Declaration: The Prophet Runs With God (Jonah 3.1-10)

Chapter three records the fulfillment of Yahweh’s mission for Jonah. It repeats nearly verbatim the command from 1.2. There is the addition of “the second time,” a phrase which is unique to Jonah the prophet. Once again Jonah is to “call out” against Ninevah. The word for “call out” is the same which has appeared so many time already in the book (see notes on 2.1). There is no purpose statement as before (cf. 1.2, “for their evil has come up before me”). Instead, Jonah is also told that Yahweh will provide his prophetic message (2, “the message that I tell you”).  While there is some confusion about the tense (past, present or future tense?) Jonah is assured that what he “calls out” to Ninevah will be the word of Yahweh.

What readers expected when reading 1.1-3 now comes to fruition in 3.3 as Jonah manifests simple obedience and “arose and went to Ninevah” thus fulfilling the word of Yahweh. If Jonah was vomited out by the big fish near his original starting point (several commentators say this is possible), then it would have taken him a month to five weeks to complete the 500-600 mile trek from Joppa depending on his mode of transportation.[1] Such a trip shows the high cost obedience to God.

Verse 3b is a sticking point for textual critics. First is the statement, “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city” (emphasis mine). Smith and Page note, “several scholars point to this as proof that Nineveh had ceased to exist by the time of Jonah’s writing.”[2] As discussed under “Date,” the composition of the book could have been done during or following the Babylonian captivity and therefore had already been eliminated from the world stage as a nation. The author, then, is merely reporting the historical account of when Jonah went to Nineveh circa 8th century B.C. Second, the text says that Nineveh’s size was “three days journey in breadth.” Archaeologists have found that the circumference of the inner wall of Nineveh “was less than eight miles. So the diameter of the city, less than two miles, was hardly a three-day journey.”[3]This has led some to argue that the three days “is not a reference to the circumference of the city; the diameter of the city; or the circuit of the administrative districts,” but instead is to be understood in reference to how long it would take Jonah to complete his prophetic assignment.[4] However, this seems unnecessary since some have identified this as Greater Nineveh, “which was an area encompassing four cities, including Nineveh and its environs.”[5] Therefore a literal explanation seems the best way to understand the phrase.

Jonah is obedient to his prophetic mission and the people of Nineveh in turn obey God (4-5). Jonah’s mission begins as soon as he arrives and very simply. There is no fanfare or meetings with the power-players of the city. The message Jonah delivers is austere. It is only five words in Hebrew. The word Jonah was promised by God is a message of certain doom in forty days. Jonah does not even mention which deity has sent him. There is no call for repentance, no hope of ameliorating the wrath to come. Or is there? The forty days seem to have been a grace period whereby the “overthrow” of the city could be understood as an overthrow of the evil in hearts. Despite the brevity of the message, the people of Nineveh believed God (Heb. elohim). Every person in Nineveh “from the greatest to the least of them” show the marks of contrition: fasting and sackcloth. Even the king is roused to repent (6-7).

One may wonder why the whole city would be so receptive to the preaching of Jonah? Hannah explains: “Before Jonah arrived at this seemingly impregnable fortress-city, two plagues had erupted there (in 765 and 759 b.c.) and a total eclipse of the sun occurred on June 15, 763. These were considered signs of divine anger and may help explain why the Ninevites responded so readily to Jonah’s message, around 759.”[6] Perhaps signs and wonders played a role in preparing a superstitious pagan culture for the doomsday message of Jonah. Or perhaps this is more a testimony that the word of God has always been “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4.12).

Critics have cited the phrase “king of Nineveh” in 3.6 to dispute the authenticity of the book. The argument is that the writer, whoever he or she was, should have called him the king of Assyria, since Nineveh is the capital of the empire of Assyria. However, there is evidence which indicates this was an accepted practice in describing suzerains of that time. For example, Elwell and Beitzel note that Ahab, the king of Israel, is called “king of Samaria” (1 Kgs 21.1), and Ben-hadad, the king of Syria, is designated “king of Damascus” (2 Chr 24.23).[7] So there is precedent for the city designation for an ancient Near East king. In addition, we know historically at the time of Jonah (early to mid 8th century B.C.) the kingdom of Assyria was tenuously held together. Only after decades of weakness would Tiglath-Pileser III (745-727 B.C.) consolidate the power of the kingdom.[8] Therefore, this could also explain the phrase “king of Nineveh,” as well as the phrase “and his nobles” in the proclamation (3.7); these are indicative of the diminished power of the monarchy at that time.

The king’s proclamation (7-9) is universal in scope including people and animals. The people of Nineveh are to “call out [same word used to describe Jonah’s preaching, 1.2; 3.2] mightily [lit. with strength] to God” (Heb. elohim). Jonah’s preaching did not mention Yahweh. Thus it seems the Ninevites did not call out specifically to Yahweh. They know God, but it does not appear they know Yahweh. They never mention him by name, opting instead to call on elohim. Nevertheless, their conversion to the supreme God is evidence by the fact that Jesus affirms that their conversion was genuine for they “repented at the preaching of Jonah” and they will rise to condemn Jesus’ generation at the judgment (Matt 12.41; Luke 11.32). Even the text of Jonah indicates true repentance (fasting, sackcloth, pleading with God, abandoning sinful practices).

As they call out to God, they are to “turn” from their evil ways and from the “violence” of their hands. The Assyrians were a vicious, wicked nation and Nineveh was the wicked capital. The prophet Nahum documents the sordid history of violence this nation perpetrated against other nations. He calls Nineveh “the bloody city” (Nah 3.1) guilty of “unceasing evil” (3.17). Specifically, Nineveh was full of deceit (3.1), guilty of carnage and slaughter (3.2-3), and full of the dark arts and magical practices (3.4). They would be the war machine that would crush the Northern Tribes. This record is the evil and violence of which they were repenting.

The purpose of the Ninevites’s repentance is that God would repent of His “fierce anger” (Jon 3.9). Their desire is that God “turn and relent and turn,” a three-fold expression for divine mercy. Jonah had not told them what to do or if there was anything they could do. Hence, the king’s question of “Who knows?” It is reminiscent of the captain’s “perhaps” in 1.6. The pagan’s don’t really know what they can do to appease Yahweh’s wrath. They hold the philosophy, “Something is better than nothing.” They are hopeful that whatever they do it will cause them not to perish.

Verse 10 is the culmination of the purposes of God toward Ninevah through the prophet Jonah. God has “disaster” (lit. evil; Heb. rāʿâ) in store for them. However, because they “turned” from their evil, God turned from the evil (i.e. disastrous judgment) He was going to bring upon them. This is in total agreement with His nature as revealed through Jeremiah (Jer 18.7-8).

The crisis was averted; or at least disaster is delayed for a century and a half until the time of Babylon. In the meantime, the forty days came and went but no destruction came upon Nineveh. “Here one finds irrefutable evidence that God wishes not for the destruction of the sinner but for the redemption and reconciliation of all his creation.”[9] Out of His immeasurable mercy God did not bring judgment.

[1] Stephen R. Schrader, “Jonah,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), 647.

[2] Smith and Page, 256.

[3] John D. Hannah, “Jonah,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 1463.

[4] Schrader, 648.

[5] Phillip Cary, Jonah (Grand Rapids, MI: BrazosPress, 2008), 107.

[6] Hannah, 1462.

[7] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, “Jonah, Book Of,” Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1205.

[8] Smith and Page, 205.

[9] Ibid., 270.

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