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Jonah Preaches (Part 2 of 3)

Jonah Preaches

Part 2 of 3

Fulfilling the Great Commission

Previously, we considered God’s gracious recommissioning of Jonah. In this article, we’ll consider Jonah’s ministry in Nineveh.

Verse 3 reads, “So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD.” Jonah’s obedience and compliance with the divine command is seen both in the repetition of the verbs ‘arose’ and ‘went,’ and also in the phrase, “according to the word of the LORD.” No longer did Jonah arise and go to Tarshish. Rather, he arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the LORD.

The journey from Palestine to Nineveh was about 500 miles or 800 km, and would have taken about one month if he was riding a camel or a donkey, and much longer if he went by foot. The actual journey there, while long and arduous and no doubt dangerous at times, was not very important or significant from a biblical point of view and so nothing is recorded of it. What is of great significance is what happened when Jonah arrived at Nineveh.   

Verse 3 says, “Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey.” The word translated “exceeding” is actually the Hebrew word for God, i.e. “Elohim.” So it is possible to translate the verse as “Nineveh was a great city to God” or “Nineveh was a city greatly significant to God…”

Not only was Nineveh a great city in the eyes of man, it was also very significant in the eyes of God. It may not have been significant or important to Jonah back in chapter 1 but it was to God. God had created its greatness in size and God was determined to show it great compassion and mercy.

The phrase “three days’ journey” does not necessarily mean that it takes someone three days to walk directly across the city or even around it. But what it does mean is that Jonah took three days to go through all the major sections of the city proclaiming God’s message to as many people as possible. The whole city needed to hear this message of God from the king down to the least significant member.  

In verse 4, we are explicitly told what this message which Jonah brought from God to the people was. On the first day that Jonah entered the city, he cried or proclaimed the words, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”

He didn’t delay his preaching till he was in the very heart of the great city. On his very first day when he was still at the edges of the city, he started informing the people of the judgment to come. Jonah’s message is found in the very brief statement, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown or destroyed.” In fact in Hebrew, it is just 5 words.

Did Jonah preach in Hebrew and someone interpreted for him as he went along? Or did he preach in the language of the Assyrians? We are not told. All we know is that the people there understood well what Jonah was saying.

Another question we might ask is whether this was all that Jonah said or whether this was just a brief summary. Again, we do not know. Most likely, Jonah said more than that but the reason why only these few words are recorded is because emphasis is being given, not to Jonah’s ability as a preacher or orator, but to the amazing response and repentance of the people of Nineveh, which is recorded from verse 5 to verse 9. 

But I’ll like us to observe three things about this short message of Jonah. First, the word “overthrown” is the exact same word that God used for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah back in Genesis 19. For example in verses 24 and 25 of Genesis 19, we read, “Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven; And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.”

I believe that the use of this word “overthrow” is no accident. If Nineveh persisted in its state of great wickedness and evil before the Lord, then its final end would be exactly the same as the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah over a thousand years ago – total destruction and devastation. The people of Nineveh were probably familiar with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. If not, Jonah would almost certainly have familiarized them with it.

So the first thing we observe from Jonah’s message is that the city of Nineveh was being threatened with the same fate that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah suffered in times past. 

The second thing we observe is that Nineveh had been given a period of forty days before this destruction would fall upon their city. In the bible, the number forty is significant.

Here are a couple of examples:

During the great flood in Noah’s day, the rain fell continuously upon the earth for forty days and forty nights.

The Israelites were in the wilderness for forty years. Moses was up on the Mountain to receive the law from the LORD for forty days and forty nights.

The maximum number of strokes or lashes a criminal could be given according to the Mosaic law was forty.

The Lord Jesus was in the wilderness being tempted of the devil for forty days and forty nights.

Putting these things together, it seems that the number forty in scripture is symbolic of either punishment and judgment or else of trial and testing. Here in Jonah chapter 3, Nineveh is given forty days before God’s holy judgment is to fall upon it. What happens in Nineveh during this forty-day period is crucial.

This brings us to the third observation from Jonah’s message, namely, although the threat of judgment in Jonah’s message sounded unconditional, nevertheless, a condition was implied. We see this most clearly stated in Jeremiah 18:7-8, where we read, “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.”

If the people of Nineveh would repent and turn from their evil within the next forty days, then the LORD would repent of the evil which He thought to do to them. But if they failed to do so, then Nineveh would be overthrown or destroyed at the end of that period of testing.

We know from the rest of this chapter, particularly from verse 10, that the Ninevites did in fact repent and turn from their evil ways and the LORD in turn repented of the evil that He had said He would do to them and He did it not.

Now how should we understand God repenting or changing His ways from a previously declared course of action in light of His immutability or His unchangeable character? How can a God who is unchangeable ever repent?

Well, the best way to understand this is to see His so-called new course of action as His immutably certain response to a change in the human response to His holy law. In other words, God always acts the same way towards moral evil and the same way towards moral good. His immutable or unchangeable moral character is seen in His every reaction to men’s responses to Him. If men and women alter their relations to Him, He will always respond in a manner that is consistent with His immutable character.

So rather than posing a problem to the doctrine of God’s immutability, passages like Jonah 3:10 and Jeremiah 18:8 actually support it when properly understood. God always responds in a manner that is consistent with His holy character. He does not change.

If men truly repent of their sins, God will withhold His judgment upon them. If men turn away from His voice and disobey His revealed will, then He will not fail to send forth His judgment upon them. 

Next, we read in verse 5, “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.”

Verse 5 is a most remarkable and amazing verse in the Bible, and indeed in all of human history. Consider who the people of Nineveh were. They were pagans, heathen, and idol worshipping Gentiles. They were a very hardened and cruel and wicked people. Furthermore, they did not have the privilege of receiving the regular outward means of grace. Jonah was probably the first true prophet of God they had ever heard and seen. 

Then consider who Jonah was – an unknown Hebrew man from a distant country walking about their city and crying out strange words, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be  overturned.” And yet when Jonah opened his mouth to preach, the people of Nineveh believed from the greatest to the least of them.

Now according to chapter 4, we learn that Nineveh had a population of at least 120,000 if not more. Granted that not every single person may have been converted but still, we are talking about a huge mass conversion after just three days of ministry.

Often when we think about preachers who enjoyed great success in their preaching ministry, we think of men like George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon who preached to thousands at a time. It is estimated that Whitefield preached to a crowd of 30,000 at Cambuslang in Scotland during a time of great revival in the 18th century. But even Whitefield pales in comparison when compared with Jonah. We don’t often think about it that way, do we?

One commentator wrote, “If the miracle of the fish is great, that of this chapter is greater. For here is the record of nothing less than the greatest mass conversion in history. Though generalities must always be used with caution, we may say that never again has the world seen anything quite like the result of Jonah’s preaching in Nineveh.” Our text contains the greatest revival and the largest mass conversion in the history of the world.

We’ll continue with Jonah’s fulfilment of the great commission and its effects on the people at Nineveh in the next article.

—Linus Chua