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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 3

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-2

John 3:1-2

And the Word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying.

The restored commission

Here we learn what God is to those who truly repent. God may even restore all that has been forfeited. For those who have done grievous wrong, it is encouraging to think that there is honour, and glory, and a blessed restoration to the full love of God, if only they return out of the darkness into the presence from which they have departed. God sent Jonah on the very same mission in which he had failed before,--and yet with a marked difference distinguishing the second from the first call. The changed command, though full of restored confidence, implies a warning to be exact in fulfilling the will of God--to be careful as to giving the message exactly as he received it. It seems to say, Risk not any further disobedience even in the least particular of the mission on which you are sent.

1. The exceeding mercy of God shown in this, that He offers renewed opportunities to those who fail to profit by the first opportunity; and it may be even opportunities of the same kind. They may have to be followed after a different manner, but yet the same object, the same end may be set before us till finally accomplished.

2. There is this further wonder in the forgiving and forbearing of God, that He causes the trials of the returning penitent to be the means of good. Those who have passed through the experience of such penitential struggles and fears may become afterwards a blessing to others, because they can tell of the dangers that beset them, and of the mercy through which they have been saved. The grace of God not only restores a man generally, as it were, but renews him in the very point in which he had sinned and failed. Take courage then, you who are beset with some special sin. Let us learn from the long catalogue of those who have fallen and have been recovered to take hope for ourselves. God desires a perfect, not an imperfect work. Grace crowns acts of penitence and faith. (T. T. Carter.)

The preacher of judgment

Jonah, the runaway prophet, is now before us as Jonah the successful preacher.

1. Sin in God s servants is a great hinderer.

2. Faithlessness in the servant does not necessitate failure to the Master. Chastisement may lead to consecration, and that to successful service.

3. Moral delinquency repented of is no impassable barrier to former favour, privilege, and honour. God does not take advantage of our weakness to cut us off for ever. He is patient, pitiful, forgiving, and will restore His penitent servants to forfeited blessings and dignities.

4. The preacher’s true function is to declare what God commands him. The message as well as the commission must bear the impress of Divinity. Divine thoughts, purposes, desires, truths, and not human notions, creeds, sentiments, opinions, fancies, must ever fill the mind, inspire the tongue, constrain the utterance, and fire the eloquence and enthusiasm of every ambassador of the Cross. Note that Jonah was obedient at last to the holy orders. He did what he should have done at first. Obedience is true or false according to the temper in which we act. Notice the method and matter of his preaching. His method was earnest, courageous, impressive. He “cried.” His matter was adapted to rich and poor. It was solemn, humiliating, definite, merciful. We have the practical fruits of the preaching,--repentance and reformation. Nineveh’s repentance was well timed, well grounded, well evidenced, by self-denial, self-abasement, earnest prayer, personal reform. Learn that genuine repentance averts the punitive purposes of God. God watches for genuine indications of moral reform. Behold them, He refrains from executing His threatenings. Repentance is a wonderful power in the domain of moral government. (J. O. Keen, D. D.)

The history of Jonah set before the young

The prophet Jonah opposed the will of God, and would not do what God commanded him, as did Balaam; but there was this difference between them,--that Jonah did fear and love God. God destroyed Balaam. He only punished Jonah, and brought him to repentance. It is then a very good thing to love and serve God; because those who do so cannot quite turn away from God, and Cod will never quite turn away from them. If they sin, they will be punished, like Jonah was; but those who love and serve God are still under His care, and like Jonah are brought back to repentance. If there are among you any that are wishing to serve God, but are yet sometimes tempted to disobey Him, you may learn much by thinking of what happened to Jonah.

1. God gave him a command to go and tell the people of Nineveh that He was about to destroy them. It was a very hard command for him to fulfil. Jonah could not tell what might happen to him, if he ventured into that great foreign and heathen city. But God could take care of him. He knew that God was a loving Father to him. Whenever we are disposed to do wrong, then we are afraid of the Bible; we are afraid of every thing that tells us of our sin; we are afraid of pious persons; we cannot bear to pray. Whenever you are disposed to do what is wrong, you feel equally disposed to flee from the presence of the Lord. You act like Jonah. Therefore our best way is to love and serve God with all our hearts, and ask Him for grace to do all our duty, as Jonah ought to have done. When the lot fell upon Jonah, they asked him what he had done; and he was obliged to tell them how he had been shrinking from doing his duty, and was trying to escape from God, who followed him, and who knew where he was, and what he was doing. It must have made him more miserable to have seen how much better the heathen were than he. For he had brought them into danger, and they were trying to save his life. At last, at his own wish, they took him up, and threw him into the sea. Ungodly persons, when they are brought into trouble, cannot pray. Now there is not a place on earth, and there is not a degree of guilt in which we may be living, in which our believing prayer cannot reach the ear and heart of God: for when Jonah cried unto the Lord, in the midst of his troubles, God heard him, and caused the fish to vomit him out upon the shore of his own land. How humble and grateful he must have felt that day! He was not left, however, to be indolent and inactive. Jonah was brought through all his troubles, to just this point, that he must obey the commands of God. God’s commands never alter. Our sins will not alter them; our troubles will not alter them; our deliverance will not alter them. God commands you to love and serve Him with all your hearts; God commands you to confess Jesus Christ in the world, to make the Bible your rule of life, and to live by faith and in prayer. Jonah was brought to God’s command a second time; and if he had refused, he would have been brought to it a third time. He must do God’s will. When he accomplished the will of God, and found it so easy, doubtless he thought, “Why did I not do it at first?” (Baptist W. Noel, M. A.)

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

Jonah’s first and second commission

What are the points of difference between them? One respects Jonah himself. Formerly he knew the message that he was to deliver. Now he is simply told that a message will be given him, but he is not to know it until he arrives at the place. It may be the same. It may be milder; it may be sterner. Undoubtedly this change has reference to his former disobedience. The message was different in its substance also, to meet the change in Nineveh. When the message was given, it proved to be the never varying cry, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” Some think he preached on this as a text; but as the cup of Nineveh’s iniquity was now full, what was proper to the case was just a cry of coming judgment, brief and plain, startling, stern, unalterable, except by quick and unfeigned repentance. Probably Jonah did not add to this message by the faintest hint or suggestion. The simplest interpretation is the truest. This message makes us think.

1. Of the exceeding sinfulness of sin.

2. How inflexible is the justice of God.

3. What a stupendous power a city has for good or evil. (A. Raleigh, D. D.)

A missionary message

Jonah was foolish, Jonah was wise; foolish to expect to balk God, wise to learn so quickly his folly. Misery, calamity, peril, and the sense of an ever present God who had brought them, did their work; and the prophet, back again at the starting-point, heeds the Divine voice, and turns with an obedient heart to fulfil the mission which he had thought to escape.

God’s authority. The Being who speaks is conscious of His right. He does not mince words. God’s demand on Jonah now is precisely what it was in the first place. There is no effort to compromise because of Jonah’s former flight. Now comes the command again, plain, stern, uncompromising--“Arise, go, preach.” The slight change of form in the expression seems full of meaning. “Arise, go, and preach the preaching that I bid thee.” See that thou preach no other message than Mine. God owns men. All that we are, all that we have, all the service of our lives belongs to God. We delude ourselves with any sense of self-ownership. We get the idea that we own what God only loans to us.

God’s way with the disobedient. See how God goes to work to bring this man’s will into subjection to His own. What a complex of world-wide, universe-wide machinery the Sovereign of all can set in motion for the subduing of a human spirit! Jonah is not more obdurate than Pharaoh. The storms, the seas, the worse tumults in his own bosom, the upbraidings of the crew, his thoughts of his past, his fear,--all are God’s instruments, and under His direction each does its unconscious part toward the subjection of Jonah, and the salvation of the Assyrian capital. Jonah is a changed man. From a coward he has become a dauntless hero and prophet. Jonah thought himself free when he fled, but in fact his first real enjoyment of freedom came when he started to fulfil God’s command.

God’s missionary message and its effect. Jonah was the first foreign missionary. The men of far-off Nineveh were to learn of God, His love and holiness. The very heart of our conception of God as a moral being is His holiness. The holiness of God compels Him to insist upon holiness in all men. In Nineveh sin had taken on its most frightful developments. Nineveh had much, but it lacked just one element of fortune--righteousness. Nineveh’s cup of iniquity was well-nigh full. Jonah’s preaching was plain, earnest, effective, impressive. God went into the city with Jonah, but God had also gone before. The men of Nineveh were ready for the missionary. “The people believed God.” To believe God is a great thing. The best possible evidence of the Ninevites’ belief in the missionary’s sermon was their conduct. They acted. They bestirred themselves as if they believed that the sin of their hearts and lives was endangering them. The ringing cry of Jonah reaches even the royal palace, and the king, humbled, joins his subjects in their plea for God’s mercy. The people turned from their sin, and cried for mercy.

God’s mercy. God’s heart was moved; doom was averted; Nineveh was saved. God was merciful to Jonah in following him through all his flight, in bringing him back to the starting-point, in using him though he had shown himself unworthy. God was merciful to Nineveh in sending the messenger to warn the city, and in preparing the hearts of the people for the message. And God is merciful in listening to their cry for forgiveness. God repented. His attitude toward Nineveh was changed. What changed it? Nineveh’s attitude toward sin. What is meant by God’s repentance? Speaking to man, God must use language with which man is familiar. Repentance means a changed attitude. The whole attitude of the Ninevites toward sin, and so, toward God, being changed, in that same hour God’s attitude toward them was changed. (John H. Mason.)

Conditions of ministerial success

The character of the sermon; or the objective elements of success.

1. It should be argumentative. To expect men to believe without proof is to expect them to become irrational.

2. It must be positive; mainly concerned in the teaching of truth, rather than in the refutation of error.

3. It is doctrinal. The larger part of those who compose our congregations depend upon the preacher for all the knowledge they will ever have of these great theological truths. That preaching is the most practical which indoctrinates the hearers with the fundamental elements of the Christian faith.

4. It should be systematic. As there is a logical coherence between all the parts of the religion we teach, why should we exclude system from our mode of exhibiting it?

5. A bold, unflinching testimony to the great doctrines of God’s sovereignty, man’s inability, election, and other unpopular doctrines of the Gospel.

The character of the man; or the subjective elements of success.

1. Individuality.

2. Earnestness is self-evidencing.

3. Consciousness on the part of the speaker that he is speaking to his audience. Some preach for the sake of the sermon. Others preach for the sake of the people.

4. The good preacher speaks with authority. Which may be derived from--

(1) Consciousness of official dignity.

(2) Unwavering conviction of the truth.

(3) Consciousness of personal acceptance with God.

5. The manner of delivery should be in accordance with the rules of good speaking. Delivery is an art, and is based upon scientific principles.

6. The preacher must have weight of personal character; not only piety, but weight of character. “Who of us is sufficient for these things?” (J. W. Pratt, D. D.)

Preaching to great cities

The Lord seems to say to Jonah, “Begin where you were when you started out to have your own way. Come back to the very point at which we were, and start again.” But the Lord distrusted him a little still, notwithstanding the discipline to which he had been subjected. Now God is more definite. “The preaching that I bid thee.” There must be no mistake, no dodging, no evasion. Man may disobey God in two ways. He may not go, may plead excuses, and refuse to try to do the work. Or he may not do what God tells him to do, may do something somewhat like it, but not it. It is against this second kind of disobedience that God guards His servant. It is not difficult to obtain men, in this age, who are quite ready to go to great cities. But there are many who, when they go, do not do what God tells them to do. There is preaching enough, but when you come to take out of it the theological dialectics, and the wranglings, and the discussions of the secular phases of life, and the material interests of the Church, and the meddling with current events, you find that the bulk of God’s preaching is comparatively small, and often of weak portent. The great question which lays itself down at the door of our hearts is, Are we doing our whole duty to the city?--not to one’s self simply, but to the city? We are here upon God’s errand. Is the city being saved? Is it being saved as we might save it? As God expects us to save it?

What are the methods with which we are to go into this great city as appointed by the Almighty? God sends us with a definite commission, and there is to be decisiveness of action on our part. There is to be activity, earnestness. We are to impress upon these sinners round that we can die for them, but we can never leave them unsaved. This indefiniteness, this far-off century, this millennium dawning out of small faith is not of the Gospel. That is for the prophets of evolution, of aesthetics and social culture, for the false prophets. Within the Church are the leverages and forces to bring the millennium to this sinking world.

What about the place; what about the exact methods; what about the appliances of the Gospel? If we are to preach to people the preaching God bids us to preach them, how are we to reach them? Jonah was to preach street preaching. Jesus Christ preached in the streets. The preaching of the Gospel should be just as accessible to men as when it is preached in the streets and in the fields. Christ expects men and women to be able to come to the preaching of the Gospel with as much freedom as they go along the highways. There should be nothing in the Churches or in the preaching of the Gospel that shall embarrass in the slightest degree any poor man, or plainly clad man, who may want to find Jesus Christ. We have built our churches away from the people. We imitate a useless, liturgical style of architecture. We let pews to the well-to-do. When men come to the altar of God, and it is their home, how they then throng about their minister; they don’t hide away from him.

What shall we preach? The Gospel. Just simply the plain old Gospel of the old time. You and I are to preach that very same Jesus who went into Rome, and into Athens, and into Asia-Minor, and whom our fathers preached, and whom our fathers revered. Human nature needs it as much as ever it did. Preach to it the Crucified One; not a petty little philosophy of salvation, or a poetic story of a perfect Man Christ. But preach a God Christ, a Divine Christ, who was torn, lacerated by a devil-world; a risen Christ, risen by His own power, which He will exert in due time for all who die in Him. Preach a Gospel of conviction of sin, of repentance, of regeneration, of the witness of the Spirit, by which human hearts are made new, human character is transformed, human faces are transfigured, and dying mortals are translated into that glory where all are always like Him. (J. R. Day, D. D.)

Effect of Jonah’s preaching

There was never a mission undertaken apparently more unpromising than this of Jonah to Nineveh. Here was.--

A most unsuitable missionary.

1. To begin with, he was thoroughly unwilling to go. His reason he gives in John 4:2. He was fearful that the heathen would repent at his preaching, and in that case God would have compassion, and forgive and spare them. What a fear to be entertained by a missionary!

2. Unsuitable because of the self-deception which he could practise on himself, and his moral confusion and compromise. Let us not think worse of Jonah than the case demands. He has his good traits. At least he is honest, and he is as severe on himself as he is on others.

3. It would have seemed unfavourable also that Jonah should be sent on such a mission entirely alone.

Nineveh was a very difficult field. Perhaps the most discouraging thing about it was that its people already knew Jonah’s country, his race, and his religion, and thoroughly despised them all. It was to the proud metropolis of a resistless empire, overflowing with wealth and numbers, filled with insolence and luxury, that the lonely man from the village of Gath-hepher was sent. And did it not make matters worse that God had bidden Jonah to carry to Nineveh such a disheartening, exasperating message?

Yet the mission of Jonah was a success. A success scarcely paralleled in ancient or in modern times. Nineveh “believed God.” It is not possible to tell the extent or the permanence of this national repentance. Learn--

1. All races of men have been in God’s loving care.

2. We see the method of God’s mercy to the heathen.

3. We may cherish great expectations concerning the hardest fields of the heathen world.

4. The religious use of fear.

5. The moral power of leaders, whether social or political.

6. Learn Christ’s own lessons from this history. (Arthur Mitchell, D. D.)

Jonah’s commission

The eye of God is always on man. We seem to act as if God retired into the distance of heaven, and took no cognisance of the actions of man. But if God’s eye does look upon man, the disposition of God is to show mercy to man. For do we not see here the messenger sent to Nineveh? If God has a disposition to show mercy, God is one whose patience has limits. We are not to suppose that we can trifle with God; that we can go on with our iniquity, and that God will never vindicate His honour. Learn also that we may hope in preaching to the very worst and most abandoned. Wicked Nineveh listened to the voice of warning. The text further teaches us the duty of the Church, the duty of all God’s people. They are to arise and go and preach the preaching which God bids.

1. We are to arise and go. Here at once activity is demanded at our hand. There must be no lethargy and no lukewarmness.

2. Besides showing activity, the Church is to be aggressive. Jonah was to go away into the haunts of wickedness, and there to scatter in the midst of those people the warnings of Almighty God. So we are to go unto the dark places, and carry that light which God has communicated to man.

3. The Church is to be as the “salt of the earth.” What does that involve? That it is to influence everything that it touches. And how many are the stimulants to urge us to this active, aggressive work! And observe that we are to preach the preaching that God bids. The preaching must be only what God wants. There must be no addition on our part, no fancies or imaginations of our own. Three parts in preaching.

(1) A warning to the people.

(2) We are affectionately to expostulate.

(3) We must speak the language of comfort and encouragement. (Canon Hussey.)

Christian enterprise

This is an age of enterprise. The world is more active and energetic than ever before. Gigantic schemes, of which the world scarcely dreamed in days gone by, are being hourly put into practical effect. This spirit also pervades the Church of Christ.

Christian enterprise is Divinely commanded. “Arise and go” is the Divine command to every church, to every society, to every Christian to-day.

The object of Christian enterprise. It is included in God’s command to Jonah, “ Arise, go . . . and preach . . . that I bid thee.” The work of the Church is to preach, to proclaim what God commands it--all the word of God. Nothing can be accomplished without time, trouble, expense, and labour.

The effect of Christian enterprise.

1. It had its proper effect upon the people toward whom it was directed. They believed God, they repented in sackcloth and in ashes.

2. It received the approval of God. God was pleased with Jonah and with the people. He heard their cry of repentance. (S. H. Doyle.)

Verse 3

John 3:3

So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the Word of the Lord.

Obedient at last (for children)

Introduce by description of Jonah’s conduct and history. Dwell on his call, flight, peril, humiliation, prayer, restoration, and second call. Also on--

(1) The city.

(2) The preacher.

(3) The message.

(4) The fast.

(5) The proclamation.

(6) The Divine mercy.

Impress that the long-suffering and forgiving grace of God are shown--

1. In giving Jonah another commission.

2. In hearing the penitent prayer of the Ninevites.

Show that penitence must, of necessity, precede forgiveness. Make this question the point of the address,--In what spirit should God’s servants go forth to do His work?

1. They should be strictly obedient.

2. They should be simply trustful; quite sure that God would will the right, and give them grace as they needed.

3. They should be prompt and ready, going at once and cheerfully.

4. They should leave with God the results of their mission. Illustrate, from one Bible character, each of these divisions.

(1) By Abraham.

(2) By David.

(3) By the missionaries who could say, “Immediately we conferred not with flesh and blood,” etc.

(4) By the apostle Paul. (Robert Tuck, B. A.)


Erastus Corning, when a little boy, applied at a shop for employment. The foreman looked down at the frail, lame boy, and asked, “Why, my little fellow, what can you do?” “I can do what I am bid, sir,” was the answer. His willingness to obey secured a place, and was the beginning of his successful career as a merchant. (Sunday School Teacher.)

Verse 4

John 3:4

Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.

The knell of Nineveh

Sardanapalus puts off his jewelled array, and puts on mourning, and the whole city goes down on its knees, and street cries to street, and temple to temple. A black covering is thrown over the horses, and the sheep, and the cattle. Forage and water are kept from the dumb brutes so that their distressed bellowings may make a dolorous accompaniment to the lamentation of six hundred thousands souls. God heard that cry. He turned aside from the affairs of eternal state, and listened. He said, “Stop! I must go down and save that city. It is repenting, and cries for help).”

The precision and punctuality of the Divine arrangement. God knew exactly the day when Nineveh’s lease of mercy should end. He has determined the length of endurance of our sin.

Religious warning may seem preposterous. To many still it is more a joke than anything else. Men boast of their health, but I have noticed that it is the invalids who live long. “In such an hour as ye think not, the Son of Man cometh.”

God gives every man a fair chance for his life. The iniquity of Nineveh was accumulating. Why did not God unsheath some sword of lightning from the scabbard of a storm-cloud and slay it? It was because He wanted to give the city a fair chance. And God is giving us a fair chance for safety, a better chance than He gave to Nineveh.

When the people repent, God lets them off. While Nineveh was on its knees, God reversed the judgment. When a sinner repents (in one sense) God repents (in another). Then repent, give up your sin and turn to God, and you will be saved. (T. De Witt Talmage, D. D.)

God has many preachers

God has many preachers that are not in human flesh. For instance, fever is a terrible Elijah. When the cholera came to London it was a Jonah in our streets. Many then began to think who would have gone blindfold down to perdition. When poverty visits some men’s houses, and they can no longer indulge in drunkenness and gluttony, then they bethink themselves of their Father’s house, and the hired servants who have bread enough and to spare. Omnipotence has servants everywhere; God can make use of even the ills of life to work eternal good.

A warning cry in the city

It was a great and wonderful thing that was wrought that day when Jonah “began to enter into the city.” The great capital was suddenly startled by a voice of warning in her streets. A strange, wild man, clothed in a rough garment of skin, moved from place to place, and announced to the inhabitants their coming doom. Had the cry fallen on them in their prosperous time, it would probably have been heard with apathy and ridicule. But coming as it did when their glory had declined; when their enemies, having been allowed a breathing space, had taken courage, and were acting on the offensive in many quarters, it struck them with fear and consternation. It was a single day, apparently, that was marked by such wonders in the city of Nineveh. The prophet’s “one day’s journey” is supposed to have carried him about nineteen miles. The repentance of the men of Nineveh prolonged, in God’s mercy and providence, the continuance of their city for more than a hundred years. (Archdeacon Harrison.)

Divine threatenings

Divine threats are conditional It is with them in this respect as it is with the promises recorded in the Scriptures. The appropriate condition is implied, whether it is mentioned or not, in all the promises, and in all the threats which are recorded in the Scriptures as coming from God.

Divine threats are merciful. The threat fulminated against Nineveh was the means of bringing the Ninevites to repentance, and saving their city from destruction, as it was intended to be. It is the preacher’s consolation that the Divine threats are always merciful. Observe also the suitableness of Jonah’s preaching. It might be said, was not Jonah’s preaching quite as likely to amuse or annoy the Ninevites as to effect a reformation on their part? They were certainly more likely to be annoyed than amused. If not mobbed and molested in the streets, the magistrate might be expected to deal with him as a disturber of the peace. But nothing of this kind occurred.

1. Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites of Jehovah’s power.

2. Of Jehovah’s justice.

3. Of Jehovah’s mercy.

Observe, too, how the preaching of Jonah was supplemented in Nineveh. The manner in which this royal proclamation was produced deserves consideration. It was not produced by the king alone, but by the king and his nobles. The drift of the proclamation may be regarded as either imperative or hortatory. It counselled the people to fast, to cover them selves with sackcloth, to pray, to reform their manner of life, to associate the very brutes with their appeal to God. Observe, the reason which the proclamation gives for acting as it counsels is couched in very plaintive terms. “Who can tell? “ etc. This was language equally removed from despair and presumption. (S. C. Burn.)

The repentance of Nineveh

“The great city rises before us, most magnificent of all the capitals of the ancient world--‘great even unto GodIt included parks, and gardens, and fields, and people, and cattle within its vast circumference. Twenty miles the prophet penetrates into the city. He has still finished only one-third of his journey through it. His utterance, like that of the wild preacher in the last days of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus, is one piercing cry, from street to street, from square to square. It reaches at last the king on his throne of state. The remorse for the wrong and robbery and violence of many generations is awakened. The dumb animals are included, after the fashion of the East, in the universal mourning, and the Divine decree is revoked.”

The penitent prophet. Recall the indications of his penitence given in his prayer (chap. 2.). And note the signs in his obedient attitude, and his readiness at once to do God’s commands. Truly penitent people give up their own wilfulness, and cheerfully submit and obey. If we have not this spirit we may be quite sure that our penitence has neither been sincere nor thorough. Picture the prophet setting to his work.

The penitent city. Note the signs of earnestness and sincerity. All classes joined in the penitent acts. They united in prayer. They put away their sins. The king showed the good example. What a picture! A whole people prostrate before the God of judgment!

God’s relation to both. Long-suffering to both. Forgiving to both. A prayer-hearer to both. Describe--How very strange it was that Jonah, though himself a forgiven man, was offended with God for making Nineveh a forgiven city. Our own sense of God’s mercy in forgiving us, ought to make us very hopeful about others, and very thankful when we find that God’s grace reaches also to them. There is joy among the angels over one penitent, and we should share their joy. (Robert Tuck, B. A.)

The excitement produced by Eastern prophets

Orientals are still impressed, more or less readily, by the appearance of “holy men,” such as their own dervishes, whose enthusiasm, in some cases, where high sincerity inspires them, is much like that which marks a true prophet in all ages. The name “dervish,” Dr. Wolff tells us, means “one who hangs at the gate of God,” awaiting His inspiration; and the ecstasy of some of the class may be compared to that of which we read, for example, of Micah, who, we are told, went about “ stripped and naked, and howled like the jackals, and roared like the ostrich.” I do not suppose that Jonah bore himself thus, but the fact that such appearances as those of Micah were familiar over all Asia must have opened the way for his influence in Nineveh. We may suppose him showing himself in such a garb as that of Elijah, or others of the prophets,--his hair streaming down his shoulders, his outer dress a rude sheepskin mantle. He may have arrived in the disastrous time after the death of Shalmaneser II., when the nations conquered by that great monarch, from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean, were, in most cases, in rebellion, and troubles oppressed the Nineveh palaces. Wandering over the open spaces, with their mansions and huts, and through the lanes and bazaars of each part of the city, he terrified the crowd by a piercing, monotonous wail, in a dialect which, though intelligible in a short sentence on the Tigris, must have sounded barbarous and uncouth,--“Yet forty days, an Nineveh shall be overthrown.” His appearance proclaimed him a “holy man,” and he might have been sent, in these dark times, by the gods. (Cunningham Geikie, D. D.)

Verses 5-9

John 3:5-9

So the people of Nineveh believed God.

Belief inspired by fear

How came the Ninevites to believe God, as no hope of salvation was given them? For there can be no faith without an acquaintance with the paternal kindness of God; whoever regards God as angry with, him must necessarily despair. Since, then, Jonah gave them no knowledge of God’s mercy he must have greatly terrified the Ninevites, and not have called them to faith. The answer is, that the expression is to be taken as including a part for the whole; for there is no perfect faith when men, being called to repentance, do suppliantly humble themselves before God; but yet it is a part of faith, for the apostle says in Hebrews 11:1-40., that Noah through faith feared; he deduces the fear which Noah entertained on account of the oracular word he received from faith, showing thereby that it was faith in part, and pointing out the source from which it proceeded. At the same time, the mind of the holy patriarch must have been moved by other things besides threatenings when he built an ark for himself as the means of safety. We may thus, by taking a part for the whole, explain this place--that the Ninevites believed God; for as they knew that God required the deserved punishment, they submitted to Him, and at the same time solicited pardon; but the Ninevites derived from the words of Jonah something more than mere terror, for had they only apprehended this--that they were guilty before God, and were justly summoned to punishment, they would have been confounded and stunned with dread, and could never have been encouraged to seek forgiveness. Inasmuch, then, as they suppliantly prostrated themselves before God, they must certainly have conceived some hope of grace. They were not, therefore, so touched with penitence and the fear of God but that they had some knowledge of Divine grace; thus they believed God, for though they were aware that they were most worthy of death, they yet despaired not, but betook themselves to prayer. They must therefore have derived more advantage from the preaching of Jonah than the mere knowledge that they were guilty before God. (John Calvin.)

Nineveh brought to repentance

Analyse and examine the main features of this repentance of the men of Nineveh.

The people of nineveh believed god. The men of Nineveh saw at once the reason for this sentence, for the very first impression produced on them was a belief in God. By this is implied not merely the acceptance of God’s message as truth, but the much greater belief in God. Israel’s God could not have been unknown to the Ninevites.

Mourning in the city became universal. The sin had been universal, and so now became the mourning.

They turned from their evil way. Mourning was merely the outward expression of sorrow and repentance. The grand fact is the sincerity of the repentance. They were led to alter their conduct and change their whole manner of life.

They cried mightily unto God. And that cry of Nineveh was not unheard. It came up into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. (James Menzies.)

The nature and result of true repentance

The Book of Jonah illustrates man’s perverseness, God’s love to sinners, God’s tenderness to His people. It contains a type of our Lord’s work. It shows God ever the same, whether dealing with Gentile or Jew: stern against sin; yearning over sinners; faithful to promises. As to the repentance of the Ninevites, mark--

Its origin. “They believed God.” Repentance starts from faith and leads to faith. No true repentance till there is belief--

1. That sin is hurtful.

2. That life is fleeting.

3. That God’s Word is true.

Faith of Ninevites very simple,--perhaps ignorant, yet they were led on. It came from God. The Holy Spirit’s work thus to convince of sin.

Its symptoms.

1. Self-abasement.

2. It was universal.

3. It was thorough.

The next symptom was earnest prayer.

(1) They did not stop at humiliation; they cried for pardon.

(2) They looked to the right source for help.

(3) They cried mightily, as if they meant it.

The next symptom was reformation. They turned from their evil way. They brought forth “fruits meet for repentance.” The only proof of true repentance is to give up sin utterly. Not only fast for sin, but abstain from sin.

The result, God repented; that is, He changed His dealings. This was foretold as possible. “Yet forty days,”--a time of grace given. There is room in the all wise decrees for answers to faithful prayer. Application--

1. God’s laws are the same for all. We have more light, more responsibility than had the Ninevites; but for us the path is the same. Contrition, faith, pardon.

2. Have we repented? A “greater than Jonas “ calls us. By His Word, His work, His death. Let us turn to Him while the day of salvation lasts.

3. What an encouragement to the true penitent. “ There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.” (A. G. Hellicar, M. A.)

The repentance of the Ninevites

Notice the substance of Jonah’s proclamation, and the strong effect which it was made instrumental in producing. Most probably, while with the zeal of an awakened spirit Jonah began to execute his commission, the burden of it, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” was but used by him as a general theme suggestive of enlargement. To the eye of sense the enterprise thus commenced might seem most formidable and dangerous. But, in the view of faith, difficulties vanished. The effect produced was remarkable. All ranks were pervaded by feelings of disquietude and alarm. The woeful tidings spread from mouth to mouth. God gave unwonted power to the message of His servant, so that the inhabitants of this great and dissipated city were roused to deep concern, and its myriads bowed themselves in penitence and prayer. The impression produced might be partly the mere result of apprehension, as the sinner is often scared for a time, but without lasting and salutary effect. We must distinguish between such transient and partial feelings and genuine penitence. The latter issues in return to Him who has been so grievously offended. Its reality is shown in amendment of life. Notice the general nature of the Ninevites’ penitence here described, in which We must recognise the exertion of a Divine influence and power. Fear is contagious: faith is the result of Divine influence upon the heart; and it shows the influence of prevailing wickedness in a community that, while some are roused by the preaching of the Gospel to religious earnestness and activity, a much larger proportion too often remain indifferent and slothful. The penitence of the Ninevites was in many cases genuine. We are reminded by this narrative of the propriety of rulers, in their official capacity, employing their influence with a view to promote the interests of righteousness and truth. Civil eminence is to be consecrated to God’s service. We have ground for judging of the pervading and thorough character of the transaction. The vast city was filled with fear and lamentation. The outward signs of abasement were everywhere discernible. Had the repentance of the Ninevites been confined to external indications it would have been exclusive of that homage which God requires, and has alone declared His readiness to accept. The most important feature of the sorrow consisted, not in the covering of the limbs with sackcloth, but in their “crying mightily unto God,” and in “turning every one from their evil way, and from the violence that was in their hands.” Godly sorrow will be followed by amendment, the view of sin by its loathing and detestation. We gather from this narrative the propriety of a nation, when threatened by disaster, turning to the great source of sufficiency and strength. And also the happy results that may be expected to follow from such a public recognition of the Ruler of the universe. Stand in awe of God’s mighty power, and admire the wonders of Divine mercy and patience. This history is fitted to remind Christians of their duty and their strength. The duty is to “Go into all the world and preach,”--not the thunderings of wrath, nor the avenging sentence merely of a broken law, but--the” Gospel to every creature.” (A. Bonar, D. D.)


1. Note the renewed charge to the penitent prophet, and his new eagerness to fulfil it. It is God’s mercy that gives us the opportunity of effacing past disobedience by new alacrity. The second charge is possibly distinguishable from the first as being less precise. The substance of the message is set forth. “The preaching which I bid thee,”--not his own imaginations, nor any fine things of his own spinning.

2. Note the repentance of Nineveh. The impression made by Jonah’s terrible cry is perfectly credible and natural in the excitable population of an eastern city, in which even now any appeal to terror, especially if associated with religious and prophetic claims, easily sets the whole in a frenzy. The specified tokens of repentance are those of ordinary mourning, such as were common all over the East, with only the strange addition which smacks of heathen ideas, that the animals were made sharers in them. There is great significance in that “believing God” (verse 5). The foundation of all true repentance is crediting God’s Word of threatening, and therefore realising the danger as well as the disobedience of our sin. We learn from the Ninevites what is true repentance. The deepest meaning of the whole narrative is set forth in our Lord’s use of it when He holds up the men of Nineveh as a condemnatory instance to the hardened consciences of His hearers. The story was a smiting blow to the proud exclusiveness and self-complacent contempt of prophetic warnings, which marked the entire history of God’s people. But if repentance be but transient, it leaves the heart harder than before.

3. Note the repentance of God. All God’s promises and threatenings are conditional God threatens precisely in order that He may not have to perform His threatenings. He repents of the evil which He said He would do when they repent of the evil which they have done. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)

Jonah at Nineveh

Nineveh’s sin. Nahum describes Nineveh as “the bloody city, all full of lies and robbery.” Zephaniah calls it “filthy and polluted,” “ the oppressing city.” The Ninevites were gross and sensual, cruel in war, eagerly self-indulgent; a people of splendid physique and surprising courage, but cultivating bodily excellences and seeking physical pleasures without thought of their higher nature.

Jonah’s preaching. Dove-like, he was timid and despondent. He naturally shrank from delivering a message which might save a godless and hostile people from destruction. Jonah’s mission was one of great risk.

Nineveh’s repentance. The Ninevites stand aghast before Jonah. Though an immoral, yet they are a religious people. They believe in a higher power. They are moved by the voice of prophets. Jonah’s terrible words are not unheeded. A panic seizes the inhabitants. The king also heard and believed; but he and his advisers discerned a ray of hope. A possibility of pardon seemed to be hinted in the very language of the message, and had foundation in the teachings of natural religion. What causes human misery?--Sin, nothing but sin. If the cause be removed may not the result cease? Still, in this chain of reasoning there is one broken link, and the Ninevites were not certain it could be welded. To stop present sin is indeed to stop the cause of woe; but repentance does not affect the past, and the momentum of sins before committed may hurl a train of miseries far into the future. Repentance is, in fact, of itself an insufficient ground for forgiveness. It does not touch the past. The wonder is, how God, on the ground of man’s repentance, can make it consistent to forgive him. Had not God at this very hour of Nineveh’s sin had it in His plan to send His Son to earth to die for man there could have been no forgiveness for Nineveh. The turning or repentance was the condition on which God would forgive. Was this repentance sincere and lasting? It did not produce permanent results upon the nation. But this is no reason to suppose that the reformation in Jonah’s time was not thorough. A nation easily relapses into sin. There is no evidence that pains were taken to confirm the work at Nineveh.

God’s forgiveness. “God repented.” How shall we reconcile this statement with God’s unchangeableness? It is man that changes, not God. How shall we reconcile the state-merit with God’s veracity? When God threatens, if the condition of things be changed which makes the evil necessary, the threatening may be mitigated, if not given up entirely. How shall we reconcile God’s forgiveness with God’s justice? Repentance does not atone for the past. It simply is man’s part in making Christ’s work efficacious. Repentance stops the entrance of further evil into the heart. The narrative strikingly illustrates God’s love, His eagerness, we may say, to forgive. The love-side of God’s nature is peculiarly prominent in the Christian dispensation. Notice, in conclusion, the contrasts suggested by the text. The case of Nineveh stands before the impenitent to-day as an expostulation and a rebuke. (Sermons by Monday Club.)

Genuine reformation

The end of all providential mercies, the theme of all Divine teachers, the indispensable condition of all true human power, dignity, and blessedness, is genuine reformation.

Its method.

1. It was effected through man. Why did the Almighty require the services of Jonah? Why did He not speak with an audible voice to the men of Nineveh Himself? Or why did He not dispatch an angel from His throne? Or still, why did He not write what He had to say to them in red flame above their heads? All we answer is, Such is not God’s method with man. He makes man the organ of blessing man. This plan serves several important purposes.

(1) It serves to deepen man’s interest in his race.

(2) It stimulates men to seek the improvement of their race. If they are to advance they must look to themselves, etc.

(3) It confers signal honour on the race.

(4) It shows God’s wisdom and power in the race. “We have this treasure in earthen Vessels.”

2. It was effected through man speaking, Jonah was sent to speak, he was “to preach unto the city.” Truth spoken is the converting force. Christianity written, as compared with Christianity spoken, is as the winter to the summer sky. It may give as much light, but not as much heat; and without the summer radiance the landscapes will wither and the fountains freeze.

3. It was effected through man speaking what God said. “Preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.” Had he spoken his own thoughts, no valuable effect would have been produced. God’s thoughts are the converting forces. God’s thoughts are always reasonable and universally benevolent.

Its development.

1. This reformation began with the intellect. “So the people of Nineveh believed God.” All moral reformation begins with the intellect--the beliefs. Men must believe what God says, or no saving effect can be produced.

2. This reformation proceeded to the heart. “They put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.” As they thought upon what they heard, deep contrition seized them, etc.

3. This reformation extended to the outward life. “They turned from their evil way.” They renounced their old habits of wickedness, and adopted a new and virtuous course of life. Such is ever the natural development of true reformation. Divine ideas first enter the intellect, they are believed, they pass to the heart and generate emotions, and these emotions come forth in new actions. True reformation works from the centre to the circumference, from the heart to the extremities.

Its value. “And God repented of the evil that He had said He would do unto them; and He did it not.” Though this wonderful language is in accommodation to our modes of thought and action, it has a profound significance. It does not mean that God changed His mind towards them;--this would be impossible.

1. It is God’s immutable purpose to pardon repentant sinners. When the impenitent therefore become penitent, God’s conduct so far as they are concerned is changed. (Homilist.)

Effect of Jonah’s preaching

In this chapter we have the prophet’s second call, and what came of His obedience to it.

A new spirit (verses 1-3). In part, the command is the same as before. In part, it was unlike the first. Before it was, “Cry against it.” Now it is, “Preach unto it.” Here is an intimation of just that mercy against which the prophet before rebelled. Jonah implicitly obeyed it. Here was a new spirit. God had just given him needed discipline. No doubt He now gave him needed grace. It is by both that He prepares us for usefulness.

A faithful sermon (verse 4). In this sermon two things are noteworthy.

1. It was direct, simple, plain. There is no enlargement, no argument, no exhortation. There is great power in simplicity. It is God’s own truth, not human additions to it, or commendations of it, which stirs the consciences and wins the hearts of men.

2. It was also alarming. It sounded just one note, and that was a note of warning. It was an unqualified announcement of coming judgment. Denunciations and threatenings alone can never win and subdue to repentance. But God’s denunciations and threatenings never are alone. There was mercy, as well as justice, in the alarm which Jonah sounded. But neither the plainness nor the faithfulness of Jonah’s preaching can fully account for the results which followed.

(1) Behind the message was the messenger.

(2) Our Saviour tells us that He was Himself a sign to the Ninevites.

(3) God was with the message spoken, to make it effective by the influence of His Spirit.

A repentant city (verses 5-9). Those that heard gave heed. The people seem to have moved first.

1. There was first the fasting, together with the sackcloth and ashes. What did these signify but confession of sin and grief therefor?

2. The supplication for mercy.

3. A moral change.

4. This repentance had its root in faith.

Judgment averted (verse 10). How widespread and deep the work was we cannot tell. (Sermons by Monday Club.)

God’s purpose of grace in the salvation of sinners

The purpose of God unfolds itself gradually in the course of His providence; and when we see the end from the beginning, we see that it is a purpose of grace. He wished to save the men of Nineveh and the only way of salvation with God was repentance unto life. The history of their repentance is therefore the revelation of God’s purpose of grace in the salvation of sinners. God renewed His commission to Jonah, but He does not upbraid the prophet with his former refusal. All that is required is the doing of duty. That is the fruit meet for repentance. If there be any difference between this call and the former, it is that the terms of the second are more absolute and less definite. Jonah now yielded to the Spirit of the Lord. He went “according to the Word of the Lord.” That was all the difference between Jonah a sinner and Jonah a saint, between the old man and the new. The old resists the Spirit and yields to the flesh; the new resists the flesh and yields to the Spirit. God’s will, not his own nor man’s, was now the law of Jonah’s life. The Lord said “Go”; go therefore he must, go in spite of the world, go in spite of self, go whatever should be his fate or his reception at Nineveh. All the ancients speak of Nineveh as an exceeding great city. It must have been a sublime spectacle, to see this single man going from one end to another of this great heathen city, and at every step, or at every street, repeating the same awful message of God. The terms of the prophecy were most absolute. No proof was offered of the prophet’s divine commission. No call to repentance was addressed to their consciences. No promise was made, or hope held out. The people believed God, and the immediate effect of their faith was repentance. They proclaimed a national and universal fast. They thus humbled themselves as sinners before God. In so doing they obeyed the voice of conscience. By the joint authority of the king and his government a proclamation was issued for public fasting, prayer, and penitence on the part of the people. While they cast themselves on God’s mercy, they were to turn “every one from his evil way, and from the violence that was in their hands.” Their faith was but a peradventure; their hope was in God’s mercy. And God repented when they repented. He did not change His purpose, He only changed His method of outworking His purpose. His are purposes of grace, even when they seem to be nothing but proclamations of wrath to the uttermost. They are given for the very purpose of bringing the sinner to salvation by bringing him to repentance. Why is there no such humiliation before God on account of sin, personal and national, nowadays?

1. Because there are few like Jonah to preach repentance: if they are called to preach, to be God’s witnesses, in whatever place or way or walk of life, they are called to testify against the world that has not come to repentance.

2. Because the message of God is not seen to be a matter of fact as personal, and to those who are sinners like the men of Nineveh as terrible as that of Jonah to Nineveh.

3. Because God’s purpose of grace revealed in the Gospel is little realised in its fulness and freeness of grace. Two things in relation to salvation which this history sets in the clearest light.

(1) Repentance is the fruit of faith, not the root. The men of Nineveh “believed God,” and therefore they repented. So must all sinners.

(2) Faith in God, when it is living and genuine, ever works by such repentance, where there is such sin, personal or national. Faith brings the sinner to God, as a man who must bear his own burden, and answer to God for his own personal guilt. (N. Paisley.)

Jonah’s preaching

God had delivered Jonah; but God’s pardoning mercy was no plea for negligence of duty. The Lord requires Jonah to consider again the message with which he was originally charged. God will have His people obey His will instantly, unreservedly, and with a full desire to carry it out in all things.

The substance of the message which Jonah was bidden to deliver. He has to proclaim that destruction is nigh at hand, that evil awaits the city, and that this evil is the immediate act of God. Second causes there may be, but they are only second. Most people talk in their time of trouble about God being “all-merciful.” It is true, but He is also holy and faithful and just. Men speak of God’s mercy as if it were to set aside God’s truth.

The conduct of the Ninevites. They acknowledged that the message must have come from the Lord. External signs of repentance were used, anal external signs are useful when they express internal feeling. Here we find that these outward signs were to be accompanied by prayer for pardon and for the averting of judgments, and also by cessation from sin.

The mercy of the Lord. He is indeed more ready to forgive than to punish. Though there are fearful threatenings spoken in God’s Word against the impenitent, there are full and free offers of mercy and pardon to every soul that turns from his wickedness and believes in Jesus. (Montagu Villiers, M. A.)

Verse 8

John 3:8

But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God.

The sin and repentance of Nineveh

We have in these words part of the means which the king of Nineveh and his nobles judged necessary for averting the calamities which threatened their city. Fasting and prayer were only subsidiary to personal reformation.

1. The guilt and danger of conduct which is at variance with the Divine requirements, and let us feel the necessity of actual reformation. These heathen felt that amendment of life was the truest devotion. There have always been persons who have cherished the expectation of acceptance with God while they continued in sin. They divorce religion and morality. They would secure Divine favour by ritual observances, while their conduct is in other respects habitually at variance with the Divine requirements. The men of Nineveh may be their reprovers, and teach them that they must reform before they can expect to be forgiven.

2. The guilt and danger of sins of injustice and violence, and the necessity of relinquishing them. These sins are specially connected with large cities. Inadequate payment of labourers. Grinding the faces of the poor. Reckless selfishness.

3. The necessity of individually relinquishing these and other sins to which we are addicted. Men naturally shut their eyes on their own deficiencies. To turn unreservedly from sin unto God is the last thing which a sinner will do. So the words are, “Let them turn every one.” The great question for each to determine is, not what are the defects of others, but what are his own, and how the demands and threatenings of revelation affect him in particular. The duty required of us is, that “every man should mend one.” The principal lesson of this history is, that we should duly impress our minds with the guilt, and incompatibility with a religious profession, of all acts of injustice and dishonesty. You cannot be in friendship with God while you are at enmity with man. (Robert Brodie.)

Verse 9

John 3:9

Who can tell if God will turn?

Peace has been proclaimed

During the Civil War in America some soldiers of the Southern Army deserted, and found themselves caught in a wood between their own regiment and the Northern lines. To go forward or backward equally meant death. So here they hid and starved, feeding on berries. Meanwhile the Southern Confederacy was broken up, and peace was made between North and South. One day an officer riding through found them and challenging them, heard their fears. You have nothing to fear, he said. “Peace has been proclaimed. You can have all you want by going to the nearest village and asking for it.” So it is between the race and God. Men want to know that in Christ God has reconciled the world unto Himself. (F. B. Meyer.)

Who can tell?

This was the forlorn hope of the Ninevites. The Book of Jonah should be exceedingly comfortable to those who are despairing because of the wickedness of their times. Is this, O God, Thy way? Wilt thou make Nineveh repent at the bidding of one man? So skilful is He that with the weakest instrument He can produce the mightiest workmanship.

The miserable plight in which the men of nineveh found themselves. They were like those in the days of Noah. They were rich and mighty above all people. Locked in security, they fell into abomin able sins. Their vices probably rivalled those of Sodom. Suddenly they were startled from their security, and convinced of their sin. Their miserable plight consisted in three discoveries--their great sin; the shortness of their time; the terrible character of their destruction.

The slender ground which the ninevites had for hope. In Jonah’s message there was no proclamation of mercy made. It was the trumpet of the judge, but not the silver trump of jubilee. He was sent with a thundering commission, and he dealt it out in a thundering fashion. The king’s answer was, “Who can tell? There may be hope.” Another thing that would cut off the hope of the Ninevites was, that they knew nothing of God except, it may be, some dreadful legends of His terrible acts. They lacked another encouragement that we have. They had never heard of the Cross. Jonah’s preaching was very powerful, but there was no Christ in it.

The urging of Divine reasons why we should imitate the Ninevites in repentance. God, in order that you may know His mercy, has been pleased to preserve instances thereof, that so often as you look upon them you may be led to say, if such and such an one was saved, why may not I? If you are conscious of guilt, your only hope of deliverance lies in the mercy of God. While it will be a happy thing for thee to be saved, it will be a serious thing for God to save thee. God delighteth to save sinners, because this puts jewels in His crown. He is glorified in His justice, but not as He is in His mercy. (C. H. Spurgeon.)

The uncertain doom of kingdoms at particular times

A state of uncertainty, a suspense between hope and fear, about a matter of importance, is a very painful and anxious state. What can be more important, what more interesting, than our country! When the fate of our country is doubtful; when we can only ask with painful solicitude, What will be the end of these things? Every mind must be agitated with doubtful expectations. This was the state of Nineveh. What was the cause of its denunciation? Sin; national, epidemical sin, against an unknown God. They sinned against the light of nature, and that sufficed to bring down remediless destruction upon them. Before the fatal blow fell they had one warning more. We have the substance of Jonah’s sermon. They understood him to plead for repentance. We have a very moving sight before us, a gay, magnificent city in mourning. The repentance does not wholly consist in ceremonies: they are sensible of the propriety and necessity of earnest prayer to God, and a reformation of life, as well as of afflicting themselves with fasting. The light of nature directed them to this as the only method of deliverance, if deliverance was possible. The case of such a people looks hopeful. Yet so sensible was the king of Nineveh of their demerit and of the insufficiency of their repentance to make atonement for their sins, that he is doubtful, after all, what would be the consequence. “Who can tell,” he says, “whether God will turn and repent.” Let us humble ourselves ever so low, we are not assured we shall escape. It is natural to a penitent, while he has a full view of all his sins, in all their aggravations, to question whether such sins can be forgiven by so holy a God. And Jonah was reserved on this point. National as well as personal repentance may come too late. When a nation is in such a state that no man can certainly determine what will be its doom, if there be any possible hope, it is only in the way of general humiliation, earnest prayer, and public reformation.

1. Sometimes a nation may be in such a situation that no man can tell what will be their doom; whether the threatened vengeance will fall upon them, or whether they shall escape.

2. The event of the present war will appear dismally doubtful if we consider some scriptural prophecies, particularly in Daniel and the Revelation.

3. The event of the present war, and the doom of our country and nation, will appear dreadfully uncertain if we consider our national guilt and impenitence. When a nation is in such a doubtful situation that no man can know its doom, if there be any hope, it is only in the way of repentance, reformation, and earnest prayer. This appears to be the only way of hope on two accounts.

(1) National sin has a direct tendency, in its own nature, to weaken and destroy a nation. Repentance, reformation, and prayer are the proper cures for this disease.

(2) This too is the only method to turn away the displeasure of God, and obtain His favour and protection. It is only to the penitent that promises of deliverance are made. National judgments are inflicted for national sins, and therefore reformation from national sins is the only hopeful way to escape them. (S. Davies, A. M.)

God’s promises and threatenings

There is a simple distinction between the promises of Scripture and its threatenings to which we should carefully attend. That distinction is, that the promises are recorded that they may be fulfilled, while the threatenings are written to prevent their fulfilment. We see the right influence of Jehovah’s threatenings in the case of Nineveh of old. Only one thing could retard or prevent its ruin. That was repentance. Jonah’s mission to Nineveh was really designed to prevent desolation. The threatening message was delivered. The heart of man was touched, sin was abandoned, and misery was, through grace, averted or postponed. Here we see the hopes and fears and agitations of the Ninevites. “Who can tell? etc. They had something to encourage, but nothing to assure. They had the forty days of respite. That brought in conditions and hopes. We know that the gifts and calling of God are without repentance; but, in imparting revelation from the unchanging One, language is employed which is strictly applicable to man, in order that man may understand the truth imparted. Human feelings and affections are thus described to the Divinity, though He be, in fact, unaffected by them all. It is man that changes, not God; but the language employed can occasion no difficulty to any humble mind. (W. K. Tweedie.)

Verse 10

John 3:10

And God repented of the evil that He had said that He would do unto them,

God repenting

There are certain passages of holy Scripture which assert in the strongest way that God cannot repent, and that He never does.

There are certain other passages which assert, just as strongly, and with as little qualification, that He can repent, and that, in fact, He has often done so. Here is an apparent contradiction. The ordinary method of interpretation applied to such texts is, to my mind, eminently unsatisfactory, and in fact involves erroneous and pernicious views of the Divine nature. We are told that the passages which speak of God’s repentance are simply forms of speech to indicate a change of outward procedure, but do not imply any change whatever of interior feeling. This theory, in order to exempt God frown those imperfections which are connected with the exercise of the affections and passions among men, virtually denies to Him the possession of any affections at all. It makes Him simply a Being of pure thought and unrelenting will. What a stupendous inroad is thus made on the fulness and beauty of “the glorious Gospel of the blessed God!” I take the words to mean what we naturally understand by them--that God did really repent--i.e., changed His mind, which is the meaning of repentance. When He sent the prophet He meant destruction. When the city was humbled, He changed His mind, and waved the destroying angel home. There was a condition involved in the threat, and understood. God knew that the city would repent. Yes, but He also knew that the city would repent under commination. Why should it be incredible that God “repents” or changes? Would it not be more incredible if it were asserted that He never does? Are we to suppose that what constitutes a special perfection in the moral character of a man is an imperfection in God? God morally regards us at any one moment just as we are. (A. Raleigh, D. D.)

Repentance applied to God

As to what Jonah adds, that God was led to repent, it is a mode of speaking that ought to be sufficiently known to us. Strictly speaking, no repentance can belong to God; and it ought not to be ascribed to His secret and hidden counsel. God, then, is in Himself ever the same, and consistent with Himself, but He is said to repent when a regard is had to the comprehension of men; for as we conceive God to be angry whenever He summons us to His tribunal, and shows us our sins, so also we conceive Him to be placable when He offers the hope of pardon. But it is according to our perceptions that there is any change when God forgets His wrath, as though He had put on a new character. As then we cannot otherwise be terrified, that we may be humbled before God and repent, except He sets forth before us His wrath, the Scripture accommodates itself to the grossness of our understanding. But, on the other hand, we cannot call confidently on God unless we feel assured that He is placable. We hence see that some kind of change appears to us, whenever God either threatens or gives hopes of pardon and reconciliation; and to this must be referred this mode of speaking which Jonah adopts when he says that God repented. There is a twofold view of God--as He sets Himself forth in His word, and as He is in His hidden counsel. With regard to His secret counsel, God is always like Himself, and is subject to none of our feelings; but with regard to the teaching of His Word, He is accommodated to our capacities. God is now angry with us, and then, as though He were pacified, He offers pardon, and is propitious to us. Such is the repentance of God. Let us remember, then, that it proceeds from His Word that God is said to repent. (John Calvin.)

Repentance, human and Divine

Jonah’s prediction, we say, was not fulfilled. But was it not, in a very true sense? The city was not overthrown in one sense, but it was in another. A moral revolution took place, but it was a revolution. Nineveh was overthrown by the preaching of Jonah, as long afterwards the world was said to be turned upside down by that of the apostles. This, of course, was not what Jonah had in mind. It was not that the city was destroyed, in Jonah’s sense. The inhabitants repented, and by so doing occasioned God Himself to repent of His purpose in relation to them. There is, then, such a thing as repentance, not only on the part of human beings, but also on that of the Divine Being.

The repentance of the Ninevites.

1. It was a sincere repentance. “God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way.” This settles the matter. It was impossible for them to deceive God. There is in our fallen nature a tendency to the hateful sin of hypocrisy, and there are two kinds of hypocrisy--the hypocrisy which affects holiness; and the hypocrisy which affects penitence. The latter is the more artful, as it is the more heinous.

2. It was occasioned by their faith ill God. “The people of Nineveh believed in God.” Faith in God is certain to produce repentance. A man cannot repent without repenting of his unbelief in God, and in God’s Son.

3. It was universal. They seem to have turned every one from his evil way. It is probable that the case of Nineveh is unique in this respect. It was an earnest of the universal repentance of mankind.

4. It was exceedingly prompt. There was a necessity for promptitude, seeing that a time-limit had been fixed. Delay in such a case meant destruction.

5. It originated at the summit of society, and spread downwards to its base. But the repentance of the Ninevites, sincere and effectual as it was, did not prevent their descendants from doing all manner of evil, and incurring the destruction of their city.

Repentance as ascribed to God. There is a doctrinal difficulty here. Some passages of Scripture attribute repentance to the Most High, and some other passages deny that He ever does repent. Truth may sometimes be formulated most conveniently by a paradox. God may be said to be, “unchangeably changeable.” Illustrate from the thermometer or from the tides. As often as a change bakes place in a human being from loyalty to disloyalty, or vice versa, a corresponding change in God occurs in relation to that person. This change takes place in the Most High, not because He is changeable, but because He is unchangeable. See Jeremiah 18:7-10. That gives the changeless principle of God’s government, and it explains all the changes in His attitude towards nations and persons. God has Often changed in the manner thus described, and that for the simple and sufficient reason that He is unchangeable. If there is one who knows only too well that he is regarded by the Supreme Being with deserved displeasure, let such an one know that a change on his part towards God will result in a corresponding change on God’s part towards himself. (Samuel Clift Burn.)

God’s mercy vindicated

The dealings of God with men have ever been characterised by judgment and mercy. God always deals with man according to his works; but the moral character of those works is determined by the state of the heart, and by the motives from which they spring. God deals with man according to his works. To the penitent God shows mercy; to the obedient, favour; to the rebellious and impenitent, judgment. The conduct of God towards the repentant Ninevites was in accordance with these general principles of His moral government.

God’s repentance. Repentance in man is change of mind and purpose, issuing in change of conduct; but repentance in God is only change of operation or administration, according as man’s conduct agrees with, or violates, the requirements of the Divine law. With the Ninevites God was justly angry. Their aggravated sins cried aloud for vengeance, and He determined to destroy them; but when they turned away from their sins He graciously withheld His avenging hand. This change in God’s dealings, or threatened dealings, with the Ninevites, was not a change of principle or a change of mind, but simply a change of dispensation, arising out of their altered circumstances. Repentance in man always produces a corresponding change in God’s administrations towards him. (Jeremiah 18:7-10.) This gives to the denunciations of God a conditional character. Some times the condition is expressed in the terms of the threatening, and sometimes it is understood. It is as much a principle of God’s gracious government to suspend the execution of a threatened punishment on man’s sincere repentance as it is to execute it in the case of obstinate and continued sin. Erroneous notions have been adopted with respect to the immutability of God. God is unchangeable in His being, perfections, and principles of moral government. But in His actual dispensations with man He deals with him according to the state of his heart and life.

The effects of God’s repentance on Jonah. Such an act of grace and forbearance On the part of God ought to have excited the devout thankfulness of the prophet. But Jonah heard of the reprieve and pardon not only without joy, but with angry displeasure. The reason of his inhuman displeasure was a fear for his own fame. Jonah’s unreasonable anger will account for his unseemly and censurable prayer.

God’s reproof of Jonah, and vindication of Himself. God’s dealings with Jonah place His own character in the most gracious and amiable light, and in the most affecting contrast with that of the prophet. Jonah appears to have been a man of strong passions, and easily excited. Means had been found, in connection with the booth, the gourd, and the worm, to arouse conviction in Jonah’s mind, and now God proceeds to make more direct application. He approaches Jonah with mild and dispassionate language--“Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd?” How great the patience that bore with Jonah’s petulance! “Thou hast had pity on the gourd; and should not I spare Nineveh?” Whether this appeal of God had any salutary effect on Jonah’s mind, and led to any improvement in his conduct or not, is wholly unknown. We lose sight of Jonah under circumstances extremely disadvantageous to him. He drops out of history in a bad temper; and we have little to recall him to our remembrance but his sin, his punishment, and his petulance. (Thomas Harding.)

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Jonah 3". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/jonah-3.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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