Notes on Jonah, chapter 3
by Jonathan Spurlock
(Holts Summit, MO)
Jon 3:1, KJV 1 And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying, 2 Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.
Some of the prophets received additional messages from the LORD but none were like Jonah’s case. They would say, “The word of the LORD came to me. . .” and they would deliver the message; Jonah was given basically the same message this time as the first time, namely, the judgment to fall on Nineveh.
3 So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey.
Note that Jonah obeyed God’s command this time. Nineveh was many miles from Jerusalem and Jonah may have retraced some of Jacob’s steps as far as Haran or the land of Laban, beyond the Euphrates River (see Genesis 29:1-6), but Nineveh was further south and east of Haran.
Nineveh was described as a “. . .city of three days’ journey”. There has been debate over what that actually means. It is true that Nineveh was a very large city—God Himself told Jonah that there were 120,000 people in Nineveh who didn’t know the difference between their left and right hands (4:11). The reader is encouraged to research Nineveh and Assyria further using any of the standard Bible atlases, encyclopedias, and other helps.
4 And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.
A “day’s journey” probably means he started at one location and walked up and down the city. Note how simple and direct the message was.
One of the items of interest was which language Jonah was using: did he speak to the Ninveites in Hebrew, Aramaic, or in the Assyrian language? One possible solution was that Jonah may have spoken in Aramaic, understood by the Assyrians and the people of Judah, at least, during the time of Hezekiah, about 80 years after Jonah’s ministry. The king of Assyria sent three officials, with “a great host against Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:17, Isa 36:11)”.
One of these officials gave a “give up, you can’t win” speech to the people of Jerusalem. The king of Judah had three men as recorders, who asked the Assyrian official to speak in Aramaic (“the Syrian language”) but he refused to do so, speaking in Hebrew (“the Jews’ language”) so as to frighten the people in their own city. God provided deliverance, however, in one of the Bible’s greatest stories!
5 So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.
This actually happened. Jesus Himself spoke of this in the Gospels when He said the “. . , men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here (Matt 12:41, Luke 11:32)”.
Sackcloth is mentioned numerous times in the Bible. In some cases, it was used for mourning (Jacob, for Joseph’s alleged death, Gen. 37:34); repentance, as here; even deceit (see 1 Kings 20:31-32). Even Ahab, one of the worst kings of Israel’s history, wore sackcloth after Elijah predicted the deaths of both Ahab and Jezebel, his
wife (1 Kings 21:27). 6 For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered (him) with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
This may mean someone heard Jonah’s message and then relayed it to the king. Or, possibly, someone alerted the king to a foreigner proclaiming a strange message and the king himself came to take whatever action he deemed appropriate. Regardless, the king believed Jonah’s message and showed it—proof—by changing his royal robe to sackcloth and leaving his throne to sit in ashes.7 And he caused (it) to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:
Note that there is no specific time period for this fast or voluntary refusal to eat or drink anything. Apparently it was the fact, and not the duration, that showed genuine repentance.8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that (is) in their hands.
Compare the king’s words here with, for example, 2 Chronicles 7:14, spoken many years before this. There, God spoke these words to Solomon: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
How much the Assyrians in general, and the people of Nineveh in particular, knew about repentance is debatable but the king knew enough about it here to proclaim genuine repentance towards the God of Jonah, the True and Living God.
Also note the king’s words to turn from the violence in the hands of the NInevites. Art, especially the so-called “bas-relief” carvings, give literally graphic representations of what the Assyrians did to their captives and slaves, for example.9 Who can tell (if) God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?
Now the king asks a very humble question. He had no assurance, at this time, that God would show any mercy towards his people. He also did not demand anything nor did he deny anything, simply hoping God would spare the city.10 And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did (it) not.
Note that God not only saw their “works”—the temporary refusal to eat or drink anything, and how they exchanged their clothing for sackcloth—but also their hearts.
To say that God “repented” simply means He changed His mind. He had predicted destruction, in accordance with Jonah’s message but when they repented, He provided deliverance. God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked; years after this, Ezekiel quoted God’s words: “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel? (Ezek. 33:11)
Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV)