By Dr. Ron Galloway
This experience between God and Jonah under the vine is one of the things in Scripture that many years ago deeply increased my love for God. When the Old Testament God of “popular misconception” should be sending a lightning bolt at Jonah, we come face to face with a God of love who approaches Jonah with an appeal to his reason and his heart. In an era when people like Richard Dawkins seek to portray God as a tyrannical moral monster, it seemed appropriate to share this wonderful passage and its implications for Jesus Christ, who is fully God and fully Man, and the New Testament.
But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. He prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee 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. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” But the Lord replied, “Have you any right to be angry?” Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. Then the Lord God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 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.”
But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.” But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city? (Jonah 4:1-11)
Before the above conversation between Jonah the prophet and God, Jonah had tried to flee from his responsibility to preach judgment over the people of Nineveh. After a soul-wrenching experience with a whale, he fulfilled his responsibility (Jonah 2:3). Much to his disappointment, the people of Nineveh took his message to heart and turned their lives around for God. In a word, they repented. As can be seen in Jonah’s remarks, he is not pleased at all. Jonah obviously knows God quite well. He knows of His love, compassion and mercy, and these are the very things that worry him. As far as he is concerned, Nineveh is so evil that it is a totally lost cause, and he wants its occupants to pay.
In his own life, Jonah is likely very devoted, God-fearing, loving, and compassionate to people who obey God. You might say Jonah is indulging in a generous portion of righteous anger. Therefore, the last thing he wants is to tell that nation that it is going to perish, and then have egg on his face because it repents and therefore does not perish at all.
“That’s exactly what I thought word happen,” Jonah protests. In light of the fact that Jonah asks God to take his life and then goes off and sulks under a tree, we can safely conclude that this is a major blow to his ego. If anyone really deserved a lightning bolt, it was Jonah, since he preferred his own hurt ego to the life of a hundred and twenty thousand people.
Jonah sulks away. Apparently he had imagined that his words to God—along with his sulking—had a phenomenal impact, because we soon find him with a front-seat view of Nineveh. He appears to be waiting for God to change His mind and totally pulverize the city.
It is obvious that even though Jonah is all in favor of the annihilation of Nineveh, he is very fond of the vine God causes to grow over him. Jonah has a case of “vine” love, not divine love. Jonah had probably thought God was using the vine as a way of apologizing to him, and that any moment Jonah could expect to see fire and brimstone come down on that city. Instead, God causes the vine to wither and die.
Then God speaks to Jonah words almost identical to those He said to Cain before he murdered Abel his brother: “Do you have a right to be angry about this vine, Jonah?” “Are you being at all reasonable?”” Here one is also reminded of the words Jesus the God-Man spoke when He said, “If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you?” (Matthew 6:30). God’s point to Jonah is that He has spent so many years loving and caring for Nineveh. He has pleaded for them to face their own hearts, and even before they repented, He continued to send them rain and sunshine despite the evils they were doing to themselves and others. Therefore, in effect, He says to Jonah: “Is it reasonable for you to be angry about this vine, Jonah, when the people of Nineveh are far more precious to Me than any ‘here one day, gone the next’ vine?”
People are so precious to this God of Israel that Jesus the God-Man said, “Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” This was Jesus telling us that He loves us so much, He is going to die for us. But in this same context Jesus says something else: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now one greater than Jonah is here” (Matt. 12:39-41). The one greater than Jonah is, of course, Jesus Himself.
Humanity is so precious to God that Jesus died for us. Jonah’s experience with the whale is a foreshadowing of the depth of anguish Jesus would endure on the cross for the sake of people. Jesus is the one who is truly God and truly man. It is Jesus, the Great I Am, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (John 8:57-59), who died for Nineveh and for us.
But in this same passage, Jesus declares that even Nineveh of old in the day of judgment will condemn a generation to come, a generation that will hear the preaching of the good news from Christ Himself. They will hear of His love, longsuffering with humanity, and death on their behalf, and yet reject Him. Jesus says here that Nineveh will know that such a people deserve that condemnation, for one greater than Jonah came to them, appealing time and again, both to their heart and to their reason. But can we not argue today that we are far from that generation and that we did not hear from Christ in person, and therefore we are different entirely from that generation? This argument will never wash, because even today the words Jesus spoke and the things He did are well known, both through His people and the Word of God authored ultimately by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, everyone who rejects Jesus Christ is part of that generation, including you and me. The world of His own time rejected Him, then crucified Him. This Jesus of Nazareth is the same God who spoke to Jonah under the vine outside the ancient city of Nineveh. Yahweh God has not changed; he still asks those who reject His love and justice to this day: “Do you do well to be angry?”
 In the now-distant past, critics of the accuracy of biblical history viewed Nineveh as a mythical place. This notion expired when Nineveh was unearthed by archaeologists in the mid-19th century.
 All Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version (NIV).
 This passage is sometimes translated as “plant” or “gourd” rather than “vine.”
 See Genesis 4:5-8.
 See Matt. 5:43-46. In this context we are told that true sons of God love even those who do not love them back. God, Jesus said, sends His rain on the just and the unjust.