Scripture from the ESV
“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord...
Go to Nineveh, that great city,
What does Jonah have against Nineveh? It is a great city; Israel is but a small nation; it is not his nation; they are not the elect of God; they are not the heirs of the promise; they have known enormous prosperity and abundance, which Israel is but beginning to enjoy in this period.
Imagine Jonah worked for the MLB. The MLB levies a fine upon a small local team, but forgives the grave sins of the Yankees. Perhaps Jonah would not want to be the messenger of this forgiveness. But Israel, the small local team, being in the covenant is necessarily the receiver of blessings and curses according to the Law (Leviticus 26).
and call out against it
True prophecy does not always speak words which are pleasant to hear, but words which can heal.
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14).
So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord.
It is only ‘according to the word of the Lord’ that one can truly arise. One stands upright only when in accord with and through the power of the Word.
Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city,
Why should we be told twice that Nineveh is great? Is God impressed by the might, wealth, prosperity, size, or self-importance of a person or city? What may be the reason the Scriptures recount this?
- The Lord does not hide his mercy under a basket, but places it upon a hill that it may be seen by many, so that many may be saved. Just the opposite of Jonah it seems.
- Just as a great fish, a terror of the deep, swallowed Jonah, so Jonah enters into a vast and terrible foreign city in which he has no hope of success or even survival, unless the Lord preserve him: Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him (Job 13:15).
- Jonah has been prepared by a journey more terrible and now knows a true fear of God: The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? the Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell. Though an host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear: though war should rise against me, in this will I be confident (Psalm 27:1-3).
- Indeed, the greatness of a city gives it no excuse for sin, but on the contrary condemns it for ingratitude
three days’ journey in breadth
A further reference to the greatness of the city which also hearkens to Jonahs three day experience in the deep.
Some associate this Assyrian city with the original hanging gardens of Babylon. It is supposed to have had great walls surrounding it.
“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
Who would believe such a report. Nineveh would take months, if not years to topple. Siege warfare is not a matter of days or months. What enemy could accomplish this with his arm? Jonah’s word is on its face laughable.
By what sign is Jonah believed? By the sign of the cross which he had been marked with during his journey in the fish. The Gospel of John helps us understand the nature of such a sign. Christ speaks of tearing down another great wall, that of the Temple. The Word of God always corresponds with the cross, with death and resurrection, and thus with the humanly impossible. To speak with authority is to speak of the cross:
So the Jews said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken (John 2:18-22).
To believe in God is to believe in He who has power over life and death, in He for whom nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37). Is not the resurrection more remarkable and more worthy of joy than the destruction and restoration of a city and its walls?
And the people of Nineveh believed God.
This is the power of God’s Word which not only instructs, but informs the hearts of men with power, the power of faith. This is the miracle of the story, the resurrection.
They called for a fast and put on sackcloth,
By faith, they bring forth fruit worthy of repentance (Matthew 3:8).
from the greatest of them to the least of them.
This merciful word of warning makes them all equal, brothers in condemnation and in hope.
and he arose from his throne,
He arises, as the word of God commands and causes. But he arises to descend to a state of mourning and repentance. The way down is the way up.
removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.
The false clothing of righteousness is removed, and he remembers that he and his people are but dust.
And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh,
The Word of God changes not only individuals but communities.
Once spoken, God’s Word does not cease to be heard, but continues to go forth and multiply (Genesis 1:28).
“By the decree of the king and his nobles:
By the king and his nobles, not explicitly by God. God allows the people in their wisdom to determine the form of their common repentance. It is necessary that it should be unclear whether such will be pleasing to God, in order that God’s mercy, condescension, and gracious favor may be made known.
If God were to say, “do such and such and you shall be forgiven,” they would have been robbed of accepting their sinfulness and God’s mercy in their conscience. Thus their repentance would not have been free or a true petition, but merely an exchange of deeds. It would not have had gratitude.
Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything.
He is Lord of all, as Jonah well knows.
Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.
A great city and a great people often know little of want. What is this evil and violence, each conscience must determine.
Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger
Such faith. Thus Nineveh may judge the generations which do not repent. They stepped out in faith and hope, depending on God’s mercy, not upon a covenant or contract.
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.
God’s Word accomplishes its purpose. Nineveh is forgiven, albeit for the time-being (Nahum 2:6). Is Nineveh to be understood as both literal and figurative? Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated (Romans 9:13)? In either case, the Scriptures hold Nineveh up both as an example of condemnation and repentance.