The previous chapter saw Jonah and the sailors parting ways. After the sailors threw Jonah overboard, the sea calmed, and they sacrificed and made vows to the one true God. Jonah—left for dead in the waters of a tumultuous sea—was rescued by God via some sort of massive aquatic animal.
In chapter 3, Jonah finally goes to Nineveh. The city is first mentioned in the Bible in Genesis 10:8–10 in the lineage of Noah’s family—before the Tower of Babel. It says, “Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. …The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh…” Nineveh was one of the great cities of Mesopotamia.
During the time of Jonah, in the 8th century BC, Nineveh was a city still on the rise. It was massive and illustrious with parks and possibly a zoo. The city was proud, beautiful, decedent—looking down on other cities and settlements seeking to conquer them and to shame them for their lowliness.
A hundred years after Jonah, after Assyria had destroyed Jonah’s own homeland—the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which occurred in 722 BC, the Hebrew Prophet Nahum wrote a prophecy against Nineveh. At the beginning of chapter 3, Nahum writes, “Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and plunder—no end to the prey! The crack of the whip, and rumble of the wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end—they stumble over the bodies! And all for the countless whorings of the prostitute, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her whorings, and peoples with her charms.” Nineveh: charming and yet endlessly destructive.
Jonah goes to Nineveh
Jonah 3 says, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.’” This is a new beginning and a second chance for Jonah himself who fled from God the first time. This time God just tells him, “say what I tell you to say.” As we’ve already learned from the sailors, you never know who will respond to the word of God—something to keep in mind for our own lives.
This time Jonah listens. “So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.” The text continues, “Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, ‘Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’” Three days breadth is probably referencing the whole area around this massive, walled city, which was getting bad news: in 40 days Nineveh would be overthrown.
The Hebrew word נֶהְפָּֽכֶת means overthrown, be turned, be changed. It’s the same word used in Genesis 19 to describe what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s also used in Proverbs 12:7, “The wicked are overthrown and are no more, but the house of the righteous will stand.” The word used in the ancient Greek translation, καταστραφήσεται, is where we get our English word catastrophe. It’s going to be really bad. Nineveh is going to be turned on its head. The proud would be humbled, the arrogant quieted, the shamers shamed. They would be judged by God for what they’d done.
It was a message that Nineveh needed to hear. At one point or another we all need to be called out on our sin—even a massive, beautiful city like Nineveh, which just goes to show that nobody is completely perfect. Nobody is beyond sin. No matter how great people think you are, or how great you think you are, you’re a sinner. Fame and a popular name won’t change that.
Sometimes we try to hide this in our own self-righteousness. We try to shame others and highlight their sins to take the focus off of our own. That’s what our culture is like. That’s why we like to blame other people for things and so readily point out their faults. It might be a diversion, but it doesn’t change the fact that we are sinful—rotten on the inside. Even after the flood, God himself says in Genesis 8:21 “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth….”
After Jonah shows the Ninevites their sin—pointing it out to them, the Ninevites do something extraordinary. The text says, “And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth…’”
They believed God. They believed that they were evil, and that judgment was coming. They knew that God was serious, and they mourned Jonah’s message. What a surprise of a reaction from this mighty city. Whereas Jonah took it for granted, the Ninevites—along with the sailors from the previous chapter—took the word of God seriously. Isn’t this how it often happens?
The king of Nineveh says to his people, “…and let them call out mightily to God.”They don’t only mourn the pronouncement of judgment; like the sailors, they call out to God. “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? GOD may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
God of reconciliation
After they’ve repented, they still need God to be merciful. How is God going to respond? How does God respond to those who are condemned but beg him for mercy? I think that a lot of people in our culture today don’t know the answer to that question. Or they don’t consider it because they assume that the answer will only condemn them further, because that’s what our culture does. It shames, it scorns, and then in the moment of apology it only hits harder, with more force. But that’s our evil culture, that’s not our God. Amidst a world of shame and self-righteousness, God, in his mercy, seeks true reconciliation—even for prideful Nineveh.
It says, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it.” The Ninevites turn, and they pray to God that he would do the same. It’s the word שׁוב, which means to return, to turn back, to bring back, to repent. We see the same word in Ezekiel 18:30, which says, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, everyone according to his ways, declares the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin.” The Ninevites weren’t over-turned, rather they were re-turned. And God turned from his own anger and had mercy on repentant Nineveh. God worked in them to bring about true reconciliation.
That’s what we need. We need to be honest about our own sin, honest about what we’ve done and how we’ve hurt those around us—maybe a little less concerned with the sins of others at times, and approach God as humble and repentant. Whereas we’ll only face shame and self-righteousness from others, when we come to God with our sin, he forgives us. As the church, it’s something that we’re called to emulate. God made our relationship with him right in the cross of Jesus, the sign of Jonah. He gave his only begotten Son into death not to scorn us further, but that we might be brought back to him. Amidst a world of shame and self-righteousness, God, in his mercy, seeks true reconciliation. We saw it even with the Ninevites!
The following chapter sees Jonah’s response to Nineveh’s repentance and gets to the heart of what the whole book is really about—something much bigger than what the basic narrative lets on.