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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 3

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes



The second half of this book records Jonah’s obedience to the Lord following his initial disobedience (chs. 1-2). However, he was not completely obedient in his attitudes even though he was in his actions.

Verse 1

The writer did not clarify exactly when this second commission came to Jonah. It may have been immediately after Jonah reached dry land or it may have been sometime later. The writer’s point seems to be that God gave the prophet a second commission, not when it came to him (cf. Jonah 1:1-2). God does not always give His servants a second chance to obey Him when they refuse to do so initially. Often He simply uses others to accomplish His purposes. In Jonah’s case God sovereignly chose to use Jonah for this mission just as He had sovereignly sent the storm and the fish to do His will. The sovereignty of God is a strong revelation in this book.

Nineveh was about 550 miles northeast of Samaria, the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel.

Verses 1-4

A. Jonah’s proclamation to the Ninevites 3:1-4

God gave Jonah a second chance to obey Him, as He has many of His servants (e.g., Peter, John Mark, et al.).

Verse 2

Another evidence of God’s sovereignty is the Lord’s instruction to proclaim the message that He would give Jonah. Those who speak forth a message from God (i.e., prophets) must communicate the Lord’s words, not their own ideas.

"The will of God will never lead you where the grace of God can’t keep you and the power of God can’t use you." [Note: Wiersbe, p. 383.]

Nineveh was a "great" (Heb. gadol) city in several respects. It was a leading city of one of the most powerful nations in the world then. It was also a large city (cf. Jonah 3:3; Jonah 4:11).

"The point is that Nineveh was a city God was concerned for, one that was by no means insignificant to him." [Note: Stuart, p. 487.]

Verse 3

Having learned that he must fulfill the Lord’s commission or suffer the most unpleasant consequences, Jonah this time obeyed and traveled east to Nineveh rather than west (cf. Jonah 1:3). For all he knew, he might end up impaled on a pole or skinned alive, which is how the Assyrians often dealt with their enemies. Nevertheless, such a fate was preferable to suffering divine discipline again.

The writer’s description that Nineveh "was" a great city has led some interpreters to conclude that it was not great when the book was written. Some of them take this as evidence for a late date of writing, even during the postexilic period. However it seems more likely that the writer was simply describing Nineveh as it was when God sent Jonah to it. Probably "was" implies that Nineveh had already become a great city when Jonah visited it. The Hebrew syntax favors this view. Roland de Vaux estimated that Israel’s largest city, Samaria, had a population of about 30,000 at this time. [Note: Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions, p. 66.] Nineveh was at least four times larger (Jonah 4:11).

The meaning of "a three-days’ walk" remains somewhat obscure. The Hebrew phrase is literally "a distance of three days," which does not solve the problem. It may mean that it took three days to walk through the city from one extremity to the opposite one, but the extent of Nineveh’s ruins argues against this interpretation. It may also mean that it took three days to walk around the circumference of the city, though this seems unlikely (cf. Jonah 3:4). Whether the size refers to the area enclosed by the major eight-mile wall, which seems improbable, or includes the outlying suburbs is also unclear. Apparently at this time "Nineveh" referred to (1) the city and (2) a complex of four cities including the city in question. [Note: See Keil, 1:390; T. D. Alexander, "Jonah and Genre," Tyndale Bulletin 36 (1985):57-58; and Hannah, p. 1468.] Probably the "three-days walk" describes the time it took to visit the city and its outlying suburbs. [Note: Stuart, pp. 487-88.] In any case, the description clearly points to Nineveh’s geographical size as being large and requiring several days for Jonah’s message to reach everyone (cf. Jonah 4:11).

Another explanation is that the literal meaning of the phrase, namely, "a visit of three days," describes the protocol involved in visiting an important city such as Nineveh. It was customary in the ancient Near East for an emissary from another city-state to take three days for an official visit. He would spend the first day meeting and enjoying the hospitality of his host, the second day discussing the primary purpose of his visit, and the third saying his farewells. [Note: Wiseman, "Jonah’s Nineveh," p. 38. See also Stuart, pp. 487-88.] If Jonah was such an emissary, he went as a divine representative to Nineveh’s king and other government officials as well as to the people. This explanation suggests that Jonah’s preaching may have started with the king and then proceeded to the people rather than the other way around. This view may account better for the king’s repentance and his decree to all the people to repent (Heb. sub; Jonah 3:6-9) compared to the traditional view.

Verse 4

The traditional view holds that after Jonah arrived at the edge of the city he proceeded into it and began announcing his message during his first day there. [Note: Ellison, "Jonah," p. 381; Keil, 1:405.] Alternatively, he may have done his first day’s preaching to the king and perhaps also to some of the people. The essence of his proclamation was that Nineveh would be overthrown in only 40 days. Periods of testing in Scripture were often 40 days long (cf. Genesis 7:17; Exodus 24:18; 1 Kings 19:8; Matthew 4:2). The Septuagint has three instead of 40, but there is no justification for changing the Hebrew text.

Note that Jonah’s message was an announcement of impending doom, not a call to believe in the God of Israel. Jeremiah 18:7-8 explains that prophecies of impending judgment assumed that those under judgment would not repent. If they repented, they might avoid the judgment (cf. Joel 2:12-14). Physical deliverance rather than spiritual salvation was what the people of Nineveh would have wanted. As noted in the introduction to this exposition above, hostile tribes to Nineveh’s north threatened the city.

The same Hebrew word (haphak, overthrown, destroyed) describes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19:25. Possibly Jonah expected God to destroy Nineveh as He had overthrown Sodom and Gomorrah.

The basic simplicity of Jonah’s message contrasts with the greatness of Nineveh. The word of the Lord is able to change even a complex and sophisticated urban population.

Verse 5

The people repented, apparently after only one day of preaching (Jonah 3:4), because of the message from God that Jonah had brought to them. [Note: See Steven J. Lawson, "The Power of Biblical Preaching: An Expository Study of Jonah 3:1-10," Bibliotheca Sacra 158:631 (July-September 2001):331-46.] Fasting and wearing sackcloth demonstrated self-affliction that reflected an attitude of humility in the ancient Near East (cf. 2 Samuel 3:31; 2 Samuel 3:35; 1 Kings 21:27; Nehemiah 9:1-2; Isaiah 15:3; Isaiah 58:5; Daniel 9:3; Joel 1:13-14). Sackcloth was what the poor and the slaves customarily wore. Thus wearing it depicted that the entire population viewed themselves as needy (of God’s mercy in this case) and slaves (of God in this case). This attitude and these actions marked all levels of the city’s population (i.e., the chronologically old and young, and the socially high and low). The Ninevites did not want to perish any more than the sailors did (cf. Jonah 1:6; Jonah 1:14).

Some commentators believed that two plagues, a severe flood and a famine, had ravaged Nineveh in 765 and 759 B.C., plus a total eclipse of the sun on June 15, 763, and that these phenomena prepared the Ninevites for Jonah’s message. [Note: Wiseman, "Jonah’s Nineveh," p. 44; and Stuart, pp. 490-91.] The Ninevites probably viewed these phenomena as indications of divine displeasure, a common reaction in the ancient Near East. [Note: Ibid., p. 494.] However this providential "pre-evangelism" is not the concern of the text. It attributes the Ninevites’ repentance to Jonah’s preaching.

Some commentators have credited the repentance of the Ninevites at least partially to Jonah’s previous experience in the great fish’s stomach. They base this on Jesus’ statement that Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites (Matthew 12:39-41; Luke 11:29-32). Jonah was a sign in a two-fold sense. His three days and nights in the fish foreshadowed Jesus’ three days and nights in the grave (Matthew 12:40), and his ministry as a visiting prophet delivering a call for repentance to an evil people under God’s judgment previewed Jesus’ ministry (Matthew 12:41; Luke 11:30; Luke 11:32). These commentators note that the Ninevites worshipped Dagon, which was part man and part fish. [Note: E.g., Feinberg, p. 33.] They have also pointed out that the Assyrian fish goddess, Nosh, was the chief deity in Nineveh. Some of them have argued that Jonah came to the city as one sent by Nosh to proclaim the true God. However the text of Jonah attributes the repentance of the Ninevites primarily to the message that God had given Jonah to proclaim. Whatever the Ninevites may have known about Jonah’s encounter with the fish-the text says nothing about their awareness of it-the writer gave the credit to the word of the Lord, not to Jonah’s personal background.

One writer saw this text as support for the historic evangelical doctrine of exclusivism in salvation and used it to argue against religious inclusivism (pluralism). [Note: Wayne G. Strickland, "Isaiah, Jonah, and Religious Pluralism," Bibliotheca Sacra 153:609 (January-March 1996):31-32.]

"God delights to do the impossible, and never more so than in turning men to Himself. Instead, then, of denying on the grounds of its ’human’ impossibility the repentance that swept over Nineveh, let us see it as an evidence of divine power. For this, not the episode of the sea monster, is the greatest miracle in the book." [Note: Gaebelein, p. 103.]

Verses 5-10

B. The Ninevites’ repentance 3:5-10

Jonah’s proclamation moved the Ninevites to humble themselves and seek divine mercy.

"Although Nineveh was not overturned, it did experience a turn around." [Note: Alexander, p. 121.]

Verse 6

Jonah 3:5 could be a general record of the response of the Ninevites and Jonah 3:6-9 a more detailed account of what happened. Even the king responded by repenting. The king of Nineveh would probably have been the king of Assyria since Nineveh was a leading city of the empire. Similarly King Ahab of Israel was the "king of Samaria" (1 Kings 21:1), King Ahaziah of Israel was the "king of Samaria" (2 Kings 1:3), and King Ben-hadad of Aram was the "king of Damascus" (2 Chronicles 24:23). However the writer described this man as the king of Nineveh. The explanation may be that the focus of Jonah’s prophecy was specifically Nineveh (Jonah 3:4), not the whole Assyrian Empire. His name, though of interest to us, was unnecessary to the writer.

Who was this king? He was probably one of the Assyrian kings who ruled during or near the regency of Jeroboam II in Israel (793-753 B.C.). [Note: See The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1463.]

Assyrian Kings Contemporary with Jeroboam II
Adad-nirari III811-783 B.C.
Shalmaneser IV783-772 B.C.
Ashur-dan III772-754 B.C.
Ashur-nirari V754-746 B.C.

Of these perhaps Ashur-dan III is the most likely possibility. [Note: Stuart, pp. 491-97.]

". . . the first half of the eighth century is one of the most poorly documented periods of Assyrian history." [Note: Alexander, p. 123.]

"There is something affecting in the picture of this Oriental monarch so swiftly casting aside such gorgeous robes and taking the place of the penitent. He had the virtue of not holding back in his approach to God." [Note: Gaebelein, p. 106.]

"It must be remembered that an Assyrian king, as a syncretist, would hardly wish automatically to deny the validity of any god or any prophet. And does not an outsider often command far more respect than those with whom one regularly deals-even in the case of prophets and other clergy (cf. Melchizedek and Abraham, Genesis 14:17-24; Moses and Pharaoh, Exodus 5-14; Balaam and Balak, Numbers 22-24; the Levite from Bethlehem and the Danites, Judges 17-18; etc.)?" [Note: Stuart, p. 491.]

Verse 7

This verse further describes how seriously the king and his nobles regarded their situation and to what extent they went to encourage citywide contrition. They did not regard their animals as needing to humble themselves but viewed them as expressing the spirit of their owners.

Verse 8

Clearly the Ninevites connected the impending judgment with their own conduct. They felt that by abandoning their wickedness they could obtain some mercy from God. The Hebrew word translated "violence" (hamas) refers to the overbearing attitude and conduct of someone who has attained power over others and misuses it (cf. Genesis 16:5). Assyrian soldiers were physically violent (Nahum 3:1; Nahum 3:3-4; cf. 2 Kings 18:33-35), but so were the Chaldeans (Habakkuk 1:9; Habakkuk 2:8; Habakkuk 2:17) and others who, because of conquest, could dominate others. Discrimination against minorities because they are less powerful manifests this sin. We must not forget the violence of our own times and society.

"Violence, the arbitrary infringements of human rights, is a term that occurs in the OT prophets especially in connection with cities: urban conglomeration encourages scrambling over others, like caterpillars in a jar." [Note: Allen, p. 225.]

This reference to violence recalls Genesis 6:11; Genesis 6:13. God had previously destroyed the world in Noah’s day because it was so violent. Now Jonah became the bearer of a message of judgment on another violent civilization.

Decorating horses and other animals has long been a popular practice. In the funeral of President John F. Kennedy a rider-less horse added a poignant touch to the procession.

Verse 9

The Ninevites lived in the ancient Near East that viewed all of life as under the sovereign control of divine authority, the gods. [Note: Keil, 1:107.] Even though they were polytheists and pagans they believed in a god of justice who demanded justice of humankind. They also believed that their actions affected their god’s actions. This worldview is essentially correct as far as it goes. We should probably not understand their repentance as issuing in conversion to Jewish monotheism. It seems unlikely that all the Ninevites became Gentile proselytes to Judaism (cf. Jonah 1:16).

"The Ninevites then assumed that one of their gods-it is ultimately immaterial which one they may have thought it to be, or if they found it necessary to make such an identification-was planning to compound their recent troubles by bringing disaster to the city." [Note: Stuart, p. 494.]

God turning and relenting (Heb. niham) would result from His compassion, which the Ninevites counted on when they repented.

"Though generalities must always be used with caution, we may say that never again has the world seen anything quite like the result of Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh." [Note: Gaebelein, p. 95.]

It is amazing that God brought the whole city to faith and repentance through the preaching of a man who did not love the people to whom he preached. Ultimately salvation is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). It is not dependent on the attitudes and actions of His servants, though our attitudes and actions affect our condition as we carry out the will of God.

"The book is a challenge to all to hear God’s appeal to be like the sailors and the Ninevites in their submissiveness to Yahweh." [Note: Allen, p. 189. Cf. 1:6, 14.]

Verse 10

God noted the genuineness of the Ninevites’ repentance in their actions. These fruits of repentance moved Him to withhold the judgment that He would have sent on them had they persisted in their wicked ways. Repentance is essentially a change in one’s thinking. Change in one’s behavior indicates that repentance has taken place, but behavioral change is the fruit of repentance and is not all there is to repentance (cf. Matthew 3:7-10). Nineveh finally experienced overthrow in 612 B.C., about 150 years later.

"We may know the character of God only from what he does and the words he uses to explain his actions. When he does not do what he said he would, we as finite men can say only that he has changed his mind or repented, even though we should recognize, as Jonah did (Jonah 4:2), that he had intended or desired this all along." [Note: Ellison, "Jonah," pp. 383-84. Cf. Feinberg, p. 37. See also Thomas L. Constable, "What Prayer Will and Will Not Change," in Essays in Honor of J. Dwight Pentecost, pp. 99-113; and Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "Does God ’Change His Mind’?" Bibliotheca Sacra 152:608 (October-December 1995):387-99.]

"That God should choose to make his own actions contingent-at least in part-upon human actions is no limitation of his sovereignty. Having first decided to place the option of obedience and disobedience before nations, his holding them responsible for their actions automatically involves a sort of contingency. He promises blessing if they repent, punishment if not (cf. Jeremiah 18:7-10). But this hardly makes God dependent on the nations; it rather makes them dependent on him, as is the point of the lesson at the potter’s house in Jeremiah 18:1-11, and the point of the mourning decree in Jonah 3:5-9. God holds all the right, all the power, and all the authority." [Note: Stuart, p. 496.]

"Helpful also is the analogy of the thermometer. Is it changeable or unchangeable? The superficial observer says it is changeable, for the mercury certainly moves in the tube. But just as certainly it is unchangeable, for it acts according to fixed law and invariably responds precisely to the temperature." [Note: Gaebelein, p. 111.]

Notice that in this section of verses (Jonah 3:5-10) the name "God" (Heb. Elohim, the strong one) appears exclusively. However the name "LORD" (Heb. Yahweh, the covenant keeping God) occurs frequently earlier and later in the story. Jonah did not present God, and the Ninevites did not fear God, as the covenant keeping God of Israel but as the universal Supreme Being. Likewise God did not deal with the Ninevites as He dealt with His covenant people Israel but as He deals with all people generally. Thus the story teaches that God will be merciful to anyone, His elect and His non-elect, who live submissively to natural divine law (cf. Genesis 9:5-6).

If such a remarkable turnaround really did occur in Nineveh, why is there no other historical record of it?

"First of all, the extant records are comparatively few. There are large segments of undocumented history. Second, there was a serious, pronounced bias in recording history that gave only the most favorable of impressions." [Note: Page, p. 265.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Jonah 3". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/jonah-3.html. 2012.
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