Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible
Jonah 3:1-10. Jonah‘s second commission to Nineveh: the Ninevites repent of their evil way: so God repents of the evil threatened.
preach the preaching — literally, “proclaim the proclamation.” On the former occasion the specific object of his commission to Nineveh was declared; here it is indeterminate. This is to show how freely he yields himself, in the spirit of unconditional obedience, to speak whatever God may please.
arose and went — like the son who was at first disobedient to the father‘s command, “Go work in my vineyard,” but who afterwards “repented and went” (Matthew 21:28, Matthew 21:29). Jonah was thus the fittest instrument for proclaiming judgment, and yet hope of mercy on repentance to Nineveh, being himself a living exemplification of both - judgment in his entombment in the fish, mercy on repentance in his deliverance. Israel professing to obey, but not obeying, and so doomed to exile in the same Nineveh, answers to the son who said, “I go, sir, and went not.” In Luke 11:30 it is said that Jonas was not only a sign to the men in Christ‘s time, but also “unto the Ninevites.” On the latter occasion (Matthew 16:1-4) when the Pharisees and Sadducees tempted Him, asking a sign from heaven, He answered, “No sign shall be given, but the sign of the prophet Jonas,” Matthew 12:39. Thus the sign had a twofold aspect, a direct bearing on the Ninevites, an indirect bearing on the Jews in Christ‘s time. To the Ninevites he was not merely a prophet, but himself a wonder in the earth, as one who had tasted of death, and yet had not seen corruption, but had now returned to witness among them for God. If the Ninevites had indulged in a captious spirit, they never would have inquired and so known Jonah‘s wonderful history; but being humbled by God‘s awful message, they learned from Jonah himself that it was the previous concealing in his bosom of the same message of their own doom that caused him to be entombed as an outcast from the living. Thus he was a “sign” to them of wrath on the one hand, and, on the other, of mercy. Guilty Jonah saved from the jaws of death gives a ray of hope to guilty Nineveh. Thus God, who brings good from evil, made Jonah in his fall, punishment, and restoration, a sign (an embodied lesson or living symbol) through which the Ninevites were roused to hear and repent, as they would not have been likely to do, had he gone on the first commission before his living entombment and resurrection. To do evil that good may come, is a policy which can only come from Satan; but from evil already done to extract an instrument against the kingdom of darkness, is a triumphant display of the grace and wisdom of God. To the Pharisees in Christ‘s time, who, not content with the many signs exhibited by Him, still demanded a sign from heaven, He gave a sign in the opposite quarter, namely, Jonah, who came “out of the belly of hell” (the unseen region). They looked for a Messiah gloriously coming in the clouds of heaven; the Messiah, on the contrary, is to pass through a like, though a deeper, humiliation than Jonah; He is to lie “in the heart of the earth.” Jonah and his Antitype alike appeared low and friendless among their hearers; both victims to death for God‘s wrath against sin, both preaching repentance. Repentance derives all its efficacy from the death of Christ, just as Jonah‘s message derived its weight with the Ninevites from his entombment. The Jews stumbled at Christ‘s death, the very fact which ought to have led them to Him, as Jonah‘s entombment attracted the Ninevites to his message. As Jonah‘s restoration gave hope of God‘s placability to Nineveh, so Christ‘s resurrection assures us God is fully reconciled to man by Christ‘s death. But Jonah‘s entombment only had the effect of a moral suasive; Christ‘s death is an efficacious instrument of reconciliation between God and man [Fairbairn].
Nineveh was an exceeding great city — literally, “great to God,” that is, before God. All greatness was in the Hebrew mind associated with Godhence arose the idiom (compare “great mountains,” Margin, “mountains of God,” Psalm 36:6; “goodly cedars,” Margin, “cedars of God,” Psalm 80:10; “a mighty hunter before the Lord,” Genesis 10:9).
three days‘ journey — that is, about sixty miles, allowing about twenty miles for a day‘s journey. Jonah‘s statement is confirmed by heathen writers, who describe Nineveh as four hundred eighty stadia in circumference [Diodorus Siculus, 2.3]. Herodotus defines a day‘s journey to be one hundred fifty stadia; so three days‘ journey will not be much below Diodorus‘ estimate. The parallelogram in Central Assyria covered with remains of buildings has Khorsabad northeast; Koyunjik and Nebbi Yunus near the Tigris, northwest; Nimroud, between the Tigris and the Zab, southwest; and Karamless, at a distance inward from the Zab, southeast. From Koyunjik to Nimroud is about eighteen miles; from Khorsabad to Karamless, the same; from Koyunjik to Khorsabad, thirteen or fourteen miles; from Nimroud to Karamless, fourteen miles. The length thus was greater than the breadth; compare Jonah 3:4, “a day‘s journey,” which is confirmed by heathen writers and by modern measurements. The walls were a hundred feet high, and broad enough to allow three chariots abreast, and had moreover fifteen hundred lofty towers. The space between, including large parks and arable ground, as well as houses, was Nineveh in its full extent. The oldest palaces are at Nimroud, which was probably the original site. Layard latterly has thought that the name Nineveh belonged originally to Koyunjik, rather than to Nimroud. Jonah (Jonah 4:11) mentions the children as numbering one hundred twenty thousand, which would give about a million to the whole population. Existing ruins show that Nineveh acquired its greatest extent under the kings of the second dynasty, that is, the kings mentioned in Scripture; it was then that Jonah visited it, and the reports of its magnificence were carried to the west [Layard].
a day‘s journey — not going straight forward without stopping: for the city was but eighteen miles in length; but stopping in his progress from time to time to announce his message to the crowds gathering about him.
Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown — The commission, given indefinitely at his setting out, assumes now on his arrival a definite form, and that severer than before. It is no longer a cry against the sins of Nineveh, but an announcement of its ruin in forty days. This number is in Scripture associated often with humiliation. It was forty days that Moses, Elijah, and Christ fasted. Forty years elapsed from the beginning of Christ‘s ministry (the antitype of Jonah‘s) to the destruction of Jerusalem. The more definite form of the denunciation implies that Nineveh has now almost filled up the measure of her guilt. The change in the form which the Ninevites would hear from Jonah on anxious inquiry into his history, would alarm them the more, as implying the increasing nearness and certainty of their doom, and would at the same time reprove Jonah for his previous guilt in delaying to warn them. The very solitariness of the one message announced by the stranger thus suddenly appearing among them, would impress them with the more awe. Learning from him, that so far from lightly prophesying evil against them, he had shrunk from announcing a less severe denunciation, and therefore had been cast into the deep and only saved by miracle, they felt how imminent was their peril, threatened as they now were by a prophet whose fortunes were so closely bound up with theirs. In Noah‘s days one hundred twenty years of warning were given to men, yet they repented not till the flood came, and it was too late. But in the case of Nineveh, God granted a double mercy: first, that its people should repent immediately after threatening; second, that pardon should immediately follow their repentance.
believed God — gave credit to Jonah‘s message from God; thus recognizing Jehovah as the true God.
fast sackcloth — In the East outward actions are often used as symbolical expressions of inward feelings. So fasting and clothing in sackcloth were customary in humiliation. Compare in Ahab‘s case, parallel to that of Nineveh, both receiving a respite on penitence (1 Kings 21:27; 1 Kings 20:31, 1 Kings 20:32; Joel 1:13).
from the greatest to the least — The penitence was not partial, but pervading all classes.
in ashes — emblem of the deepest humiliation (Job 2:8; Ezekiel 27:30).
beast taste any thing — The brute creatures share in the evil effects of man‘s sin (Jonah 4:11; Romans 8:20, Romans 8:22); so they here according to Eastern custom, are made to share in man‘s outward indications of humiliation. “When the Persian general Masistias was slain, the horses and mules of the Persians were shorn, as well as themselves” [Newcome from Plutarch; also Herodotus, 9.24].
turn — Prayer without reformation is a mockery of God (Psalm 66:18; Isaiah 58:6). Prayer, on the other hand, must precede true reformation, as we cannot turn to God from our evil way unless God first turns us (Jeremiah 31:18, Jeremiah 31:19).
Who can tell — (Compare Joel 2:14). Their acting on a vague possibility of God‘s mercy, without any special ground of encouragement, is the more remarkable instance of faith, as they had to break through long-rooted prejudices in giving up idols to seek Jehovah at all. The only ground which their ready faith rested on, was the fact of God sending one to warn them, instead of destroying them at once; this suggested the thought of a possibility of pardon. Hence they are cited by Christ as about to condemn in the judgment those who, with much greater light and privileges, yet repent not (Matthew 12:41).
God repented of the evil — When the message was sent to them, they were so ripe for judgment that a purpose of destruction to take effect in forty days was the only word God‘s righteous abhorrence of sin admitted of as to them. But when they repented, the position in which they stood towards God‘s righteousness was altered. So God‘s mode of dealing with them must alter accordingly, if God is not to be inconsistent with His own immutable character of dealing with men according to their works and state of heart, taking vengeance at last on the hardened impenitent, and delighting to show mercy on the penitent. Compare Abraham‘s reasoning, Genesis 18:25; Ezekiel 18:21-25; Jeremiah 18:7-10. What was really a change in them and in God‘s corresponding dealings is, in condescension to human conceptions, represented as a change in God (compare Exodus 32:14), who, in His essential righteousness and mercy, changeth not (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). The reason why the announcement of destruction was made absolute, and not dependent on Nineveh‘s continued impenitence, was that this form was the only one calculated to rouse them; and at the same time it was a truthful representation of God‘s purpose towards Nineveh under its existing state, and of Nineveh‘s due. When that state ceased, a new relation of Nineveh to God, not contemplated in the message, came in, and room was made for the word to take effect, “the curse causeless shall not come” [Fairbairn]. Prophecy is not merely for the sake of proving God‘s omniscience by the verification of predictions of the future, but is mainly designed to vindicate God‘s justice and mercy in dealing with the impenitent and penitent respectively (Romans 11:22). The Bible ever assigns the first place to the eternal principles of righteousness, rooted in the character of God, subordinating to them all divine arrangements. God‘s sparing Nineveh, when in the jaws of destruction, on the first dawn of repentance encourages the timid penitent, and shows beforehand that Israel‘s doom, soon after accomplished, is to be ascribed, not to unwillingness to forgive on God‘s part, but to their own obstinate impenitence.
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