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Bible Commentaries
Jonah 3

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Jonah 3:0


Jonah Preaches at NinevehJonah's Second Call to Preach to Nineveh(Jonah 3:1-11)Jonah Obeys the LordThe Conversion of Nineveh and God's Pardon
Jonah 3:1-4Jonah 3:1-5Jonah 3:1-4Jonah 3:1-10
The People of Nineveh Believe
Jonah 3:5-9Jonah 3:5
Jonah 3:6-9Jonah 3:6-9
Jonah 3:10Jonah 3:10Jonah 3:10

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the four modern translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

Verses 1-4

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Jonah 3:1-4 1Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2”Arise, go to Nineveh the great city and proclaim to it the proclamation which I am going to tell you.” 3So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three days' walk. 4Then Jonah began to go through the city one day's walk; and he cried out and said, “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”

Jonah 3:1 “the word of the LORD came to Jonah” This reflects Jonah 1:1. Jonah is structured in such a way that Jonah's first commission (chapters 1-2) is contrasted with his second commission (Jon. 3-4).

“the second time” Oh, the grace of God, both to Jonah and to Nineveh!

Jonah 3:2 “Arise, go” These two Qal IMPERATIVES parallel Jonah 1:2. God repeats His mandate.

“the great city” See note on “great” (BDB 152) at Jonah 1:2.

“proclaim” The Qal IMPERATIVE (BDB 894, KB 1128) parallels Jonah 1:2.

The content of the proclamation is not stated here. In Jonah 1:2 the subject of the revelation was that the wickedness of Nineveh had risen up before God.

“to” There is a slight, but theologically significant, change from Jonah 1:2. The PREPOSITION has changed from “against” (BDB 752) in Jonah 1:2 to “to” (BDB 39) here. God is opening the door to the possibility that the Ninevites might respond appropriately to His word of judgment.

Jonah 3:3 This opening sentence is quite a contrast with Jonah's actions in Jonah 1:3. What a difference a room in the fish hotel can make!

“exceedingly great city” The Masoretic Text includes “to God” (see note below). This shows God's care for all humans (cf. Genesis 12:3; Genesis 22:18; Genesis 26:4; Exodus 19:5; Ezekiel 18:23, Ezekiel 18:32; John 1:29; John 3:16-17; John 4:42; 1 Timothy 2:4; 1 Timothy 4:10; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:14)! The author of Jonah uses the ADJECTIVE “great” often. See note at Jonah 1:2.

NASB--------- NKJV--------- NRSV--------- TEV--------- NJB--------- JB (footnote)“great before God” ABPS“before God” PESHITTA“in the presence of God” Rotherham“before God” Young's Literal“before God” JPSOA (footnote)“literally, 'a large city of God'“

Exactly why the major English translations leave out the phrase, “to God,” is uncertain. It is also uncertain what this means or implies. Nineveh's sin had risen to God, but also its accomplishments.

The other option is to see the phrase as “to gods,” which would speak of Nineveh's idolatry and sin. However, the change of the PREPOSITION from “against” in Jonah 1:2 to “to” in Jonah 3:2 seems to depreciate this option.

“a three days' walk” There has been some controversy about the physical dimensions of Nineveh. Ancient non-biblical Latin writers described it as sixty miles in circumference with 1500 towers built into the walls. The walls themselves were 100' high and wide enough for three chariots to ride side by side (Diodurus Sicucus of the 4th century). Modern archeology has determined the size as just under eight miles in circumference. This phrase includes the city and its suburbs. The three days can (1) mean part of two days and one whole day; (2) refer to Jonah walking around the city and preaching at several places; or (3) include the city and its surrounding communities.

Jonah 3:4 “he cried out” This VERB (BDB 894) is a Qal IMPERFECT. One assumes he spoke in Aramaic. He only spoke five words. This was not a “turn or burn” sermon. This was just a “burn” proclamation.

“forty days” This is a very common number in the Bible to denote a long period of indefinite time (longer than a lunar cycle, but shorter than a season, e.g., Exodus 24:18; Exodus 34:28; Numbers 13:25; Deuteronomy 9:9, Deuteronomy 9:11; 1 Samuel 17:16; 1 Kings 19:8). It often is associated with a period of testing or judgment:

1. Noah's flood, Genesis 7:4

2. wilderness wanderings of Israel, Exodus 16:35; Psalms 95:10

3. Moses' fasting, Exodus 24:8; Deuteronomy 9:9, Deuteronomy 9:11

4. Philistine domination of Israel, Judges 13:1

5. Elijah's fasting, 1 Kings 19:8

6. Ezekiel' symbolic actions, Ezekiel 4:6

7. God's judgment on Nineveh, Jonah 3:4

8. Jesus' fast, Matthew 4:2

Surprisingly, the Septuagint has “yet three days.”

“overthrown” This same VERB (BDB 245, KB 253, Niphal PARTICIPLE) is used of God destroying Sodom in Genesis 19:29 (the NOUN at BDB 246). It can imply

1. positive (“turn,” i.e., vast majority of usages, cf. Hosea 11:8-9)

2. negative (“overturned” or “overthrown,” which did happen in 621 B.C.)

It is possible, in light of God's character (cf. Jonah 4:2), that God's message through Jonah had a hint of a good outcome, that even Jonah recognized (cf. Jonah 3:2; Jonah 4:1-4).

Verses 5-9

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Jonah 3:5-9 5Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. 6When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. 7He issued a proclamation and it said, “In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. 8But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. 9Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.”

Jonah 3:5 “the people of Nineveh believed God” This is a shocking verse. The people of Nineveh had such little information about God (Elohim). They had less than the sailors of chapter 1. Yet, God accepted their faith and turned away His judgment (see Jonah 4:11)!

What does this VERB (BDB 52, KB 63), “believe,” mean? Originally it referred to something firm, stable, sturdy. It developed a metaphorical extension of that thing or person who is faithful, loyal, dependable, trustworthy.

Notice its usage in the writings of Moses (which Paul uses as his OT evidence for justification by grace through faith in Romans 4:0 and Galatians 3:0).

1. Abraham believed YHWH about a child to come (Genesis 15:6).

2. Israel believed in God's message and messenger (Exodus 19:9).

3. Moses is faithful (Numbers 12:7).

4. God is faithful (Deuteronomy 7:9).

5. trust

a. negatively

(1) Israel did not believe God and His words (Numbers 14:11; Deuteronomy 1:32; Deuteronomy 9:23).

(2) Moses and Aaron did not believe in God and His words (Numbers 20:12).

(3) Jacob did not believe Joseph was alive (Genesis 45:26).

(4) Israel did not believe Moses (Exodus 4:1, Exodus 4:5, Exodus 4:8, Exodus 4:9, Exodus 4:31).

(5) Israel has no assurance (Deuteronomy 28:66).

b. positively

(1) Israel believed in God and His spokesperson (Exodus 14:31).

This brief list shows the variety and importance of the Hebrew word. See a brief article in NIDOTTE, vol. 1, pp. 427-433. This same variety is followed in the Koine Greek New Testament (see Special Topic below).

SPECIAL TOPIC: Believe, Trust, Faith, and Faithfulness in the OT

“fast. . .sackcloth. . .sat on the ashes” These were signs of mourning (e.g., 2 Samuel 3:31; 1 Kings 21:27; 2 Kings 6:30; Nehemiah 9:1) and a public sign of repentance (e.g., Deuteronomy 9:9, Deuteronomy 9:18, Deuteronomy 9:25; 1 Samuel 6:7; Ezra 10:6; Nehemiah 9:1; Jeremiah 36:6-9; Joel 2:12). See Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 4, pp. 302-307.

“from the greatest to the least of them” This included not only all of the people, but even the domestic animals (cf. Jonah 3:7-8).

This phrase also adds evidence to the hyperbolic nature of Jonah. In the history of revivals never has every person in a society repented and believed!

Jonah 3:7 “Do not let man, beast, herd or flock taste a thing. . .or drink water” This was a serious, total fast! No time limit was given, but life could not be sustained without fluids much past three or four days.

Jonah 3:8

NASB, NKJV“beast” NRSV“animals” TEV“cattle and sheep” NJB“all” (implying man and animal)

Apparently animals were to have a relationship with humans (Gen. 1-2), but the fall (Genesis 3:0) affected this and replaced friendship with fear. This friendship will be restored (e.g., Isaiah 11:6-9; Isaiah 65:15; Hosea 2:18). God created (cf. Job 38:39-24) and loves (cf. Jonah 4:11) the animals. If the description of Genesis 1-2 is literal and the consummation of Revelation 21-22 is literal then heaven will be a restored Eden (intimate fellowship between the angelic realm, the human realm, and the animal realm)!

“call on God. . .each turn from his wicked way” This phrasing expresses both the corporate and the individual aspects of this repentance. The two aspects of salvation are faith and repentance (e.g., Mark 1:15; Acts 3:16, Acts 3:19; Acts 20:21). Jesus affirms the need for true repentance in Matthew 12:41 and Luke 11:32. This is something even Israel refused to do (cf. Jeremiah 18:8). Notice the general name for God, Elohim, is used. See Special Topic: “The Name” of YHWH.

Jonah 3:9

NASB, NRSV, NJB“Who knows” NKJV“who can tell” TEV“perhaps”

This is the INTERROGATIVE PRONOUN “who” (BDB 566) and the VERB “know” (BDB 393, KB 390, Qal PARTICIPLE), which is an idiom expressing a possibility (e.g., 2 Samuel 12:22; Esther 4:14; Joel 2:14).

“turn” This term is used of the Ninevites and of God (it was used in the king's edict in Jonah 3:8, twice in Jonah 3:9, and again in Jonah 3:10). This is the general OT term for repentance (BDB 996, KB 1427). God is affected by (1) mankind's response to His Word and (2) the prayers of believers. Biblical repentance involves a change of mind (Greek term) followed by a change of actions (Hebrew term). See Special Topic: REPENTANCE IN THE OLD TESTAMENT.

“relent” This root (BDB 636, KB 688, Niphal PERFECT) literally means “to sigh.” It denotes heavy breathing. This is the same root as the name of the prophet, Nahum.

This is an anthropomorphic phrase describing God (e.g., Exodus 32:14; Psalms 106:45; Jeremiah 18:8; Amos 7:3, Amos 7:6 and note Hosea 11:8-11). This is a good example of

1. the freedom of God

2. conditional covenants requiring an appropriate human response

Predestination must be balanced with the choices of human free will. God surely knows, but He has created mankind as free moral agents. God's future actions are in some sense conditioned on current human motives, choices, and actions. This is why prophecy (not Messianic) is conditional. Jonah's prophecy will not be fulfilled! All prophecies have a conditional element (cf. F. F. Bruce, Answers to Questions, pp. 129-130 and Hard Sayings of the Bible, pp. 70-75).

“that we will not perish” This is exactly parallel to the ship captain's statement in Jonah 1:6.

Verse 10

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Jonah 3:10 10When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.

Jonah 3:10 “God relented” This is an anthropomorphic phrase which expressed God's willingness to respond to His highest creationmankind, made in His image and likeness! Most of God's relationships (not all, He has an eternal redemptive plan which is unaffected by human choice) with mankind are conditioned and affected by their faith and repentant (e.g., Exodus 32:14; 1 Samuel 15:11; Jeremiah 26:3, Jeremiah 26:13) responses.

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Jonah 3". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/jonah-3.html. 2021.
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