Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. – Jonah 3:3b-10
R. Reed Lessing writes:
Little effort, poor skills, a short sermon – and total success! Even with crooked human writers, Yahweh writes straight. Jonah’s message in 3:4 is concise and blunt. Jonah apparently hoped that the outcome would be the destruction of his hearers (see 4:1). His sermon says nothing explicit about salvation and states no contingencies or qualifications depending on how the Ninevites respond. At face value, the prophecy seems to assume the people will ignore it. Yet in the next verse (3:5), the pagan Gentiles believe in ways that are simply amazing! The astonishing salvation of Gentiles through faith, by the power of the preached word, will recur on a far larger scale in the NT and in subsequent world history, as countless Gentiles are grafted into the true Israel of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Because of the double entendre of “be change” [NIV = “overthrow”], Jonah’s prediction will be fulfilled whether Nineveh crumbles or repents. The verb “contains the irony of reversal.” Through repentance Nineveh is overturned, but the way gracious Yahweh intends, not as Jonah wanted. From the Ninevites’ perspective, the prophesy offered at least a glimmer of hope, a delay of “forty days” during which time they could repent and see what would happen (“Who knows?” 3:9). From God’s perspective, there repentance is an opportunity for Him to change His verdict from judgment to salvation. But from Jonah’s perspective, Nineveh’s salvation overturns his prophecy and discredits him. Only able to see his own limited, self-serving perspective, Jonah becomes angry and confronts God with his feelings in chapter 4.
MEMORY WORK – Shorter Catechism Q/A 75
Q. 75. What is forbidden in the eighth commandment?
A. The eighth commandment forbiddeth whatsoever doth or may unjustly hinder our own or our neighbor’s wealth or outward estate.