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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 3

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes

Verse 1

And the word of the Lord came a second time to Jonah - o “Jonah, delivered from the whale, doubtless went up to Jerusalem to pay his vows and thank God there. Perhaps he hoped that God would be content with this his punishment and repentance, and that He would not again send him to Nineveh.” Anyway, he was in some settled home, perhaps again at Gath-hepher. For God bids him, “Arise, go” . “But one who is on his way, is not bidden to arise and go.” God may have allowed an interval to elapse, in order that the tidings of so great a miracle might spread far and wide. But Jonah does not supply any of these incidents . He does not speak of himself , but only of his mission, as God taught him.

Verse 2

Arise, go to Nineveh that great city, and preach (or cry) unto it - God says to Jonah the self-same words which He had said before; only perhaps He gives him an intimation of His purpose of mercy, in that he says no more, “cry against her,” but “cry unto her.” He might “cry against” one doomed to destruction; to “cry unto her,” seems to imply that she had some interest in, and so some hope from, this cry. “The preaching that I bid thee.” This is the only notice which Jonah relates that God took of his disobedience, in that He charged him to obey exactly what He commanded . “He does not say to him, why didst thou not what I commanded?” He had rebuked him in deed; He amended him and upbraided him not . “The rebuke of that shipwreck and the swallowing by the fish sufficed, so that he who had not felt the Lord commanding, might understand Him, delivering.”

Jonah might have seemed unworthy to be again inspired by God. But “whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth;” whom He chasteneth, He loveth . “The hard discipline, the severity and length of the scourge, were the earnests of a great trust and a high destination.” He knew him to be changed into another man, and, by one of His most special favors, gives him that same trust which he had before deserted . “As Christ, when risen, commended His sheep to Peter, wiser now and more fervent, so to Jonah risen He commends the conversion of Nineveh. For so did Christ risen bring about the conversion of the pagan, by sending His Apostles, each into large provinces, as Jonah was sent alone to a large city” . “He bids him declare not only the sentence of God, but in the same words; not to consider his own estimation or the ears of his hearers, nor to mingle soothing with severe words, and convey the message ingeniously, but with all freedom and severity to declare openly what was commanded him. This plainness, though, may be less acceptable to people or princes, is ofttimes more useful, always more approved by God. Nothing should be more sacred to the preacher of God’s word, than truth and simplicity and inviolable sanctity in delivering it. Now alas, all this is changed into vain show at the will of the multitude and the breath of popular favor.”

Verse 3

And Jonah arose and went unto Nineveh - , ready to obey, as before to disobey. Before, when God said those same words, “he arose and fled;” now, “he arose and went.” True conversion shows the same energy in serving God, as the unconverted had before shown in serving self or error. Saul’s spirit of fire, which persecuted Christ, gleamed in Paul like lightning through the world, to win souls to Him.

Nineveh was an exceeding great city - literally “great to God,” i. e., what would not only appear great to man who admires things of no account, but what, being really great, is so in the judgment of God who cannot be deceived. God did account it great, Who says to Jonah, “Should not I spare Nineveh that great city, which hath more than six score thousand that cannot discern between their right hand and their left?” It is a different idiom from that, when Scripture speaks of “the mountains of God, the cedars of God.” For of these it speaks, as having their firmness or their beauty from God as their Author.

Of three days’ journey - , i. e., 60 miles in circumference. It was a great city. Jonah speaks of its greatness, under a name which he would only have used of real greatness. Varied accounts agree in ascribing this size to Nineveh . An Eastern city enclosing often, as did Babylon, ground under tillage, the only marvel is, that such a space was enclosed by walls. Yet this too is no marvel, when we know from inscriptions, what masses of human strength the great empires of old had at their command, or of the more than threescore pyramids of Egypt . In population it was far inferior to our metropolis, of which, as of the suburbs of Rome of old , “one would hesitate to say, where the city ended, where it began. The suburban parts are so joined on to the city itself and give the spectator the idea of boundless length.”

An Eastern would the more naturally think of the circumference of a city, because of the broad places, similar to the boulevards of Paris, which encircles it, so that people could walk around it, within it . “The buildings,” it is related of Babylon, “are not brought close to the walls, but are at about the distance of an acre from them. And not even the whole city did they occupy with houses; 80 furlongs are inhabited, and not even all these continuously, I suppose because it seemed safer to live scattered in several places. The rest they sow and till, that, if any foreign force threaten them, the besieged may be supplied with food from the soil of the city itself.” Not Babylon alone was spoken of, of old, as “having the circumference of a nation rather than of a city.”

Verse 4

And Jonah began to enter the city a day’s journey - Perhaps the day’s journey enabled him to traverse the city from end to end, with his one brief, deep cry of woe; “Yet forty days and Nineveh overthrown.” He prophesied an utter overthrow, a turning it upside down. He does not speak of it as to happen at a time beyond those days. The close of the forty days and the destruction were to be one. He does not say strictly, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown,” but, “Yet forty days and Nineveh overthrown.” The last of those forty days was, ere its sun was set, to see Nineveh as a “thing overthrown.” Jonah knew from the first God’s purpose of mercy to Nineveh; he had a further hint of it in the altered commission which he had received. It is perhaps hinted in the word “Yet” . “If God had meant unconditionally to overthrow them, He would have overthrown them without notice. ‘Yet,’ always denotes some long-suffering of God.” But, taught by that severe discipline, he discharges his office strictly.

He cries, what God had commanded him to cry out, without reserve or exception. The sentence, as are all God’s threatenings until the last, was conditional. But God does not say this. That sentence was now within forty days of its completion; yet even thus it was remitted. Wonderful encouragement, when one Lent sufficed to save some 600,000 souls from perishing! Yet the first visitation of the cholera was checked in its progress in England, upon one day’s national fast and humiliation; and we have seen how general prayer has often-times at once opened or closed the heavens as we needed. “A few years ago,” relates Augustine, “when Arcadias was Emperor at Constantinople (what I say, some have heard, some of our people were present there,) did not God, willing to terrify the city, and, by terrifying, to amend, convert, cleanse, change it, reveal to a faithful servant of His (a soldier, it is said), that the city should perish by fire from heaven, and warned him to tell the Bishop! It was told. The Bishop despised it not, but addressed the people. The city turned to the mourning of penitence, as that Nineveh of old. Yet lest men should think that he who said this, deceived or was deceived, the day which God had threatened, came. When all were intently expecting the issue with great fears, at the beginning of night as the world was being darkened, a fiery cloud was seen from the East, small at first then, as it approached the city, gradually enlarging, until it hung terribly over the whole city.

All fled to the Church; the place did not hold the people. But after that great tribulation, when God had accredited His word, the cloud began to diminish and at last disappeared. The people, freed from fear for a while, again heard that they must migrate, because the whole city should be destroyed on the next sabbath. The whole people left the city with the Emperor; no one remained in his house. That multitude, having one some miles, when gathered in one spot to pour forth prayer to God, suddenly saw a great smoke, and sent forth a loud cry to God.” The city was saved. “What shall we say?” adds Augustine. “Was this the anger of God, or rather His mercy? Who doubts that the most merciful Father willed by terrifying to convert, not to punish by destroying? As the hand is lifted up to strike, and is recalled in pity, when he who was to be struck is terrified, so was it done to that city.” Will any of God’s warnings “now” move our great Babylon to repentance, that it be not ruined?

Verse 5

And the people of Nineveh believed God; - strictly, “believed in God.” To “believe in God” expresses more heart-belief, than to “believe God” in itself need convey. To believe God is to believe what God says, to be true; “to believe in” or “on God” expresses not belief only, but that belief resting in God, trusting itself and all its concerns with Him. It combines hope and trust with faith, and love too, since, without love, there cannot be trust. They believed then the preaching of Jonah, and that He, in Whose Name Jonah spake, had all power in heaven and earth. But they believed further in His unknown mercies; they cast themselves upon the goodness of the hitherto “unknown God.” Yet they believed in Him, as the Supreme God, “the” object of awe, the God אלהים 'ĕlohı̂ym Jonah 3:5, Jonah 3:8, האלהים ha'ĕlohı̂ym Jonah 3:9, although they knew Him not, as He Is , the Self-Existent One. Jonah does not say how they were thus persuaded.

God the Holy Spirit relates the wonders of God’s Omnipotence as common everyday things. They are no marvels to Him Who performed them. “He commanded and they were done.” He spake with power to the hearts which He had made, and they were turned to Him. Any human means are secondary, utterly powerless, except in “His” hands Who Alone doth all things through whomsoever He doth them. Our Lord tells us that “Jonah” himself “was a sign unto the Ninevites” . Whether then the mariners spread the history, or howsoever the Ninevites knew the personal history of Jonah, he, in his own person and in what befell him, was a sign to them. They believed that God, Who avenged “his” disobedience, would avenge their’s. They believed perhaps, that God must have some great mercy in store for them, Who not only sent His prophet so far from his own land to “them” who had never owned, never worshiped Him, but had done such mighty wonders to subdue His prophet’s resistance and to make him go to them.

And proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth - It was not then a repentance in word only, but in deed. A fast was at that time entire abstinence from all food until evening; the haircloth was a harsh garment, irritating and afflictive to the body. They who did so, were (as we may still see from the Assyrian sculptures) men of pampered and luxurious habits, uniting sensuality and fierceness. Yet this they did at once, and as it seems, for the 40 days. They “proclaimed a fast.” They did not wait for the supreme authority. Time was urgent, and they would lose none of it. In this imminent peril of God’s displeasure, they acted as men would in a conflagration. People do not wait for orders to put out a fire, if they can, or to prevent it from spreading. Whoever they were who proclaimed it, whether those in inferior authority, each in his neighborhood, or whether it spread from man to man, as the tidings spread, it was done at once. It seems to have been done by acclamation, as it were, one common cry out of the one common terror. For it is said of them, as one succession of acts, “the men of Nineveh believed in God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth from their great to their little,” every age, sex, condition . “Worthy of admiration is that exceeding celerity and diligence in taking counsel, which, although in the same city with the king, perceived that they must provide for the common and imminent calamity, not waiting to ascertain laboriously the king’s pleasure.” In a city, 60 miles in circumference, some time must needs be lost, before the king could be approached; and we know, in some measure, the forms required in approaching Eastern monarchs of old.

Verse 6

For word came - , rather, “And the matter came,” i. e., the “whole account,” as we say. “The word, word,” throughout Holy Scripture, as in so many languages stands for that which is reported of. “The whole account,” namely, how this stranger, in strange austere attire, had come, what had happened to him before he came, how he preached, how the people had believed him, what they had done, as had just been related, “came to the king.” The form of words implies that what Jonah relates in this verse took place after what had been mentioned before. People are slow to carry to sovereigns matters of distress, in which they cannot help. This was no matter of peril from man, in which the counsel or energy of the king could be of use. Anyhow it came to him last. But when it came to him, he disdained not to follow the example of those below him. He was not jealous of his prerogative, or that his advice had not been had; but, in the common peril, acted as his subjects had, and humbled himself as they did. Yet this king was the king of Nineveh, the king, whose name was dreaded far and wide, whose will none who disputed, prospered . “He who was accounted and was the greatest of the kings of the earth, was not held back by any thought of his own splendor, greatness or dignity, from fleeing as a suppliant to the mercy of God, and inciting others by his example to the same earnesthess.” The kings of Assyria were religious, according to their light. They ascribed all their victories to their god, Asshur . When the king came to hear of One who had a might such as he had not seen, he believed in Him.

And he arose from his throne - He lost no time; he heard, “and he arose” . “It denotes great earnestness, haste, diligence.” “And he laid his robe from him.” This was the large costly upper garment, so called from its amplitude It is the name of the goodly Babylonian garment Joshua 7:21 which Achan coveted. As worn by kings, it was the most magnificent part of their dress, and a special part of their state. Kings were buried as they lived, in splendid apparel; and rich adornments were buried with them. The king of Nineveh dreads no charge of precipitancy nor man’s judgment . “He exchanges purple, gold, gems for the simple rough and sordid sackcloth, and his throne for the most abject ashes, the humblest thing he could do, fulfilling a deeper degree of humility than is related of the people.”

Strange credulity, had Jonah’s message not been true; strange madness of unbelief which does not repent when a Greater than Jonah cries Matthew 4:17, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Strange garb for the king, in the eyes of a luxurious age; acceptable in His who said Matthew 11:21, “if the mighty works which have been done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” . “Many wish to repent, yet so as not to part with their luxuries or the vanity of their dress, like the Greek who said he would ‘like to be a philosopher, yet in a few things, not altogether.’ To whom we may answer, ‘delicate food and costly dress agree not with penitence; and that is no great grief which never comes to light’” . “It was a marvelous thing, that purple was outvied by sackcloth. Sackcloth availed, what the purple robe availed not. What the diadem accomplished not, the ashes accomplished. Seest thou, I said not groundlessly that we should fear, not fasting but drunkenness and satiety? For drunkenness and satiety shook the city through and through, and were about to overthrow it; when it was reeling and about to fall, fasting stablished it” . “The king had conquered enemies by valor; he conquered God by humility. Wise king, who, for the saving of his people, owns himself a sinner rather than a king. He forgets that he is a king, fearing God, the King of all; he remembereth not his own power, coming to own the power of the Godhead. Marvelous! While he remembereth not that he is a king of men, he beginneth to be a king of righteousness. The prince, becoming religious, lost not his empire but changed it. Before, he held the princedom of military discipline; now, he obtained the princedom in heavenly disciplines.”

Verse 7

And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh; - literally, “And he cried and said, etc.” The cry or proclamation of the king corresponded with the cry of Jonah. Where the prophet’s cry, calling to repentance, had reached, the proclamation of the king followed, obeying. “By the decree of the king and his nobles.” This is a hint of the political state of Nineveh, beyond what we have elsewhere. It was not then an absolute monarchy. At least, the king strengthened his command by that of his nobles, as Darius the Mede sealed the den of lions, into which Daniel was cast, with the signet of his lords as well as his own Daniel 6:17, “that the purpose might not be changed concerning him.”

Let neither man nor beast ... - o “Are brutes too then to fast, horses and mules to be clothed with sackcloth? Yes, he says. For as, when a rich man dies, his relatives clothe not only the men and maidservants, but the horses too with sackcloth, and, giving them to the grooms, bid that they should follow to the tomb, in token of the greatness of the calamity and inviting all to sympathy, so also when that city was about to perish, they clad the brute natures in sackcloth, and put them under the yoke of fasting. The irrational animals cannot, through words, learn the anger of God; let them learn through hunger, that the infliction is from God: for if, he says, the city should be overthrown, it would be one grave of us the inhabitants and of them also.” It was no arbitrary nor wanton nor careless act of the king of Nineveh to make the mute animals share in the common fast. It proceeded probably from an indistinct consciousness that God cared for them also, and, that “they” were not guilty. So the Psalmist looked on God’s care of His creatures as a fresh ground for man’s trust in Him Psalms 36:6-7, “O Lord, Thou preservest man and beast: How excellent is Thy lovingkindness, O Lord, therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Thy wings.” As our Lord teaches that God’s care of the sparrows is a pledge to man of God’s minute unceasing care for him, so the Ninevites felt truly that the cry of the poor brutes would be heard by God. And God confirmed that judgment, when He told Jonah of the “much cattle ,” as a ground for having pity on Nineveh. The moanings and lowings of the animals, their voices of distress, pierce man’s heart too, and must have added to his sense of the common misery. Ignorance or pride of human nature alone could think that man’s sorrow is not aided by these objects of sense. Nature was truer in the king of Nineveh.

Verse 8

Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth - The gorgeous caparisons of horses, mules and camels was part of Eastern magnificence. Who knows not how man’s pride is fed by the sleekness of his stud, their “well-appointed” trappings? Man, in his luxury and pride, would have everything reflect his glory, and minister to pomp. Self-humiliation would have everything reflect its lowliness. Sorrow would have everything answer to its sorrow. People think it strange that the horses at Nineveh were covered with sackcloth, and forget how, at the funerals of the rich, black horses are chosen and are clothed with black velvet.

And cry unto God mightily - , “with might which conquereth judgment.” A faint prayer does not express a strong desire, nor obtain what it does not strongly ask for, as having only half a heart.

And let them turn, every man from his evil way - Isaiah 59:6. “See what removed that inevitable wrath. Did fasting and sackcloth alone? No, but the change of the whole life. How does this appear? From the prophet’s word itself. For he who spake of the wrath of God and of their fast, himself mentions the reconciliation and its cause. “And God saw their works.” What works? that they fasted? that they put on sackcloth? He passes by these, and says, “that every one turned from his evil ways, and God repented of the evil which He had said that He would do unto them.” Seest thou, that not the fast plucked them from the peril, but the change of life made God propitious to these pagan. I say this, not that we should dishonor, but that we may honor fasting. For the honor of a fast is not in abstinence from food, but in avoidance of sin. So that tie who limiteth fasting to the abstinence from food only, he it is, who above all dishonoreth it. Fastest thou? Show it me by its works. ‘What works?’ askest thou? if you see a poor man, have mercy; if an enemy, be reconciled; if a friend doing well, envy him not; if a beautiful woman, pass on. Let not the mouth alone fast; let eyes too, and hearing and feet, and hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, clean from rapine and avarice! let the feet fast, holding back from going to unlawful sights! let the eyes fast, learning never to thrust themselves on beautiful objects, nor to look curiously on others’ beauty, for the food of the eye is gazing. Let the ear too fast, for the fast of the ears is not to hear detractions and calumnies. Let the mouth too fast from foul words and reproaches. For what boots it, to abstain from birds and fish, while we bite and devour our brethren? The detractor preys on his brother’s flesh.”

He says, each from his evil way, because, in the general mass of corruption, each man has his own special heart’s sin. All were to return, but by forsaking, each, one by one, his own habitual, favorite sin.

And from the violence - “Violence” is singled out as the special sin of Nineveh, out “of all their evil way;” as the angel saith, Mark 16:7. “tell His diciples and Peter.” This was the giant, Goliath-sin. When this should be effaced, the rest would give way, as the Philistines fled, when their champion was fallen to the earth dead. “That is in their hands,” literally “in their palms” , the hollow of their hand. The hands being the instruments alike of using violence and of grasping its fruits, the violence cleaves to them in both ways, in its guilt and in its gains. So Job and David say, Job 16:17; 1 Chronicles 12:17. “while there was no violence in my hands;” and Isaiah, “the work of wickedness is in their hands.” Repentance and restitution clear the hands from the guilt of the violence: restitution, which gives back what was wronged; repentance, which, for love of God, hates and quits the sins, of which it repents. “Keep the winning, keep the sinning. The fruits of sin are temporal gain, eternal loss. We cannot keep the gain and escape the loss. Whoever keeps the gain of sin, loves it in its fruits, and will have them, all of them. The Hebrews had a saying , “Whoso hath stolen a beam, and used it in building a great tower, must pull down the whole tower and restore the beam to its owner,” i. e., restitution must be made at any cost. “He,” they say , “who confesses a sin and does not restore the thing stolen, is like one who holds a reptile in his hands, who, if he were washed with all the water in the world, would never be purified, until he cast it out of his hands; when he has done this, the first sprinkling cleanses him.”

Verse 9

Who can tell if God will turn and repent? - The Ninevites use the same form of words, which God suggested by Joel to Judah. Perhaps He would thereby indicate that He had Himself put it into their mouths. “In uncertainty they repented, and obtained certain mercy” . “It is therefore left uncertain, that men, being doubtful of their salvation, may repent the more vehemently and the more draw down on themselves the mercy of God” . “Most certain are the promises of God, whereby He has promised pardon to the penitent. And yet the sinner may well be uncertain whether he have obtained that penitence which makes him the object of those promises, not a servile repentance for fear of punishment, but true contrition out of the love of God.” And so by this uncertainty, while, with the fear of hell, there is mingled the fear of the loss of God, the fear of that loss, which in itself involves some love, is, by His grace, turned into a contrite love, as the terrified soul thinks “Who” He is, whom it had all but lost, whom, it knows not whether it may not lose. In the case of the Ninevites, the remission of the temporal and eternal punishment was bound up in one, since the only punishment which God had threatened was temporal, and if this was forgiven, that forgiveness was a token that His displeasure had ceased.

“They know not the issue, yet they neglect not repentance. They are unacquainted with the method of the lovingkindness of God, and they are changed amid uncertainty. They had no other Ninevites to look to, who had repented and been saved. They had not read the prophets nor heard the patriarchs, nor benefited by counsel, nor partaken of instruction, nor had they persuaded themselves that they should altogether propitiate God by repentance. For the threat did not contain this. But they doubted and hesitated about this, and yet repented with all carefulness. What account then shall we give, when these, who had no good hopes held out to them as to the issue, gave evidence of such a change, and thou, who mayest be of good cheer as to God’s love for men, and hast many times received many pledges of His care, and hast heard the prophets and Apostles, and hast been instructed by the events themselves, strivest not to attain the same measure of virtue as they?

Great then was the virtue too of these people, but much greater the lovingkindness of God; and this you may see from the very greatness of the threat. For on this ground did He not add to the sentence, ‘but if ye repent, I will spare,’ that, casting among them the sentence unconditioned, He might increase the fear, and, increasing the fear, might impel them the more speedily to repentance.” “That fear was the parent of salvation; the threat removed the peril; the sentence of overthrow stayed the overthrow. New and marvelous issue! The sentence threatening death was the parent of life. Contrary to secular judgment, the sentence lost its force, when passed. In secular courts, the passing of the sentence gives it validity. Contrariwise with God, the pronouncing of the sentence made it invalid. For had it not been pronounced, the sinners had not heard it: had they not heard it, they would not have repented, would not have averted the chastisement, would not have enjoyed that marvelous deliverance. They fled not the city, as we do now (from the earthquake), but, remaining, established it. It was a snare, and they made it a wall; a quicksand and precipice, and they made it a tower of safety.”

“Was Nineveh destroyed? Quite the contrary. It arose and became more glorious, and all this intervening time has not effaced its glory, and we all yet celebrate it and marvel at it, that thenceforth it has become a most safe harbor to all who sin, not allowing them to sink into despair, but calling all to repentance, both by what it did and by what it gained from the Providence of God, persuading us never to despair of our salvation, but living the best we can, and setting before us a good hope, to be of good cheer that the end will anyhow be good” . “What was Nineveh? “They ate, they drank; they bought, they sold; they planted, they builded;” they gave themselves up to perjuries, lies, drunkenness, enormities, corruptions. This was Nineveh. Look at Nineveh now. They mourn, they grieve, are saddened, in sackcloth and ashes, in fastings and prayers. Where is that Nineveh? It is overthrown.”

Verse 10

And God saw their works - o “He did not then first see them; He did not then first see their sackcloth when they covered themselves with it. He had seen them long before He sent the prophet there, while Israel was slaying the prophets who announced to them the captivity which hung over them. He knew certainly, that if He were to send the prophets far off to the Gentiles with such an announcement, they would hear and repent.” God saw them, looked upon them, approved them, accepted the Ninevites not for time only, but, as many as persevered, for eternity. It was no common repentance. It was the penitence, which our Lord sets forth as the pattern of true repentance before His coming Matthew 12:41. “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation and shall condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold a greater than Jonah is here.”

They believed in the one God, before unknown to them; they humbled themselves; they were not ashamed to repent publicly; they used great strictness with themselves; but, what Scripture chiefly dwells upon, their repentance was not only in profession, in belief, in outward act, but in the fruit of genuine works of repentance, a changed life out of a changed heart. “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way.” Their whole way and course of life was evil; they broke off, not the one or other sin only, but all “their” whole “evil way” . “The Ninevites, when about to perish, appoint them a first; in their bodies they chasten their souls with the scourge of humility; they put on hair-cloth for raiment, for ointment they sprinkle themselves with ashes; and, prostrate on the ground, they lick the dust. They publish their guilt with groans and lay open their secret misdeeds. Every age and sex alike applies itself to offices of mourning; all ornament was laid aside; food was refused to the suckling, and the age, as yet unstained by sins of its own, bare the weight of those of others; the mute animals lacked their own food. One cry of unlike natures was heard along the city walls; along all the houses echoed the piteous lament of the mourners; the earth bore the groans of the penitents; heaven itself echoed with their voice. That was fulfilled (Ecclesiasticus 35:17); The prayer of the humble pierceth the clouds.” “The Ninevites were converted to the fear of God, and laying aside the evil of their former life, betook themselves through repentance to virtue and righteousness, with a course of penitence so faithful, that they changed the sentence already pronounced on them by God.” “As soon as prayer took possession of them, it both made them righteous, and immediately corrected the city which had been habituated to live with profligacy and wickedness and lawlessness. More powerful was prayer than the long usage of sin. It filled that city with heavenly laws, and brought along with it temperance, lovingkindness, gentleness and care of the poor. For without these it cannot abide to dwell in the soul. Had any then entered Nineveh, who knew it well before, he would not have known the city; so suddenly had it sprung back from life most foul to godliness.”

And God repented of the evil - This was no real change in God; rather, the object of His threatening was, that He might not do what He threatened. God’s threatenings are conditional, “unless they repent,” as are His promises, “if they endure to the end” Matthew 10:22. God said afterward by Jeremiah, Jeremiah 18:7-8. At what “instant I shall speak concerning a nation and concern ing a kingdom, to pluck up and to pull down and to destroy it, if that nation, against whom I had pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.”

“As God is unchangeable in nature, so is He unchangeable in will. For no one can turn back His thoughts. For though some seem to have turned back His thoughts by their deprecations, yet this was His inward thought, that they should be able by their deprecations to turn back His sentence, and that they should receive from Him whereby to avail with Him. When then outwardly His sentence seemeth to be changed, inwardly His counsel is unchanged, because He inwardly ordereth each thing unchangeably, whatsoever is done outwardly with change.” “It is said that He repented, because He changed that which He seemed about to do, to destroy them. In God all things are disposed and fixed, nor doth He anything out of any sudden counsel, which He knew not in all eternity that He should do; but, amid the movements of His creature in time, which He governeth marvelously, He, not moved in time, as by a sudden will, is said to do what He disposed by well-ordered causes in the immutability of His most secret counsel whereby things which come to knowledge, each in its time, He both doth when they are present, and already did when they were future.” “God is subject to no dolor of repentance, nor is He deceived in anything, so as to wish to correct wherein He erred. But as man, when he repenteth willeth to change what he has done, so when thou hearest that God repenteth, look for the change. God, although He calleth it ‘repenting,’ doth it otherwise than thou. Thou doest it, because thou hast erred; He, because He avengeth or freeth. He changed the kingdom of Saul when He “repented.”

And in the very place, where Scripture saith, “He repenteth,” it is said a little after, “He is not a man that He should repent.” When then He changes His works through His unchangeable counsels, He is said to repent, on account of the change, not of the counsel, but of the act.” Augustine thinks that God, by using this language of Himself, which all would feel to be inadequate to His Majesty, meant to teach us that all language is inadequate to His Excellences. “We say these things of God, because we do not find anything better to say. I say, ‘God is just,’ because in man’s words I find nothing’ better, for He is beyond justice. It is said in Scripture, “God is just and loveth justice.” But in Scripture it is said, that “God repenteth,” ‘God is ignorant.’ Who would not start back at this? Yet to that end Scripture condescendeth healthfully to those words from which thou shrinkest, that thou shouldest not think that what thou deemest great is said worthily of Him. If thou ask, ‘what then is said worthily of God? one may perhaps answer, that ‘He is just.’ Another more gifted would say, that this word too is surpassed by His Excellence, and that this too is said, not worthily of Him, although suitably according to man’s capacity: so that, when he would prove out of Scripture that it is written, “God is just,” he may be answered rightly, that the same Scriptures say that “God repenteth;” so, that, as he does not take that in its ordinary meaning, as men are accustomed to repent, so also when He is said to be just, this does not correspond to His supereminence, although Scripture said this also well, that, through these words such as they are, we may be brought to that which is unutterable.” “Why predictest Thou,” asks Chrysostom, “the terrible things which Thou art about to do? That I may not do what I predict. Wherefore also He threatened hell, that He may not bring to hell. Let words terrify you that ye may be freed from the auguish of deeds.” “Men threaten punishment and inflict it. Not so God; but contrariwise, He both predicts and delays, and terrifies with words, and leaves nothing undone, that He may not bring what He threatens. So He did with the Ninevites. He bends His bow, and brandishes His sword, and prepares His spear, and inflicts not the blow. Were not the prophet’s words bow and spear and sharp sword, when he said, “yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed?” But He discharged not the shaft, for it was prepared, not to be shot, but to be laid up.”

“When we read in the Scriptures or hear in Churches the word of God, what do we hear but Christ? “And behold a greater than Jonas is here.” If they repented at the cry of one unknown servant, of what punishment shall not we be worthy, if, when the Lord preacheth, whom we have known through so many benefits heaped upon us, we repent not? To them one day sufficed; to us shall so many months and years not suffice? To them the overthrow of the city was preached, and 40 days were granted for repentance: to us eternal torments are threatened, and we have not half an hour’s life certain.”

And He did it not - God willed rather that His prophecy should seem to fail, than that repentance should fail of its fruit. But it did not indeed fail, for the condition lay expressed in the threat. “Prophecy,” says Aquinas in reference to these cases, “cannot contain anything untrue.” For “prophecy is a certain knowledge impressed on the understanding of the prophets by revelation of God, by means of certain teaching. But truth of knowledge is the same in the Teacher and the taught, because the knowledge of the learner is a likeness of the knowledge of the Teacher. And in this way, Jerome saith that ‘prophecy is a sort of sign of divine foreknowledge.’ The truth then of the prophetic knowledge and utterance must be the same as that of the divine knowledge, in which there can be no error. But although in the Divine Intellect, the two-fold knowledge (of things as they are in themselves, and as they are in their causes,) is always united, it is not always united in the prophetic revelation, because the impression made by the Agent is not always adequate to His power. Whence, sometimes, the prophetic revelation is a sort of impressed likeness of the Divine Foreknowledge, as it beholds the future contingent things in themselves, and these always take place as they are prophesied: as, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.”

But sometimes the prophetic revelation is an impressed likeness of Divine Foreknowledge, as it knows the order of causes to effects; and then at times the event is other than is foretold, and yet there is nothing untrue in the prophecy. For the meaning of the prophecy is, that the disposition of the inferior causes, whether in nature or in human acts, is such, that such an effect would follow” (as in regard to Hezekiah and Nineveh), “which order of the cause to the effect is sometimes hindered by other things supervening. “The will of God,” he says again, “being the first, universal Cause, does not exclude intermediate causes, by virtue of which certain effects are produced. And since all intermediate causes are not adequate to the power of the First Cause, there are many things in the power, knowledge, and will of God, which are not contained in the order of the inferior causes, as the resurrection of Lazarus. Whence one, looking to the inferior causes, might say, ‘Lazarus will not rise again:’ whereas, looking to the First Divine Cause, he could say, ‘Lazarus will rise again.’ And each of these God willeth, namely, that a thing should take place according to the inferior cause: which shall not take place, according to the superior cause, and conversely. So that God sometimes pronounces that a thing shall be, as far as it is contained in the order of inferior causes (as according to the disposition of nature or deserts), which yet doth not take place, because it is otherwise in the superior Divine Cause. As when He foretold Hezekiah Isaiah 38:1, “Set thy house in order, for thou, shalt die and not live;” which yet did not take place, because from eternity it was otherwise in the knowledge and will of God which is unchangeable. Whence Gregory saith , ‘though God changeth the thing, His counsel He doth not change.’ When then He saith, “I will repent,” Jeremiah 18:8. it is understood as said metaphorically, for men, when they fulfill not what they threatened, seem to repent.”

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Jonah 3". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/jonah-3.html. 1870.
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