The Meaning of Jonah 4:11 Explained

Jonah 4:11

KJV: And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

YLT: and I -- have not I pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than twelve myriads of human beings, who have not known between their right hand and their left -- and much cattle!'

Darby: and I, should not I have pity on Nineveh, the great city, wherein are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

ASV: and should not I have regard for Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

What does Jonah 4:11 Mean?

Verse Meaning

God had invested much work in Nineveh and had been responsible for its growth. This is why it was legitimate at the most elementary level for God to feel compassion for its people. Jonah"s compassion extended only to a plant but not to people.
"It is the choice between gourds or souls." [1]
God"s compassion extended not only to plants but also to people. The120 ,000 people that God cited as the special objects of His compassion were probably the entire populace that did not know how to escape their troubles. The expression "do not know the difference between their right and left hand" is idiomatic meaning lacking in knowledge and innocent in that sense (cf. 2 Samuel 19:35; Isaiah 7:15-16). [2]
"Not to be able to distinguish between the right hand and the left is a sign of mental infancy." [3]
It would be unusual if this referred only to chronological infants, however.
"Their inability to discern "their right hand from their left" must refer to their moral ignorance. Though responsible for their evil deeds and subject to divine judgment (see Jonah 1:2), the Ninevites did not have the advantage of special divine revelation concerning the moral will of God. Morally and ethically speaking they were like children." [4]
We normally have compassion for those with whom we can identify most closely, but God also has compassion on people who are helpless. Spiritually they are those who do not know God, those who are "lost."
People naturally go to one of two extremes in their attitude toward animals. We either look down on them and treat them inhumanely, feeling superior, or we elevate them to the level of persons and grant them rights that they do not possess. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals tries to guard us from the first attitude. The "animal rights movement" tends to promote the second attitude. God has compassion on animals as creatures living below the level of humans that need His grace. This should be our attitude to them too (cf. Genesis 1:26; Genesis 1:28; Psalm 8:6-8). The reference to animals concludes the book and is the final climax of God"s lesson to the prophet and through him to God"s people in Israel and in the church. If God has compassion for animals, and He does, how much more should we feel compassion for human beings made in God"s image who are under His judgment because of their sins (cf. Jonah 3:8)! We must never let our concern for the welfare of God"s people keep us from reaching out with the message of hope to those who oppose us.
"It is possible of course, that the animals are mentioned because animals are ipso facto innocent and also lack intellectual prowess. Thereby Jonah and the audience would understand that the Ninevites, likewise, are innocent and stupid. But a more likely reason for the mention of animals is that they constitute the middle point in the worth scale upon which the argument of Yahweh is based. That Isaiah , the people of Nineveh are of enormous worth. They are human beings ("dm), and they are the citizens of the most important city of their day. The animals (bhmh) in turn are of less worth, but still significant in the economy of any nation or city.... The gourd, on the other hand, is of minor worth.... Jonah has furiously argued for the worth of a one-day-old plant ( Jonah 4:9 b). He can have no good argument, then, against the worth of Nineveh, with all its people and animals." [5]
"God"s question captures the very intention of the book. The issue is that of grace-grace and mercy. Just as Jonah"s provision was the shade of the vine he did not deserve, the Ninevites" provision was a deliverance they did not deserve based upon a repentance they did not fully understand." [6]
The book closes without giving us Jonah"s response, but that is not the point of the book. Its point is the answer to the Lord"s question in Jonah 4:11 that every reader must give. Yes, God should have compassion on the hopeless Ninevites, and we should have compassion on people like them too (cf. Luke 15:25-32; Matthew 20:1-16). Only two books in the Bible end with questions, and they both have to do with Nineveh. Jonah ends with a question about God"s pity for Nineveh, and Nahum ends with a question about God"s punishment of Nineveh. [6]
"Every hearer/reader may have some Jonah in him or her. All need to reflect on the questions God asks, including the final, specific, "Should I not spare Nineveh?" ( Jonah 4:11). Anyone who replies "Why is that such an important question?" has not understood the message. Anyone who replies "No!" has not believed it." [8]
"It is not only the unbelievers in the Ninevehs of today who need to repent; it is also we who are modern Jonahs. For no one begins to understand this profound and searching little book unless he discovers the Jonah in himself and then repentantly lays hold upon the boundless grace of God." [9]
"As so often, the effect of this OT book is to lay a foundation upon which the NT can build. "God so loved the world" is its basic affirmation, which the NT is to conclude with the message of the gift of his Son.
"Throughout the story the figure of Jonah is a foil to the divine hero, a Watson to Yahweh"s Holmes, a Gehazi to Yahweh"s Elisha. The greatness and the goodness of God are enhanced against the background of Jonah"s meanness and malevolence. Look out at the world, pleads the author, at God"s world. See it through God"s eyes. And let your new vision overcome your natural bitterness, your hardness of soul. Let the divine compassion flood your own hearts." [10]
Does this book constitute a call to foreign missionary service? It records God"s call of one of His prophets to this type of ministry. However, we must remember that this was a rare ministry in the Old Testament period. Typically Israel was to be a light to the nations by providing a model theocracy in the Promised Land that would attract the Gentiles to her. They would come to Israel for the knowledge of God that they would take back home with them (e.g, Exodus 19:5-6; 1 Kings 10; Isaiah 42:6; Acts 8:26-40). In the Great Commission ( Matthew 28:19-20) Jesus changed the basic missionary method by which people are to learn of God. Now we are to go into all the world and herald the gospel to everyone rather than waiting for them to come to us for it. The Book of Jonah shows an Old Testament prophet doing reluctantly what Christians are now to do enthusiastically. It was not God"s plan that all Old Testament prophets, much less all Israelites, were to do what he did. Nevertheless they were to have a heart of compassion for those outside the covenant community and to show them mercy, as this book clarifies (cf. Boaz in the Book of Ruth). Christian missionaries can use the Book of Jonah , therefore, but they should do so by stressing its true message, not by making Jonah"s call the main point.
"This book is the greatest missionary book in the Old Testament, if not in the whole Bible. It is written to reveal the heart of a servant of God whose heart was not touched with the passion of God in missions. Does it strike home ...? Are we more interested in our own comfort than the need of multitudes of lost souls ... dying in darkness without the knowledge of their Messiah and Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ? Are we more content to remain with the "gourds," the comforts of home and at home, than to see the message of Christ go out to the ends of the earth to both Jew and Gentile?" [11]

Context Summary

Jonah 4:1-11 - The Prophet's Narrowness Rebuked
This chapter marks an era in the development of the outlook of the Hebrew people. Here, upon its repentance, a heathen city was pardoned. Clearly Jehovah was the God, not of the Jews only but of the Gentiles also. Jonah, however, had no pleasure in the revelation. He clung to the bitter narrowness of national prejudice fearing that when his own people received tidings of Nineveh's repentance and deliverance, they would be encouraged in their obstinate refusal of God's law.
How often God puts gourds into our lives to refresh us with their exquisite greenery, and to remind us of His thoughtful love! Our fretfulness and petulance are no barriers to His tender mercy. The withering of the gourd extorted bitter reproaches from the prophet who would have beheld the destruction of Nineveh without a tear. He did not realize that to God Nineveh was all, and much more, than the gourd was to him. Notice the extreme beauty of the concluding verse: The permanence of the city contrasted with the frailty of the gourd! The responsibility of God for Nineveh, which He had made to grow! The preciousness to Him, not only of the mature, but of babes and cattle [source]

Chapter Summary: Jonah 4

1  Jonah repining at God's mercy,
4  is reproved by the type of a withering vine

What do the individual words in Jonah 4:11 mean?

And I not should pity on Nineveh the city great in which are are more than two [and] ten [times] ten thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left and livestock much
וַֽאֲנִי֙ לֹ֣א אָח֔וּס עַל־ נִינְוֵ֖ה הָעִ֣יר הַגְּדוֹלָ֑ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר יֶשׁ־ בָּ֡הּ הַרְבֵּה֩ מִֽשְׁתֵּים־ עֶשְׂרֵ֨ה רִבּ֜וֹ אָדָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֤ר לֹֽא־ יָדַע֙ בֵּין־ יְמִינ֣וֹ לִשְׂמֹאל֔וֹ וּבְהֵמָ֖ה ؟ רַבָּֽה

וַֽאֲנִי֙  And  I 
Parse: Conjunctive waw, Pronoun, first person common singular
Root: אֲנִי  
Sense: I (first pers.
אָח֔וּס  should  pity 
Parse: Verb, Qal, Imperfect, first person common singular
Root: חוּס  
Sense: (Qal) to pity, have compassion, spare, look upon with compassion.
נִינְוֵ֖ה  Nineveh 
Parse: Proper Noun, feminine singular
Root: נִינְוֵה  
Sense: capital of the ancient kingdom of Assyria; located on the east bank of the Tigris river, 550 miles (880 km) from its mouth and 250 miles (400 km) north of Babylon.
הָעִ֣יר  the  city 
Parse: Article, Noun, feminine singular
Root: עִיר 
Sense: excitement, anguish.
הַגְּדוֹלָ֑ה  great 
Parse: Article, Adjective, feminine singular
Root: גָּבֹול 
Sense: great.
אֲשֶׁ֣ר  in  which 
Parse: Pronoun, relative
Root: אֲשֶׁר 
Sense: (relative part.).
הַרְבֵּה֩  more 
Parse: Verb, Hifil, Infinitive absolute
Root: הַרְבָּה 
Sense: be or become great, be or become many, be or become much, be or become numerous.
מִֽשְׁתֵּים־  than  two 
Parse: Preposition-m, Number, fd
Root: שְׁנַיִם  
Sense: two.
עֶשְׂרֵ֨ה  [and]  ten  [times] 
Parse: Number, feminine singular
Root: עָשָׂר 
Sense: ten, -teen (in combination with other numbers).
רִבּ֜וֹ  ten  thousand 
Parse: Number, feminine singular
Root: רִבֹּוא  
Sense: ten thousand, myriad.
אָדָ֗ם  persons 
Parse: Noun, masculine singular
Root: אָדָם 
Sense: man, mankind.
לֹֽא־  cannot 
Parse: Adverb, Negative particle
Root: הֲלֹא 
Sense: not, no.
יָדַע֙  discern 
Parse: Verb, Qal, Perfect, third person masculine singular
Root: דָּעָה 
Sense: to know.
בֵּין־  between 
Parse: Preposition
Root: בַּיִן 
Sense: between, among, in the midst of (with other preps), from between.
יְמִינ֣וֹ  their  right  hand 
Parse: Noun, feminine singular construct, third person masculine singular
Root: יָמִין  
Sense: right, right hand, right side.
לִשְׂמֹאל֔וֹ  and  their  left 
Parse: Preposition-l, Noun, masculine singular construct, third person masculine singular
Root: שְׂמֹאל  
Sense: the left, the left hand, the left side.
וּבְהֵמָ֖ה  and  livestock 
Parse: Conjunctive waw, Noun, feminine singular
Root: בְּהֵמָה  
Sense: beast, cattle, animal.
؟ רַבָּֽה  much 
Parse: Adjective, feminine singular
Root: רַב 
Sense: much, many, great.