Summary: “Do you know what God wants?” He wants to be believed. I could have learned that lesson earlier if I had paid attention to the response of the Ninevites to Jonah’s preaching.
Jonah 3:1-9 Believing God
11/9/14 D. Marion Clark
I can remember the moment when I learned one of my most significant spiritual lessons. I was sitting on the pulpit platform at Tenth Presbyterian Church. James Boice was preaching. He asked the question, “Do you know what God wants?” (Why, yes, I did want to know.) He wants to be believed. I could have learned that lesson earlier if I had paid attention to the response of the Ninevites to Jonah’s preaching.
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.”
Much is made by commentators of the Lord giving Jonah a second chance. I suppose it can be considered gracious of God to give his servant another opportunity to serve. It seems to me, though, that the Lord is simply throwing Jonah back into the assignment he had tried to get away from. No one can flee the presence of the Lord, and no servant can forsake the assignment he has been given. God’s will will be done. So, Jonah, get to it!
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!”
Let’s recall Jonah’s original assignment: “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” Jonah’s message was to be one of doom. The evil of the city has come up before God. He was not ignorant of it before, but, rather, the city’s sin had reached such a grievous point that destruction was now called for. And so, Jonah proclaims its imminent overthrow – forty days.
Then the extraordinary happens.
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.
The Ninevites actually believe Jonah! He probably is in some kind of marketplace where people would be going about their business. He is a foreigner, and if dressed like many Hebrew prophets, has the appearance of a poor, eccentric man. He cries out the end is near, and, for whatever reason, the cosmopolitans stop what they are doing, listen to him, and are cut to the quick.
The comparison for us would be that of an eccentric looking man standing on a crate in Times Square preaching with his bull horn that God is about to send down judgment, and all the shoppers, the store keepers, the streetwise walkers, everyone – stop, gather round, and begin to wail. It is no less than a miracle, as difficult to believe as a man being swallowed by a large fish and living. In minutes a video would have been made and gone viral!
But let’s back up. The wording is not that the Ninevites believed Jonah, but that they believed God. The ancients were not atheists; they were polytheists. They believed that there were seers and oracles who spoke for the gods. Here they accept Jonah as a prophet who is the mouthpiece of God.
They believe God that he will carry out his judgment. They then engage in a formal act of mourning. They call for a fast and the wearing of sackcloth. Perhaps this is done spontaneously, but I suspect the next verses give the details of how this was carried out.
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.
So everyone engages in fasting and the wearing of sackcloth. The king sits in ashes, which likely meant everyone else did the same. These are formal acts of mourning and contrition. The people did not lose their appetite. They practiced fasting to demonstrate their grief. They did not lose interest in their clothes. They wore coarse clothing to display their repentance. The same with sitting in or covering themselves with ashes.
There are notable participants in these acts. The first is the king himself. The mighty ruler of the Assyrian empire humbles himself. Before his subjects, he subjects himself before the god of Jonah. As the fear of God entered into the mariners, so the fear of God entered into him. He then exercises his authority to command the same response of all the city, which leads to the peculiar participants – the cattle and the sheep.