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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 3

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This brief chapter of ten verses tells of the renewal of Jonah’s commission, his obedient response, his preaching the word God had commanded, and the remarkable repentance of the Ninevites.

Verse 1

“And the word of Jehovah came unto Jonah the second time, saying.”

The narrative passes over a number of intervening incidents which arouse our curiosity. Nothing is given concerning where Jonah was deposited by the fish, what Jonah did next, or where he was when this second commission came from the Lord. As a speculation, it seems reasonable to suppose that as soon as Jonah was able to do so, he went up to Jerusalem and worshipped and paid his vows in the temple as he had indicated he would do in the psalm-prayer.

Jonah, delivered from the great fish, doubtless went up to Jerusalem to pay his vows and thank God there; perhaps he also thought that his punishment had been sufficient, and that he would not again be commanded to go to Nineveh.(F1)

At any rate, it was certain that Jonah had settled down “somewhere”; for the Word of God that came the second time, said, “Arise and go (Jonah 3:2)”; and that is inconsistent with the idea that Jonah was already on the way.

Verse 2

“Arise, go unto Nineveh that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.”

No preacher of God’s Word has any other message than the divine revelation, his first and only duty being to proclaim the truth of God unto all alike. It is a shame that in our own times, as in many others, “All this is changed into vain show at the will of the multitude, and the breath of popular favor.”(F2)

The Hebrew in this verse literally means, “Cry the cry that I bid thee”;(F3) and it has reference to the fervor, earnestness, and urgency which are to mark the preaching. Any message, the urgency of which is denied by the manner of its delivery, will be fruitless.

“The preaching that I bid thee” As Butler said, concerning this, “Men who do not declare from the pulpit, `Thus saith the Lord,’ are not fit to stand in that sacred spot.”(F4)

Verse 3

“So Jonah arose and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of Jehovah. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city, of three days journey.”

“So Jonah arose and went” As we detected in the psalm-prayer, Jonah still entertained a deep prejudice against the pagan worshippers of idols; and Smith may be correct in his remark that, “He obeyed, but with his prejudice as strong as though it had never been humbled, nor met by Gentile nobleness.”(F5)

“Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city” “The past tense shows that the writing belongs to a period after the destruction of Nineveh in 612 B.C.”(F6) We consider it a duty to warn young students of God’s Word against observations like this comment from Interpreter’s Bible. It is a curious example of pedantic sophistry which pretends a discernment which is actually blindness, and which falsely alleges an intellectuality which is nowhere to be found in it. To begin with, “The Hebrew has no true past tense, indeed has no tenses in its verb system.(F7) An argument from “tense” in this place is therefore worthless. “All that is intended here is, that, `Nineveh existed in Jonah’s day as a great city.’“(F8) The greatest scholars on earth have been pointing this out now for a hundred years, but the so-called “liberal” scholars go right on parroting the same old worn-out arguments that have been exploded for a century! Dozens of writers have pointed out that the tense in this passage is synchronistic, that is, it corresponds with the whole narrative which is cast in the past tense. “The statement that, `Nineveh was an exceeding great city,’ need imply no more than that this is how it was when Jonah went there.”(F9)

If the false allegation that Jonah was written after 612 B.C. is accepted, the entire Book of Jonah would be pointless; “Should not I pity Nineveh?” would then be, “not only a hypothetical consideration, but a particularly ill-chosen one.”(F10) A number of similar usages of the past tense (in our translations) in both Old Testament and New Testament refute the critical allegations against this verse. For example:

“Now Bethany was nigh unto Jerusalem, about fifteen furlongs off (John 11:18). Who would stress the verb `was’ to the point of denying that the town of Bethany existed in Jesus’ day, or even when Luke wrote?”(F11)

Or take 1 Kings 18:2:

“Elijah went to show himself unto Ahab. And the famine was sore in Samaria.”

Could this verse possibly mean that the famine, on account of which Elijah went to see Ahab, was a thing of the remote past, some two or three hundred years earlier? Indeed no!

There is no need to multiply instances of this well known and frequent use of the past tense in the Bible. As a matter of fact, such arguments as that concocted from “was” in this verse are not even believed by those using them, but they are for the purpose of deceiving people who are not supposed to know any better. Robinson wrote:

“The chief reason why some scholars hold the book to be a product of postexilic times is that… the general thought and tenor of the book… presupposes the teaching of the great prophets, including Jeremiah (and Isaiah).”(F12)

It should be noted that the actual reason has nothing to do with the type of insinuation used against this verse. The chief reason, as Robinson went on to point out is “highly subjective,”(F13) having nothing at all to do with any factual or substantive evidence.

Now, with regard to the “chief reason,” Jeremiah and Isaiah both were doubtless influenced by Jonah, especially Isaiah who, in full harmony with the inevitable deductions that appear mandatory in the Book of Jonah, prophesied again and again the rejection of Israel and the acceptance of the Gentiles into the kingdom of God. Romans 9-11 is fully devoted to this.

“Great city of three day’s journey” The unanimous voice of the ancients attests the accuracy of this statement. The subjective objections of some who would like to have it otherwise are not sustained by either fact or substance. Excavations of the ancient fortifications of Nineveh are considerably smaller than the area indicated here; but the citadel should not be confused with the whole city. All ancient, walled cities, were actually composed of a vast inhabited area outside the walls, and frequently at considerable distances beyond them, in addition to the comparatively small area encompassed by the walls proper. Keil, quoting Niebuhr (p. 277), wrote:

“The circumference of the great city of Nineveh, or the length of the boundaries of the city in the broadest sense was nearly ninety English miles, not reckoning the smaller windings of the boundary; and this would be just three day’s traveling for a good walker on a long journey.”(F14)

Verse 4

“And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

“Began to enter into the city” This says nothing about Jonah’s going a whole day’s journey into Nineveh and then starting to preach, but points out the fact that as he “started” the day’s journey into Nineveh, he began to cry the cry that God gave him. This mention of a “day’s journey” in this verse “must not be understood as relating either to the diameter or the circumference of the city.”(F15) It merely means that after Jonah had gone some distance into Nineveh he started to preach.

“Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown” The word “overthrown” here, literally means, “Destroyed from the very foundation and is the same word used in speaking of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.”(F16)

“And he cried” What language did Jonah use? Of course, no one can actually say; but since his message contains only five words in Hebrew, it could hardly have been inconvenient if he had learned it in three or four different languages! Besides that, Aramaic, which according to Griffiths, “was a lingua franca for the educated classes, understood by Jews and Assyrians alike, as the language of diplomacy.”(F17)

“Yet forty days” Why forty? “The number forty is often associated in the scripture with humiliation. It was forty days that Moses, Elijah and Christ fasted.”(F18) Furthermore, Israel’s probation in the wilderness lasted forty years; and forty years elapsed between the end of the ministry of Jesus Christ and the final overthrow and destruction of Jerusalem. When the flood came, it rained, a rain of judgment upon the earth, for a total of forty days and forty nights. Banks added that, “The number forty is considered the number of probation, testing, punishment, chastisement and humiliation.”(F19) In New Testament times, those who were punished with stripes usually were given “forty lashes, save one.” “The more definite form of the denunciation (in this verse) implies that Nineveh has now almost filled up the measure of her guilt.”(F20)

Verse 5

“And the people of Nineveh believed God, and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.”

“The people of Nineveh believed God” Actually, the Hebrew text in this would be better translated “believed in God,” according to Barnes, who also made the distinction between the two expressions thus:

“To believe God means to believe what God says, to be the truth; to believe in God expresses not belief only, but that belief resting and trusting in God; it combines hope and trust with faith and love, since without love there cannot be trust.”(F21)

That the people of Nineveh should have done such a thing as that which is here related must be accounted one of the wonders of all time. That a lone Jewish prophet, a member of a hated and despised race, who reciprocated in every way the hostility and hatred in which their respective nations held each other - that a man like that could simply walk into the city, declare its immediately forthcoming destruction, and be greeted by the enthusiastic and wholesale repentance which greeted Jonah’s denunciation - all that is such an extraordinary occurrence, that some of the commentators have hailed it as a miracle. However, this was no miracle. The people heard the Word of God, believed it, and obeyed it; and that same opportunity to hear, believe, and obey the truth is still available today for every man on earth.

The people of Nineveh, however, did have a very remarkable “sign” from God that Jonah’s message was the truth.

“To the Ninevites, Jonah himself was not merely a prophet, but a wonder in the earth, as one who had tasted of death, and yet had not seen corruption, but had now returned to witness among them for God.”(F22)

Such an observation as this is undoubtedly true, as attested by the following scripture:

“This generation is an evil generation: it seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it but the sign of Jonah. For even as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of Man be to this generation” (Luke 11:29-30).

“Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites” This is the only proof needed that the Ninevites were fully aware of the supernatural wonder involved in Jonah’s deliverance. Here again, we have that great New Testament word used also in John 2:11, etc., which “denotes a miraculous act, given as a token of divine power and authority.”(F23) The Scriptures do not tell us “how” Nineveh learned about this, but they do clearly inform us that they did learn of it. As to the “how”; it may be assumed that Jonah himself related his experience with God’s anger, and with God’s punishment, and following his repentance, with God’s mercy. If Jonah did not himself tell, there were other witnesses, the mariners; at any rate there was ample human testimony.

There is also another very important possibility, and that regards the matter of Jonah’s appearance following his deliverance. Many writers have wondered if he carried in his body any evidence of the terrible ordeal through which he had passed. Was his skin forever altered in color by the digestive juices in the fish? Were there scars that he would carry to the grave? We have no answers to such questions; but our Lord Jesus Christ exhibited the pierced hands and feet, and invited Thomas to thrust his hand into our Saviour’s side after the resurrection! Again, the likeness between the antitype and type suggests that one of the ways in which Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites might very well have been that of the evidence exhibited in his body of what had occurred. Certainly, it was true in the case of Jesus our Lord.

To be sure, the critics of the New Testament have moved every part of heaven and earth they could reach in order to make “the sign” here anything except the wonder of Jonah’s deliverance. As Summers asserted:

“In Luke, the `sign’ was not the experience but the preaching. Jonah proclaimed God’s message… the ancient heathen city responded in repentance.”(F24)

It is a mystery how any student either of the Bible or of human nature could believe that Jonah’s preaching, unsupported by any substantive proof, would be hailed in Scripture as a “sign.” Jonah’s preaching would never have been believed at all, except for the fact that Jonah’s deliverance from death was such an astounding wonder that “when the word came unto the king of Nineveh,” he immediately believed every word of it! Without the prior miracle of Jonah’s deliverance from death, only a fool could believe that the king of Nineveh would have come down from his throne, cast off his royal robes, clothed himself in sackcloth and ashes, and led the whole nation in repentance. “Preaching” alone was never made the “sign” of anything!

Before leaving this verse, we should note that the first step in the conversion of the Ninevites was their “belief in God.” As, noted above, this refers to a genuine, deep-seated, and sincere conviction that God is God and that all of our allegiance is owed to him. The New Testament evangelists referred to it as “believing with all of one’s heart.” (Acts 8:37). It may be feared, as Butler thought, that:

“Preachers are guilty of expecting nominal Christians to lead lives of repentance when their belief is only nominal. Conviction must come before conversion! Persuasion precedes penitence!”(F25)

In this connection, it should also never be forgotten that our Lord was absolutely fair and equitable in his dealings with the Pharisees who had demanded a” sign.” “No sign,” said Jesus, would be given “except the sign of the prophet Jonah”; and then Jesus went on beyond that to affirm that:

“Just as Jonah was delivered from death after having been inside of the great fish for three days and three nights, SO SHALL THE SON OF MAN be in the heart of the earth (dead and buried) for three days and three nights, and then RISE FROM THE DEAD.” (Paraphrase).

Of course, this was a far greater wonder for the Pharisees, and all mankind, than the wonder of Jonah’s deliverance. Furthermore, the Pharisees would have a much closer view of the wonder than that which was accorded the Ninevites, whose belief, at best rested upon tenuous and uncertain testimony; but the Pharisees themselves had witnessed the crucifixion, procured the guard at the grave, and instigated the action that sealed it. Yes indeed, the Lord was more than fair with them.

Nevertheless, Jonah’s deliverance was indeed a marvelous sign in its own right; and it is to the eternal credit of the Ninevites that they honored God by believing it. The action of the Ninevites in this matter proved to be an accurate prophecy of what would happen in the days of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the deliverance of Jonah which convinced them; and it was the resurrection of Jesus Christ which convinced the whole Gentile world of the power and godhead of the Son of God.

Verse 6

“And the tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.”

“The tidings came to the king” What tidings? A thorough and accurate account of Jonah’s miraculous deliverance, of course.

“We cannot imagine the people of Nineveh (including the king himself) having been motivated to fasting and cessation of violence and wickedness on the mere cry of impending ruin by a stranger of whom they were totally ignorant.”(F26)

The Saviour’s words that Jonah was a “sign” unto the Ninevites (Luke 11:30) has often been cited by Bible scholars as the basis for understanding that, “Jonah’s experience in the great fish was made known to the Ninevites.”(F27) Such knowledge would have included the fact of Jonah’s rebellion against God and the subsequent mercy that came to him; and, in the matter of Jonah himself, though in rebellion against God, having received God’s mercy, there also appears the slender little thread of hope upon which the Ninevites based their hopeful surmise that he might also spare them.

“The king of Nineveh” Upon this phrase, we are again treated to the profound wisdom (!) of the critics:

“The reference to the “king of Nineveh” is another indication of the non-historical character of the book, for nowhere else is the king of Assyria so named.(F28) It is another indication of the author’s remoteness from an actual historical situation, that he uses this title, instead of King of Assyria, and gives the king no proper name.”(F29)

To begin with, Nineveh was not the capital of Assyria until a period about a hundred years after the times of Jonah; and there is not the slightest evidence anywhere that “The King of Assyria” ever lived in Nineveh until the times of Sennacherib and Ashur-banipal (704 B.C. until the total destruction of the city).(F30) Thus, the expression “king of Nineveh,” as used by Jonah proves that he wrote earlier at a time when the historical situation is exactly represented by the title he ascribed to the ruler of Nineveh, i.e., somewhere in the half century 800-750 B.C. Pinches also affirmed that, “It is unknown how long Nineveh was the capital of Assyria.”(F31)

Another fact which refutes the allegations of the Biblical enemies on this passage was given by Banks:

“The Hebrew word from which `king’ comes in this phrase is a Semitic word “m-l-k”, in its Akkadian sense meaning `prince’ or `governor.’“(F32)

Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia summarizes the refutation of critical objections to the title, “king of Nineveh,” thus:

“The king of Nineveh” is a metonmy with adequate precedent in the Old Testament (1 Kings 21:1; 2 Chronicles 24:23; Genesis 14:18; and Jeremiah 8:19), in which references the chief officer, or ruler of each of the cities: Samaria, Damascus, Salem, and Zion is called “king of Samaria, etc.” Furthermore, Nineveh was not yet the capital of Assyria. Also, the word [~melek] may be used here as a transliteration of the Akkadian `malku’ meaning `governor’.”(F33)

It is simply monotonous how invariably and completely the objections to the divine record are frustrated, exploded, and exposed as fradulent by a little investigation.

As for the quibble that Jonah did not include the name of the king of Nineveh, it should be observed that it was not in his style of writing to include such personal designations. He did not give the name of the ship, nor of the captain with whom he sailed, nor any one of a dozen other things that would have satisfied human curiosity. This is after the manner of holy writers throughout the Bible.

“Covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” It is quite significant that the ancient governor of Nineveh, along with his people, knew exactly the posture and attitudes of repentance, as a comparison with Job 2:8 and Ezekiel 27:30 will reveal. Surely, there is a trace of the original monotheism in this, a residual remembrance in the heart of dissolute and wicked men of the righteousness and mercy of God. This fundamental conception of God’s righteousness and of human wickedness appears to be from the very beginning of man’s creation, not instinctive, perhaps, but nearly so.

Verse 7

“And he made proclamation and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, nor drink water.”

We shall not bother with noting various and sundry objections as to how Jonah might have known certain words used in this passage, such as robe, decree, etc. Jonah was an eyewitness of what he described in this passage; and the various unusual words used entered his vocabulary upon the same occasion as the events related.

What a bellowing must have gone up to God when none of the cattle were watered or fed. Anyone who ever witnessed the lowing of thirsty cattle can never forget the terrible impact of it. This action initiated by the king was evidently designed to achieve just such an impact upon the whole population. The king’s decree is continued in the next verse.

The involvement of animals in the general mourning was not due to any notion that the animals had sinned; it was merely an Oriental custom.

“Herodotus relates that the Persians, when mourning for their general, Masistios, who had fallen in the battle of Platea, shaved off the hair from their horses, and adds, `Thus did the barbarians in their way, mourn for the deceased Masistios.’“(F34)

This ancient custom of causing the animals to participate in the occasions of public mourning is still evidenced in the world by the custom of reversing the harness or saddles of horses in some funeral cortege of a president or some other famous person.

Verse 8

“But let them be covered with sackcloth, both man and beast, and let them cry mightily unto God; yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in his hands.”

“Let them turn every man from his evil way” No matter how terribly the conscience of man may be seared, there must always remain within him some basic knowledge of what is right or wrong. It does not appear that Jonah elaborated the sins of the Ninevites; he did not need to do so; they already knew what actions of theirs were sinful in the eyes of the one true and Almighty God.

The Ninevites also recognized the fundamental truth that the mere putting on of sackcloth and ashes would be futile and useless without the fundamental change in their lives which such outward tokens of repentance promised. In a manner that reminds us of the words of John the Baptist who commanded the people to “Bring forth fruit worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8), this ancient governor of Nineveh laid the same commandment upon himself and his fellow-citizens.

The fact of there being no mention of this great turning unto the Lord by the Ninevites in any of the books of the Hebrew Bible has, to be sure, been alleged as argument against the historicity of Jonah; but all such allegations ignore the Very nature of secular Israel. Their hatred and prejudice against Nineveh was exactly like that manifested by Jonah, and we may be absolutely certain that they omitted, by design, any reference whatever to the conversion of any Gentiles, especially of the hated Ninevites. Furthermore, we shall dare to engage in a little speculation. with reference to this very thing. Jonah himself, after having successfully turned an entire pagan city to the Lord, would forever afterward have been persona “non grata” in the whole nation of Israel. Jonah could not have failed to be aware of that, and it may accordingly be doubted that he ever went back, either to the northern or to the southern kingdom. There has to be some good reason why tradition places the grave of Jonah in Nineveh! Furthermore, if the animus of “the chosen people” against Jonah in any wise matched that which they directed toward the destruction of the apostle Paul, another Jew who converted many Gentiles, then, they would have held a public funeral for Jonah, buried him in effigy, and engraved his name on a grave near Gath-Hepher, which was Jonah’s home; and if this supposition appears in any manner unreasonable to anyone, let him explain how, otherwise, it was possible for Jonah to have two graves, one at Gath-Hepher, and the other in Nineveh! We shall devote a little further space to the examination of this hypothesis at the end of the commentary on Jonah. We conclude it here with the comment by Deane to the effect that the records of the Jews, “never touched” such things, especially events happening so far away, and to a people whom they so thoroughly disliked.(F35)

Verse 9

“Who knoweth whether God will not turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?”

The marvel of this repentance of the Ninevites is nowhere more evident than in this:

They repented with no invitation to repent. They repented without promise that it would do any good if they did repent.
They repented without any wish or hope on the part of the preacher that they would repent.
They repented even in the face of Jonah’s anger at their doing so.
They repented en masse, from the greatest of them to the least of them.
They backed up their repentance by turning away from their violence and wickedness.
Such repentance was rewarded by the blessing of God!

Some have supposed that the Ninevites had no hope when they turned to repentance, but that is inaccurate. God had given them the “sign” of the prophet Jonah (Luke 11:30); and they knew that Jonah, in the very midst of his rebellion against God, had nevertheless received mercy, and they may well have surmised that it could be even so with them. There was also the matter of the forty days promised by the Lord before the destruction; they evidently understood this accurately as an opportunity for them to amend their ways and appeal for mercy. Otherwise, God would have destroyed them instantaneously, without any time lapse at all.

Certainly, those pagans did not believe that God was fickle. “Instead, they believed that God’s greatest desire was not to destroy men, but to save them”;(F36) and in this they were profoundly correct.

Many have marveled at the fact that the repentance of the Ninevites did not last; but, as far as we know, it lasted for that generation, and the blessing of God was continued for an extended time afterward. In fact, the greatest period of Nineveh’s power and prosperity came a century after the events of this chapter. The eventual falling of the whole nation into debauchery and violence again was nothing more than the normal human reaction to God’s blessings, nations finding it quite easy to renounce God and all righteousness in times of prosperity, and thus making the very blessing of the Father the occasion of their turning away from him. It may also be surmised that Israel, herself increasingly hardened and sinful, offered no encouragement to Gentile converts.

Verse 10

“And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil which he said he would do unto them; and he did it not.”

“God repented” For a full discussion of the questions raised by this, see in the introduction under the subtitle, Purpose, in the last three or four paragraphs, above. All of God’s promises, whether to bless or to destroy, in the last analysis, are conditional; and one of the purposes of Jonah is to exemplify that principle. See Jeremiah 18:7-10. In fact, Griffiths said that, this passage from Jeremiah “is a general rule, demonstrated in the particular case of Jonah.”(F37)

“And God saw their works” It is most significant that the sparing of Nineveh was altogether contingent upon their good works, and this in no sense meant that they had earned any respite from the punishment which was justly due them; and God’s sparing them was an act of grace, despite the fact that if they had not repented and turned he would never have blessed them. “It was not until the repentance of Nineveh was manifested through works that their salvation was effected by God.”(F38) This is a plain doctrine of both the Old Testament and the New Testament, and it is opposed in every way to the popular misconception which alleges that people are saved “through faith alone.”

Some have complained that there is no archeological or documentary testimony regarding this wholesale repentance in Nineveh, but no thoughtful person could really be surprised by that. “It is very unusual in monumental history to find mention of any events except wars and the execution of material works.”(F39) Those who allege that “There is no ancient documentary proof of the great repentance in Nineveh,” are profoundly mistaken. There is documentation of it in the Gospel of Matthew; and there has nothing ever come out of antiquity that is any more historical than the sacred gospels. Jesus Christ himself said, concerning the Ninevites, that, “They repented at the preaching of Jonah” (Matthew 12:41). To be sure the critics have tried every device known to them to get rid of that testimony in Matthew; but, as Bruce said, “The verse cannot be challenged on critical grounds.”(F40)

Before leaving this verse which has the record of God’s sparing Nineveh, it should be remembered that the punishment was merely deferred, not cancelled, and that, in time, after the people had turned again to terror and violence, God indeed executed his wrath upon them. Keil summed up that point thus:

“The punishment was therefore deferred by the long-suffering God, until this great heathen city, in its fuller development into a God-opposing imperial power, seeking to subjugate all nations, and make itself the mistress of the earth, had filled up the measure of its sins, and had become ripe for that destruction which the prophet Nahum predicted, and the Median king Cyaxares inflicted upon it in alliance with Nabopolassar of Babylon.”(F41)

That final overthrow and total destruction of Nineveh is usually dated in 612 B.C. See introduction for the record of the utter removal of Nineveh from the face of the earth.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Jonah 3". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/jonah-3.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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