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The people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah. Judgment upon the city was averted, and the prophet was angry with God for saving His enemies.
His anger stemmed from his pride that was pricked, because he had put his reputation on the line. He had openly predicted the fall of Nineveh in forty days—a message in which he, as an Israelite nationalist, took some delight—and then his prophecy seemed to fail. No doubt this embarrassed Jonah, for to those who did not understand the ways of God, it made him appear to be a false prophet.
Prophecies are usually conditional, even if Scripture does not use the word if. Prophecies of judgment can be averted if the people repent, unless the situation has gone too far for judgment to be averted.
For example, when King Jeroboam set up the golden calves shortly after the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12:28-30), we read in 1 Kings 13:34,
34 And this event became a sin to the house of Jeroboam, even to blot it out and destroy it from off the face of the earth.
Again, we read in 1 Kings 14:15,
15 for the Lord will strike Israel, as a reed is shaken in the water; and He will uproot Israel from this good land which He gave to their fathers, and will scatter them beyond the Euphrates River, because they have made their Asherim, provoking the Lord to anger. 16 And He will give up Israel on account of the sins of Jeroboam, which he committed and with which he made Israel to sin.
Yet even after 200 years, the prophet Isaiah understood that Israel could still avert disaster if they would repent. Isaiah 1:18-20 says,
18 “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool. 19 If you consent and obey, you will eat the best of the land; 20 but if you refuse and rebel, you will be devoured by the sword.” Truly, the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Israel still had opportunity to repent and avert the prophesied disaster. But Israel refused to obey the law of God, and so a short time later, the nation was destroyed by the Assyrians from Nineveh.
A century later, when the time came for divine judgment to hit the city of Jerusalem and the nation of Judah, the prophet says in Jer. 7:3, 5, and 7,
3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Amend your ways and your deeds, and I will let you dwell in this place… 5 For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly practice justice between a man and his neighbor… 7 then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.”
There was still time to repent and avert disaster. Nonetheless, soon afterward, God told the prophet to stop praying for Jerusalem and the people of Judah, because He would not answer such a prayer. The verdict had been rendered in the divine court. Jer. 7:14-16 says,
14 Therefore, I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. 15 And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brothers, all the offspring of Ephraim. 16 As for you, do not pray for this people, and do not lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me; for I do not hear you.
It appears that when the verdict was rendered in the divine court, the nation reached a point of no return. But even so, it is still possible to pray for lesser things within the context of the overall judgment. Jeremiah could not pray to spare the city and its temple, but he could pray that fewer people would die in the siege. Furthermore, we see from Jer. 27:12, 13 that if the people had submitted to the verdict, they could have been given a wooden yoke, rather than an iron yoke.
12 And I spoke words like all these to Zedekiah king of Judah, saying, “Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him and his people, and live! 13 Why will you die, you and your people, by the sword, famine, and pestilence, as the Lord has spoken to that nation which will not serve the king of Babylon?
In the next chapter, Jeremiah was called to walk around the city with a wooden yoke on his neck to send his message to the people. But the prophet Hananiah took it and broke it, prophesying that the power of Babylon would be broken within two years. So Jer. 28:13 gives a further verdict:
13 Go and speak to Hananiah, saying, “Thus says the Lord, ‘You have broken the yokes of wood, but you have made instead of them yokes of iron’.”
Throughout all of this, we see the mercy of God, for even after judgment is pronounced, it is possible to lessen its effects. We only have to know what verdicts God has already decreed, so that we do not try to reverse His just verdicts, as so many (in their ignorance) attempt to do.
When the twelve spies gave their report about the land of Canaan, ten of them gave an evil report. The people believed the evil report, and so God’s verdict was rendered in Num. 14:33-35. Israel was sentenced to remain in the wilderness for a full forty years. Some of the people then appeared to repent. Num. 14:40, 41 says,
40 In the morning, however, they rose up early and went to the ridge of the hill country, saying, “Here we are; we have indeed sinned, but we will go up to the place which the Lord has promised.” 41 But Moses said, “Why then are you transgressing the commandment of the Lord, when it will not succeed?
The verdict has already been rendered. Their only option was to repent by submitting to His verdict. But in this case, they tried to use repentance as an excuse to overturn the verdict. It did not work, because the Amalekites “struck them and beat them down as far as Hormah” (Num. 14:45).
When Israel demanded a king, God gave them Saul. Often God gives us our desires in order to show us that our desires are not good for us. God judged Israel by giving them their request. Once the verdict was rendered, the people were stuck with him for the next forty years. It was the same length of time that had been given to the Israelites in the wilderness. Once Saul was crowned, the people lost the right to revolt against him. Instead, they were required to submit to Saul, even though he ruled in an ungodly manner.
Jonah 4:1, 2 says,
1 But it greatly displeased Jonah, and he became angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “Please, Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore, in order to forestall this, I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that Thou art a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.”
This is the first time we are told about Jonah’s real motive in trying to run from God. We learn that he took a ship toward Tarshish, not because he was afraid of the king of Nineveh, but because he was afraid that God might cancel judgment if the Ninevites repented. Jonah knew God better than most of the people. In a time when the people thought God was a rather harsh tyrant, the prophet knew Him to be “gracious and compassionate.”
Would that people today would have the same revelation of God’s grace and compassion! But herein lies the problem. Generally, people want God to be loving with them, but harsh toward their enemies. The double standard seems good to them, because we tend to judge others by their actions and ourselves by our intentions.
People want a harsh God so that He judges their enemies harshly. But they have no understanding, because if this were truly the nature of God, then He would also be harsh with them. But God is impartial in His judgments and in His grace. Because “God is love” (1 John 4:8), He is impartial in His love toward all. For this reason, He insists that we love our neighbor as ourselves (Lev. 19:18), and that we love foreigners as ourselves as well (Lev. 19:34).
Jonah’s problem was not that he misunderstood the love of God, but that he did not share the same love for Nineveh that God had. Jonah’s love was partial; God’s was impartial. In fact, Jonah was so upset about God’s grace that he wanted to die. Jonah 4:3 says,
3 Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.”
Abraham was called to be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). People today are fond of quoting the first part of the verse, while forgetting the last half.
3 And I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
Peter, the Jewish nationalist, referred to the second part of this verse in Acts 3:25, 26, saying on the day of Pentecost,
25 It is you who are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, “And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” 26 For you first, God raised up His Servant, and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.
The calling of Abraham, which Jesus came to fulfill, was to bless all families of the earth. He blessed Judah FIRST, but not exclusively. Peter then defined what it means to be a blessing. To bless means to turn people from their wicked ways. Hence, God blessed Nineveh.
If Jonah had understood the calling of Abraham, he would have rejoiced at the opportunity to be a blessing to the people of Nineveh. I often wonder what would have happened if Jonah had desired to fulfill the calling of Abraham.
If he had stayed in Nineveh, he might have done more than cause the people to repent. He might have taught them the ways of God. He might have discipled them. He might have remained as the king’s counselor and spiritual advisor. He might have turned Assyria into Israel’s friend!
But this is more than a story of narrow nationalism vs. God’s interest in all nations. It is a prophecy of universal reconciliation, the conversion of God’s enemies. It is also the story of believers who disagree with God’s plan to save all mankind. So Jonah 4:4 says,
4 And the Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”
To put it another way, God asks Jonah, “Is your anger justifiable?” God was really questioning Jonah’s wisdom and love. In other words, if Jonah disagreed with God, who was right and who was wrong? It appears that Jonah did not answer God’s question. Jonah 4:5 says,
5 Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter [sukkah, “booth”] for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city.
Prophetically speaking, the prophet kept Sukkoth, the feast of booths, or Tabernacles. God then assisted him in this by appointing a plant to shade him from the sun. Jonah 4:6 says,
6 So the Lord God appointed a plant [kekayon, “gourd”], and it grew up over Jonah to be a shade over his head to deliver him from his discomfort. And Jonah was extremely happy about the plant.
This was no ordinary plant. The kekayon is the castor-oil plant. It is named from the root word kaya, “to vomit.” I was given castor oil as a child to combat worms and parasites in the Philippines. I do not think I ever took it without vomiting. Hence, Stephen Jonas understands.
But why would God give such a plant to shade Jonah in his Sukkah? I believe that it was God’s medicine to combat the spiritual worms in his belly (innermost being, or heart). All was not well in Jonah’s heart, though he was a prophet and heard from God. To be angry at God for His mercy and grace is not a healthy condition.
This problem is emphasized further in Jonah 4:7,
7 But God appointed a worm [towla] when dawn came the next day, and it attacked the plant and it withered.
Why would God bless Jonah with a shade plant and then appoint a worm to destroy it? Was it not to reveal Jonah’s unhealthy spiritual condition, as well as the solution to the problem?
According to Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon, towla is a worm, “specially one which springs from putrefaction.” The root word is yala, “to utter anything rashly.” Obviously, Jonah was being warned not to be rash in his answer to God’s question. At this point, Jonah had said nothing, but God already heard the putrid words of his heart. A worm was also metaphorical for a despised or weak man.
The same Lexicon also tells us that tola means “scarlet.” It is translated “crimson” in Isaiah 1:18, “Though they are red like crimson [towla], they will be like wool.”
So this was no ordinary worm. The Hebrew text calls it a towla, which is a worm from which crimson dye was extracted in ancient times. According to Henry Morris' book, Biblical Basis For Modern Science, page 73,
“When the female of the scarlet worm species was ready to give birth to her young, she would attach her body to the trunk of a tree, fixing herself so firmly and permanently that she would never leave again. The eggs deposited beneath her body were thus protected until the larvae were hatched and able to enter their own life cycle. As the mother died, the crimson fluid stained her body and the surrounding wood. From the dead bodies of such female scarlet worms, the commercial scarlet dyes of antiquity were extracted.
“This tells us that the worm in the story of Jonah stained the booth with crimson as it gave its life to bring forth offspring. Is this not a perfect picture of Christ, who gave His life to bring many sons into glory? Psalm 22:6 prophesies of Jesus Christ in His death on the cross, saying, "I am a worm [Heb. towla], and not a man, a reproach of men, and despised by the people." When Jesus died, His blood stained the cross, even as the crimson from the worm stained the trunk of the gourd in Jonah's day.”
Hence, God sent the vomit plant to show how Jonah was comfortable with his own vomit. Then He sent the crimson worm to show how the Messiah was sent to die in order to heal his unhealthy condition. Unfortunately, Jonah’s sukkah was destroyed in the process, because his disagreement with God made him ineligible to keep the feast of Sukkoth (“Tabernacles”). The prophet still needed the lesson of Passover, for he was not yet an overcomer.
This suggests that those who disagree with God’s plan to save His enemies are not yet eligible to keep the feast of Tabernacles.
Jonah 4:8 says,
8 And it came about when the sun came up that God appointed a scorching east wind, and the sun beat down on Jonah’s head so that he became faint and begged with all his soul to die, saying, “Death is better to me than life.”
An east wind signifies judgment from the east—perhaps from Nineveh itself, which was “east.” It appears that Jonah was a type of Israel being judged for its bad attitude and for disagreeing with the divine plan to reconcile His enemies.
Even so, this scorching east wind, with the sun beating down on his head, did not make Jonah repent. God then asked about his anger over the plant in Jonah 4:9,
9 Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry even to death.”
These are the last words of Jonah in the biblical account. It ends with no solution, suggesting that Israel, whom Jonah represented, would remain angry with God. It implies that Israel would have to be judged by the “east wind,” that is, by Nineveh. He even prophesied that he would be “angry even to death.” So Israel as a nation was to die, and the people were to be scattered throughout the nations.
Jonah 4:10, 11 concludes,
10 Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work, and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. 11 And should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
Verse 6 says that “Jonah was extremely happy about the plant,” but not about the grace and mercy of God. We can view this in at least two ways. First, he was happy about the plant which formed his sukkah (i.e., the feast of Sukkoth). He had a desire to receive the glorified body through the feast of Tabernacles, but unfortunately, he was also happy wallowing in his own vomit.
He was selfish, in that he was more interested in his own comfort than in the welfare of Nineveh. He loved Israel, but not Assyria. This disqualified him and destroyed his dreams of fulfilling Tabernacles. He still needed to go back to Passover so that he could learn the real scope of the work that Jesus was yet to do on the cross for the sin of the world (1 John 2:2).
It is self-evident that we cannot be angry with God and still be in agreement with Him. Tabernacles is about agreement, and it is for an Amen people, not for those whose hearts are bitter.
In the final verse, we discover that Nineveh had a population of 120,000. The number 120, as used in the Bible, is always associated with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The height of Solomon’s temple porch was 120 cubits (2 Chron. 3:4). There are 120 trumpeters and singers who came into one accord when the Holy Spirit came into Solomon’s temple (2 Chron. 5:12). There were 120 disciples in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out upon the church (Acts 1:15).
In long-term prophecy, we have seen 120 Jubilees since Adam, and we are now in the 121st Jubilee cycle (1986/87 to 2035/36). I believe that the great end-time outpouring of the Spirit will occur during this Jubilee cycle.
Moses’ life was an outline of history leading to our time today. He died at the age of 120 (Deut. 34:7), having spent his first 40 years in Egypt. Then he was called out of Egypt and spent the second 40-year cycle training for divine service in the wilderness. Finally, he was called to deliver Israel from the house of bondage, and his last 40 years were spent leading Israel to the Promised Land.
So also the first 40 Jubilees of history brings us to Abraham, the second brings us to Christ, who led us out of the house of bondage. In the third cycle, Christ has led the church through its own wilderness in order to bring us to the Promised Land at the present time.
Jonah is the prophet of restoration. His life and prophecy shows the condition of Israel, the church, and the world at large. The story of Jonah is the outworking of the law of the two doves (Lev. 14) and the two goats (Lev. 16), revealing the two works of Christ. Most important, Jonah reveals how God is determined to save the world in spite of the reluctance and disagreement within the church. He is sovereign!