Day 268: Jonah 1-4; God’s Grace in Action

Today’s reading is the whole book of Jonah.  This book is a rich book full of meaning and truth about the nature of God and how God acts.  Most of the blog today is actually going to be a paper that I wrote for a Hebrew class I took last year.  The whole book of Jonah is a story of God’s grace and mercy over and over to Jonah, to the city of Nineveh, and to Jonah again.  In the Jewish culture, in the midst of the celebration of the Jewish New Year which includes Rosh Hashanah, on Yom Kippur, the celebration of the Day of Atonement, Jews often read the book of Jonah as a remembrance of God’s forgiveness, grace, and love for those who repent.

Whether or not the story of Jonah actually happened is often a discussion that comes up around this book.  People can get caught up in the difference between factual events and the truth that a narrative like this communicates.  Did Jonah actually happen?  Perhaps… but does the narrative that we find in God’s word communicate a greater truth to us about the grace and mercy of God?  Most definitely.

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Of the vast number of narratives in Old Testament Scripture, the story of the prophet Jonah is one of the most recognizable.  Children’s Bible stories and Sunday school classes tell and retell the story of Jonah’s disobedience to God and the resulting action in which Jonah winds up in the belly of a whale.  It is only after Jonah prays and repents, the teachers say, that God commands the whale to spit Jonah up onto the beach at which time He then goes and does what God had told him to do, and the people of Nineveh repent and everyone is happy.  For all intents and purposes, that is where the story ends for most people.  Yet the continuing narrative of Jonah in the final chapter of his book show us a great deal more about Jonah, and also about God and how He is working in many ways to teach Jonah a lesson as well.  One of the major ways that this teaching happens is through the sudden appearance and subsequent disappearance of a plant in Jonah 4:6.  Jonah’s reactions to the plant, as well as the ensuing dialogue with God bring the story of Jonah to a much more full and complete, albeit abrupt ending.

To fully understand what is happening here in this last section of Jonah, it is important to understand the background, history, and context of how it would have been heard in that particular time and culture.  The word that we use to designate as being “the plant” that God caused to grow up and give Jonah shade is קִיקָי֞וֹן, or “kikiun.”  It has been translated in a number of ways from vine and bush, to a cucumber, gourd, or castor oil plant,[1] all depending on the translation of Scripture that is being used.  However, the actual work קִיקָי֞וֹן only appears in Scripture in this passage, Jonah 4:6-11,[2] and nothing is really said regarding the description of it.  While debate about secondary things can be entertaining, the lack of direct identification of the plant would signify that, even though the plant is important in the story of Jonah, the type of plant does not stand the primary point.  John Calvin, citing comments from Augustine about the writings of Jerome, points out that some plant types would indeed make more sense than others, the main thrust of the passage is the extraordinary nature of the plant rather than its genus or specification.[3]

Calvin continues in his discussion about the plant, talking about the nature of the plant’s existence in the story.  The plant is supernatural as it appears suddenly, grows faster than a normal plant, and does so for what seems like the sole purpose of giving shade to Jonah in the oppressive heat.[4]  We see too in the story that the קִיקָי֞וֹן does not grow over a course of days, weeks, or months,[5] as plants tend to do, but rather sprung up overnight, an extraordinary happening that could only be accredited to the work of God almighty.  Understanding this, it is also logical to conclude that God’s ordaining of this plant would also include a particular purpose, as God’s workings are never haphazard or random, even if they seem so to mortal eyes at the time.

God’s working through plants is also an idea that is quite familiar to the Hebrew people.[6]  Eden was indeed a garden planted by God, much as the rest of the world was seen as being created (or planted) by God.  In fact, the image of God the gardener walking through His garden, the earth, planting and uprooting nations is an image that is prevalent in the Old Testament writings, as old as the Genesis narrative itself.[7]  If indeed the word קִיקָי֞וֹן does have something to do with a vine, that image would have been familiar to the people of Israel as a symbol for God’s chosen people.  In any case, the imagery of God using a plant here for protection was not something wholly foreign to the original readers.

Even with familiar imagery though, the purpose of this plant in the story of Jonah is not necessarily revealed.  Familiar as it may be, like the narratives of God calling particular people to do certain tasks at particular times, there is also something that God is working to teach Jonah, and all those that would read this story as well.  We turn our attention now to the reactions of Jonah toward the קִיקָי֞וֹן, and then to God as He addresses Jonah’s lament.

Jonah 4:6 “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.”  After questioning God with a statement that was seemingly self-contradictory in 4:2, Jonah asks the Lord for his life to be taken.  Later, upon the raising of the plant, Johan becomes “exceedingly glad because of the plant.”[8]  Whether this is because of the additional shelter that it brought him or some other reason that is not stated here, we see Jonah’s rather dramatic reactions to things that happen to him.  The next day, when the plant has been killed by the worm, Jonah goes right back to wanting to die.  Calvin points to the swinging of his emotions as a weakness for Jonah who is “led away by his strong emotions.”[9]  For him, these were very little things that happened that caused great emotional shifts.  From this, he goes on to point out a less obvious fact that, when facing certain death like he did in the belly of the whale only two chapters earlier, now Jonah does not turn to God or lift up his heart in prayer.  Instead he simply wants to die.[10]  Matthew Henry, in his commentary on the book calls Jonah selfish for caring only for his own needs, and foolish for thinking his life is “bound up in the life of a weed.”[11]  God’s response to Jonah speaks quite clearly to these points and others as He addresses Jonah in his lament and cry for death.

In stark contrast to God’s address to Job, “gird up your loins like a man…”[12] God approaches Jonah with seemingly gentle questions about the nature and reason for Jonah’s anger.  “Do you do well to be angry?” God asks for a second time in verse nine.[13]  Jonah, it seems, cannot see past his own emotional temper tantrum, and seems to think he is justified in his desire for death.  Yet, calm is the voice of God, pointing out Jonah’s error and correcting him.  Indeed Jonah did nothing to create the plant, and neither was he responsible for its destruction.  Jonah’s concerns are only for himself and what he wanted; pure unadulterated selfishness.  God points out the truth of His providence for Jonah, and the ridiculousness of Jonah’s concern for the plant and lack of concern for the 120,000 or more Ninevites, and all of their livestock.  Calvin deems Jonah’s actions as “very inhuman.”[14]  He goes on to state the connection that God is making here, that Jonah would have willingly and wholeheartedly spared the plant its untimely demise, while he would have God not spare the now repentant people of Nineveh.[15]

I would venture to point out here that what God is advocating for through His ordaining of the plant’s life and death, and through the questioning and reproof of Jonah’s grief, is that of perspective.  Jonah has quite literally just survived a potentially life ending ordeal, facing the punishment for his disobedience.  Only when Jonah falls to his knees in repentance does God appoint the whale to spit him up onto the land.  For Jonah, it had taken something very drastic for his will to be changed.  Yet, as the Word and warning from the Lord is communicated to the people of Nineveh, they immediately repent, throwing off their sinful lifestyle in hopes that God will relent from the destruction and judgment He would bring on them.  Like the parable Jesus told of the forgiveness of debt, [16] Jonah’s debt has been forgiven and yet he is unable to understand the forgiveness of another, or in this case 120,000 others.  He is significantly more concerned with a plant that is “here today and gone tomorrow”[17] than the salvation of an entire people.  God is pointing out here that Jonah’s perspective is flawed, and his motives are, at best, suspect.

Jonah is also unwilling to see, or accept the actuality of God’s providence in these events either.  God is a God of providence, providing a way out for Jonah’s punishment and Nineveh’s impending punishment.  He also provides for Jonah in the way of the plant, which is raised up for the purpose of protecting (and teaching) Jonah.  What Jonah cannot, does not, or refuses to see in this event is that all these things revolve around God and, as God is the God of all nations, God’s mercy, compassion and providence remain steadfast and true for all people, not simply for him or just for the people of Israel either.  The contrast here is startling: the messenger of God bemoaning the forgiveness of a repentant people and the death of a God ordained plant versus an ignorant, sinful people who are quick to repent and receive forgiveness and are spared the wrath of God.  It seems to me that the ones here that listen better are not those who know God, but those who don’t.

There is much to be learned from the Narrative of Jonah, much more than was ever taught to me in Sunday school.  God is always at work in ways that we may not be able to see or understand.  Whether God’s workings are not revealed to us at the time, or we are caught up in our own lives to see what we should be seeing, God is still working towards restoration and reconciliation.  The story of the קִיקָי֞וֹן shows, in many ways, how God provides for those He has called, and also about the perspective of what is important in the grand scheme of things.  Need we be so concerned with the קִיקָי֞וֹן of our own life, something that we like and adore but is gone in a flash, or about the continuing work of God to bring about the redemption and reconciliation of people in the world who don’t know their right hand from their left?[18]  The answer to the final question asked Jonah would seem to apply here, and would seem to be self-evident.


[1] Jonah 4. “Bible Web App.” Accessed January 31, 2013. http://biblewebapp.com/study/#ref=Jonah%204:1|ver=he_wlc,en_nasb

[2] William L. Holladay, ed., A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), 318.

[3] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, Vol 3, Trans. & Ed.by John Owen. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2009), 136.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 137.

[7] Genesis 2-3.  All Biblical Citations taken from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted.

[8] Jonah 4:6.

[9] Calvin, 138.

[10] Ibid., 139.

[11] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Vol. 4 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1991), 1023.

[12] Job 38:3, New Revised Standard Version.

[13] Jonah 4:4, 9.

[14] Calvin, 141.

[15] Ibid., 141-142.

[16] Matthew 18:21-35

[17] Matthew 6:30

[18] Jonah 4:11.