Originally published in Disciple Magazine, March 2014. Part 4 of 5
Once Jonah had come to repentance, through one of the most sensational means recorded, “the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah up onto the dry land” (2:10). The story doesn’t pause for Jonah to catch his breath, so we do not know how much time elapsed between his piscine journey and God’s renewed call. Whatever the timeframe, though, chapter three opens with a replay of chapter one, but with a chastened Jonah responding in the right direction this time.
“Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you’” (3:1-2). Even through Jonah’s odyssey of flight from the Lord’s presence, God’s purpose had not changed at all. His plan remained to bring His Word to the pinnacle of pagan civilization—both to foreshadow His compassion for the Gentiles, and to condemn those Jews centuries in the future who refused to repent in the presence of one greater than Jonah (Matt. 12).
As we said, Jonah went this time; obedient in action if not attitude: “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days’ walk. Then Jonah began to go through the city one day’s walk; and he cried out and said, ‘Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown’” (3:3-4). As Jonah wended his way through the streets of this ancient metropolis, he must have cut a strange figure—an unknown foreigner loudly shouting a threatening message. Ominous though the Lord’s proclamation was (not exactly words of love and compassion), these words would have been laughable to the hearers. Recall that Nineveh was the seat of world power at the time, with no known enemies that could hope to defeat her empire in 40 days (or years, for that matter).
In spite of this, the people of the great city respond in holy fear: “Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them” (3:5). This is proof positive of the Lord’s power. These men, women, and children had no reason to fear an earthly takeover. Jonah’s terse warning (certainly, the Lord’s message may have been more detailed, but we aren’t told) probably did not contain enough information for them to theologically weigh the consequences of disregarding a God they did not know.
No, their unanimous response of repentance was surely brought about by the Lord. Of course this should not surprise us. Solomon observed that “the king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the Lord; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1). God later told us through Isaiah “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are regarded as a speck of dust on the scales” (Isa. 40:15). The same God who could bring his prophet back from rebellion by a great storm and a great fish, who orchestrated the entire arc of history (including this episode) to point to His glorious redemption of all nations through His Son, could surely melt the hard hearts of an evil city.
As the wave of repentance swept the city, it came to the seat of power with dramatic effect: “When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes” (3:6). This king of Assyria (historians are not sure which king, and he is not named here) who sat on the throne later occupied by some of the most powerful despots in history—Tiglah-Pileser, Sennacherib, Ashurbanipal, Shamaneser and Sargon (who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel)—sits in sackcloth and ashes at the revelation of judgment from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What is more remarkable is that in Nineveh, as in many ancient near eastern societies, the king was both a political and spiritual leader, serving as a high priest to the god of his city. The king’s transformation and repentance would be tantamount to the Iranian Ayatollah renouncing Islam and leading his whole nation in repentance and worship of the One True God! This is truly a testimony to God’s power over hearts and nations—He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.
The king then, after grasping the Lord’s message himself, urges the entire city to follow him in pleading with Jehovah for mercy: “He issued a proclamation and it said, ‘In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish’” (3:7-9). Though they did know God in full, having only the message brought by Jonah to convict them, once they were overtaken by the fear of the Lord, they instinctively knew what “wicked ways” and “violence” they needed to repent of. As Psalm 19, Romans 1, and other Scriptures point out, none of us are without excuse before God—He has written His law into the skies, stone, and the minds of man, so that no one truly sins without “knowing any better.”
God, who is faithful and unchanging, knew their pleading was true and directed at Him as the only righteous Judge and Savior. He held back the power of his outstretched arm, having mercy: “When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it” (3:10). Of all the lessons of this story, let us not miss this one as well—that the Lord delights in repentance and worship, and is ready to pour out His mercy on this true sacrifice. If a place like Nineveh can fall on its collective face before Him, “from the greatest to the least of them,” how much more can we all turn to Him? If the Lord will accept the first hint of contrition from a violent, idolatrous emperor and his people, how much more will the brokenhearted sinner who throws Himself at the foot of Christ’s cross find love and mercy there?
After Jonah’s ordeal and reluctant obedience, likely risking his life to deliver God’s warning, the last two things he expected to see (Nineveh’s repentance and God’s mercy) have come to pass. As we will see in the next chapter, this servant of the Lord still had so much to learn of his Master’s ways.
As for Nineveh, though their turning was genuine, it would only last for a season. Within just a few generations, their evil ways were back in full force, and God’s anger burned again against the city. He pronounced His final judgment on them through the prophet Nahum: “Your guardsmen are like the swarming locust. Your marshals are like hordes of grasshoppers settling in the stone walls on a cold day. The sun rises and they flee, and the place where they are is not known. Your shepherds are sleeping, O king of Assyria; your nobles are lying down. Your people are scattered on the mountains, and there is no one to regather them. There is no relief for your breakdown, your wound is incurable. All who hear about you will clap their hands over you, for on whom has not your evil passed continually?” (Nahum 3:17-19). Nations come and nations go. The Lord and His Word endure forever. He does with the kings of the earth what He will according to His holy justice and eternal plan.