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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 3

Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - UnabridgedCommentary Critical Unabridged

Verse 1

And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying,

No JFB commentary on this verse.

Verse 2

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

Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching - literally, proclaim the proclamation. On the former occasion the specific object of his commission to Nineveh was declared; here it is indeterminate. This is to show how freely he yields himself, in the spirit of unconditional obedience, to speak whatever God may please. He seems to have been in a settled home when he received the command, "Arise;" whether his home now was in Jerusalem, where he had gone to pay his vows (Jonah 2:9), or in Gath-hepher, his birthplace. His commission before was, "Arise ... cry against it: for their wickedness is come up before me." Here it is, "Preach unto it," etc.; the change of expression was designed, perhaps, to give a hint of God's purpose of mercy.

Verse 3

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

So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord - like the son who was at first disobedient to the father's command, "Go work in my vineyard," but who afterward "repented, and went" (Matthew 21:28-29). As in the former call Jonah "arose" at once, and lost no time in disobeying, so now he loses no time in obeying God. Jonah was thus the fittest instrument for proclaiming judgment, and yet the hope of mercy on repentance, to Nineveh, being himself a living exemplification of both-judgment in his entombment in the fish, mercy on repentance exemplified in his deliverance. Israel professing to obey, but not obeying, and so doomed to exile in the same Nineveh, answers to the son who said, "I go, sir, and went not." In Luke 11:30 it is said that Jonas was not only a sign to the men in Christ's time, but also "unto the Ninevites." On a later occasion (Matthew 16:1-4), when the Pharisees and Sadducees tempted Him, asking a sign from heaven, He answered, "No sign shall be given, but the sign of the prophet Jonas."

Thus, the sign had a two-fold aspect, a direct bearing on the Ninevites, an indirect bearing on the Jews in Christ's Thus, the sign had a two-fold aspect, a direct bearing on the Ninevites, an indirect bearing on the Jews in Christ's time. To the Ninevites he was not merely a prophet, but himself 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. If the Ninevites had indulged in a captious spirit, they never would have inquired, and so known Jonah's wonderful history; but being humbled by God's awful message, they probably learnt from Jonah himself that it was the previous concealing in his bosom of the same message of their own doom that caused him to be entombed as an outcast from the living. Thus he was a "sign" to them of wrath on the one hand, and, on the other, of mercy. Guilty Jonah saved from the jaws of death gives a ray of hope to guilty Nineveh. Thus God, who brings good from evil, made Jonah, in his fall, punishment, and restoration, "a sign" (an embodied lesson or living symbol) through which the Ninevites were roused to hear and repent, as they would not have been likely to do had he gone on the first commission, before his living entombment and resurrection. To do evil that good may come is a policy which can only come from Satan; but from evil already done to extract an instrument against the kingdom of darkness is a triumphant display of the grace and wisdom of God.

To the Pharisees in Christ's time who, not content with the many signs exhibited by Him, still demanded a sign from heaven, He gave a sign in the opposite quarter-namely, Jonah, who came "out of the belly of hell" (the unseen region). They looked for a Messiah gloriously coming in the clouds of heaven; the Messiah, on the contrary, is to pass through a like, though a deeper humiliation than Jonah; He is to lie "in the heart of the earth." Jonah and his antitype alike appeared low and friendless among their hearers; both victims to death for God's wrath against sin, both preaching repentance. Repentance derives all its efficacy from the death of Christ, just as Jonah's message derived its weight with the Ninevites from his entombment. The Jews stumbled at Christ's death, the very fact which ought to have led them to Him, as Jonah's entombment attracted the Ninevites to his message. As Jonah's restoration gave hope of God's placabilty to Nineveh, so Christ's resurrection assures us God is fully reconciled to man by Christ's death. But Jonah's entombment only had the effect of a moral suasive. Christ's death is an efficacious instrument of reconciliation between God and man (Fairbairn).

Nineveh was an exceeding great city - literally, great to God, i:e., before God. All greatness was in the Hebrew mind associated with GOD: hence, arose the idiom (cf. Psalms 36:6; Psalms 80:10), "great mountains," margin, 'mountains of God; "goodly cedars," margin, 'cedars of God.' Genesis 10:9, "a mighty hunter before the Lord."

Three days' journey - i:e., about sixty miles round, allowing about twenty miles for a day's journey. Jonah's statement is confirmed by pagan writers, who describe Nineveh as 480 stadia in circuit (Diodorus Siculus, 2: 3). Herodotus defines a day's journey to be 150 stadia; so three days' journey will not be much below Diodorus' estimate. The parallelogram in central Assyria covered with remains of buildings has Khorsabad northeast; Koyunjik and Nebbi Yunus, near the Tigris, northwest; Nimroud, between the Tigris and the Zab, southwest; and Karamless, at a distance inward from the Zab, south east. From Koyunjik to Nimroud is about 18 miles; from Khorsabad to Karamless, the same; from Koyunjik to Khorsabad, 13 or 14 miles; from Nimroud to Karamless, 14 miles. The length thus was greater than the breadth; cf. Jonah 3:4, "a day's journey," which is confirmed by pagan writers and by modern measurements. Each of the longer sides was 150 furlongs; each of the shorter 90; the whole circuit being thus 480 furlongs (60 miles). Nineveh was thus much larger than Babylon, to which Clitarchus (in Diodorus, 2: 7) assigns a circuit of 365 furlongs. The walls were 100 feet high, and broad enough to allow three chariots abreast, and had, moreover, 1,500 lofty towers. The space between, including large parks and arable ground, capable of supplying food in time of siege, as well as houses, was Nineveh in its full extent. The oldest places are at Nimroud, which was probably the original site. Layard latterly has thought that the name Nineveh belonged originally to Koyunjik rather than to Nimroud. Jonah (Jonah 4:11) mentions the children as numbering 120,000, which would give about a million to the whole population. Existing ruins show that Nineveh acquired its greatest extent under the kings of the second dynasty - i:e., the kings mentioned in Scripture: it was then that Jonah visited it, and the reports of its magnificence were carried to the west (Layard).

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.

A day's journey - not going straight forward without stopping: for the city was but eighteen miles in length; but stopping in his progress from time to time to announce his message to the crowds gathering about him. Since the circumference was "three days' journey," Jonah occupied a day in his journey in the city, and at the close of his "day's journey" was at the east side of the city (Jonah 4:5), the opposite to that at which he had entered. He walked through it from end to end, repeating the one dirge-like cry, the more impressive by its monotonous simplicity. "Yet forty days, and Nineveh ... overthrown!" The word [ nehpaaket (H2015)] for "overthrown" implies a miraculous overthrow, like that of Sodom.

Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. The commission, given indefinitely at his setting out, assumes now, on his arrival, a definite form, and that severer than before. It is no longer "a cry against" the wickedness of Nineveh, but an announcement of its ruin in 40 days. Compare Jonah 1:2, "Cry against it, for their wickedness is come up before me." This number is in Scripture associated often with humiliation. It was for forty days that Moses, Elijah, and Christ fasted. Forty years elapsed from the beginning of Christ's ministry (the antitype to Jonah's) to the destruction of Jerusalem. The more definite form of the denunciation implies that Nineveh has now almost filled up the measure of her guilt. The change in the form which the Ninevites would hear from Jonah, on anxious inquiry into his history, would alarm them the more, as implying the increasing nearness and certainty of their doom, and would at the same time reprove Jonah for his previous guilt in delaying to warn them.

The very solitariness of the one message, announced by the stranger thus suddenly appearing among them, would impress them with the more awe. Learning that, so far from lightly prophesying evil against them, he had shrunk from announcing a less severe denunciation, and therefore had been cast into the deep and only saved by miracle, they felt how imminent was their peril, threatened as they now were by a prophet whose fortunes were so closely bound up with theirs. In Noah's days 120 years of warning were given to men, yet they repented not until the flood came, and it was too late. But in the case of Nineveh God granted a double mercy: first, that its people should repent immediately after threatening; second, that pardon should immediately follow their repentance. 'The conversion of a whole people so immediately was a miracle of grace, exceeding even the miracle of nature performed in Jonah's entombment in and resurrection from the great fish. Of course, all were not savingly converted; but all for the time sincerely humbled themselves for their sins. The secondary instruments employed by God to produce this blessed change were suitable. The cuneiform inscriptions inform us that Assyria had been for successive generations at war with Syria. Not until the reign of Ivalush or Pul, probably at the time of Jonah's mission, was Syria tributary to Assyria.' The breaking of their power under Jeroboam II, according to Jonah's prophecy, which would probably reach their ears, prepared the way before him. The fact of Jonah's own deliverance (we know from Christ's calling him "a sign unto the Ninevites," Luke 11:30) did reach them. Their deep reverence for their gods, as appears from all their inscriptions, also was a predisposing cause to incline them readily to hear the divine message.

Verse 5

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

So the people of Nineveh believed God - gave credit to Jonah's message from God; thus recognizing Yahweh as the true God. Literally, 'believed IN God,' which expresses more than "believed God." They not only believed His word as true, but believed in Himself, trusting in Him. However they came to know Jonah's history, he was a sign to them at once of wrath, if they should disregard the message from God, and mercy, if they should regard it.

And proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth. In the East outward actions are often used as symbolical expressions of inward feelings. So fasting and clothing in sackcloth were customary in humiliation. Compare in Ahab's case, parallel to that of Nineveh, both receiving a respite on penitence (1 Kings 21:27; 1 Kings 20:31-32; Joel 1:13).

From the greatest of them even to the least - the penitence was not partial, but pervading all classes.

Verse 6

For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth. "Word" in Hebrew is used for 'the thing.' The language implies that it was after the appointment of a fast by general acclamation of the people that the whole of what had occurred reached the king; and, instead of bring jealous at the initiative having been taken by the people, he at once humbled himself after his people's example.

And sat in ashes - emblem of the deepest humiliation (Job 2:8; Ezekiel 27:30). The "robe" that he laid aside was the large costly upper garment, so called from its amplitude [ 'adartow (H155)].

Verse 7

And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. The brute creatures share in the evil effects of man's sin (Jonah 4:11, "Should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand ... and also much cattle;" Romans 8:20; Romans 8:22): so they here, according to Eastern custom, are made to share in man's outward indications of humiliation. God's "tender mercies are over all His works" (Psalms 145:9); God "preserves man and beast" (Psalms 36:6). The cattle would suffer if the city should suffer, as God Himself so lovingly declares in His appeal to Jonah (Jonah 4:11). They, therefore, rightly were made, in dumb show, to plead for mercy to God in the general mourning. 'When the Persian general Masistius was slain, the horses and mules of the Persians were shorn as well as themselves' (Newcome, from Plutarch; also Herodotus, 9: 24). The association of the nobles with the king in the decree (as in Medo-Persia, under Darius) throws light on the political state of Nineveh. It was then not an absolute monarchy. The nobles probably originated the decree and the king confirmed it, (cf. Daniel 6:1-28.)

Verse 8

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

And cry mightily unto God; yea, let them turn. Prayer without reformation is a mockery of God (Ps. 56:18; Isaiah 58:6). Prayer, on the other hand, must precede true reformation, as we cannot turn to God from our evil way unless God first turns us (Jeremiah 31:18-19).

And from the violence that is in their hands. Violence was Nineveh's monster sin. "Woe to the bloody city; it is all full of lies and robbery: the prey departeth not," is Nahum's account of it (Nahum 3:1). So the Assyrian records are nothing but a dry register of military campaigns, spoliations, and cruelties (Layard, 'Nineveh and Babylon,' 631).

Verse 9

Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?

Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? - (cf. Joel 2:14, "Who knoweth if He will return and repent?") Their acting on a vague possibility of God's mercy, without any special ground of encouragement, is the more remarkable instance of faith, as they had to break through long-rooted prejudices in giving up idols to seek Yahweh at all. The only ground which their ready faith rested on was the fact of God sending one to warn them instead of destroying them at once; this suggested the thought of a possibility yet of pardon. Hence, they are cited by Christ as about to condemn in the judgment those who, with much greater light and privileges, yet repent not (Matthew 12:41).

Verse 10

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

And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil. When the message was sent to them, they were so ripe for judgment that a purpose of destruction, to take effect in forty days, was the only word which God's righteous abhorrence of sin admitted of as to them. But when they repented, the position in which they stood toward God's righteousness was altered. So God's mode of dealing with them must alter accordingly, if God is not to be inconsistent with His own immutable character of dealing with men according to their works and state of heart, taking vengeance at last on the hardened impenitent, and delighting to show mercy on the penitent. Compare Abraham's reasoning (Genesis 18:25; Ezekiel 18:21-25; Jeremiah 18:7-10). What was really a change in them, and in God's corresponding dealings, is, in condescension to human conceptions, represented as a change in God (cf. Exodus 32:14), who, in His essential righteousness and mercy, changeth not (Numbers 23:1; Numbers 23:9; 1 Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17).

The reason why the announcement of destruction was made absolute, and not dependent on Nineveh's continued impenitence, was, that this form was the only one calculated to rouse them; and at the same time it was a truthful representation of God's purpose toward Nineveh under its existing state, and of Nineveh's due. When that state ceased, a new relation of Nineveh to God, not contemplated in the message, came in, and room was made for the word to take effect, 'The curse causeless shall not come' (Fairbairn). Prophecy is not merely for the sake of proving God's omniscience by the verification of predictions of the future, but is mainly designed to vindicate God's justice and mercy in dealing with the impenitent and penitent respectively (Romans 11:22). The Bible ever assigns the first place to the eternal principles of righteousness, rooted in the character of God, subordinating to them all divine arrangements. God's sparing Nineveh, when in the jaws of destruction, on the first dawn of repentance, encourages the timid penitent, and shows beforehand that Israel's doom, soon after accomplished, is to be ascribed, not to unwillingness to forgive on God's part, but to their own obstinate impenitence.


(1) An interval seems to have elapsed before Jonah was sent a second time to Nineveh. The gracious purpose of God in allowing this interval was probably to give time for the news of the miracle concerning Jonah to reach Nineveh, whose fate was so intimately connected with that of the prophet.

(2) Jonah, after such contumacy, might have seemed unworthy to be again accredited as the divine messenger. But the severe discipline which he had undergone was the preparation designed by God to adapt him for a high trust: and the same divine grace which not only restored Peter after his grievous fall, but also entrusted him with the charge to feed Christ's sheep and lambs, qualified Jonah, too, after his restoration, for fulfilling aright the difficult and responsible mission to pagan Nineveh. So entirely can God transform vessels of filthy clay into vessels of honour to His glory.

(3) As Jonah previously "arose and fled," so now "he arose and went." The truly converted ought to show, at least, as much energy in serving God as they had shown before in serving their own self-will. The same Saul of Tarsus, who was "exceeding zealous of the traditions of his fathers" (Galatians 1:14), was, when converted, the self-denying, indefatigable apostle of the Gentiles, Paul.

(4) What encouragement to penitents the case of Nineveh holds out! In the forty days' respite, before the execution of the judgment threatened against that guilty city, the repentance of its citizens averted the descending stroke.

(5) One day's preaching of God's minister sufficed to bring a whole people to their knees. The simple cry, awfully impressive in its simplicity, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown," was blessed by the all-conquering grace of God to their conversion. How the penitent Ninevites will condemn in the judgment those of us who, not merely for one day, but for all our days, have been privileged with the far-clearer Gospel message, and yet remain impenitent and unbelieving!

(6) Jonah was in his own person, as Jesus saith, "a sign unto the Ninevites." His history preached more powerfully than even his awfully monotonous dirge-like cry. If God took vengeance for his neglect of the divine call, so surely, thought they, will He take vengeance on us, if we heed not his solemn threat. On the other hand, the fact of God's sending a messenger to them at all, and not destroying them at once, without warning, gave them a gleam of hope. The particular messenger, too, whom God selected for the purpose, who had suffered so much, and who had experienced so miraculous a deliverance, in order to constrain him to go to Nineveh, gave its citizens additional encouragement to sue for mercy.

(7) The emergency was so urgent, and the time for repentance so short, that the people of themselves, "from the greatest of them even to the least of them," without waiting for their king's command, proclaimed a fast. As, when a large building is on fire, men do not stand on etiquette, but instantly try with all their might to extinguish the flames, so the men of Nineveh, aware that much time would be lost if they waited to comply with the ceremonial customary in approaching an eastern king, and far removed, as many of them were, in the vast city, from the quarter where the palace stood, immediately adopted the only measures likely to obtain deliverance from the impending ruin. The king, too, in the general danger, was not ashamed to follow the example of his subjects. The greatest potentate, as he then was, in the world, he instantly abased himself before the King of kings. Laying aside his gorgeous robe of state, he wrapped himself in sackcloth, and exchanges his royal throne for a seat in ashes, outdoing even his people in the depth of his humiliation. As it has been well said, 'The king had conquered enemies by valour: he conquered God by humility' (Maximus, in Pusey). How his zeal, and that of his people, rebukes the half-heartedness of faith and penitence on the part of most of us! Many wish so to repent as not to part with their favourite pleasures, luxuries, and worldly vanities. That penitence is little worth which is willing to make no sacrifices. The true penitent, in times of fasting and mourning, seeks that the outward man may reflect the sincere repentance of the inward man.

(8) The King of Nineveh urged all his people to "cry mightily unto God" (Jonah 3:8). Faint prayer pierces not beyond the clouds. It is 'mighty crying,' as that of men thoroughly in earnest, which prevails. It is the spiritually violent that take heaven by a holy force (Matthew 11:12).

(9) Fasting and praying, in order to be acceptable before God, must be accompanied with a renunciation of all sin. If we regard iniquity in our hearts, the Lord will not hear us (Psalms 66:18). Prayer without the sincere purpose of reformation would be hypocrisy. Reformation without prayer would be presumption. While we "turn every one from his evil way," and from whatever sin there has been "in our hands," let us never forget that God alone, by His Spirit, can turn us, if we are truly to be turned.

(10) Besides our general and common sins, each one has his own besetting sin. This, in particular, he must put away, in order that his repentance may be a sincere one. Repentance hates and quits the sins of which it repents. To keep the gain of sin is to incur the loss of heaven. Restoration of unjust gains must be made at all costs: as the Hebrews used to say, 'He who hath used a stolen beam in building a great tower, must pull down the whole tower, in order to restore the beam' (Kimchi).

(11) The King of the Ninevites used the very same plea in addressing them as that which the prophet Joel suggested to the people of Judah, "Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?" (Jonah 3:9.) The thought must therefore have been suggested to the King of Nineveh by the same gracious Spirit who inspired Joel. None ever venture all on God's mercy and are disappointed. If, on a vague possibility of mercy, the Ninevites were so vehemently earnest in suing for it, how much more reason have we, Christians, to come boldly, yet humbly, to the throne of grace, in the assurance that our prayers are not one of them lost, because Jesus "was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification"! (Romans 4:25.) The well-grounded hope of pardon and peace for believing penitents is the best encouragement for all to seek in order that they may find. So free and full are all the promises of God in Christ, that none need despair.

(12) It is not said that God looked to their outward fasting, however proper, as an indication of mourning: this may be; but "God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way." We must not only fast for sin, but fast from sin. A changed life, flowing from a changed heart, is what God regards.

(13) God's unchangeable principle is to deal with men according to their doings. Righteousness is like the pole, to which the magnetic needle always points. When it seems to shift from side to side, the change that seems to be in its direction is really not in it, but in the direction of the ship in which it is. When God repents of the evil (Jonah 3:10) that He said He would do unto men, the change is not really in Him, but in them. Were He not to change His mode of dealing with them, when they have changed their dealings toward Him, He would be really changing from His own immutable righteousness. His threats are expressed absolutely, without the condition being expressed, in order to mark the absolute inviolability of His principle that sin unpardoned brings inevitable punishment, and that the sinner may be the more roused to flee from the wrath to come. To us there is no certainty of life for a day, whereas the Ninevites had a 40 days' respite ensured to them. How alarmed sinners would be if they were sure that they had not forty days to live! Will any, then, remain impenitent, though he is not sure of living a single day!

Bibliographical Information
Jamieson, Robert, D.D.; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. "Commentary on Jonah 3". "Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible - Unabridged". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jfu/jonah-3.html. 1871-8.
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