The Miracle | Jonah 3

Many occurrences in the book of Jonah have been described as miracles (the storm, the fish, etc.), yet as we have seen, most are simply God’s display of authority within nature. Miracle must be unnatural (or supernatural), and storms, fish, and plants are all common to the natural world. However, repentance certainly is a miracle. In the previous chapter, we saw God’s great grace and mercy toward Jonah. Because of that grace, Jonah repented of his wicked and rebellious heart. Chapter three dives into the subject of repentance even more in depth, as we read about one of the most violent cities on earth turn to God. Truly, the repentance of Nineveh is the great miracle of Jonah.

JONAH‘S RECOMMISSION // VERSES 1-4

There should be a certain feeling of déjà vu from reading these verses. God is coming to Jonah for a second time to give His message. This, in itself, is a miraculous occurrence. God was a under no obligation to give Jonah a second chance. If God chose to strike Jonah dead for fleeing from His presence, He would have still been wholly just, righteous, and good. However, by His great mercy and grace, God chased Jonah down so that a second chance might be given to the prophet. Though it is never pleasant when the LORD disciplines us, it is one of the greatest evidences that we are truly His children. Hebrews 12:7-8 states, “It is for discipline that you have to endure, God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.” God’s love does not leave us in the destructiveness of our sin. Indeed, because of His great love, the LORD is willing to forcibly strip every false god and confidence from our hands until we can only cling to Him. We are not entitled to a second chance, but thank God that He delights in giving them!

The LORD’s second word to Jonah is slightly shorter than the first, but it is the virtually the same in content. The purpose of God’s message to Jonah remains the same: arise, go, and proclaim to Nineveh. However, notice the precise wording of this message: “call out against it the message that I tell you.” God emphasizes to Jonah that he must proclaim the exact message that God gives him. Given the journey that Jonah has been through, I do not think that it is unfair for God to be concerned about Jonah delivering the exact message. Jonah fled from God the first time because he hates Nineveh (Jonah 4:2). He knows that God’s warning of incoming judgment will likely lead to the wicked city repenting and God relenting. Thus, God seems to be binding Jonah to the specificity of his work. Jonah must say exactly as he is told, no more and no less. Similarly, we are in the same position in regards to evangelism. We have the gospel of Jesus, the good news that leads to eternal life; therefore, we must be faithful to share it as such. We cannot water down to message to spare people’s self-esteem, nor can we withhold the message because we dislike someone. The gospel must go out to all people, and we are the messengers. If we do not proclaim the gospel, who will?

Mirroring the third verse of chapter one, verse 3 finds Jonah again acting upon receiving the word of the LORD, yet this time, Jonah obeys God. After going through the storm and being saved from the sea, Jonah realized that there was no escaping God, so he humbly submitted in obedience. When commands, obedience is always required.

We have already discussed the greatness of Nineveh a little in verse three of chapter one. It was great in terms of size and might, not in morality or values. Indeed, Nineveh was a devastatingly wicked city that actively indulged in violence regularly. The description of the city being a “three days journey in breadth” can be rather difficult to interpret. Regardless of whether the author meant walking straight through the city or around the city, no ancient city was large enough that it would require three days to traverse. That said, here are a few possible ways of understanding the three days journey of Jonah. First, Jonah could have been sent to Nineveh and the surrounding area, not just the city itself. Much like larger cities can be representative of the smaller communities around them, Jonah could have been called to proclaim to Nineveh’s governing district, not just the city itself. A second option for interpreting this statement is that the journey was how long Jonah stayed in the city. Though divine messengers were often associated with the number three, I doubt that this is what the author meant. The word “breadth” seems to imply an actual distance, so I lean toward thinking that Jonah was sent to the entire area surrounding Nineveh.

In verse 4, Jonah wastes no time proclaiming the message of the LORD. During his first day’s journey, the prophet calls out to the people of Nineveh that the city shall be destroyed in forty days. Jonah struts into one of the largest and most evil cities of his day, boldly declaring an eight-word message of judgment (the original Hebrew is only five words). Dr. Constable rightly states, “The basic simplicity of Jonah’s message contrasts with the greatness of Nineveh. The Word of the Lord is able to change even a complex and sophisticated urban population.”[1]

NINEVEH’S REPENTANCE // VERSES 5-9

The mighty power of the Word of God is on full display in Nineveh’s reaction to Jonah’s message. The author says that the people of Nineveh “believed God.” Jonah’s message was not one of repentance. It was not a call for the people of the city to believe and worship the one true God. Jonah simply proclaimed the impending divine destruction that was set to come upon the city, and they responded with city-wide fast. This gives us valuable insight into our view of the nonbeliever.

First, we tend to assume that people as sinful as Nineveh would be completely hardened to the evilness of sin. However, Jonah merely announced that their destruction was coming and they knew why it was coming upon them. Even the most hardened sinners are fully aware of their sin. Everyone is without excuse before God for their sin. Regardless of how desperately we might try not to feel guilty of our sin, God has placed His law within our hearts so that we are always aware of our sin (Romans 2:15).

Second, because of that perceived hardness of heart, we believe that some people are beyond repentance. To be fair, most of us would never vocalize it as such. We would never say that there is someone that God cannot save. Yet practically, if God did happen to bring them to complete destruction, we would not be too heartbroken about it. We talk hypothetically about how God’s grace is vast enough that He could have saved Hitler if he had repented, but we would much rather see God wipe that sort of person off the face of the planet. Of course, this does not just apply to universally recognized evil dictators. Would we really be terribly saddened if God decided to destroy all meth-addicts and gang members? Would society not be better off without them? The simple truth of the Bible is that God is able to penetrate even the blackest and hardest of hearts; however, believing and living that statement is infinitely difficult. The gospel requires us to become uncomfortable in reaching out to the seemingly unreachable.

Here we see that God’s message through Jonah did not just fall upon the ears of the citizens of Nineveh, but the king heard and led the charge of repentance. By the king’s actions, he shows many marks of humbling himself before God. He removes himself from his throne, disrobes, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Ancient kings were known to think of themselves as living deities; thus, to see this king utterly remove himself from all adornments of authority and to humble himself is stunning. There is some small debate over where this man is a governor of Nineveh (it was not uncommon for a ruler of a city to be called its king) or the actual king of Assyria. Either way, we know that this was one of the most powerful men on earth during Jonah’s day, but he submitted to God. How glorious when leaders model repentance!

Though today we may not be kings over cities or kingdoms, our sense of entitlement can be just as great as the king of a great and powerful nation. We take our seat on the metaphorical thrones of our hearts. We govern our own lives with the greatest sense of regal authority. We may not have much authority in other areas of life, but we do reign sovereignly over our own lives. Indeed, this philosophy of self is governing every aspect of society. Issues such as abortion and assisted suicide only have grounds because of phrases like “my body, my choice.” In all things, we are supreme over ourselves. We are our own deities. However, just like the king of Nineveh humbly submitted when confronted with a greater authority, so must we yield our plans, desires, and entitlement before God. No follower of Christ is entitled to sovereign rule over their own body. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Christian, you are a puny king and god of your own life. Christ is meant to rule you.

So serious was the king’s repentance that he issued this city-wide edict to the people of Nineveh. He ordered every person (and animal) to fast and wear sackcloth. Here fasting and sackcloth are signs of humility. The people are showing that they bow before the might of Jonah’s God. The king also orders them to cry mightily out to God. The entire city of Nineveh came before God with prayer and humility, begging that He would relent of the destruction that He intended to bring. Nevertheless, their most significant act is found at the end of verse eight: “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.” Repentance is not merely praying to God for mercy and forgiveness. Repentance is the changing of one’s lifestyle and mind. Thus, if the king had only ordered the people to call out to God, there would be significant doubts of true repentance, and yet because the king ordered a complete reversal of behavior, we can see the genuineness of their repentance. The king knew that God did not want them to feel bad about their sin (but continue to do it); instead, the LORD wanted them to turn from their sin. He wanted them to repent of their sin, that is, to give it up entirely.

Granted, we should not be naïve in thinking that the Ninevites fully converted to Judaism. However, it is still a remarkable declaration to witness such a powerful city falling upon its knees in hope that God might spare them. They hoped that their repentance would lead God to repent of the destruction that He was bringing upon them. Jonah’s simple message of impending doom led to the mass repentance of a brutally violent city. Ultimately, however, this should not shock us as much as it does. Nineveh did not repent because of Jonah’s message; they repented because God changed their hearts. Jonah is a terribly reluctant prophet, who is still not wishing for the Ninevites to repent, but God used him, nonetheless. God did all the work, and Jonah was just an instrument in His hands.Jesus, likewise, told a parable of a growing seed (Mark 4:26-29). He observed that a farmer plants the seed, but the seed grows on its own. The farmer has nothing to do with the seed actually sprouting into a plant. The planting of the seed is the proclaiming of the gospel. Sinking our teeth into this thought completely liberates our traditional concept of evangelism. God does the work. We are called, not to bring people to repentance, but to faithfully proclaim their need of repentance. Obedience is our responsibly, and the fruit of our obedience is God’s doing.

GOD’S MERCY // VERSE 10

Notice that God looked upon their actions. It does not say that God listened to their cries, but that He saw that “they turned from their evil way.” Does this mean that God only saved them because of their works? No, there is no level of good deeds that the Ninevites could have done to deserve God’s mercy. However, their actions are indicative of their hearts. True repentance will always manifest itself through turning from sin.

The God’s action in the second portion of this verse has received a fair amount of questions. Though the ESV and most modern translations say that God relented, the actual word is repent. So what does it mean for us to say that God repented? Given that Hebrew does not have a word for relent, it seems fair that relent is a accurate translation of what the word in the text means. In the end, because repent means to turn around or to change one’s mind, it applies fittingly to God’s action here. God decided not to inflict His destruction upon them. God’s plan of action changed. Of course, now another question arises. Does God’s change of mind mean that He is not unchanging? The immutability of God is a very biblical attribute of God. In Malachi 3:6, God explicitly says, “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” We also see in Hebrews 13:8 that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” And in Numbers 23:19 we see what appears to be a direct contradiction to God’s repenting here in Jonah: “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he spoken, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” What are we to make of these verses in conjunction with God’s action here in Jonah?

Throughout the Old Testament, God reserves the right to change His actions based upon the actions of people. In Jeremiah 18:7-10, God gives His principle concerning His warning to the nations: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will puck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that i will build and plant it and it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will relent of the good that I intended to do to it.” God’s immutability refers to the unchanging nature of His character. God’s personality and actions will never change. And here, God is giving us a guideline for His nature that will never change: He will act based upon our actions. Also, let us thank God for the grace of repentance that results in God’s relenting of his wrath.

Helpful also is the analogy of the thermometer. Is it changeable or unchangeable? The superficial observer says it is changeable, for the mercury certainly moves in the tube. But just as certainly it is unchangeable, for it acts according to fixed law and invariably responds precisely to the temperature.[2]

THE END OF THE MATTER

The repentance of Nineveh ought to give great hope to any reader of this text. Though Nineveh was a city of great violence and evil, God gave them the opportunity of repentance. And even though we know from history that their repentance was not long-term, God delighted in honoring small steps of turning from sin. The repenting of Nineveh stood as a marvelous lesson to Jonah’s people, the Israelites, that God does not rejoice in bringing His wrath upon people. And it also stands as a lesson for us today. God is calling each of us to repentance, whether for the thousandth time or the first. God has given us a better Jonah and a better message. Jesus Christ is God incarnate, who came into the world of men to proclaim that true repentance and forgiveness of sins are only found in Him. We must each turn from sin and turn to the grace found in the Son of God.


[1] Constable p. 29

[2]Gaebelein, p. 111.

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