The story could have ended with chapter 3, eh? That would be a happily ever after story, and we would never have heard about it. There’s a principle in cinematography, called ‘the reaction shot’, recognizing that human reaction conveys meaning more than an event to which humans react. Perhaps that’s why we say scripture is ‘just’ a record of human experience of the divine.
Jonah pouts because God relents. The prophet claims that this was his true motive for fleeing the first call – that he knew God would relent, and leave him embarrassed. It’s a childish argument, summed up in preferring death to life.
Jonah heads east of Nineveh (as Adam headed east of Eden?) to watch for what would happen to the city. He might accept God’s relenting mercy, but he expects his assessment of human nature and destiny to prevail, the people to mess up again – and no doubt to his chance to tell God ‘told ya so’.
Perhaps anyone reading or repeating a prophecy of warning or challenge needs this reminder that God does not only seek to punish, and that the nature of the divine balances justice with love, and love with justice, in ways beyond our ken.
Just as God send a fish, then had it spit Jonah up on land, so God now sends a shade plant, then a worm to end it. God’s providence operates through mundane, and not necessarily miraculous agencies. The cycle of growth and death of the plant provokes Jonah’s imprudent complaint, and divine rejoinder.
It’s a fragmentary bit at the end, inviting embellishment in the retelling. We have little sense of proportion, and could do with reminders. If Nineveh has 120,000 children too young to know right hand from left – it’s a great city. What’s God up to, creating and sustaining such a complex creation? God knows.
Jonah 4 (NRSV)
1 But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.
2He prayed to the LORD and said, ‘O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.
3And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’
4And the LORD said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’
5Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.
6 The LORD God appointed a bush,* and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush.
7But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered.
8When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’
9 But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘ Yes, angry enough to die.’
10Then the LORD said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night.
11And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’