Plants have a lot to teach us about life. In fact, God uses plants, time and time again, throughout Scripture as object lessons to teach, train, and correct humans. The same is true in Jonah 4:10 – 11. Here God contrasts Jonah’s relationship to a tree with God’s own relationship to Nineveh. Today, we will consider each relationship individually before considering its contrastive dynamics with the aim of ultimately understanding how relations reveal character.
First, notice how God highlights Jonah’s role with the plant. In Jonah 4:10, He states, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night.” The prophet contributed nothing to the plant’s growth and development. But once the plant is taken away, Jonah throws a tempter-tantrum as if he created and cultivated the plant. This is our first indication in these brief two verses that Jonah does not know his place; he thinks he is much more important and much more powerful than he is, and it is in part this power-complex that is skewing his vision on reality.
Now once God has highlighted Jonah’s ludicrous thinking and conduct, He turns the spotlight onto Himself and Nineveh. Jonah 4:11 states, “And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” Unlike Jonah, who did nothing to make and grow the plant, God implies that He is the One who brought up Nineveh, and since He cultivated and developed the people in the city, He is entitled to have compassion on them. He owns the people so He can feel however He wants toward them. In other words, God is justified to care for the city.
Not only is God entitled to feel pity, but He also mentions how completely lost the Ninevites are. They “do not know their right hand from their left.” This is a euphemism, meaning that the Ninevites do not possess true moral and spiritual knowledge, nor did they ever possess such knowledge. But, at the same time, they have the capacity to possess such abilities and, with it, the capacity to be saved. The plant, on the other hand, has neither soul nor brain. It cannot repent. It cannot profess faith in Yahweh. Thus, in comparison to humans, the plant has no significant value. Its significance is as great as its short life – Jonah should have known this, yet he remains infinitely more concerned to the very end about the destruction of a plant than real human lives.
So, what do you think is the answer to God’s questions in verse 11? It certainly is intriguing that the book simply leaves the question hanging. But there is actually a point to such a maneuver: the point is that we as readers are supposed to wrestle with it ourselves. We are to ask ourselves: Is God right to have pity and compassion on Nineveh? And the answer is a resounding, “Yes!” God has every right because, as God, He creates and directs every city. Furthermore, God has every right because He is gracious and compassionate towards spiritually ignorant people. This is what God wants to teach His prophet and, by extension, this is what He wants to teach us: know your place, God is sovereign, obey His will, and desire salvation for all.