Richard E. Young

Copyright © 2000 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


Chapter 3 - Nineveh Overturned


3:1 Now the word of Yahweh came to Jonah a second time saying:

3:2 "Get up1! Go2 to Nineveh, the great3 city, and cry out4 to it the message4 I give you."

3:3 And Jonah got up1 and went2 to Nineveh according to the word of Yahweh. Now Nineveh, a city important3 to God17, required three days to visit it.

Back to the Beginning

These versus parallel the first couple of versus of chapter one. After Jonah had gone through all that he had, he was confronted with the same instructions as before, with one slight change. In the beginning God asked Jonah to cry out "against" (aleyha) Nineveh. Now Jonah was asked to cry out "to" (eleyha) Nineveh. A subtle change. Aleyha means "against" with a downward intimation. Eleyha means "towards." The significance of this slight change in wording is not clear. Perhaps some change had occurred in Nineveh that warranted a slightly different message than was appropriate before Jonah set out on his escape.

Only Jonah Will Do

God was insistent upon using Jonah for this mission. None other would do. When Queen Esther resisted going to her husband, the Persian king, to intercede for the Jews, her uncle Mordecai told her,

Further, God's plans are not even dependent upon human beings. When Jesus entered Jerusalem and was hailed with Messianic references, He told his critics that the stones themselves would announce Him if the people did not (Luke 19:40). But when Jonah ran from his assignment God did not just write him off and call another to take his place. There were probably several other prophets God could have chosen and prepared who would have willingly preached to Nineveh. God could have prepared another prophet from before Creation just as He had done with the fish. But God insisted on Jonah.

Why would God insist on Jonah - one so out of sync with God's heart - for this mission? Perhaps the reason lies in Jonah as a type for Israel. When the Apostle Paul gave his defense before the people in Jerusalem everyone listened to his testimony with interest until he said that the Lord had told him, "Go! For I will send you far away to the Gentiles" (Acts 22:21). With that statement the Jews immediately reacted with disgust and called for Paul's death (Acts 22:22). Jonah represents the Jews who were disgusted that anyone would even suggest God would reach out to the Gentiles. They would ask: "doesn't God hate the Gentiles because of their idolatry, immorality, and disregard for God's Law?" But doesn't a similar attitude exist within the Church? Some ask: "doesn't God hate materialists, homosexuals, and atheists?" But the Lord said, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live" (Ezekiel 33:11). Jonah's mission to Ninveh was proof enough that God's love extended to all. Otherwise He would have destroyed them all without warning.

Nineveh - Important to God

Throughout Jonah Nineveh has been referred to as "the great city." Now the formula phrase is broken in 3:3 with Nineveh described as "great to God," a Hebrew idiom which means "very important." The simple idiomatic understanding of the phrase makes 3:3 read: "Nineveh, a very important city, required three days to visit it." And on the surface level of the story this is the intended meaning. But as we have seen, every word requires examination in Jonah. The non-idiomatic meaning must also be examined to see how it fits into the themes and underlying images of the book. Nineveh was quite literally "important to God." Proof consisted in the extensive measures the Lord employed to deliver His message and messenger to them. In this phrase we see how God viewed Nineveh. They really were very important to Him. He loved them very much and wanted to avoid their destruction if at all possible. By extension, Nineveh stands for all men, and thus, all men are important to God.

Bare Minimum

Though Nineveh required three days to properly visit it Jonah preached for only one day. In that one day he said only five (Hebrew) words to them [f]. Jonah did not even preface his message with a "thus says Yahweh" The Ninevites would not have known who Yahweh was anyway. Nor did he endow his message with authority by proclaiming "the God of the heavens, creator of the sea and the dry ground says," which was the phrase he had used with the pagan sailors. We cannot say for sure if Jonah gave a more elaborate sermon to the men. Many commentators suggest that Jonah must have preached a more extensive message or that his coming was announced days or weeks before he arrived. But the sheer brevity of the proclamation exemplifies something about Jonah's preaching that the writer wanted to convey. It illustrates the bare minimum effort that Jonah performed. Jonah did not have the disposition to "go the extra mile" - at least not for the Gentile Ninevites. Indeed, he did not go one iota beyond his obligation. If any prior announcement of Jonah's arrival was given to Nineveh it likely came from the sailors or those who heard the sailors' story and not from Jonah himself. However, God took this meager message and bare minimum effort and used it to awaken the Ninevite's consciences. The threat of judgement alone was enough to do this. Despite Jonah, salvation was all God's doing from beginning to end.

God employs us in His work, though He is not dependent upon our actions to save anyone. No one that the Father has called to Himself since before Creation will be lost. However, if we neglect the mandate to go out into the world to preach the gospel then we are the losers. The wicked servant in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) exemplifies this principle. In that parable a master entrusted his wealth to his servants and then left on a long journey. After the master returned to collect on his investment from his servants, one wicked servant told the master, "I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed and I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours" (Matt 25:24-25). That servant had the impression that his master reaped where He did not sow. He figured that God's work would be done no matter what he did, so he thought he might as well shirk his duties. But the master showed this servant that it did matter; the servant was the loser in the deal. If we neglect the Lord's command, the Lord's work still gets accomplished (see Isaiah 55:10-11), but we lose out.

Overturned in Forty Days

The term "forty days" evokes the image of the Flood of Noah. Although there are other references to "forty days" in the Bible, the intended image seems apparent as the Flood due to the undertone of imminent judgement and destruction. This allusion is enhanced by the likening of Nineveh's sin to the sin of the world before the Flood (see the comments in Nineveh's Sin later in this chapter). But aside from this allusion to the Flood why did God delay forty days? Wouldn't it have been less hassle for God to just destroy Nineveh outright and save Himself the trouble of sending a difficult character like Jonah to them? A hope for repentance embeds itself within the forty day time delay.

But more than that, a hope for repentance is contained within the word "overturned" (haphak) itself. Haphak fundamentally means "change." It can mean change for the worse, as in "destroy" or it can mean to change for the better, as in "transform." God announced, through Jonah, that things would change in Nineveh - for better or worse. Other Hebrew words, such as shachath, which strictly means to "ruin" or "destroy," could have been chosen if the only intended meaning was "destruction." But haphak contains a hope of repentance for Nineveh. It is as the prophet Jeremiah wrote:

Ninevite Evangelists

The word "trusted" in 3:5 is the Hebrew word aman. It carries the image of the trust one puts in a parent or someone who nurtures you. Aman is the same word used in describing the faith of Abraham: "Then he [Abraham] believed (aman) in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). This was the kind of trust that these heathen men put into the One they only knew as elohiym; it was the same trust that Abraham had. Because elohiym can mean either "gods" or "the one true God," we must determine its correct meaning by the context. Since Yahweh recognized their repentance we understand elohiym here to mean Yahweh, the one true God. Thus, the men of Nineveh trusted in Yahweh, just as the pagan sailors had done before them. And it was reckoned to them as righteousness.

When Jonah came to Nineveh he cried out (qara) to them. But the men of Ninveh commandeered Jonah's job and cried out (qara) for everyone to repent. Qara can carry with it a sense of invitation. Coercion was not a factor in their call to repentance. The repentant men invited everyone to repent along with them. None were exempted from the invitation. The rich were not exempted because of their riches. The intelligent, the leaders, and the respected among society were not exempted because of their status or special skills. The poor, the unintelligent, the obscure, and the outcasts were not exempted because of their disadvantages. All were invited to join in the mass repentance.

The Source of Nineveh's Repentance

How was it that Nineveh repented so quickly at such a meager message? As already suggested, perhaps news of Jonah had already reached Nineveh. But any society ripe for judgement from God must necessarily experience the symptoms of their degeneracy. People certainly could look around at their society and see that things were not right. Their response proved that their consciences had not become seared beyond hope.

People can learn from sin at three different levels. In the first, and highest level, we can learn by listening to advice and observing the mistakes of others. That can be enough to convince some of correct actions. In the second level, a person disregards advice and examples and decides that that they can commit a wrong without repercussions. But one close call convinces them to change their ways. In the third level, a person ignores several close calls, and changes their ways only after suffering from the consequences of their actions. But then there are those that ignore advice, examples, close calls, and the suffering of consequences and still refuse to change their ways. Only God knows if such are beyond hope. Nineveh had ignored the evil growing in them thus far, but had undoubtedly reaped some of their bitter harvest one way or another. Fortunately for them God knew that they were not beyond hope. They had had enough of themselves and were ripe for repentance.

The King Rises

When the words of the repentant Ninevites reached (literally, "touched") the king he changed his throne for ashes and his robe for sackcloth. He set aside his symbols of pride, position, and accomplishments and sat in worthlessness, for this is what the word epher (ashes) figuratively means. The ubiquitous images of rising and descending once again appear here. But unlike Jonah's descent of chastisement the king's descent was of repentance. In the king's repentance he rose from his throne. And so the Lord raises him up to Himself as James said, "humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you" (James 4:10). Before the world his repentance was demonstrated by his descent into the ashes. And though he sat in ashes before the world yet he sat with God, as Isaiah wrote, "for thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, 'I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite'" Isaiah 57:15).

The Decree

A national crisis existed in Nineveh. A fierce and terrifying storm of evil raged there. Surely some, oblivious to their precarious situation, still slept in unconcern as Jonah had earlier slept through the storm at sea. When the king compelled all of Nineveh to join in calling out for help he parallels the captain of the sailors who implored Jonah to assist the sailors in their call for help. But the king and the ruling class realized, just as the sailors did in their storm, that the situation was beyond human control and they needed to cry out for help. The same word that was used when the sailors cried out for help in 1:5, zaag, is now used here for the Ninevite rulers' call for help to the populace. Zaag means to call for aid or assistance. For those who still slept in unconcern the king wanted to wake them so they too could assist in averting the inevitable disaster. The Apostle Paul elicited similar invitations: "Awake, sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you" (Ephesians 5:14) and "so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober" (I Thessalonians 5:6).

The leaders of Nineveh decided[g] that everyone should show their repentance by fasting and wearing sackcloth. The fast that God acknowledges is not a mere abstinence from food. Isaiah tells us that a fast should be a manifestation of a work in the heart (Isaiah 58:5-8). Even the animals were included in this demonstration of mass repentance. Because the Ninevites had many animal deities, the inclusion of animals in their repentance showed that the Ninveites symbolically subjugated their heathen gods before God. Moreover, all of the men and animals were to vehemently (chozqah) call out to God. The strong Hebrew verb chozqah denotes force and violence. Formerly, an evil violence (chamac in 3:8) emanated from Nineveh before God's face. Now a good violence (chozqah) rose from Nineveh into God's presence.

The king completed the decree with a hope that echoed the ship captain's in chapter one. The ship captain said, "Perhaps the gods will consider us and not let us perish" (1:6). And here the king said, "Who knows? God may turn away [from His intent] and relent and turn away from His furious anger so that we will not perish" (3:9). In the same way, the sailors foreshadow the men of Nineveh. Therefore our hopes are raised that Nineveh will also be preserved, just as the sailors were.

Nineveh's Sin

Nineveh's "evil ways" denotes a well-trodden path of wickedness that they traveled. But as to their specific sin we only have the word "violence" (chamac). Chamac means "violence," "cruelty," "robbing," and "injustice." This same word characterized the people of the earth just prior to the Flood (see Genesis 6:11,13), giving yet another allusion to Noah's Flood. Nineveh was guilty of the same sin that caused God to destroy the whole world. The Assyrians, with its capital of Nineveh, were notorious for their cruelty. They would gouge out eyes, cut off limbs, and a myriad of other maimings to intimidate people. They would choose a town and behead every man, woman, and child. They would then heap all of the heads into a huge pile near a well-traveled road in order to intimidate the surrounding regions. Then, without interference, they would take what they wanted from whom they wanted.

The world today is filled with chamac - violence, cruelty, robbing, and injustice. Who or what has not been touched by it? Even the environment is a victim of chamac. But it is not just the blatant physical manifestations of chamac that God is concerned with. In fact, God is primarily concerned with its manifestation in the heart. We see this principle when Jesus said that, to God, hate was equivalent to murder. Hate is the heart condition that potentially leads to physical violence. The commandment to not murder (Exodus 20:13) is already broken with hate without any physical expression. In the same way, violence originates in the heart and can sometimes manifest itself only in the imagination. The call was for the Ninevites to turn away from "their violence that is in their hands (kaph)." The word kaph here denotes that which was in their control. Some with violent imaginations refrain from physical expression only because they lack the power or opportunity to be physically effective. Others specialize in emotional and psychological chamac. But God detests chamac so much that He justifiably destroyed the whole world in a great deluge.

What God Saw

When God saw from their actions that they had turned away from their evil ways what did God see? When Samuel looked at Jesse's sons to see which one the Lord had chosen to be the king of Israel the Lord told Samuel that, "God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." (I Samuel 16:7). The actions of the Ninevites reflected the real work that had occurred in their hearts; and that is what God saw. The actions they performed to show their repentance did not justify them before God. This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, "Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, 'The righteous man shall live by faith'" (Galatians 3:11) and, "For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law." (Gal 3:21b). Neither Abraham nor the men of Nineveh had the benefit of the Mosaic Law. But their trust (aman) in God declared them all as righteousness before the Lord.

However, if an authentic work had occurred in the hearts of the men of Nineveh then good actions would naturally be produced. It is as James said, "I will show you my faith by my works" (James 2:18b). When Paul stated that "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9) he immediately followed it with the statement, "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them" (Ephesians 2:10).

Sacrifice for All Time

In chapter one the captain prefigured the king of Nineveh and the sailors foreshadowed the actions of the people of Nineveh. In the end they both turned (shuv) to God. This has a significant implication. If the sailors attempted to turn back to the dry land and could not prevail until they had given Jonah as a sacrifice, then the people of Nineveh also could not prevail to their "dry ground" of salvation until they too gave a sacrifice. That is, Nineveh's repentance could not be recognized without a sacrifice. But we see no sacrifice of this sort occurring in Nineveh. For that matter, what kind of sacrifice was Jonah anyway, for the Psalmist says, "No man can by any means redeem his brother or give to God a ransom for him - for the redemption of his soul is costly" (Psalm 49:7-8a). This brings us back to the sailors having tossed Jonah into the sea as a type for Christ's sacrifice. Salvation came to the sailors not because of Jonah, but because of Christ. Christ's sacrifice affected all of time (see Hebrews 9:25-28). Thus, retroactively the sailors and the people of Nineveh obtained salvation through the sacrifice of Christ. And subsequently, Christ's blood allows recognition of our repentance before God.

God's Sovereign Plans

Just as God had a mission for the fish He also had a mission for Jonah. Jonah thought he could escape first by running and then by dying. The implication then is that Nineveh also has an appointment - an appointment to repentance and salvation. Hence, come hell or high water God's plans would be accomplished. Not even a sour prophet could prevent God's plans. The Lord said that His word, "will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:11). And so Nineveh received the salvation that God had ordained for them.

Footnotes for Chapter 3

[f] The writer of Jonah seems to drawing a quantitative contrast between the five words of Jonah given to the pagan Ninevites and the five books of Moses given to the Jews. This aspect is explored in the section Accountability to God in the fourth chapter.

[g] In 3:7 the Hebrew word taam appears twice and means both "decision" and "taste." So 3:7 can amusingly be read as "by taste of the king...each man is not to taste."

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