CONTEXT: This is one of those scripture passages where the preacher must know the underlying story to make sense of the lectionary readings. Fortunately, the story is familiar. Unfortunately, our memories do not always serve us well. For instance, we talk about Jonah and the whale, but there is no whale in this story-just a large fish (1:17; 2:10).
The story begins with these words: "Now the word of Yahweh came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, 'Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach against it, for their wickedness has come up before me'" (1:1-2). Note the similarity between those verses and the first two verses of our lectionary reading (3:1-2).
After the first call (1:1-2), Jonah "rose up to flee to Tarshish from the presence of Yahweh" (1:3). He boarded a ship bound for Tarshish, but God sent a storm that threatened to sink the ship. The sailors cast lots to discover the culprit, and the lot fell to Jonah. He admitted fleeing from the Lord (1:10)-and told the sailors to throw him overboard to sooth God's wrath (1:12). Reluctantly, the sailors did so, and the storm abated (1:15). "Yahweh prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights" (1:17).
Chapter 2 is Jonah's prayer of thanksgiving prayed from the belly of the whale-oops, fish. The prayer ends with Jonah's pledge to offer a sacrifice to Yahweh and to perform the vows that Jonah has vowed. "Yahweh spoke to the fish, and it vomited out Jonah on the dry land" (2:10).
The book of Jonah is listed among the Minor Prophets, but Jonah is nowhere in this book called a prophet. However, the opening words of the book, "Now the word of Yahweh came to Jonah the son of Amittai" (1:1; see also 3:1), make it clear that the Lord intends to use Jonah in a prophetic role. Also, Jonah son of Amittai is called a prophet in 2 Kings 14:25.
The reference to Jonah in 2 Kings 14:25 has him living during the reign of Jeroboam II of Israel. Jeroboam II reigned approximately 785-745 B.C. (eighth century B.C.). However, Nineveh did not become a large, prominent city until much later, so many scholars believe that this book was written in the fifth century B.C.
JONAH 3:1-5. THE WORD OF YAHWEH CAME TO JONAH A SECOND TIME
1The word of Yahweh came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2"Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I give you." 3So Jonah arose, and went to Nineveh, according to the word of Yahweh. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey across. 4Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried out, and said, "In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!" 5The people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from their greatest even to their least.
"The word of Yahweh came to Jonah the second time, saying" (v. 1). The first time the Lord spoke to Jonah was at the beginning of chapter 1. As noted above, verse 3:1 is essentially the same as verse 1:1. However, between 1:1 and 3:1, much has happened to Jonah, and he has learned a great deal. Where he was not prepared to obey God in the first chapter, he is now willing to do so. He realizes that his life hangs in the balance.
The fact that Jonah has the opportunity to obey God demonstrates that God is The God of the Second Chance. It was in the belly of the fish that it finally occurred to Jonah that he was being given a second chance, and that is the reason for his hymn of thanksgiving in chapter 2.
However, the central irony of this book is that Jonah, who has been given a second chance, does not want God to give the Ninevites a second chance. He will agree to go to Nineveh-but only under duress. His heart is not in it. Second chances are for Israelites-not Ninevites-not Assyrians.
"Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I give you" (v. 2). This verse is essentially the same as 1:2. In this verse, God tells Jonah where to go (Nineveh) and what to do ("preach to it the message that I give you.").
God identifies Nineveh as a great city. In the last verse of this book-in his reproof of Jonah, God will say that there are, "more than one hundred twenty thousand persons" living in Nineveh (4:11)-a very large city by the standards of that day.
Nineveh was located in Assyria on the Tigris River-approximately 500 miles (800 km) northeast of Israel. "From the time of the resurgence of the Assyrian Empire in 745 until (the destruction of Nineveh) in 612, Nineveh was the symbol of overwhelming and ruthless power of empire" (Achtemeier, 485).
"So Jonah arose, and went to Nineveh, according to the word of Yahweh" (v. 3a). The first time God called Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah went the other way instead-seeking to flee from the presence of the Lord (1:3). Now, having been given a second chance, he does what God calls him to do. He goes to Nineveh, "according to the word of the Lord."
As noted above, Nineveh was approximately 500 miles (800 km) northeast of Israel. There is no water route from Israel to Assyria, so Jonah would have to travel overland-a journey that would take about one month.
"Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days' journey across" (v. 3b). If this book was written in the eighth century B.C., Nineveh would have been a relatively modest city. However, Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.) made it his capital and expanded it dramatically. It is impossible to determine the exact size of Nineveh. A first century commentator, Diodorus Siculus, said that two of its walls were each 150 stades in length and the other two were each 90 stades-a circumference of 480 stades or 55 miles. However, another source says that, when Sennacherib began his transformation of the city, its circumference measured 9,300 cubits-and he added 12,515 cubits. That would make the expanded circumference about 327,000 feet or six miles (100 km) (Allen; see also Page).
"Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried out, and said, 'In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown'" (v. 4). According to verse 3, it is a three-day walk to cross the city from one side to the other, so Jonah's one-day walk would fall short of the city center.
Did Jonah preach along the way or wait until the end of the day? The text doesn't say, but anyone who was serious would preach along the way.
But is Jonah serious? I know he is serious about taking advantage of the second chance that God has given him-but as we will learn in chapter 4, Jonah is not at all serious about saving the Ninevites. He is looking forward to the overthrow of the city. It is difficult to imagine that he preached his short sermon with any conviction-that he put any force into it-that he made eye contact and attempted to persuade. Jonah had to go to Nineveh-and he had to deliver his little sermon-but he didn't have to like it.
"In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown" (v. 4b). Jonah's sermon is short-eight words in the NRSV translation, but only five words in the original Hebrew. Did he expand on that theme at all? We have no way of knowing. In this short sermon, there is no call to repentance. Jonah offers no ray of hope. He simply announces that the city will be overthrown. As sermons go, it is hardly persuasive.
"Forty days." These words hint that God is not determined to destroy the city. If he were so determined, why wait forty days? Why not overthrow the city immediately? Why give these people any warning? Forty days is a grace period-an opportunity to repent-an opportunity for these people to change their behavior-a chance for them to save themselves.
Forty is a number that appears frequently in both Old and New Testaments. The great flood lasted forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:4). Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years (Exodus 16:35). Moses remained on Mount Sinai for forty days while receiving the law (Exodus 24:18). The phrase forty days isn't necessarily intended to be taken as an exact measure. It can be used idiomatically, like our use of the word "dozens."
"The people of Nineveh believed God" (v. 5a). Note that the people of Nineveh believed God-not Jonah. Jonah was the mouthpiece, but these people somehow understood that Jonah was simply repeating the message that God had given him.
What did they believe? As nearly as we can tell, they believed only that Jonah was telling the truth-that God would, indeed, see to it that Nineveh was overthrown in forty days-that they would soon face a terrible fate.
"and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from their greatest even to their least" (v. 5). Praise God! This is every preacher's dream come true! Jonah preached his little sermonette, and the whole city repented-"from their greatest even to their least." Amazing! Such a result can be attributed only to the work of the Holy Spirit-evidence of the grace of God. Jonah certainly can't claim any credit as a great preacher.
Fasting and sackcloth are ways of demonstrating grief or penitence-in this case penitence. Fasting involves abstinence from food (and sometimes drink) for a period of time. People often observe fasting as a spiritual discipline-or to curry God's favor.
Sackcloth is a rough material made from the hair of goats or camels. It is the kind of cloth that a person would use for heavy-duty sacks (hence its name) or tents, but its coarse texture is uncomfortable when worn against the skin, making it unsuitable for clothing. However, people in mourning would wear sackcloth as a sign of their grief-and people feeling the weight of guilt would wear it as a sign of repentance or a desire for atonement. A more modern term for sackcloth is "hair shirt," although the custom of wearing rough clothing as a sign of grief or repentance is no longer observed in very many circles.
Jesus will contrast the recalcitrant people of his day with these Ninevites. He will say, "The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!" (Luke 11:32). In other words, Jonah's reluctant sermonette could hardly hold a candle to the teachings of Jesus-or the miracles that Jesus worked. Nevertheless, the people of Nineveh responded readily to Jonah's preaching, but the scribes and Pharisees rejected the much greater ministry of Jesus.
JONAH 3:6-9. WHO KNOWS? GOD MIGHT RELENT!
6 The news reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7He made a proclamation and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, "Let neither man nor animal, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, nor drink water; 8but let them be covered with sackcloth, both man and animal, and let them cry mightily to God. Yes, let them turn everyone from his evil way, and from the violence that is in his hands. 9Who knows whether God will not turn and relent, and turn away from his fierce anger, so that we might not perish?"
The lectionary reading doesn't include these verses, but the preacher should consider adding them to the public reading. They don't take long to read, and contain an important part of the story.
The amazing thing is that the king hears and repents along with the general populace. It isn't easy to persuade high-ranking officials to repent, because their position and power tends to make them arrogant. They would be reluctant to make a public display of their repentance, lest they appear weak.
But this king goes the whole route. He removes his royal robe, dresses in sackcloth, and sits in ashes-another sign of penitence. He issues a royal decree requiring everyone-people and livestock alike-to fast and to "cry mightily to God" (v. 8). In verse 9, he explains his purpose. Maybe God will relent. Maybe God will change his mind. Maybe God will turn from his fierce anger. Maybe God will spare them.
JONAH 3:10. GOD RELENTED
10God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way. God relented of the disaster which he said he would do to them, and he didn't do it.
"God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way. God relented of the disaster which he said he would do to them, and he didn't do it" (v. 10). The king's great hope is realized. God does relent. He does change his mind. He does turn from his fierce anger. He does decide to spare these Ninevites. As someone put it, "The king repented, so God relented." The people turned from their evil ways, so God turned from the evil that he was planning to impose on them.
We shouldn't be surprised at this outcome. God would not have insisted that Jonah go to Nineveh if God hadn't wanted to spare the Ninevites the destruction that he was considering. This story has been front-loaded with grace from the first verse.
The irony is that Jonah's story parallels that of the Ninevites. He disobeyed God, and found himself on the verge of disaster. However, God gave him a second chance. When he obeyed God by going to Nineveh and preaching the sermon that God gave him, he not only helped to save their lives-he helped to save his own life.
But Jonah isn't insightful enough to compare his own disobedience and salvation to that of the Ninevites. In the next chapter, he will complain and sulk and generally make a fool of himself, furious that God has spared the Ninevites. He had been looking forward to the fireworks, and is seriously disappointed to learn that there will be none.
But Jonah's displeasure will give God the opportunity to teach him (and us) a lesson (4:6-11). The lesson is that God cares about even the most unlikely people. The lesson is that God's grace is wider than we might imagine-even wider than we might desire. After all, some people should be punished. Some people should rot in hell. But God cares even about those people. He gives them every opportunity to repent. He calls us to proclaim the Gospel to them-whether we like it or not.