveh as un-savable and worthy of destruction, in the eyes of Yahweh they were objects of extravagant mercy and grace. 


Questions to Consider as You Prepare to Teach


One : Consider some of the ways that we are like Jonah. Is it possible that we sometimes believe that certain persons are unworthy of being saved by God, or are outside the scope of His mercy?  What was wrong with Jonah’s logic here? Hint: Look at Romans 3:9-18.




Two : Think about the way God’s sovereignty is displayed throughout this book.  Why has the author so emphatically declared God’s control over the affairs of men?  Do His sovereign purposes negate the reality of human accountability? See if you can defend your answer by appealing only to this book. 




Three : Why did the Lord mention “animals” in 4:11?  Hint: Keep the context in mind (4:5-10).