In the third chapter of Jonah we see a picture of reluctant obedience. Jonah finally submits and obeys God’s command to go to Nineveh and speak out against them, however his heart is still not in the right place. He didn’t go with the intent of helping them, or guide them in the right direction. They way in which he carries out God’s command to speak to these people looks very different than how he would have spoke to his people. Reading this chapter brought to mind how a child would obey a parent when directed to do something they have to do but don’t want to do. Many a times I have found myself telling one of my children to apologize to their siblings then watched as the rolled theirs eyes, mumbled I’m sorry and weakly hugged them. They weren’t approaching my directive with the heart to restore their relationship but out of obligation. They knew if they didn’t obey me there would be a consequence. At these times I find myself having to say you missed the whole point. Yes they obeyed the words of my instructions but not the heart of what I was asking. My desire was for a restoration of the relationship not mere obedience. With Jonah it seems to me God was trying to teach him a lesson in loving his neighbor, and doing the work of God.
Jonah had been asked originally to speak out to the people of Nineveh and disobeyed by running from God as we found in chapter one. He quickly found he couldn’t escape God’s calling for him as he found himself in a storm then the belly of a fish. Because of his relationship with God and God’s pursuit of him he confessed his sin, and repented for his disobedience as we found in chapter two. In chapter three we are faced with a messenger of God who takes no pleasure in speaking God’s message. He did as instructed and no more. In context of the book the picture we have is Jonah saying fine, I was wrong to disobey. Here I will go and do just as you asked, but not more. I’ll tell them your message but I don’t have to like it. He was obeying God’s instructions but his heart was still to see his enemies suffer.
Lets look at the text in chapter three:
Jonah Goes to Nineveh
3: 1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, 2 “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:1-4 ESV)
In verses one through three we see God command Jonah a second time and Jonah obeys. Then some details are given in the end of three and verse four. God tells us the specifics of the size of Nineveh. This great city is a three days journey in breadth. That’s a huge city with a vast population. However the text gives us the specifics of the size then says “Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” According to the text Jonah walks one days journey into this great city then he gave his message. He went a third of the way in, and it doesn’t say he was giving the message along the way, in fact it says he walked a specific distance, period. The word “then” was used in the NASB or here in the ESV they use “and.” This is important because the words and syntax used are the “word” of God, which he inspired the writer to use, and here following the words and structure I believe the heart of Jonah is conveyed. He walked in a third of the way and proclaimed God’s message. Then that’s the last we hear of Jonah in the whole chapter. Chapter four tells us that he was still in the city, however there is no more account of him doing anything other than observing.
The amazing thing about this chapter is we get to see God do an amazing miraculous work through a reluctant messenger. God works through Jonah in spite of Jonah. God didn’t need Jonah to do this work, he wanted Jonah to be apart of it, and wanted to teach Jonah through it.
At this time we shift from our focus on Jonah to the people of Nineveh. He gave his message and the people responded:
5 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.(Jonah 3:5 ESV)
This is a great example of true repentance. Believing God was the first step. They didn’t just believe him, they took action based on the message, and their action was that of submission. They fasted and put of sackcloth. The wearing of sackcloth was a cultural practice done out of mourning and humiliation. All of the people “from the greatest… to the least” did this. That is an epic revival, especially considering these people! These people were renowned for their cruelty and being evil. Apart from the grace of God it’s likely people like this would have laughed at Jonah and slaughtered him for his very words. Yet they were driven to humility and submission by their believing God’s word.
Next we encountered another character in the story. The King of Nineveh. This man was the ruler of this great and terrible city, however when the “word” of God reached him his response was immediate. He arose from his thrown and removed his symbol of leadership, humbled himself and took action to save his people. Here is the account of the King:
The People of Nineveh Repent
“6 The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 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, 8 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. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.””
Not only did the King remove his robe which was a sign of prestige, and remove himself from the thrown which was a sign of power, where he ruled from, but he put on sack cloth which was a sign of humility and mourning, and he sat in ashes. Here we see the King do the exact opposite of Jonah. Jonah who was a messenger of God responded to God’s word first by disobedience, then by reluctant obedience and doing just enough to have technically obeyed God. The King who was not even one of God’s chosen people(the people of Israel) responded immediately, and he wasn’t given any instruction yet he was moved in to action. The King not only personally repented but his heart was for his people, he issued a proclamation that his people would humble themselves and be in a state of mourning. No person or beast was allowed to eat or drink, and was ordered to wear sackcloth. Most important here is the fact encouraged his people to call out to God, and turn from their evil ways. So his proclamation was that his people would humble themselves, call out to God, and repent. Also the text said that he did this out of hope. Hope that if they were repentant God might have mercy. This gentile got the point, his heart was changed, and he understood what it was to serve his people.
The text then gave God’s response to the people of Nineveh:
“10 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.” (Jonah 3:10 ESV)
The people of Nineveh were saved by God’s grace, through faith. An interesting point here is also that God chose these people. He chose this city of wicked people for Jonah to take this message to. He could have chosen to save anyone, and indeed there were many other neighboring cities to Israel that he didn’t chose, and who didn’t repent and come to God, but by his grace he chose this one. The fact he did chose the city was the reason they repented. Had he not sent Jonah there the people wouldn’t have heard the message, and the circumstances wouldn’t have occurred in which he worked in their hearts to repent from their ways and follow him. It seems to me that this is an example of God’s sovereignty. The people of Nineveh couldn’t save them selves, God provided salvation. This echoes Jonah’s prayer in chapter 3:9 “Salvation is from the Lord” not from man, not from Jonah.
Just as God provided Jonah with a fish, he provided Nineveh with Jonah, and he ultimately provided everyone with the person of Jesus. Just as God relented and had mercy on Nineveh, he has mercy on those who repent of their sin and put their faith in Jesus, who paid the price for our sin by his death on the cross and conquered death by his resurrection three days later.
There are great applications to take from this passage, both from Jonah and from the people of Nineveh. First I just want to say I have personally found studying Jonah to be both enlightening and convicting. My Seminary professor Todd Miles told us last semester that we should approach the word of God with expectation. We should expect to hear from God as we read the text and study his word. We can expect this because the same God who inspired scripture also helps us to interpret it.
The first couple times I read through Jonah I found myself thinking Jonah was ridiculous. How could someone who God spoke to not obey. How could he be so indignant and run from God because he didn’t like the people of Nineveh? However the more I read it I considered how I respond to God’s word. Do I always obey? Similar to God’s call for Jonah to preach to Nineveh, he has called me to love my neighbors, and through the great commission he has called me to take his word to my neighbors, my city, and the ends of the earth. I certainly have my own Nineveh’s, and I even have people I love who I haven’t spoke God’s word to. I am no better than Jonah, and reading his account has been a rich time of reflecting on how God has called me, and my own need for obedience. Unlike Jonah I pray my obedience would be out of love for God and the people he has called me to, not just to obey but to have heart transformation along the journey.