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Jonah Didn't Get It -- a study of Jonah 4:1-11

Jonah understood God very well and not at all.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Jonah 4:1-11

In this second of two studies on Jonah, we learn that Jonah didn't want to obey God because he didn't want God to show mercy to the Ninevites. It's here that the reader recoils in horror from Jonah, and yet God still showed mercy to Jonah by creating a teachable moment. I believe Jonah learned this lesson, and that's why he wrote the book.

“Yes, it’s right!” he replied. “I’m angry enough to die!” (4:9)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

"Well, That Backfired"

For a plan to "backfire", it has to have the opposite result from what was intended.

Plans that backfire are an endless source of comedy for the entertainment business.

One of my favorite comic strips was Calvin and Hobbes. One day, when he really didn't want to do his homework, Calvin thought the solution would be to "duplicate" himself, then he could make the clone do the homework and he could play outside. Good idea?

It's a long-running story, and as you can imagine, the shenanigans get worse and worse.

(If you're too young for Calvin and Hobbes, know that the shtick is that all of this takes place in Calvin's imagination. It was a great comic.)

But it didn't stop there. Calvin then decides that all he needs to do is add a doodad that will make the duplicator only clone the good parts of him and none of the bad parts. I'll suggest that you find and read those strips for yourself to see just how wrong that plan went.

So, how about you? What brilliant plans have you had that backfired on you? Here are some of the categories to spark your memory:

  • A practical joke that ended up not being funny

  • A bluff that was so good that it worked

  • Advice that ended up being terrible

  • "Saving money" by doing a project yourself

Unintended Consequences

This is the topic that keeps on giving, so you may have used it already. A variation of the plan that backfires is the "unintended consequence". Maybe your plan went perfectly according to plan, but one of the outcomes was not according to plan. Consider:

  • Barbara Streisand sued an obscure website for posting a photo of her house. Not only did she lose the case, but the lawsuit itself drew heavy interest to the site and the photo.

  • To control the wild cobra population, the British government in India offered a reward for dead cobras. This led to people breeding cobras for the reward. When they canceled the program, those cobras were released, resulting in more wild cobras than before.

  • In Supply/Demand, a common backfire is that a company raises prices to increase profits, but then people buy less, reducing overall profits.

  • In China, the government was annoyed with sparrows eating the rice crops, so they authorized the killing of sparrows. After, they realized that sparrows also ate insects that damaged crops. The end result was that the rice crop was worse than before they killed the sparrows.

  • The Gates Foundation sent mosquito nets to Africa to reduce the spread of malaria. Unfortunately, people decided to use those nets for fishing, so not only did it not reduce malaria, but it led to overfishing in certain rivers and lakes, removing the fish that ate mosquito larvae.

And then there's this famous one: a campaign to stop teen smoking used photos of famous (and cool) celebrities to "discourage" smoking. There's been no shortage of debate over this, but many researchers believe that this campaign actually led to an increase in teen smoking.

This is also a common theme in the Bible. Perhaps the clearest example comes from the Book of Esther. You remember this -- Haman has all kinds of plans to elevate himself and humiliate Mordecai. How did that turn out?

I have no doubt that you have stories of a plan that did not have the outcome you intended. One of my personal favorites has to do with Micah. Once, in elementary school, he was given detention. That's supposed to be a punishment, right? Well, his takeaway was "It was great -- it was quiet, I wasn't distracted, so I got all kinds of work done." So, we had to tell him not to try to get detention.

The connection to the lesson should be pretty simple -- Jonah did everything he could to sabotage God's mission to Nineveh, but everything he did worked out to the opposite end.

Unexpected Revivals

This one gets a little more obscure, so it might be best to stick with examples from the Bible. I won't put in too many details because you know the stories. The point is this: people's efforts cannot thwart God's plans for revivals.

  • The Jewish leaders hated Jesus, and so in order to silence Him, they put Him to death. Well, after Jesus rose from the dead, it became clear that they had miscalculated their plans.

  • The Jewish leaders then hated the Christians, and so they persecuted them in Jerusalem. All that did was force the Christians to leave for other areas, resulting in the rapid spread of Christianity.

  • (The persecution story will be repeated many times. Leaders try to squash Christianity and only end up causing it to grow and spread.)

Here are some other historical examples you might consider:

  • "The Reformation" -- Luther wasn't trying to change the world, but the way the Catholic Church leadership tried to shut him down resulted in the worldwide "protest movement" of their church monopoly.

  • Charles Darwin promoted his theories of evolution in part to discredit Christianity. This caused Christians at universities to form unions to encourage one another, leading to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (an important movement even today).

  • In 1949, a liberal Christian tried to convince Billy Graham to give up his belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. After prayer, Graham was more convinced of the Bible than ever, and soon led his first major crusade in Los Angeles, with thousands coming to faith in Christ and laying the foundation for all future crusades.

I couldn't find a "list of things that weren't supposed to cause revival but did" online, so you may not have much luck searching through the interwebs, but you may have a personal story along these lines. The point is this -- Jonah tried to prevent a revival from happening, but he failed. The harder people work against God's purposes, the easier I think they make those purposes come about.

"Quiet Quitting"

Some of you have heard about this phenomenon (I think it might have bene overblown by the media): "quiet quitting" is an employment trend in which an employee just does the bare minimum necessary to meet to job requirements -- only puts in the exact hours agree upon. It's really nothing new. In decades past, we called it "punching your timecard". It's always been the antidote to "climbing the corporate ladder" -- a person who isn't worried about impressing the boss but just wants to get done for the day and get paid.

I'm going to accuse Jonah of being a "quiet quitter". When he realized he couldn't run from God, he decided he was going to do the absolute bare minimum to get God off his back.

[Note: part of the "quiet quitting" impetus was backlash for bosses adding to workloads without adding to pay. Bosses shouldn't do that.]

We're going to be really upset with Jonah about this! But here's the takeaway I want us to have in mind -- how many of us are "quiet quitter" Christians? How many of us do the absolute bare minimum to be able to call ourselves "Christian"? Or if a task seems like it involves going "above and beyond" we're unlikely to do it?

I'm hoping you get an opportunity to make this point sometime during the study: if you're upset with Jonah for dragging his feet on sharing a message from God, how urgent are you to share the good news about Jesus with the people around you? Don't let anybody get away with saying "yeah, well God specifically told Jonah to do that". And...?


Where We Are in Jonah

You remember the basic structure I presented last week:

  1. Chapter 1: Jonah's selfishness and the pagan sailor's faithfulness

  2. Chapter 2: Jonah's gratitude for God's mercy and grace

  3. Chapter 3: Jonah's selfishness and the pagan city's repentance

  4. Chapter 4: Jonah's anger about God's mercy and grace

Chapters 1 & 2 painted Jonah in a terrible light. He couldn't have cared less about the pagan sailors (even though they all but begged him to talk about God and were willing to take great risk upon themselves to save his life). And his big prayer of praise to God didn't come with a whole lot of repentance.

In chapter 3, we come full circle. God gives Jonah a command to preach a message in Nineveh, and this time Jonah says yes. But as we read further, we realize that Jonah still doesn't want to obey -- he just admits that he can't run from God.

About Nineveh

Nineveh is the lynchpin for understanding the story of Jonah. It was the capital of the ancient Assyria Empire and a very important city. The most attention we've given to it in a previous Bible study was probably Isaiah 37:

Here's a quick timeline:

  • ~780? 770? BC - Jonah in Nineveh

  • 732 BC - Assyria conquers Damascus/Syria/Aram

  • 722 BC - Assyria conquers Israel

  • 698 BC - Assyria miraculously defeated outside of Jerusalem

  • 612 BC - Assyria conquered by Babylon

So, the big-bad stuff for Assyria is still far in their future, but Assyria had been an antagonist for Aram (Damascus/Syria) for hundreds of years due to their geography:

Nineveh was a great city. According to Jonah 4:11, it had more than 120,000 inhabitants. (The photo below is of a city gate that was discovered by archeologists):

[Note: some historians say that Jonah (if he existed at all, scoff) existed much later than my timeline above, when Nineveh was at its peak. But earlier Nineveh would still have been very impressive -- much larger than Jerusalem. So I stick with the Jeroboam II date.]

[Aside: "A Three-Day Walk" (3:3)

Some people have taken this phrase to mean that it took three days to walk through or around Nineveh (a person could walk 20 miles per day) -- that would make for an enormous city. Here are four alternative interpretations of that phrase:

  1. Jonah was exaggerating.

  2. Jonah was including the "suburbs", not just the main city inside the walls.

  3. It would take three days to fully walk through the city.

  4. It would take three days to conduct business.

I lean toward #3. The narrative seems to be leading us to conclude that it was going to take Jonah three days to walk all around the city and share his message. Jonah didn't walk all day to get to his first preaching location -- on the first day he was there, he shared his message.]

3:3 translates as "a great city to God/gods". This could mean that God found the city important, God was aware of its population, or it had many gods. Based on the rest of the book, I think it's that first -- Nineveh was important to God.

The Big Reveal: Jonah Hated Nineveh

Last week, I said that we hadn't yet learned why Jonah disobeyed God. In fact, it's not until chapter 4 that we learn the reason! Jonah didn't want God to have mercy on Nineveh. Why?

There are two likely reasons:

  1. Jonah was ultranationalist -- he didn't want God to show favor to anyone except Israel.

  2. Jonah had a beef with Nineveh/Assyria -- he specifically didn't want anything to do with Nineveh, likely because of their desire to conquer Israel.

Your leader guide spins a compelling case for the first. Jonah would have had the same reaction no matter where God sent him. (And I have to admit that Nineveh hadn't yet developed the awful reputation they had when they finally conquered Israel a generation later.)

I've always felt that Jonah's hatred of Nineveh was a little more personal, but I don't have any biblical evidence to back that up. Assyrian records show that they had collected tribute from Israel at various times in the previous decades; maybe Jonah's father/grandfather had been humiliated on one of those trips?

And they could both be true -- Jonah thought he could somehow restrict God from showing mercy to anyone except Israel ... but he definitely didn't want God showing mercy to those people.

In any case, we have every reason to believe that Jonah attempted to sabotage his own mission. The Bible Project video pointed this out. Here's his "message":

4 Jonah set out on the first day of his walk in the city and proclaimed, “In forty days Nineveh will be demolished!”

This is as bare-minimum as it gets. This is probably all Jonah said. He just walked around repeating this line. Think about how unhelpful this message is! He doesn't say why. He doesn't say what they could do about it. He doesn't say if they could do anything about it. We find out that he doesn't want to tell them the why/how/what of repentance because he doesn't want them to repent. He knows that God will have mercy on them if they do! Pathetic.

The word for "demolished" means "overturned". In Hebrew, this verb always refers to being conquered. You remember from the Bible Project video that they took it as a wordplay with "turned over". He's a Hebrew expert, so I'm going to listen to him.

And here's where the greatest irony of the story takes place: the entire city repents, from the king down. Jonah tried to sabotage his own "gospel presentation" and the biggest revival in history broke out.* A pagan city of 120,000 entirely repented before God.

[Aside: I have to * this because the effects weren't very long-lasting. Within about one generation, Nineveh had turned into the most violent kingdom in the Ancient Near East.]


This Week's Big Idea: Cattle Revival!

Here's one last topic before we get into this week's lesson: the king ordered that even the cattle be included in the acts of repentance before God. Some people have really gotten hung up on this.

Remember that Nineveh is a city full of pagans. And also remember that Jonah didn't give them any help as to what they should do to repent. So, they took their best shot. "We're going to repent, and we're going to have everything around us repent with us." The cattle weren't actually repenting -- this idea is supposed to help us see that the Ninevites were as serious about repentance as they could possibly be.


Part 1: Contempt (Jonah 4:1-4)

1 Jonah was greatly displeased and became furious. 2 He prayed to the Lord, “Please, Lord, isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in faithful love, and one who relents from sending disaster. 3 And now, Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 The Lord asked, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

This is so childish on Jonah's part. And intentionally so! I think that Jonah himself wrote this book, and I think he played all of this up to make it clear how wrong he was. He made a caricature of himself to convince his fellow Jews that they were wrong to abuse God's grace. My assumption is that Jonah had a change of heart in response to the events of chapter 4, but he doesn't reveal that because he wants his readers to confront their own prejudices and misunderstandings.

Anyway, at the end of chapter 3, we learn that God relented from punishing Nineveh. Your leader guide suggests that 40 days had passed, and that's certainly possible -- it would have taken a while for the entire city to hear the message and organize their show of repentance! I don't think it's necessary, though. I think that God told Jonah of the change of plans, and that's what made Jonah so angry.

Verse 1 is literally "It was evil to Jonah, a great evil, and it burned to him." It's another example of irony -- as God's anger "cooled", Jonah's anger "burned". It's another reminder of just how far Jonah had drifted from God. And he explains that in verse 3: "I knew it! I knew you were going to have mercy on them!" Jonah even quotes Exodus 34 (showing that he does know his Bible).

A topic of discussion here would be -- who is a person you don't think deserves to hear the gospel? Or, who is the person you don't want to share the gospel with because you don't want them to become a Christian?

We've talked about this before. Some Christians have a person or a group of people that they just wouldn't want to share the gospel with. They don't think that person deserves forgiveness. What's wrong with that attitude? It's simple: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. In this, Jonah makes himself to be the "unforgiving servant" from Jesus' parable in Matthew 18:

32 Then, after he had summoned him, his master said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’

Jonah's attitude was wrong, and God calls him out on it. (Well, but not before Jonah takes it to the ultimate petulant crybaby declaration: "I'd rather die!")

The juxtaposition with chapter 2 is super-clear (and about to be taken up a notch): Jonah was glad when God had mercy on him, and he didn't admit that he deserved punishment(!); Jonah was angry that God had mercy on the Ninevites even after they acknowledged that only God's mercy could save them.

You've probably not said something so childish as "I'd rather die!", but perhaps you've said something like "That's not fair!" to God. We talked about this when we studied Luke 6:

Some of Jesus' followers said it wasn't fair that they had to love their enemies, but their enemies didn't have to love them. Have you ever complained to God about stuff like that?

Our complaints don't have to be as extreme as Jonah's to be of the same kind.


Part 2: Anger (Jonah 4:5-9)

5 Jonah left the city and found a place east of it. He made himself a shelter there and sat in its shade to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the Lord God appointed a plant, and it grew over Jonah to provide shade for his head to rescue him from his trouble. Jonah was greatly pleased with the plant. 7 When dawn came the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant, and it withered. 8 As the sun was rising, God appointed a scorching east wind. The sun beat down on Jonah’s head so much that he almost fainted, and he wanted to die. He said, “It’s better for me to die than to live.” 9 Then God asked Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?” “Yes, it’s right!” he replied. “I’m angry enough to die!”

What's so interesting about how God handles this is that He gives Jonah space to stew. He even gives Jonah another (even more clear) teachable moment. He wanted Jonah to learn the lesson, not beat it into him. I don't often have that kind of patience!

Jonah probably found a hill outside the city. Perhaps this was 40 days after the initial message (and Jonah was expecting hellfire and brimstone), or perhaps Jonah had stopped counting and was just being stubborn, knowing in his heart that God was not going to destroy Nineveh, but "hoping against hope" that God would change His mind about changing His mind. Artists have approached this in many different ways:

God wasn't being conciliatory by sending this plant -- He was creating a teachable moment. [Note: I don't understand why anyone would have a problem with the miracle of growing a big vine in a day. Would that be hard for God?] God was improving Jonah's situation, yes. (Depending on the time of year, it could be well above 100 degrees in the desert outside of Nineveh.) And Jonah was happy about the plant.

The next day, God destroyed the plant (with a really hungry worm). And Jonah was angry about the plant dying. He threw the same tantrum as before -- "I'm angry enough to die!" The point is that Jonah was behaving like a 2-year-old.

It's the kind of tantrum that's so over-the-top pathetic that if Jonah were your child, you would have to stifle a laugh if you weren't being so publicly embarrassed.

This is why I believe Jonah himself wrote this story. He, of all people, knew just how bad he looked. He wanted his example to be a lesson to his fellow Jews.

There's no sense in talking about the "lesson" here because God is going to tell us the lesson Himself in the next verse!


Part 3: Compassion (Jonah 4:10-11)

10 And the Lord said, “You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. 11 So may I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than a hundred twenty thousand people who cannot distinguish between their right and their left, as well as many animals?”

God makes this lesson so simple, doesn't He?

Two things:

  1. "Cannot distinguish their right from their left". First, stay away from the politics jokes, as much as you probably want to tell one here. This is the only place in Hebrew literature that this phrase occurs, so we aren't exactly sure what it means. Some have taken it to mean that there were 120,000 children in the city (and the entire population is closer to 600,000); that doesn't seem to be God's point. Those (like the NIV) who change it to "their right hand from their left" also don't seem to be right, because the Ninevites aren't ignorant. Rather, this is a phrase that means "they can't tell right from wrong". It's the exact "condition" that made Jonah not like them in the first place, and why the Jews thought they were better than them.

  2. "As well as many animals". I think this is God's wink to the reader, or perhaps a joke at the reader's expense. God has just told Jonah that the city is filled with people who don't know right from wrong -- "unlike you, wise Jonah" -- and a bunch of animals who were more willing to repent than you were. High-and-mighty Jonah (and probably the upper-class Israelites from Amos's day) probably missed that completely, thinking God was talking about animals.


  • Eccl 10:2: "A wise person’s heart goes to the right, / but a fool’s heart to the left."

  • Ezek 22:26: "Her priests do violence to my instruction and profane my holy things. They make no distinction between the holy and the common, and they do not explain the difference between the clean and the unclean."

The point of the book is this -- God cares about all people, even the enemies of His people. With that come two corollaries: (1) God's people should care about all people, even their enemies. (2) All people can repent of their sin and turn to God.

Earlier, I said that I don't think the results of this "revival" lasted very long. Assyria developed a terrible reputation of terrorism and violence. But that does not invalidate this revival in any way!! How many major revivals has America had?

  • First Great Awakening 1730s-40s

  • Second Great Awakening 1800s-50s

  • Early Revival Movement 1860s-80s

  • Early Pentecostalism 1900s-20s

  • Billy Graham Crusades 1950-70s

  • Charismatic Movement 1960-80s

Hundreds of thousands of people were changed in each of those movements, yet within a generation, America was in dire need of revival again. If God didn't send that next revival, is it possible that America could have turned out like Nineveh?

Rather than grumble about how terrible Nineveh was, perhaps we should spend more energy thanking God that He has continued to pour out His Spirit on people in our country, keeping the fires of revival burning in many places.

The leader guide gave a nice conclusion: Jonah cared more about his own comfort than the eternal destination of an entire city. Let's not be that.

And then finally, let's talk about our own Bible study group:

  • How is our group reaching out to others?

  • How welcoming is our group to new people?

  • How gracious and understanding are we of everyone in our group?

Here is a longer post on this topic:

Let's learn from Jonah's bad example so we don't have to go through the same learning experiences that he did.


Final Thoughts: A Tough Real-World Example

So, with everything we just concluded, how would you handle this situation? The governor of California put up a bunch of billboards around the country telling women they are welcome to come to California to get their abortion. What really rankled some Christians is the fact that he put a Bible verse (obscenely out of context) on the billboard.

I can cut to the chase. A number of Christian leaders have "gone Jonah" on the state of California and her leaders. They're ready for God to launch the mega-quake and drop California into the ocean.

How about you?

I believe that the book of Jonah gives us a very nuanced response to this situation. But I'm much more curious what you think. How do you think God in the book of Jonah would want us to respond to this extremely sad scenario?


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