Jonah 3:1-5, 10 1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
Jonah was a reluctant prophet. First, he ran away, refusing to obey God. Then he did what the LORD told him to do. He walked for a day across the city of Nineveh (which was 3 days across), and he delivered the LORD’s message, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”
The response was immediate, “The people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” In verses 7,8,9 we read of the King’s response and proclamation, but the people anticipated it!
In scripture “sackcloth and ashes” are associated with prayer, fasting, supplications, and repentance. Let’s consider definitions of each:
- Prayer: A solemn request for help or an expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.”
- Fasting: To go without food or drink, sometimes totally, sometimes with qualifications. This is true of Jonah 3:7 when the King proclaims a fast for the city of Nineveh. Traditionally the Daniel fast (named after the prophet) permits vegetables to be eaten, but not meat. Others fast without food but take liquids. During Ramadan, Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset, but eat anything before or after sunset.
- Supplication: The action of asking or begging for something earnestly or humbly.
- Repentance: An expression of sincere regret or remorse. The sin of Nineveh appears to have been her general wickedness, and her support of the Assyrians against the Children of Israel, the Jews. The prophet Nahum spoke the Word of the LORD against the city of Nineveh just before it fell in 612 BCE, saying:
3:1 Woe to the bloody city, all full of lies and booty — no end to the plunder! 2 The crack of whip, and rumble of wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! 3 Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, hosts of slain, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end — they stumble over the bodies! 4 And all for the countless harlotries of the harlot, graceful and of deadly charms, who betrays nations with her harlotries, and peoples with her charms. 5 Behold, I am against you, says the LORD of hosts, and will lift up your skirts over your face; and I will let nations look on your nakedness and kingdoms on your shame. 6 I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a gazingstock. 7 And all who look on you will shrink from you and say, “Wasted is Nineveh; who will bemoan her? whence shall I seek comforters for her?”
Nineveh was not the last city to be held accountable before God. The prophet Joel (writing well after the end of the Babylonian captivity) spoke the word of God to the nations saying:
Joel 3:9 Proclaim this among the nations: Prepare war, stir up the mighty men. Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up. 10 Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a warrior.” 11 Hasten and come, all you nations round about, gather yourselves there. Bring down thy warriors, O LORD. 12 Let the nations bestir themselves and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about.
The LORD was against the nations because they sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem into slavery. Likewise, in Matthew 11:21 and (Luke 10:13) Jesus began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent, saying:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! woe to you, Beth-saida! for if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, (Luke adds “sitting”) in sackcloth and ashes.”
The book of Jonah seeks to tell us about a time long before the eventual fall of Nineveh in 612 BCE. According to the book of Jonah, the people of Nineveh “repented of their evil.” And “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.”
Some people say that “God never changes his mind.” This flies in the face of several scriptures, this passage from Jonah being just one example. From our perspective, God does repent, for he sometimes softens a threatened punishment or set’s aside altogether. The truth is, when nations and individuals repent, they open themselves to God’s grace. In the book of Joel, Israel had been destroyed by a mighty army of insects, a plague of locus, the hopper, cutter, and destoyer. The nation’s grain, grapes, figs, fields, and trees had all been stripped bare by the locus. There was a terrible famine in the land. Yet, in Joel 2:25 God makes a remarkable promise saying not only that the days are coming when the will again be a good one, and people’s hunger will be satisfied. Even more, God makes a promise to the nation saying:
“I will restore to you the years which the swarming locust has eaten, the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter, my great army, which I sent among you.
Today, when sin separates us from God, we repent primarily so that we might have our relationship with God restored. A right relationship between the individual (or people) and God is the most important thing, as it opens up endless–and eternal possibilities. There is, of course, more. Within the restored relationship, there is always the hope that God will also restore to the individual (or nation) the years that have been wasted by sin and disobedience.
- Think of a time when your sin or wrong choice brought unexpected, negative consequences. Could what was lost ever be restored? How?
- How would you approach repentance today?
- Think of God’s judgment against the gentile nations. Do you believe that God judges the nations today, not just at the end of history, but in the midst of history? Why do you believe this is so?
- In what way are the nations punished in the midst of history?
Bonus: A Memory Key for the Minor Prophets
Jonah was one of the 12 Minor Prophets. I came up with this Memory Key to help me remember and date them. They can be grouped in the time of 1st Isaiah (c. 740-700 BCE), Jeremiah (c. 627-586 BCE). In 589 BCE, Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem, culminating in the destruction of the city and its temple in the summer of 587 or 586 BCE. The people were taken into captivity, not returning until c. 539-538 BCE when they were freed by Cyrus (II) aka Cyrus the Great, King of Persia who had conquered the (neo)Babylonian Empire). There are four things to remember, all marked in bold/italic.
- 1st Isaiah (740-700 BCE) spoke of a very special MAH (slang for Mother—Isaiah prophesied that “a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, etc.”). MAH stands for Micah, Amos, and Hosea. All three were contemporaries of the 1st Isaiah.
- Jeremiah (627-586 BCE) drove a Zephyr to New Hampshire. Zephyr=Zephaniah (586 BCE), New=Nahum (663-612 BCE fall of Nineveh) and Hampshire=Habakkuk (612 BCE) (both with a “u”) got home (from the exile) early. All three were contemporaries of Jeremiah. The Neo-Assyrian Empire and its capital, Nineveh, was destroyed by an alliance of Persians, Meads and Babylonians.
- Malachi arrived home fifty years later than the 538 BCE return from exile.
- Joel, Obadiah, and Jonah got home much later, (long after the return from Exile in Babylon), but no one is certain when they arrived. In other words, they can’t be dated with certainty.