David Guzik's Commentary on the Bible
JONAH 3 - JONAH PREACHES REPENTANCE IN NINEVEH, THE CITY REPENTS
A. Jonah’s ministry in Nineveh.
1. (Jonah 3:1-2) The second call to Jonah.
Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you.”
a. Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time: This shows the amazing love of God to His wayward people. Though Jonah did everything he could to resist the first call of God, after Jonah repented God called him again - though God was under no obligation to do it. He did it out of mercy and grace.
i. “By paralleling here the book’s opening remarks, almost word for word, the author skillfully conveys the idea that Jonah is being offered a new beginning.” (Alexander)
ii. “How many of us who have been called to deliver the word of Jehovah, would still be doing it, if it were not for this patient and perfecting grace of God? Surely not many! How have we failed Him, and broken down in our ministry; and often not on ground so high as that of Jonah’s failure.” (Morgan)
iii. God was determined to do the work through Jonah, so He did not give up on the reluctant prophet. God is often just this committed to doing His work through a man. “Suppose that the problem had been given to us to solve - how shall this city be moved to repentance? How shall its vice be forsaken and the God of Israel worshipped by all its inhabitants from the highest to the lowest? If we had not been paralyzed with despair, which is the most probable, we should, nevertheless, have sat down carefully to consider our plans. We should have parcelled it out into missionary districts; we should have needed at least several hundreds, it not thousands, of able ministers; at once, expenses would have to be incurred, and we should have considered ourselves bound to contemplate the erection of innumerable structures in which the Word of God might be preached. Our machinery would necessarily become cumbrous; we should find that we, unless we had the full resources of an empire, could not even begin the work. But what saith the Lord concerning this? Putting aside the judgments of reason, and all the plans and schemes which flesh and blood so naturally do follow, he raises up one man. By a singular providence he qualifies that one man for his mission.” (Spurgeon)
b. Preach to it the message that I tell you: Instead of telling Jonah to cry out against Nineveh, this time God simply tells Jonah to go there and wait for further instructions. God often works this way, and our flesh often finds it irritating that He does.
i. The story of Jonah demonstrates why God so often leads us one step at a time without telling us more. When God told Jonah what he would say in Nineveh, Jonah rejected the call. God often only tells us what we can handle at the time.
2. (Jonah 3:3-4) Jonah preaches in Nineveh.
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent. And Jonah began to enter the city on the first day’s walk. Then he cried out and said, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
a. Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD: Having learned the lesson that resisting the will of God is both futile and counter-productive, Jonah now obeys the call and goes to Nineveh.
b. Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent: The idea behind this statement probably refers to how long it would take to walk around the city of “Greater Nineveh” - the metropolitan area around the city.
c. Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown! Jonah emphasized to the people of Nineveh what would happen if they did not repent - the city would be overthrown in judgment. Undoubtedly, this was not Jonah’s whole message to the people of Nineveh; but clearly it was his emphasis.
i. “Overthrown” is a word applied to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:25, Lamentations 4:6, and Amos 4:11).
ii. We see that Jonah preached this message with earnestness. “And such earnestness becomes a ministry that has to do with immortal souls, asleep and dead in sin, hanging on the bring of perdition, and insensible of their state. The soft-speaking, gentle-intoned, unmoved preacher, is never likely to awaken souls . . . But this earnestness is widely different from that noisy, blustering, screaming rant, that manifests more of a turbulence of disorderly passions, than of the real inspired influence of the Spirit of God.” (Clarke)
B. The response of the people of Nineveh to Jonah’s message.
1. (Jonah 3:5-9) The response of the people: repentance.
So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them. Then word came to the king of Nineveh; and he arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published throughout Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; do not let them eat, or drink water. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?
a. The word “repentance” isn’t in this passage; but repentance isn’t really a word, it is something you do - and these people did repentance.
b. The people of Nineveh believed God: Repentance begins with believing God. As we believe Him and His Word, we have the power to transform our lives as He wills. You can do many other things associated with repentance, but if they do not begin with believing on and trusting God, they are all useless works of the flesh.
i. You can’t believe God apart from the Word of God. Therefore, any real revival or repentance will begin with faithful preaching and faithful hearing of God’s Word, just as it was in Nineveh.
c. The people of Nineveh . . . proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth: Repentance means doing something. The people of Nineveh fasted, mourned as if for the dead, and they did it from the highest to the lowest (from the greatest to the least of them).
i. If repentance is anything, it is not business as usual. When repentance comes, something has to change and something has to be different. In their case, the people of Nineveh took off their normal clothes and put on sackcloth - a thick coarse cloth, normally made from goat’s hair. Wearing it displayed the rejection of earthly comforts and pleasures.
ii. Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth: They even repented on behalf of their animals, dressing them as if the animals were in mourning for the dead.
d. But let man and beast . . . cry mightily to God: Repentance means crying mightily to God. It means coming to God with passion and seriousness about your sin and your need for His mercy and forgiveness.
i. So much of modern “repentance,” with its claim of excuses and reasons why we sinned, is really not repentance at all. It is only an attempt to justify and excuse our sin. Nevertheless, you sinned or you didn’t; if you did, there is no excuse, and if you haven’t, there is no need to repent. Repentance and excuses simply don’t belong together.
e. Yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands: Repentance means turning from your evil way and from the violence that is in your hands. Repentance means to change your mind and turn from your previous sinful actions.
i. In the Christian life, repentance does not describe what you must do to turn to God; it describes the very process of turning to God. When we truly turn to Him, we turn away from the things that displease Him.
f. Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger: Repentance has hope in the mercy and love of God. It hopes that God will relent and that the repentant people will not perish.
g. Jonah could more effectively preach the message of repentance because he knew his own need to repent. Being a repentant sinner didn’t disqualify Jonah from preaching repentance; it made his preaching all the more effective.
2. (Jonah 3:10) God’s response to the people’s repentance.
Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.
a. God saw their works . . . and God relented: God honored their repentance, even though their past sin was just reason enough for an outpouring of judgment. The state would never forgive a cold-blooded murderer who vowed to never do it again, but God mercifully relented from judgment against the people of Nineveh.
i. We do not obligate God to forgive us when we repent. Instead, repentance appeals to God’s mercy, not His justice.
b. God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it: Did God’s relenting make Jonah a false prophet, when he prophesied Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown? Not at all, for two good reasons.
i. First, God acted in total consistency with His Word: The instant I speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, to pull down, and to destroy it, if that nation against whom I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I thought to bring upon it. (Jeremiah 18:7-8) Jonah’s preaching was like all warnings of judgment: it was an invitation to repent and avert the promised judgment. His words had an implied “if you do not repent” in front of them. Remember that we are not told the sum total of Jonah’s preaching; though we should assume that the statement in Jonah 3:5 is the central theme of what Jonah said, we should not assume it was all that he said.
ii. Second, God did judge Nineveh (as recorded in the book of Nahum). Nevertheless, in light of their repentance He delayed it another 150 years.
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