Here God explains the design he had in suddenly raising up the gourd, and then in causing it to perish or wither through the gnawing of a worm; it was to teach Jonah that misconduct towards the Ninevites was very inhuman. Though we find that the holy Prophet had become a prey to dreadful feelings, yet God, by this exhibition, does in a manner remind him of his folly; for, under the representation of a gourd, he shows how unkindly he desired the destruction of so populous a city as Nineveh.
Yet this comparison may appear ill suited for the purpose. Jonah felt sorry for the gourd, but he only regarded himself: hence he was displeased, because the relief with which he was pleased was taken away from him. As then this inconvenience had driven Jonah to anger, the similitude may not seem appropriate when God thus reasons, Thou wouldest spare the gourd, should I not spare this great city? Nay, but he was not concerned for the gourd itself: if all the gourds of the world withered, he would not have been touched with any grief; but as he felt the greatest danger being scorched by the extreme heat of the sun, it was on this account that he was angry. To this I answer, -- that though Jonah consulted his own advantage, yet this similitude is most suitable: for God preserves men for the purpose for which he has designed them. Jonah grieved for the withering of the gourd, because he was deprived of its shade: and God does not create men in vain; it is then no wonder that he wishes them to be saved. We hence see that Jonah was not unsuitably taught by this representation, how inhumanely he conducted himself towards the Ninevites. He was certainly but one individual; since then he made such an account of himself and the gourd only, how was it that he cast aside all care for so great and so populous a city? Ought not this to have come to his mind, that it was no wonder that God, the Creator and Father, had a care for so many thousands of men? Though indeed the Ninevites were alienated from God, yet as they were men, God, as he is the Father of the whole human race, acknowledged them as his own, at least to such an extent as to give them the common light of day, and other blessings of earthly life. We now then understand the import of this comparison: "Thou wouldest spare," he says, "the gourd, and should I not spare this great city?"
It hence appears how frivolous is the gloss of Jerome, -- that Jonah was not angry on account of the deliverance of the city, but because he saw that his own nation would, through its means, be destroyed: for God repeats again that Jonah's feeling was quite different, -- that he bore with indignity the deliverance of the city from ruin. And less to be endured it is still, that Jerome excuses Jonah by saying that he nobly and courageously answered God, that he had not sinned in being angry even to death. That man dared, without any shame or discernment, to invent a pretense that he might excuse so disgraceful an obstinacy. But it is enough for us to understand the real meaning of the Prophet. Here then he shows, according to God's representation, that his cruelty was justly condemned for having anxiously desired the destruction of a populous city.
But we ought to notice all the parts of the similitudes when he says, Thou wouldest have spared, etc. There is an emphasis in the pronoun hta, ate, for God compares himself with Jonah; "Who art thou? Doubtless a mortal man is not so inclined to mercy as I am. But thou takest to thyself this right -- to desire to spare the gourd, even thou who art made of clay. Now this gourd is not thy work, thou hast not labored for it, it has not proceeded from thy culture or toil; and further, thou hast not raised it up, and further still, it was the daughter of a night, and in one night it perished; it was an evanescent shrub or herb. If then thou regardest the nature of the gourd, if thou regardest thyself, and joinest together all the other circumstances, thou wilt find no reason for thy hot displeasure. But should not I, who am God, in whose hand are all things, whose prerogative and whose constant practice it is mercifully to bear with men -- should not I spare them, though they were worthy of destruction? and should not I spare a great city? The matter here is not concerning a little plant, but a large number of people. And, in the last place, it is a city, in which there are a hundred and twenty thousand men who know not how to distinguish between their right hand and the left."
We now then see how emphatical are all the parts of this comparison. And though God's design was to reprove the foolish and sinful grief of Jonah, we may yet further collect a general instruction by reasoning in this manner, "We feel for one another, and so nature inclines us, and yet we are wicked and cruel. If then men are inclined to mercy through some hidden impulse of nature, what may not be hoped from the inconceivable goodness of God, who is the Creator of the whole world, and the Father of us all? and will not he, who is the fountain of all goodness and mercy spare us?"
Now as to the number, Jonah mentions here twelve times ten thousand men, and that is as we have said, one hundred and twenty thousand. God shows here how paternally he cares for mankind. Every one of us is cherished by him with singular care: but yet he records here a large number, that it might be more manifest that he so much regards mankind that he will not inconsiderately fulminate against any one nation. And what he adds, that they could not distinguish between the right hand and the left, is to be referred, I have no doubt, to their age; and this opinion has been almost universally received. Some one, however has expressed a fear lest the city should be made too large by allowing such a number of men: he has, therefore, promiscuously included the old, as well as those of middle age and infants. He says that these could not distinguish between the right hand and the left, because they had not been taught in the school of God, nor understood the difference between right and wrong; for the unbelieving, as we know, went astray in their errors. But this view is too strained; and besides, there is no reason for this comment; for that city, we know, was not only like some great cities, many of which are at this day in Europe, but it surpassed most of the principal cities at this day. We know that in Paris there are more than four hundred thousand souls: the same is the case with other cities. I therefore reject this comment, as though Jonah was here speaking of all the Ninevites. But God, on the contrary, intended to show, that though there was the justest reason for destroying entirely the whole city, there were yet other reasons which justified the suspension of so dreadful a vengeance; for many infants were there who had not, by their own transgressions, deserved such a destruction.
God then shows here to Jonah that he had been carried away by his own merciless zeal. Though his zeal, as it has been said, arose from a good principle, yet Jonah was influenced by a feeling far too vehement. This God proved, by sparing so many infants hitherto innocent. And to infants he adds the brute animals. Oxen were certainly superior to shrubs. If Jonah justly grieved for one withering shrub, it was far more deplorable and cruel for so many innocent animals to perish. We hence see how apposite are all the parts of this similitude, to make Jonah to loathe his folly, and to be ashamed of it; for he had attempted to frustrate the secret purpose of God, and in a manner to overrule it by his own will, so that the Ninevites might not be spared, who yet labored by true repentance to anticipate the divine judgment.
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast, in various ways, testified, and daily continues to testify, how dear and precious to thee are mankind, and as we enjoy daily so many and so remarkable proofs of thy goodness and favor, -- O grant, that we may learn to rely wholly on thy goodness, many examples of which thou settest before us, and which thou wouldest have us continually to experience, that we may not only pass through our earthly course, but also confidently aspire to the hope of that blessed and celestial life which is laid up for us in heaven, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
End of the commentaries on Jonah.
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