The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Jonah 3

Jon 3:1

THEN THE WORD OF THE LORD CAME TO JONAH A SECOND TIME: 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. God does not always give His servants a second chance to obey Him when they refuse to do so initially.

Jon 3:2

GO TO THE GREAT CITY OF NINEVEH: Which was about 600 miles to the northeast. Roland de Vaux -- noted archaeologist -- has estimated that Israel's largest city, Samaria, had a population of about 30,000 at this time. Nineveh was at least four times larger (Jon 4:11).

Jon 3:3

A VERY IMPORTANT CITY: "There is a lovely double entendre about the description given here of Nineveh as 'an exceeding great city', for literally this is: 'a city great unto God' (an example of the occasional use of Elohim to emphasize the extraordinary, eg 1Sa 14:15; Acts 7: 20; Gen 23: 6)" (WJon).

A VISIT REQUIRED THREE DAYS: Nineveh was an important administrative center. Based on an old Bedouin custom: one must spend a minimum of 3 days and 2 nights when visiting such a city -- one day to arrive (when no business can be transacted), at least one day for business, and one day to depart (also, when no business can be transacted).

"All kinds of guesses have been made about the description of Nineveh as 'a city of three days' journey'. Three days to cross it? Three days to go all round it? But since Jonah 'began to enter into the city a day's journey', this might suggest that he needed a full day in each of the three great subdivisions of the city" (WJon).

Jon 3:4

ON THE FIRST DAY: That is, Jonah did not bother to observe social custom (see v 3n): he began his "business" the very day of his arrival.

FORTY MORE DAYS: Christ was "sign of Jonah" to a wicked and adulterous generation. After 40 years Jerusalem would be overthrown.

Periods of testing in Scripture were often 40 days long (cf Gen 7:17; Exo 24:18; 1Ki 19:8; Mat 4:2.

NINEVEH WILL BE OVERTURNED: The same Heb word ("haphak", overthrown, destroyed) describes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen 19:25. Possibly Jonah expected God to destroy Nineveh as He had overthrown Sodom and Gomorrah.

Jon 3:5

THE NINEVITES BELIEVED GOD. THEY DECLARED A FAST, AND ALL OF THEM, FROM THE GREATEST TO THE LEAST, PUT ON SACKCLOTH: "The people believed in God because of the message from God that Jonah had brought to them. Fasting and wearing sackcloth were signs of self-affliction that reflected an attitude of humility in the ANE (cf 2Sa 3:31,35; Isa 58:5; Dan 9:3). 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 (ie, the chronologically old and young, and the socially high and low).

"Some commentators believe that two plagues that had ravaged Nineveh in 765 and 759 BC plus a total eclipse of the sun on June 15, 763 prepared the Ninevites for Jonah's message (Hannah). The Ninevites may have viewed these phenomena as indications of divine anger... Some commentators have attributed 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 (Luke 11:30). They note that the Ninevites worshipped Dagon, which -- according to some -- was part man and part fish (Feinberg). 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 gives the credit to the word of the Lord, not to Jonah's personal background" (Const).

"The transformation that took place was breathtaking in its magnitude and comprehensive character. But it is not unlikely that the impact of the message of such an extraordinary man as Jonah would be reinforced by the considerable reputation of those other notable prophets of the Lord, Elijah and Elisha. It may be, too, that Jonah's campaign went on for all the forty day period which was Nineveh's time of grace. However it happened, the transformation in those Ninevites far surpassed the effect produced by John the Baptist in Jewry, and of all the prophets there was none greater than he (Mat 11: 11). And after John the Baptist, Jesus was to hold up to the same people the example of this city's repentance: 'The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here' (Mat 12: 41). The message of John was: 'Yet forty YEARS and Jerusalem shall be overthrown!' (AD 30-70). Those Ninevites changed their lives so dramatically because they were led by the good example of their ruler. What a lesson was held out here to Judah and Israel, with their sequence, rarely interrupted, of unworthy kings, so often downright wicked. The narrative here is careful to specify 'the high and the low', appropriately reversing the phrase: 'both small and great' (Jer 31: 34), this latter form being more usual because God has greater regard for the humble than for the proud" (WJon).

"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" (Gaebelein).

Jon 3:6

WHEN THE NEWS REACHED THE KING OF NINEVEH, HE ROSE FROM HIS THRONE, TOOK OFF HIS ROYAL ROBES, COVERED HIMSELF WITH SACKCLOTH AND SAT DOWN IN THE DUST: "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" (Gaebelein).

Jon 3:7

DO NOT LET ANY MAN OR BEAST, HERD OR FLOCK, TASTE ANYTHING...: Not that the animals were regarded as capable of repentance, but that their treatment and actions reflected the spirit of their owners.

Jon 3:8

LET THEM GIVE UP THEIR EVIL WAYS AND THEIR VIOLENCE: "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 Heb word translated 'violence' ('hamas') refers to the overbearing attitude and conduct of someone who has attained power over others and misuses it (cf Gen 16:5). Assyrian soldiers were physically violent (Nah 3:1,3,4; cf 2Ki 18:33-35), but so were the Chaldeans (Hab 1:9; 2:8,17) 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' (Allen).

"This reference to violence recalls Gen 6:11,13. 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" (Const).

Jon 3:9

WHO KNOWS? GOD MAY YET RELENT...: "Who can tell? Nearly two hundred years later Jeremiah could tell: 'If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them' (Jer 18:8). The words are almost a direct quotation of Jon 3:10.

"This problem of God's 'change of mind' meets the reader of Holy Scripture not only here but in a variety of other situations... Clearly there is a paradox involved here. If God is omniscient and knows the end from the beginning -- a timeless God -- how is it possible for Him 'to repent' or 'change His mind'? There are more examples of this than is commonly realised. Here are a few, to be going on with: Num 14:30-34; Acts 7:25 (cp RV) and Deu 9:24; 1Ki 20:42; 21:19,21; Isa 38:1 (Hezekiah did not die!); 2Sa 24:15,16 (plague stopped on first day!); Gen 2:17 (Adam and Eve did NOT die on that day!)...

"It is agreed that the concept of a God who 'repents' or 'changes His purpose' is one not readily acceded to by a mere human mind. But then, ' My ways are not your ways, neither are your thoughts My thoughts, saith the Lord' (lsa 55:8). Then ought we not to stop trying to reconcile seeming contradictions in the ways of God? If Holy Scripture repeatedly talks about a God at work in this strange fashion, is it not because He wants His creatures to think of Him in this way? 'You small beings can no more understand those things than you can understand or even guess at the processes behind Creation in Gen 1. What you are being told in the Word of Truth is what is best for you to believe, whether you can understand or reconcile or not'.

"The sheet anchor is Jer 18:6-10. It is a Scripture to be believed, not explained away" (WJon).

Jon 3:10

HE... DID NOT BRING UPON THEM THE DESTRUCTION HE HAD THREATENED: Indeed, Nineveh did not experience overthrow until 612 BC, about 150 years later.

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