Summary: More than Jonah could ever understand, Jesus reveals the greatness of God’s mercy. God’s mercy is for sinners. His mercy is for Jews, it’s for Gentiles, it’s for people of ever nation, for all who seek him.
What does someone do when they’ve been rescued from great danger—pulled from a burning house, or saved from drowning? Or how does a person act after his life’s been spared: when he should’ve been killed, but someone had mercy? A natural response is the desire to tell people about it. Because what’s happened is so significant, a rescued person wants to share the story.
It’s true for our deliverance, too. If God has shown you life-restoring mercy, how eager should you be to talk about it? The apostle Paul shows us. He knew himself to be a great sinner; he was someone who’d even persecuted Christ and his church. Yet God broke into Paul’s life and redeemed him. And ever since, Paul felt compelled to share the good news. The good news is that Christ rescued him, as Christ will rescue all who put their trust in his Name! So Paul will bring that message until he has no more strength to tell it.
This then is part of the puzzle of Jonah. Now, Jonah is unique among the twelve minor prophets, for it’s not a collection of oracles or prophecies like the others are, but it’s a story. And unlike Paul, Jonah is very much a reluctant prophet. For God tells him to go and preach at Nineveh. Jonah disobeys, and he sails in the opposite direction. But he can’t get away from the power and presence of the LORD, for Jonah first encounters a terrible storm, then he gets thrown overboard, and finally is swallowed by a great fish.
Really, Jonah shouldn’t be alive by this point. But deep in the fish’s belly, he seems to repent of his sin. In chapter 2 he confesses dependence on God, who shows him mercy. He has been plucked from his watery grave, and for a second time the LORD will send Jonah to Nineveh.
But here’s the mystery: having received grace, Jonah isn’t that excited to talk about it. Having been delivered, he’s not that eager to see Nineveh spared from the coming wrath. Not the reaction that you’d expect from someone just saved from death! Yet God doesn’t let Jonah steal the spotlight. Jonah can’t take away from what God is doing, as the LORD shows great compassion to a pagan city. This is our theme from Jonah 3,
For a second time, the LORD sends Jonah to preach at Nineveh:
1) Jonah’s disturbing message
2) Nineveh’s pleading repentance
3) God’s relenting mercy
1) Jonah’s disturbing message: We don’t want to be too graphic about it, but our text begins with Jonah covered in the vomit of a sea creature. He’s somewhere along the Mediterranean coast, wherever that great fish left him. That’s how chapter 2 ends, “So the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land” (2:10).
Standing there on the shore, likely a big question was at the forefront of Jonah’s mind: “Now what?” And he probably had a hunch of what to do, but to make it perfectly clear: “The word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and preach to it the message that I tell you” (3:1-2). Jonah has received a second chance, he’s been granted a pardon from death. But now if he’s going to live, he has to do what God wants him to.
So Jonah sets sights on Nineveh. In his day, it was the capital city of Assyria. And by that time it was already an ancient city, having been founded long ago by Nimrod, the grandson of Noah. It had grown to be one of the largest cities in the world. As verse 3 says, “Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, a three-day journey in extent.”
That last phrase is a bit difficult. Does it mean that it would take three days to walk all the way around it? The evidence from archaeology shows that ancient Nineveh wasn’t that big; it had a wall that ran for about ten kilometers around. It wasn’t a massive city in modern terms, yet it was important: “a three day journey in extent” probably means it had great political importance. If you were a foreign ambassador, a proper visit to Nineveh would take at least three days. That’s where all the movers and shakers were.
There’s something else revealing about that description in verse 3. When our translation says it “was an exceedingly great city,” it reads literally: “Nineveh was a great city to God.” That doesn’t mean this was a city that honoured God—certainly not! It also doesn’t mean that this city deserved anything from God. For Nineveh was infamous for its cruelty and violence. Yet Nineveh was significant to the LORD.
Important—for what reason? Jonah might’ve thought it was important, only in the sense that they were at the top of God’s list of cities to destroy. Because of their sin, Nineveh was overripe for judgment, Public Enemy #1.