What IS going on in Jonah 4?!
It really isn’t about a bush, a worm and a cutting wind.
It IS about a very famous prophet, the mess that he made of his mental health and the underlying reason that scuppered his psychology.
This amazing rage and despair of the prophet all takes place in the context of Jonah being the prophet who fled the Lord’s commission to
- take a message for the Lord (which prophets were supposed to do)
- to the worst sinners in the known world (which Jonah wasn’t prepared to do) out East in Babylon.
But that’s not the actual foundational reason for his terrible state of mind.
Of course, he’d been a dodgy sort of prophet before, needing to be corrected in what he’d prophesied by the prophet Amos as we’ve seen previously.
We suspect that may have been one of his great big hang-ups because he later says he didn’t want to pursue his commission to preach at Nineveh, one of the leading cities and later on effectively the capital of the Babylonian Empire, because he ‘knew’ God would only go and show mercy to those Ninevites after all.
And Jonah wasn’t up for that.
- a storm at sea,
- a drop into the drink,
- a swallowing by a big fish then
- an unceremonious arrival back on the beach
- recommissioned then
- heading out to the Far East
- to Nineveh and
- preaching the least likely sermon to turn the Ninevites to the Lord that you might ever be likely to imagine.
And to the intense infuriation of Jonah … the Ninevites were granted repentance and turned to God.
As Jonah 4 opens, then, the prophet is in a massive full-on fit of fury, and the interaction he has with the Lord goes like this:
“To Jonah it all seemed very wrong” (v. 1)
So the angry Jonah boils over at God about the Lord’s graciousness (v. 2)
“He prayed to the Lord, “Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish.
I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”
And then Jonah once more evidences his suicidal tendencies (v. 3)
“Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
We’ve heard that before in this book here already.
You see … Jonah has decided he knows better than God, grown bitter and resentful because God hasn’t acted as JONAH would like, flies into a fury with God and ends up in a highly compromised mental state.
That is not a healthy pathway to head down.
Of course, God doesn’t just LEAVE Jonah in that mental state, but immediately challenges where Jonah’s thoughts have taken him.
His thoughts have taken Jonah away from God’s will into forming his own will on the basis of how Jonah feels … his own fickle feelings … rather than what God has said and continues to say.
Jonah has not been willing to recognise that God both IS better and KNOWS better than Jonah, and therefore refuses to align his will with God’s will.
And immediately Jonah 4:3 spells out where that leads in terms of its impact on Jonah’s mental state:
It seems absolutely crucial to note that the Lord does NOT address Jonah’s psychology at this point.
He doesn’t ask Jonah how he feels … no mention of anything of the sort.
He addresses the rights and wrongs of Jonah’s choices.
Jonah says ‘I want to die’: v. 4
“But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
Jonah has NOWHERE to go in answer to that question.
Now, I have to say, I can’t see why God wouldn’t just blot Jonah out at this point for being such a USELESS sort of individual, let alone a properly PATHETIC prophet … except for the outrageous grace that lies in the heart of the Father above.
A grace to which Jonah objects, but a grace that the Lord is about to demonstrate as He ONCE MORE deals ever so graciously with Jonah.
Jonah is just so focused on what Jonah wants and what Jonah feels, and totally unlike the repenting Ninevites Jonah is simply unprepared to realign his own will to God’s will … and following that through renders Jonah totally suicidal.
It really ISN’T very good for His mental health to be deliberately NOT living in the will of God for Jonah!
Now let’s see how God’s graciousness unfolds here as we contrast the will of God and the will of Jonah through Jonah 4:5-11
1. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, vv. 5-8
Remember now, the heading over this section of Jonah 4 is actually found in v. 4.
“But the Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry?”
What’s going to happen is that the Lord is going to walk with Jonah through a real-life situation … an experience Jonah won’t like … to make this one last attempt to get through to the man about the fundamental underlying error he’s making that’s messing up his life
• Bivvy on a barren hill, v. 5
The reason God sent the vine or gourd or plant of whatever sort it was, was to
“ease his discomfort”
That’s a Hebrew word we’ve seen before in v. 1 where Jonah is very ‘displeased, v. 2 where God is complained to by Jonah that He is the sort of God Who relents from bringing disaster and now see again here where God sends the plant to relieve Jonah from his feeling of ‘evil’.
The word is sometimes translated:
רָעָה (ra.ah) 'distress'
Occurs in the Bible ~285 times
1) evil, misery, distress, injury
1a) evil, misery, distress
1b) evil, injury, wrong
1c) evil (ethical)
What gets revealed here is that Jonah is definitely deciding what is good and bad, right and wrong on the basis of how it makes him FEEL, not on the basis that it is what God (Who is in Himself the very ‘stamp’ and definition of what is right and holy) actually says or wants.
And if something ‘evils’ Jonah, Jonah immediately jumps to the conclusion that it is therefore wrong and gets angry at it.
So Jonah is definitely a person who has adopted the position that he is his own moral arbiter … that is that HE (Jonah) will decide what is right and wrong … and that he (Jonah) will make that decision on the basis of how he feels, not on the basis of what God says.
And we can see immediately the state that this gets Jonah into mentally in v. 9 … but let’s not jump the gun!
You see, the Lord has great compassion not just on the awful pagan Ninevites but also on the awful prophet Jonah, so He gives Jonah this little life-illustration of the principles on which He – the Lord – sees fit to act.
Here’s how it goes …
a) The Lord gives, v. 6
“Then the Lord God provided a leafy plant and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort”
Jonah has walked away from the city, out onto a hill to the East.
That word ‘East’ can mean ‘to the East’ or ‘in front of’ …
Because the morning sunrise beat down upon Jonah (v. 8) and the main city gate of Nineveh opened to the east, the term probably means “on the east side” of the city.
But “in front of” the city would also be a possible translation but for the context in this case.
So, in the place Jonah strops off to, he is in an exposed location and in his despair at life he doesn’t seem to be bothered for his own safety or comfort … much as the Ninevites were careless of their safety before God when Jonah first started preaching down there.
He is in a place where he’ll be over-exposed to the morning sun.
He doesn’t care.
He’s despondent … he’s in that sort of state where he hates the way things are for himself and he’s just going to make it worse.
You sometimes see that – very odd – feature of despairing human nature.
My friend, if things are not as you want them to be, don’t let your despondency lead you to make things even worse!
The Lord shows compassion to such a person as that …
He sends a plant.
Interestingly, just as God ‘appointed’ a fish to rescue Jonah from the storm at sea, He now ‘appoints’ (same word) a plant to grow up and rescue Jonah from heat stroke on the hill side.
Jonah has been making his moral and ethical decisions on the basis of how he FEELS … and now the Lord provides
• Comfort to make Jonah feel better
As soon as you set this in the broader context of how Jonah has been thinking … or at least in the broader context of how he has been feeling and deciding on the basis of those feelings … something niggly in the back of the mind says already that something is going to go wrong with this temporary ‘feel-good factor’ (the plant) which God has ‘appointed’!
And sure enough … as if bowling the full toss to set things up for the big hook to the boundary, Jonah’s mood changes as he allows his mood to be dictated by his circumstances.
• Jonah’s mood is again changed radically by his circumstances
“Jonah was very happy about the plant”
THIS is the trouble with Jonah all along!
He’s all emotional response to circumstances not passionate concern to do what is right … he’s all about pleasing HIMSELF … what pleases him … not pleasing God.
No WONDER he’s been such a terrible prophet!
Well, when you start seeing this strange incident in that sort of light, what happens next is far less of a surprise, because in vv. 7-8 the Lord exposes what’s been going on with Jonah.
The Lord gave in v. 6 but (as was His right) He now takes Jonah’s little comfort away.
b) The Lord takes away, vv. 7-8
“But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the plant so that it withered.
8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint.
He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”
The worm is sometimes associated with God’s judgement in the Old Testament.
It is a metaphor that seems to be associated with death which was, of course, the feature of human existence that entered the world on account of sin way back at the Fall.
The wind has also been an instrument of God’s judgement on Jonah before in this book, when the storm hit that ship on the sea heading for Tarshish.
And so Jonah finds himself, once more, suicidal.
Incidentally, we have had to touch on this issue of suicide in Jonah a little bit.
Here’s an issue we definitely need a theology of as well as a psychology of.
We know there are physical and psychological ailments that seem to give rise to it at ground level , for the particular individual.
We need the psychology of suicide ... but we need the theolgy of it too.
Let’s not lose sight of what the Lord reveals about the origins of the desire to kill and of the desire therefore to kill oneself … of which an individual may or may not be conscious at the time … it’s something that the Lord reveals in that famous passage in John 8:44 where speaking to the dodgy religious teachers of his own day the Lord Jesus says:
“You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him …”
But let’s not forget that to say that (whatever the underlying cause might be … in Jonah’s case it is self-centred rebellion against God but other less conscious and deliberate causes clearly exist) …
All that having been said Jonah’s words are in fact a denial of the love, care and sufficiency of God to meet and to sustain His people’s needs.
As I say, in Jonah’s case it is a deliberate response to his circumstances.
All too often, people in this situation are not aware of what they’re doing because their minds are quite simply not thinking straight.
Well, there’s a starting point for a theology – to complement our psychology – of suicide … but working it out a bit more will have to wait for another day.
In Jonah’s case he has made a right minded …. Though wrong … conscious choice and God is about to put it to him plainly, exposing the roots of Jonah’s despair.
2. The Lord challenges the anger of the prophet, v. 9
“But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the plant?”
“It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
The Hebrew word is : חָרָה (cha.rah) 'to be incensed' (H2734)
Occurs in the Bible ~89 times
Given that Jonah is ‘hot tempered’ because he is … hot on the side of that hill east of Nineveh … that’s an interesting choice of words!
Well, the Lord has now identified and recognised … acknowledged … Jonah’s feelings.
But that’s not the issue for the Lord.
The Lord seeks to move the desperate prophet, once more, away from acting on the basis of how he feels to determining his responses and actions instead by what is right.
• ‘Is it RIGHT?’
The use of the term (, “rightly, good”) creates a wordplay with its antonym (, “evil, wrong”), which is used in 4:1 of Jonah’s bad attitude.
“Rightly/thoroughly does it burn to you?” This same question occurs in v. 4 then again in v. 9 concerning the withered plant.
You see .. the prophet is all about what he himself feels inside, and the Lord seeks to raise him out of himself to higher considerations outside himself … to more steady and constant considerations like: ‘is this RIGHT?’!
Now, this is a very important consideration for our own mental well-being.
Jonathan Carswell from the Christian publishing house 10 of Those recently produced a short video talking about his top five Christian books and touching on the importance of getting our eyes up and off ourselves and on to the Lord and he gave a big thumbs up to a book by Andrew Wilson called ‘Incomparable’.
Jonathan’s little video is in this link
What the ‘Incomparable’ book does (and Andrew Wilson is a very bright bloke, by the way but writes in a very easy style) is to go through some of the things that are true about God and what He’s like.
The chapters are really short and it just helps you to do a short chapter a day for this very reason to get our minds up and off our own soul-destroying navel-gazing and onto the Lord and that helps … you might be surprised by this … because He is wonderful!
Everything we look at and fill our thoughts with both in ourselves and in our fallen world is broken and damaged.
But God isn’t.
And so setting our minds deliberately on Him and on the things that are above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God if only for a short time each day can really help your outlook and your perspective.
For this reason, no doubt, Paul writes to the believers in Colossae:
“Set your minds on things above,
not on earthly things”
But the question for us and for Jonah is this:
do you have ears to hear this?
You see … terribly sadly … Jonah DID NOT.
Jonah stayed dominated by his self-regarding concern for his inner feelings.
• ‘I feel like this so it IS right’
Is it RIGHT for you to feel this, asked God, while Jonah was still only concerned about how he FELT.
““It is,” he said. “And I’m so angry I wish I were dead.”
his OWN will and
his OWN feelings
rather than fixed on God,
God’s will and (yes)
GOD’s feelings …
And look where that had got Jonah.
The Lord therefore turns now to put things as they ARE directly and confrontationally to the waxy-eared prophet.
3. God exposes the error of the prophet, vv. 10-11
But the Lord said,
“You have been concerned about this plant, though
you did not tend it or
make it grow.
It sprang up overnight and died overnight.
And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
Jonah is concerned about JONAH!
Jonah’s emotions are regulated by the comfort of Jonah.
He hasn’t raised his mind above the narrow concerns of Jonah … who is thoroughly exceeding himself here.
And it’s that exceeding himself that God finally exposes in Jonah.
Jonah’s own little mind has confined itself to the world that is Jonah, and has excluded consideration of the world that lies beyond the confines of what turns out to be the prison of Jonah’s mind!
Let’s draw our conclusion on this concluding section and on the book as a whole.
I remember as a child going from time to time with my parents in the car to pick up perhaps bereaved or recuperating elderly relatives to take them for what was known as ‘a spin in the car’ … a recreational drive for a change of scene.
These people had, perhaps, spent a long week at home with the cares of this world on their possibly lonely backs and the idea was to get them out of the confines of their home to ‘go for a spin in the car’.
The rationale offered was that this would ‘take them out of themselves’.
I don’t know if that’s an expression that’s familiar to you, but it was certainly a feature of the consciousness of the South Wales Valleys when I was growing up.
People under stress or some sort of isolation or psychological pressure were deemed to need ‘taking out of themselves’ to preserve their mental well-being and brightness of soul.
But WHERE will you take them to get out of themselves?
God took Jonah out of himself to the consideration of the Lord’s own nature, and to a fundamental part of that nature: His kindness, His care, His mercy and His grace … and His determination to show that to the most undeserving and worthless of His creatures:
“should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”
Do you see?
It is for the very ones who do not know right from left (that’s an expression that refers in Scripture to the morally and spiritually ill-informed on whom the Lord has particular compassion) and also for the livestock (who, incidentally, in spite of their lack of any great spiritual awareness, nonetheless) joined in the mourning of Nineveh for sin in sackcloth and also fasted) …
It is for those who are MOST way out by Jonah’s definition and for the very least hopeful of creatures that the Lord has great compassion.
So, Jonah lift your gaze up from your own navel and focus your mind on the heart of your God.
Seek to align your heart with His … and not the self-generated darkness of your own heart.
Pour out your anger into the loving eyes of the immensely compassionate God and DROWN that misplaced anger there in the lake of His love.
My friends we need to think MORE about God, dwell on His character, bathe in His presence and His personality, live in the love of our God.
Because if our personality, our thinking and inner speech is all about our own fallen inner feelings, and all about the circumstances of our fallen world, and this temporary environment
… then THOSE are what will be reflected in our own souls … and we will live desperately as part of and not distinct from the brokenness around us.
What actions can we put in place in our lives this week, day by day, to prevent descending like Jonah into the storm of this world, and into the depths of the despondency that living like this will bring?
I can help you get hold of Andrew Wilson’s little book ‘Incomparable’, as a paperback or an ebook – whichever works best for you.
Let me know by email or using the contact form below and I’ll do my very best to get one to you … and mebbe together with others we can benefit from thinking through one of his short chapters each day.
That could be a very good start.