The question is whether or not the 120,000 who “did not know the right from the left” refers to children, or not.
Comment #1 – First, and foremost, is the need to not lose sight of the teaching of the verse in its context – which is: that Jonah had (much) more concern for a gourd than he had for a city of many people. The rest of this becomes trivial if we lose sight of that.
Comment #2 – I won’t argue that the phrase in Jonah 4:11 CANNOT mean children. That meaning could be possible. (However, the argument FOR that meaning does not seem convincing enough). I personally believe it is NOT referring to children. The reasons include the following:
A. Comparing Scripture with Scripture is how I believe we should always start. Doing so brings out several things. First, we are told that the phrase “who did not know their right from their left” simply refers to children (infants, really). As far as I can tell, this phrase is used nowhere else in Scripture – so its’ meaning cannot be corroborated as such from Scriptures. The only similar Scripture found is in Deut. 1:39 – “Moreover your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, and your children, which in that day had no knowledge between good and evil, they shall go in thither, and unto them will I give it, and they shall possess it.” Second, the KJV “persons” is the Hebrew word “adam”. That same word is used two other times in Jonah and is translated “man” and in their individual contexts do not infer “children”. The word “adam” in total appears 552 times – 529 times it is translated “man” or “men” (not specifically children), 13 times is the name “Adam” and 8 times it is translated “person”. Were it not for the qualifying phrase, this word would no doubt have been translated “men” and there would probably have been no question (unless one wanted to argue that it meant literally “men” – to which we must then add women and children). I believe the context of Jonah’s story reveals that the (adult) people (men in particular) had no discernment that God’s judgment of them was just around the corner. If Jonah did not go and do as God commanded, how would they have known? I believe this is just another of many times in the Scriptures that God reminds man that man has no knowledge of God’s workings apart from God’s REVELATION of those things to men, and the subsequent PROCLAMATION of those things to other men.
B. Population data may be another indicator. Estimates of Nineveh’s population have ranged from 75,000 to over one million. However, consideration should be given to the following:
1. Estimated population of the entire world at Jonah’s time was probably around 75 million people.
2. Babylon (the Great) is estimated to be the first city to exceed population of 200,000 – and that was (likely) more than 100 years after Jonah went to Nineveh. In light of this, 120,000 seems reasonable, while 600,000 does not.
3. Just for comparison, at the time of Christ, the population of the great city of Rome is believed to range from 450,000 to 650,000. Rome is the capital city of an empire more vast than the Assyrian empire. Alexandria-400,000; Corinth-150,000; Athens-30,000;
4. The Zondervan NIV Commentary notes: "11 The meaning of "more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left" is difficult. It could refer either to the whole population of Ninevah or to the small children who do not yet know their right hand from their left. The former has been support by archaeological considerations, which set the maximum population of Nineveh at 175,000 or less. Thus, if only children were intended, far too high a total population would be involved - even if "Greater Ninevah" (cf. 3:2-3) is included. (Ibid., p. 1466;) 3 "Now Nineveh was a very large city" (NIV note) most probably is the correct reading. "An important city" does not suit the context and introduces a note of particularity into a book where universality is constantly being implied. The stress on the importance and size of Nineveh is entirely justified. Its population was at least 120,000 (4:10), while Samaria, almost certainly larger than Jerusalem, had about 30,000."