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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Jonah 3

 

 

Verses 1-10

THE REPENTANCE OF THE CITY

Jonah 3:1-10

HAVING learned, through suffering, his moral kinship with the ‘heathen, and having offered his life for some of them, Jonah receives a second command to go to Nineveh. He obeys, but with his prejudice as strong as though it had never been humbled, nor met by Gentile nobleness. The first part of his story appears to have no consequences in the second. But this is consistent with the writer’s purpose to treat Jonah as if he were Israel. For, upon their return from Exile, and in spite of all their new knowledge of themselves and the world, Israel continued to cherish their old grudge against the Gentiles.

"And the word of Jehovah came to Jonah the second time, saying, Up, go to Nineveh, the great city, and call unto her with the call which I shall tell thee. And Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, as Jehovah said. Now Nineveh was a city great before God, three days’ journey" through and through. "And Jonah began by going through the city one day’s journey, and he cried and said, Forty days more and Nineveh shall be overturned."

Opposite to Mosul, the well-known emporium of trade on the right bank of the Upper Tigris, two high artificial mounds now lift themselves from the otherwise level plain. The more northerly takes the name of Kujundschik, or "little lamb," after the Turkish village which couches pleasantly upon its northeastern slope. The other is called in the popular dialect Nebi Yu-nus, "Prophet Jonah," after a mosque dedicated to him, which used to be a Christian church; but the official name is Nineveh. These two mounds are bound to each other on the west by a broad brick wall, which extends beyond them both, and is connected north and south by other walls, with a circumference in all of about nine English miles. The interval, including the mounds, was covered with buildings, whose ruins still enable us to form some idea of what was for centuries the wonder of the world. Upon terraces and substructions of enormous breadth rose storied palaces, arsenals, barracks, libraries, and temples. A lavish water system spread in all directions from canals with massive embankments and sluices. Gardens were lifted into midair, filled with rich plants and rare and beautiful animals. Alabaster, silver, gold, and precious stones relieved the dull masses of brick and flashed sunlight from every frieze and battlement. The surrounding walls were so broad that chariots could roll abreast on them. The gates, and especially the river gates, were very massive.

All this was Nineveh proper, whose glory the Hebrews envied and over whose fall more than one of their prophets exult. But this was not the Nineveh to which our author saw Jonah come. Beyond the walls were great suburbs, [Genesis 10:11] and beyond the suburbs other towns, league upon league of dwellings, so closely set upon the plain as to form one vast complex of population, which is known to Scripture as "The Great City." To judge from the ruins which still cover the ground, the circumference must have been about sixty miles, or three days’ journey. It is these nameless leagues of common dwellings which roll before us in the story. None of those glories of Nineveh are mentioned of which other prophets speak, but the only proofs offered to us of the city’s greatness are its extent and its population. [Jonah 3:2] Jonah is sent to three days, not of mighty buildings, but of homes and families, to the Nineveh, not of kings and their glories, but of men, women, and children, "besides much cattle." The palaces and temples, he may pass in an hour or two, but from sunrise to sunset he treads the dim drab mazes where the people dwell.

When we open our hearts for heroic witness to the truth there rush upon them glowing memories of Moses before Pharaoh, of Elijah before Ahab, of Stephen before the Sanhedrim, of Paul upon Areopagus, of Galileo before the Inquisition, of Luther at the Diet. But it takes a greater heroism to face the people than a king, to convert a nation than to persuade a senate. Princes and assemblies of the wise stimulate the imagination; they drive to bay all the nobler passions of a solitary man. But there is nothing to help the heart, and therefore its courage is all the greater, which bears witness before those endless masses, in monotone of life and color, that now paralyze the imagination like long stretches of sand when the sea is out, and again terrify it like the resistless rush of the flood beneath a hopeless evening sky.

It is, then, with an art most fitted to his high purpose that our author-unlike all other prophets, whose aim was different-presents to us, not the description of a great military power: king, nobles, and armed battalions: but the vision of those monotonous millions. He strips his country’s foes of everything foreign, everything provocative of envy and hatred, and unfolds them to Israel only in their teeming humanity.

His next step is still more grand. For this teeming humanity he claims the universal human possibility of repentance-that and nothing more.

Under every form and character of human life, beneath all needs and all habits, deeper than despair and more native to man than sin itself, lies the power of the heart to turn. It was this and not hope that remained at the bottom of Pandora’s Box when every other gift had fled. For this is the indispensable secret of hope. It lies in every heart, needing indeed some dream of Divine mercy, however far and vague, to rouse it; but when roused, neither ignorance of God, nor pride, nor long obduracy of evil may withstand it. It takes command of the whole nature of a man, and speeds from heart to heart with a violence, that like pain and death spares neither age nor rank nor degree of culture. This primal human right is all our author claims for the men of Nineveh. He has been blamed for telling us an impossible thing, that a whole city should be converted at the call of a single stranger; and others have started up in his defense and quoted cases in which large Oriental populations have actually been stirred by the preaching of an alien in race and religion; and then it has been replied, "Granted the possibility, granted the fact in other cases, yet where in history have we any trace of this alleged conversion of all Nineveh?" and some scoff, "How could a Hebrew have made himself articulate in one day to those Assyrian multitudes?"

How long, O Lord, must Thy poetry suffer from those who can only treat it as prose? On whatever side they stand, skeptical or orthodox, they are equally pedants, quenchers of the spiritual, creators of unbelief.

Our author, let us once for all understand, makes no attempt to record a historical conversion of this vast heathen city. For its men he claims only the primary human possibility of repentance; expressing himself not in this general abstract way, but as Orientals, to whom an illustration is ever a proof, love to have it done-by story or parable. With magnificent reserve he has not gone further; but only told into the prejudiced faces of his people, that out there, beyond the Covenant, in the great world lying in darkness, there live, not beings created for ignorance and hostility to God, elect for destruction, but men with consciences and hearts, able to turn at His Word and to hope in His Mercy-that to the farthest ends of the world, and even on the high places of unrighteousness, Word and Mercy work just as they do within the Covenant.

The fashion in which the repentance of Nineveh is described is natural to the time of the writer. It is a national repentance, of course, and though swelling upwards from the people, it is confirmed and organized by the authorities: for we are still in the Old Dispensation, when the picture of a complete and thorough repentance could hardly be otherwise conceived. And the beasts are made to share its observance, as in the Orient they always shared and still share in funeral pomp and trappings. It may have been, in addition, a personal pleasure to our writer to record the part of the animals in the movement. See how, later on, he tells us that for their sake also God had pity upon Nineveh.

"And the men of Nineveh believed upon God, and cried a fast, and from the greatest of them to the least of them they put on sackcloth. And word came to the king of Nineveh, and he rose off his throne, and cast his mantle from upon him, and dressed in sackcloth and sat in the dust. And he sent criers to say in Nineveh":-

"By Order of the King and his Nobles, thus:-Man and Beast, Oxen and Sheep, shall not taste anything, neither eat nor drink water. But let them clothe themselves in sackcloth, both man and beast, and call upon God with power, and turn every man from his evil way and from every wrong which they have in hand. Who knoweth but that God may relent and turn from the fierceness of His wrath, that we perish not"?

"And God saw their doings, how they turned from their evil way; and God relented of the evil which He said He would do to them, and did it not."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Jonah 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/jonah-3.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, December 5th, 2019
the First Week of Advent
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