The Runaway (Part Three)
Take a moment to read Jonah 3 in your favorite Bible.
In honor of Independence Day, I’d like to share with you the Friday, July 2 email from the 1440 Daily Digest: “Congratulations, America—Sunday marks the 245th commemoration of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress. The Congress actually voted to separate from Great Britain two days earlier, and possibly didn't sign the document until early August. Some argue the US didn't fully become a country until we began operating under the Constitution in 1789.
“Still, the country has since grown from 13 colonies and roughly 2.5 million people, to 50 states and 14 territories with a population of more than 330 million. The economy has swelled to almost $21T, and while income and wealth disparities remain an issue, economic output per person has risen by a factor of 30 over two centuries.
“Advances in public health—public sanitation, the germ theory of disease, and more—have cut the child mortality rate from more than 45% to under 1%, and our citizens live 35 years longer on average. Educational attainment has skyrocketed, with more than 200 million people having at least finished high school, compared to 18 million in 1940.
We've built almost 3 million miles of paved roads and more than 5,000 public airports. Millions of miles of power lines electrify the country and almost 80% of adults have access to broadband internet. In 1800, 95% of the population lived in rural areas; more than 80% now live in urban cities and towns. Demographics have also shifted, with minorities representing close to 30% of the population.
“The 244th year was a tough one, but so far, the American experiment has held strong. So grab a hot dog and your drink of choice—here's to the next 245 years.”
I suppose you can say that our Independence Day marks an act of disobedience against the authority of that time, so it’s ironic that we make this observation about Jonah 3:
Complete obedience is the gateway to spiritual success.
The book of Jonah is unique in several respects.
Of the Minor Prophets, Jonah is the only one to preach to heathens on their own land.
Jonah is the only one of the minor prophetic books that tells a story instead of listing oracles.
Jonah is the only prophet from Galilee, the region where Jesus grew up and did most of His ministry.
In all His teaching, Jonah was one of only four prophets Jesus mentioned by name.
In Jonah, God used several things to accomplish His purpose: a storm, a GREAT FISH, a scorching wind, a plant, and a worm.
Let’s get down to the details of the great example of national repentance depicted in Jonah 3.
1. Jonah’s spiritual renewal resulted in obedience. (3:1-4)
God gave Jonah a second chance. Getting second chance is no small act of GRACE (2:8). Moses did not get a second chance to enter the Promised Land. David did not get a second chance after his illegal sentence. Judas did not get a second chance after betraying Jesus, thought he sought one from the chief priests.
God’s command in 3:2 is different than it was in 1:2. God’s first command (1:2) was to go to Nineveh AND PREACH AGAINST IT as God was aware of its WICKEDNESS. God’s second command (3:2) was to go to Nineveh AND PROCLAIM THE MESSAGE I GIVE TO YOU. The text does not give us the particulars of God’s MESSAGE, so we have no sure way to prove Jonah’s message (3:4) was exactly what God had given him.
Key words in chapter three: JONAH OBEYED. The point of obedience here is that Jonah went to Nineveh. This was a journey of some 600 miles from Joppa.
Nineveh was A VERY LARGE CITY. One measure of its size is the fact that IT TOOK THREE DAYS TO GO ALL THROUGH IT. The Hebrew says, “a distance of three days.” This most likely means it took a person three days to travel all around the “metro area” of Nineveh. 4:11 tells us MORE THAN 120,000 lived in Nineveh. Genesis 10:12 refers to Nineveh as a GREAT CITY as the children of Noah repopulated the earth after the flood. This was centuries before Jonah’s time. This means Jonah was given an important job.
Jonah warned them of impending doom. Right away, on his first of the THREE DAYS it would take one to go through the city, Jonah started proclaiming his message. He gave them a warning that in FORTY DAYS the city would be DESTROYED. Did Jonah faithfully preach the message God gave him? Because this message - reported in the fewest possible words - has no offer of repentance, I have to wonder if Jonah might’ve left out part of what God intended him to say. On the other hand, the results were so dramatic, divine power has to be at least part of the explanation. Finally, back in 1:2, God did command Jonah to PREACH AGAINST the city, so a negative approach should be expected.
2. Jonah’s obedience bore fruit. (3:5-10)
The people found faith and repented. This could not have been a more successful result! They BELIEVED GOD. The people of Nineveh rejected the idols they had been worshipping. They demonstrated their new-found faith: THEY DECLARED A FAST and wore SACKCLOTH. It was typical in this culture to observe a FAST while wearing SACKCLOTH. The rough, uncomfortable clothing was often made of goat’s hair. It was the typical dress of slaves and mourners. Wearing SACKCLOTH was another form of self-denial, a way of demonstrating one’s repentance to God. This was a city-wide reaction to Jonah’s preaching: ALL OF THEM, FROM THE GREATEST TO THE LEAST, participated.
This account does not go into detail at any point, but the sudden and radical change of heart begs the question how it happened. In 765 B.C. the city suffered a plague. In 763 B.C., there was a total eclipse of the sun. A plague and an eclipse were apocalyptic events; these events would have left the citizenry feeling as if God was punishing them. When Jonah showed up in 760, they would have been more willing to believe in a divine punishment.
The account of Jonah having been spit out by a great fish may’ve preceded him and this gave him an audience where the mighty Assyrians would’ve otherwise overlooked a lowly Hebrew, a member of a conquered nation. I said in the first installment that Nineveh was known as “the city of fish.” Their main idol was Dagon, a fish-god. A man spat out of a great fish would’ve been regarded as an avatar of the god, a VIP. I’m not saying they repented because of superstition, only that Jonah’s story gained him a hearing. After that, it was all God and Jonah.
Urartu was the neighboring nation to the north of Assyria. They were fearsome warriors. People might’ve assumed that Jonah’s prophecy of the city’s downfall would be accomplished by the Urartu. Repentance was a far better alternative than being ravaged by those savages to the north.
Acknowledging these historical facts is not intended to diminish the miraculous repentance of the people of Nineveh. Instead, it is evidence of God being at work to prepare the people so they would be more open to hearing Jonah’s message.
The king found faith and repented. As usual, the government was behind the people; it was their fasting and repentance that prompted the king to make it “official.” The events occurring in this order make the narrative more authentic.
The book does not record Jonah having an audience with the king, so we must give the king credit for listening to the voice of the people. Along that line, notice that the king’s repentance was personal before it became official: He performed the usual acts of repentance in v. 6 and then, after that, issued the royal proclamation in vs. 7-9. The personal acts of repentance would’ve included the king coming down from his throne, changing from his ROYAL ROBES to SACKCLOTH, and sitting in the DUST. As it was the king, these acts would’ve attracted a lot of attention; in this sense, the decree is an explanation of the king’s actions.
Remember the expression: “If the king ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” This may explain the king’s NOBLES also signing on to the decree.
The king’s proclamation has some interesting features: in verse seven he commanded a FAST be observed by all the people and all their animals as well. Similarly, verse eight required both man and beast be clothed in SACKCLOTH. I assume beasts were normally unclothed. These commands sound odd to us, but there’s evidence that in ancient cultures domesticated animals were included in the household’s mourning and fasting.
The text of the proclamation called upon the Assyrian people to mourn, to pray, and to GIVE UP THEIR EVIL WAYS AND VIOLENCE. This is a typical Hebrew expression including a general and a specific command. EVIL WAYS is a general reference to sin and the defiant attitude that the strong and proud are above the demands of the law. VIOLENCE is a specific example of a sin. Even today we tend to think of cities as being havens for violence.
In what may have been a rare display of humility, the king called on everyone to pray to Jonah’s God, even though the king could not be sure these prayers would lead to their survival. Taken in total, the proclamation demonstrates humility and sincerity. The quality of their repentance is proven by the depth of God’s mercy.
God recognized their repentance with mercy. (10) A condition of true repentance is sincerity. Nothing proves one’s sincerity better than one’s actions. As the text says, WHEN GOD SAW WHAT THEY DID, how their actions demonstrated they HAD TURNED FROM THEIR EVIL WAYS. Seeing the completeness of their repentance, God HAD COMPASSION on them and chose to NOT BRING UPON THEM THE DESTRUCTION HE HAD THREATENED.
Verser ten may seem to say that God changed His mind; it is more likely that this was His intent all along. In fact, this was Jonah’s observation in 4:2. The word “relent” may be a more theologically correct translation. Having obtained the result He wanted, God relented and did not rain destruction on the Assyrians.
Complete obedience is the gateway to spiritual success.
We might wonder why God was so interested in Nineveh. Why send Jonah to them?
Other prophets foretold the event that is now history to us: in 722 B.C., the Assyrians invaded Israel, Jonah’s home, and utterly destroyed it. They lead many Israelites off to slavery in exile in chains, exacting many cruelties. The nation never recovered.
When they predicted it, the prophets described Assyrian as an instrument of God’s wrath. It is ironic and just that God used a people who demonstrated more faith in Him than His own people did. Because of the revival inspired by Jonah’s preaching, the Assyrians became a righteous weapon in His hands. God used Jonah to prepare the Assyrians to be a tool fit for His purposes.
How wonderful it would be to participate in an American act of national repentance that follows the pattern we’ve seen here in Jonah chapter three. In America of 2021 a national revival must also begin with the people. It must begin with prayer. It must be the result of a vigorous message like Jonah’s, the people responding with repentance based on holy fear.
Let others be cynical about a modern national revival: you must decide it will begin with you. Each of us must bring forth actions demonstrating repentance. Our sincere commitment to the Lord will be used by His Holy Spirit to spread across our land until it must be honored and amplified by those in authority.
Zion’s Fire (September-October 2014), “Jonah: Running from God,” pp. 20-23, David Ettinger
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 7, Jonah, H.L. Ellison