In the story of Jonah’s preaching to the Ninevites, and in Jesus’ warning to Israel, we hear God’s call to repent of our sins and place our trust in Jesus, the greater Jonah, whom God sent to save us from our sins. The question now before us is this: “will we be witnesses against our own evil generation? Or will we be among those on trial, who demand more signs, and who wish to remain indifferent to our sin and the evil around us?” Who are we–Ninevites who believed, or Israelites who didn’t?
You Can Run But You Can’t Hide – Jonah Re-Commissioned
Chapter 3 of Jonah’s prophecy opens with Jonah back on dry land in a virtual rewind of verses 1-2 of chapter 1. Jonah is to “arise,” “go” and “call out,” but with one major difference–this time Jonah does not attempt to flee. “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, `Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord’” In light of all that has happened to Jonah, it is remarkable that he is neither rebuked, nor is he allowed to go on his way. The word of the Lord came to him a second time, which, in effect, indicated that YHWH re-commissions Jonah to go and preach to Nineveh to fulfill his original mission. Notice too that Jonah is given the message which he is to proclaim to the Ninevites–one of the distinguishing marks of YHWH’s prophets is that they speak his words, not their own.
Aside from the significance of YHWH ensuring that his greater purposes will be fulfilled when Jonah is re-commissioned–the gospel will go out to the ends of the earth, in this case to Nineveh–we also see in Jonah’s re-commissioning that God often gives us second chances to accomplish that of which we have already made a significant mess. Jonah is an example to us in that he is sustained in his time of trial by his knowledge of God’s word (specifically the Psalms), and he is also an encouragement to those of us who often take more than one time to do things the right way. YHWH commissions Jonah but does not abandon him when Jonah rejects YHWH’s call. YHWH loves his people enough to discipline them. And his purpose for Nineveh still stands.
Jonah Goes to Nineveh and Calls for Repentance
In the last half of verse 3 of chapter 3, we learn that “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth.” Four times in Jonah’s prophecy the city is described as large (1:2; 3:2, 3; 4:1). But the Hebrew text of 3:3 is much more specific as to why the city’s size is so important to what follows. The verse can be variously translated as Nineveh is “large to the gods,” or “a large city to/for God.” The latter makes more sense in context. Nineveh is a large city in the heart of pagan Assyria with its multiple deities. Yet, Jonah is told that Ninevah is YHWH’s city. Jonah would naturally assume that YHWH is Lord over the cities of Israel. But YHWH is also Lord over the pagan Assyrian city to which Jonah is being sent. Jonah might see Assyria as enemy territory, but he now knows the city is under YHWH’s authority. To paraphrase the Psalm 24:1, “the earth is the Lord’s, every square inch of it.” No doubt, the same thing holds true today. YHWH’s rule extends to every corner of the earth.
Jonah “arose” and “went” (v. 3) which tells us there has been a complete change in Jonah’s previous attitude. It would have taken Jonah a month or so to travel the 500 miles north to Nineveh. As we read in verse 4, as soon as he got there, “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey.” The Nineveh of Jonah’s day was not quite the great city it had been a millennium or so earlier, or that it would become under the reign of king Sennacherib a hundred or so years later. But it still was large enough to take Jonah a full day to pass through the city. Jonah did not wait to get to the city’s center–the summer palace of Assyian kings–but he began preaching the words YHWH gave just as soon as he entered the city. “And [Jonah] called out, `Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’”
Jonah’s message is briefly summarized, but it is not a stretch to assume that the heart of Jonah’s preaching was that which we’ve already read in Jonah’s prophecy–the city had become a place of exceedingly great evil and had come to YHWH’s attention. The words of Jeremiah 18:7–8 are also likely a factor when we consider the content of Jonah’s preaching. “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.”
When God speaks, a decision is demanded. Unless the people of Nineveh repent of their sin and trust in YHWH’s great mercy to save them, the city would be destroyed in forty days. The number forty is not a random number. “Forty” years or days appears several times in Scripture as a time of waiting and testing. Israel was in the wilderness of the Sinai forty years. Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days. According to Deuteronomy 9:18, 25, Moses spent forty days of supplication before the Lord.. YHWH’s clock is running. Nineveh has forty days to repent.
Unlike Israel, Nineveh Believes and Repents
Jonah does not make his reader wait long to discover the outcome–again, loaded with irony, in this case, bitter irony. We read in verse 5 that upon hearing Jonah preach, “the people of Nineveh believed God.”