Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
Jonah, provoked at the sparing of Nineveh, prayed in his displeasure to Jehovah to take his soul from him, as his proclamation had not been fulfilled (Jon 4:1-3). ויּרע אל י, it was evil for Jonah, i.e., it vexed, irritated him, not merely it displeased him, for which ירע בּעיניו is generally used. The construction with אל resembles that with ל in Neh 2:10; Neh 13:8. רעה גדולה, "a great evil," serves simply to strengthen the idea of ירע. The great vexation grew even to anger (יחר לו; cf. Gen 30:2, etc.). The fact that the predicted destruction of Nineveh had not taken place excited his discontent and wrath. And he tried to quarrel with God, by praying to Jehovah.
(Note: Calvin observes upon this: "He prayed in a tumult, as if reproving God. We must necessarily recognise a certain amount of piety in this prayer of Jonah, and at the same time many faults. There was so far piety in it, that he directed his complaints to God. For hypocrites, even when they address God, are nevertheless hostile to Him. But Jonah, when he complains, although he does not keep within proper bounds, but is carried away by a blind and vicious impulse, is nevertheless prepared to submit himself to God, as we shall presently see. This is the reason why he is said to have prayed.")
"Alas (אנּא as in Jon 1:14), Jehovah, was not this my word (i.e., did I not say so to myself) when I was still in my land (in Palestine)?" What his word or his thought then was, he does not say; but it is evident from what follows: viz., that Jehovah would not destroy Nineveh, if its inhabitants repented. ‛Al-kēn, therefore, sc. because this was my saying. קדּמתּי, προέφθασα, I prevented to flee to Tarshish, i.e., I endeavoured, by a flight to Tarshish, to prevent, sc. what has now taken place, namely, that Thou dost not fulfil Thy word concerning Nineveh, because I know that thou art a God gracious and merciful, etc. (compare Exo 34:6 and Exo 32:14, as in Joe 2:13). The prayer which follows, "Take my life from me," calls to mind the similar prayer of Elijah in Kg1 19:4; but the motive assigned is a different one. Whilst Elijah adds, "for I am not better than my fathers," Jonah adds, "for death is better to me than life." This difference must be distinctly noticed, as it brings out the difference in the state of mind of the two prophets. In the inward conflict that had come upon Elijah he wished for death, because he did not see the expected result of his zeal for the Lord of Sabaoth; in other words, it was from spiritual despair, caused by the apparent failure of his labours. Jonah, on the other hand, did not wish to live any longer, because God had not carried out His threat against Nineveh. His weariness of life arose, not like Elijah's from stormy zeal for the honour of God and His kingdom, but from vexation at the non-fulfilment of his prophecy. This vexation was not occasioned, however, by offended dignity, or by anxiety or fear lest men should regard him as a liar or babbler (ψευδοεπής τε καὶ βωμολόχος, Cyr. Al.; ψεύστης, Theodoret; vanus et mendax, Calvin and others); nor was he angry, as Calvin supposes, because he associated his office with the honour of God, and was unwilling that the name of God should be exposed to the scoffing of the heathen, quasi de nihilo terreret, or "because he saw that it would furnish material for impious blasphemies if God changed His purpose, or if He did not abide by His word;" but, as Luther observes (in his remarks on Jonah's flight), "he was hostile to the city of Nineveh, and still held a Jewish and carnal view of God" (for the further development of this view, see the remarks above, at p. 265). That this was really Jonah's view, is proved by Luther from the fact that God reproves his displeasure and anger in these words, "Should I not spare Nineveh?" etc. (Jon 4:11). "He hereby implies that Jonah was displeased at the fact that God had spared the city, and was angry because He had not destroyed it as he had preached, and would gladly have seen." Offended vanity or unintelligent zeal for the honour of God would have been reproved by God in different terms from those in which Jonah was actually reproved, according to the next verse (Jon 4:4), where Jehovah asks the prophet, "Is thine anger justly kindled?" היטב is adverbial, as in Deu 9:21; Deu 13:15, etc., bene, probe, recte, δικαίως (Symm.).
Then Jonah went out of Nineveh, sat down on the east of the city, where Nineveh was bounded by the mountains, from which he could overlook the city, made himself a hut there, and sat under it in the shade, till he saw what would become of the city, i.e., what fate would befal it (Jon 4:5). This verse is regarded by many commentators as a supplementary remark, ויּצא, with the verbs which follow, being rendered in the pluperfect: "Jonah had gone out of the city," etc. We grant that this is grammatically admissible, but it cannot be shown to be necessary, and is indeed highly improbable. If, for instance, Jonah went out of Nineveh before the expiration of the forty days, to wait for the fulfilment of his prophecy, in a hut to the east of the city, he could not have been angry at its non-fulfilment before the time arrived, nor could God have reproved him for his anger before that time. The divine correction of the dissatisfied prophet, which is related in Jon 4:6-11, cannot have taken place till the forty days had expired. But this correction is so closely connected with Jonah's departure from the city and settlement to the east of it, to wait for the final decision as to its fate (Jon 4:5), that we cannot possibly separate it, so as to take the verbs in Jon 4:5 as pluperfects, or those in Jon 4:6-11 as historical imperfects. There is no valid ground for so forced an assumption as this. As the expression ויּרע אל יונה in Jon 4:1, which is appended to ולא עשׁה in Jon 3:10, shows that Jonah did not become irritated and angry till after God had failed to carry out His threat concerning Nineveh, and that it was then that he poured out his discontent in a reproachful prayer to God (Jon 4:2), there is nothing whatever to force us to the assumption that Jonah had left Nineveh before the fortieth day.
(Note: There is no hold in the narrative for Marck's conjecture, that God had already communicated to him His resolution not to destroy Nineveh, because of the repentance of the people, and that this was the reason for his anger.)
Jonah had no reason to be afraid of perishing with the city. If he had faith, which we cannot deny, he could rely upon it that God would not order him, His own servant, to perish with the ungodly, but when the proper time arrived, would direct him to leave the city. But when forty days elapsed, and nothing occurred to indicate the immediate or speedy fall of the city, and he was reproved by God for his anger on that account in these words, "Art thou rightly or justly angry?" the answer from God determined him to leave the city and wait outside, in front of it, to see what fate would befal it. For since this answer still left it open, as a possible thing, that the judgment might burst upon the city, Jonah interpreted it in harmony with his own inclination, as signifying that the judgment was only postponed, not removed, and therefore resolved to wait in a hut outside the city, and watch for the issue of the whole affair.
(Note: Theod. Mops. correctly observes, that "when he reflected upon the greatness of the threat, he imagined that something might possibly occur after all." And Calvin better still, that "although forty days had passed, Jonah stood as if fastened to the spot, because he could not yet believe that what he had proclaimed according to the command of God would fail to be effected .... This was the cause, therefore, of his still remaining, viz., because he thought, that although the punishment from God had been suspended, yet his preaching had surely not been in vain, but the destruction of the city would take place. This was the reason for his waiting on after the time fixed, as though the result were still doubtful.")
But his hope was disappointed, and his remaining there became, quite contrary to his intention, an occasion for completing his correction.
Jehovah-God appointed a Qiqayon, which grew up over Jonah, to give him shade over his head, "to deliver him from his evil." The Qiqayon, which Luther renders gourd (Krbiss) after the lxx, but describes in his commentary on the book of Jonah as the vitis alba, is, according to Jerome, the shrub called Elkeroa in Syriac, a very common shrub in Palestine, which grows in sandy places, having broad leaves that throw a pleasant shadow, and which shoots up to a considerable height in a very few days.
(Note: Jerome describes it thus: "A kind of bush or shrub, having broad leaves like vine leaves, casting a very dense shadow, and sustaining itself by its trunk, which grows very abundantly in Palestine, and chiefly in sandy places. If placed in sowing land, being quickly nourished, it grows up into a tree, and in a very few days what you saw as nothing but a herb you now look upon as a small tree.")
The Elkeroa, however, which Niebuhr also saw at Basra (Beschrieb. v. Arab. p. 148) and describes in a similar manner, is the ricinus or palma Christi, the miraculous tree; and, according to Kimchi and the Talmudists, it was the Kik or Kiki of the Egyptians, from which an oil was obtained according to Herodotus (ii. 94) and Pliny (Hits. n. xv. 7), as was the case according to Niebuhr with the Elkeroa. Its rapid growth is also mentioned by Pliny, who calls it ricinus (see Ges. thes. p. 1214). God caused this shrub to grow up with miraculous rapidity, to such a height that it cast a shade upon Jonah's head, to procure him deliverance (להצּיל לו) "from his evil," i.e., not from the burning heat of the sun (ab aestu solis), from which he suffered in the hut which he had run up so hastily with twigs, but from his displeasure or vexation, the evil from which he suffered according to Jon 4:3 (Rosenmller, Hitzig). The variation in the names of the Deity in Jon 4:6-9 is worthy of notice. The creation of the miraculous tree to give shade to Jonah is ascribed to Jehovah-Elohim in Jon 4:6. This composite name, which occurs very rarely except in Genesis 2 and 3 (see comm. on Gen 2:4), is chosen here to help the transition from Jehovah in Jon 4:4 to Elohim in Jon 4:7, Jon 4:8. Jehovah, who replies to the prophet concerning his discontented complaint (Jon 4:4) as Elohim, i.e., as the divine creative power, causes the miraculous tree to spring up, to heal Jonah of his chagrin. And to the same end h-Elohim, i.e., the personal God, prepares the worm which punctures the miraculous tree and causes it to wither away (Jon 4:7); and this is also helped by the east wind appointed by Elohim, i.e., the Deity ruling over nature (Jon 4:8), to bring about the correction of the prophet, who was murmuring against God. Hence the different names of God are employed with thoughtful deliberation. Jonah rejoiced exceedingly at the miraculous growth of the shrub which provided for him, because he probably saw therein a sign of the goodness of God and of the divine approval of his intention to wait for the destruction of Nineveh. But this joy was not to last long.
On the rising of the dawn of the very next day, God appointed a worm, which punctured the miraculous tree so that it withered away; and when the sun arose He also appointed a sultry east wind, and the sun smote upon Jonah's head, so that he fainted away. Chărı̄shıth, from chârash, to be silent or quiet, is to be taken when used of the wind in the sense of sultry, as in the Chaldee (lxx συγκαίων). The meaning ventus, qualis flat tempore arandi, derived from chârish, the ploughing (Abulw.), or autumnal east wind (Hitzig), is far less suitable. When Jonah fainted away in consequence of the sun-stroke (for hith‛allēph, see at Amo 8:13), he wished himself dead, since death was better for him than life (see Jon 4:3). ישׁאל את־נפשׁו למוּת, as in Kg1 19:4, "he wished that his soul might die," a kind of accusative with the infinitive (cf. Ewald, 336, b). But God answered, as in Jon 4:4, by asking whether he was justly angry. Instead of Jehovah (Jon 4:4) we have Elohim mentioned here, and Jehovah is not introduced as speaking till Jon 4:9. We have here an intimation, that just as Jonah's wish to die was simply an expression of the feelings of his mind, so the admonitory word of God was simply a divine voice within him setting itself against his murmuring. It was not till he had persisted in his ill-will, even after this divine admonition within, that Jehovah pointed out to him how wrong his murmuring was. Jehovah's speaking in Jon 4:9 is a manifestation of the divine will by supernatural inspiration. Jehovah directs Jonah's attention to the contradiction into which he has fallen, by feeling compassion for the withering of the miraculous tree, and at the same time murmuring because God has had compassion upon Nineveh with its many thousands of living beings, and has spared the city for the sake of these souls, many of whom have no idea whatever of right or wrong. Chastâ: "Thou hast pitied the Qiqayon, at which thou hast not laboured, and which thou hast not caused to grow; for (שׁבּן = אשׁר בּן) son of a night" - i.e., in a night, or over night - "has it grown, and over night perished, and I should not pity Nineveh?" ואני is a question; but this is only indicated by the tone. If Jonah feels pity for the withering of a small shrub, which he neither planted nor tended, nor caused to grow, shall God not have pity with much greater right upon the creatures whom He has created and has hitherto sustained, and spare the great city Nineveh, in which more than 120,000 are living, who cannot distinguish their right hand from the left, and also much cattle? Not to be able to distinguish between the right hand and the left is a sign of mental infancy. This is not to be restricted, however, to the very earliest years, say the first three, but must be extended to the age of seven years, in which children first learn to distinguish with certainty between right and left, since, according to M. v. Niebuhr (p. 278), "the end of the seventh year is a very common division of age (it is met with, for example, even among the Persians), and we may regard it as certain that it would be adopted by the Hebrews, on account of the importance they attached to the number seven." A hundred and twenty thousand children under seven years of age would give a population of six hundred thousand, since, according to Niebuhr, the number of children of the age mentioned is one-fifth the whole population, and there is no ground for assuming that the proportion in the East would be essentially different. This population is quite in accordance with the size of the city.
(Note: "Nineveh, in the broader sense," says M. v. Niebuhr, "covers an area of about 400 English square miles. Hence there were about 40,000 persons to the square mile. Jones (in a paper on Nineveh) estimates the population of the chief city, according to the area, at 174,000 souls. So that we may reckon the population of the four larger walled cities at 350,000. There remain, therefore, for the smaller places and the level ground, 300,000 men on about sixteen square miles; that is to say, nearly 20,000 men upon the square mile." He then shows, from the agricultural conditions in the district of Elberfeld and the province of Naples, how thoroughly this population suits such a district. In the district of Elberfeld there are, in round numbers, 22,000 persons to the square mile, or, apart from the two large towns, 10,000. And if we take into account the difference in fertility, this is about the same density of population as that of Nineveh. The province of Naples bears a very great resemblance to Nineveh, not only in the kind of cultivation, but also in the fertility of the soil. And there, in round numbers, 46,000 are found to the square mile, or, exclusive of the capital, 22,000 souls.)
Children who cannot distinguish between right and left, cannot distinguish good from evil, and are not yet accountable. The allusion to the multitude of unaccountable children contains a fresh reason for sparing the city: God would have been obliged to destroy so many thousand innocent ones along with the guilty. Besides this, there was "much cattle" in the city. "Oxen were certainly superior to shrubs. If Jonah was right in grieving over one withered shrub, it would surely be a harder and more cruel thing for so many innocent animals to perish" (Calvin). "What could Jonah say to this? He was obliged to keep silence, defeated, as it were, by his own sentence" (Luther). The history, therefore, breaks off with these words of God, to which Jonah could make no reply, because the object of the book was now attained, - namely, to give the Israelites an insight into the true nature of the compassion of the Lord, which embracers all nations with equal love. Let us, however, give heed to the sign of the prophet Jonah, and hold fast to the confession of Him who could say of Himself, "Behold, a greater than Jonah is here!"