Jonah 3:3b-6: Nineveh Repents!

Perhaps it is the shortest sermon in the Bible, but it might also be the most effective: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Only five words in Hebrew, it is terse, and it also appears rather unenthusiastic. It appears in Jonah more like a wish-announcement rather than one delivered with evangelistic fervor. But it is only five words, and it was effective.

Jonah Enters Nineveh

Why is Nineveh the chosen audience? Several factors may account for this.

  • Empire—the oppressor of many nations
  • Evil—infamous for their cruelty and brutality.
  • Extent—massive city size

The narrator stresses the size of the city by describing it as “a three days’ walk across.” This is an idiomatic expression, which is not intended as a literal description (cf. Charles Halton, Bulletin for Biblical Research 18 (2008) 193-207). A city that takes three days to cross would be something like 50-60 miles wide. Nothing close to that exists archaeologically. Rather, “three days” stands in contrast to “one” as the difference between “long or large” and “short or small.”

Jonah 3:4 literally describes Jonah’s entrance into the city as “one day’s walk.” The contrast between “three” and “one” is the contrast between a long distance and a short distance. Just as Jonah 3:4 indicates Jonah began to preach shortly after entering the city, Jonah 3:3 only indicates how large the city is rather than specifying a particular actual distance. In other words, both expressions are idiomatic.

Another way to understand “three day’s walk” is to hear it as a description of Jonah’s trip to Nineveh, that is, it was a “three day’s journey” to Nineveh (David Marcus in On the Way to Nineveh, pp. 42-53). Of course, Nineveh is more than a three day’s walk from Israel since it is over 600 miles. In this view, as above, the phrase is idiomatic, and is used as a correlate of Jonah’s “three day” journey in the belly of the great fish. Just as Jonah traveled in the belly of the fish for three days, so Jonah traveled to Nineveh for three days. In other words, both expressions are idiomatic.

However one understands the “three days,” the general point is clear: Nineveh is huge and heavily populated, and it lies at some distance from Israel itself. It is the major city of an imperial power whose evil is well-known and whose size is impressive. In the eighth century BCE, no other Gentile city would have compared to this one in Israel’s imagination, and no other imperial power threatened its existence more than Assyria. And, as Jonah personally represents, no other city would have been as hated and dreaded as Nineveh.

But the most astounding statement in Jonah 3:3 is often missed in translation. The Hebrew text literally reads: “Nineveh was a great city belonging to God” (le’lohim). Most translations render this something like “an exceedingly large city” and understand le’lohim as a superlative. However, given other emphases in the text, it is best to hear a word about God’s sovereignty over the nations in this description. While Israel belongs to God through covenant, in reality all nations belong to God. The Creator of the “sea and dry land” (Jonah 1:9) is also the God of the Gentiles as well as the God of Israel.

Jonah’s Message

Just as Yahweh called Jonah to “cry out” to Nineveh (Jonah 3:2), upon entering the city Jonah “cries out,” saying: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

This is a brief but profound summary of the message. As readers of the narrative thus far, we understand Jonah “cries out against” Nineveh because of its “wickedness” (Jonah 1:2). Nineveh’s evil lies in the forefront.

At the same time, the possibility of mercy through Nineveh’s repentance is embedded in the narrative. The sailors, the other pagans in the story, received mercy when they turned from crying out to their gods and cried out to Yahweh (Jonah 1:5, 14). The narrative, then, offers hope, and certainly Jonah 4 makes this explicit. Jonah was fully aware that Yahweh might show mercy to Nineveh (Jonah 4:2-3).

As many have suggested, Jonah’s message is probably a double entendre, and consequently is a bit ambiguous. Jonah uses the verb “overthrow,” which has either a destructive or a transformative meaning. In other words, it may refer to the destruction of the city (cf. Genesis 19:21, 25, 29; Deuteronomy 29:23; Isaiah 13:19) or it may refer to their repentance (in the sense of “turning” to God; 1 Samuel 10:9; Jeremiah 31:13). We might wonder if Jonah’s ambiguity reflects his emphasis on destruction (the “destruction of Sodom” theme runs throughout Scripture) while at the same time holding out the possibility of repentance. The emphasis, it seems, is on destruction, and the Ninevites appear to understand it in that way.

“Forty days” is the allotted time. “Forty,” of course, is an important number in the biblical narrative. It rained forty days and nights during the Noahic flood (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17; 8:6). Moses was on the mountain of God for forty days and nights where he fasted in the presence of God (Exodus 24:18; 34:28). Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14:33-34). Interestingly, these were all moments of judgment as the flood washed away the earth’s violence, Israel built a golden calf while Moses was on the mountain and pleaded with God to not destroy Israel, and Israel was tested in the wilderness for their refusal to enter the land. “Forty,” then, is symbolic of a judgment, probation, or testing. Nineveh has entered their probation period, their “forty days.”

Kevin Youngblood (Jonah: A Scandalous Mercy, p. 133) suggests that Jonah is not invested in his message. Instead, he is ambivalent, and the reader suspects “Jonah’s obedience is not all that it appears to be.” His heart is not in it, and his message is rather terse, ambiguous, and unenthusiastic.

Several elements point to this reading. First, there is no “word of the Lord” accompanying the message, which is what one expects when a prophet speaks. Jonah, as Youngblood notes (p. 133), “included no such marks of validation” in his word to Nineveh. This omission is rather suspicious. Second, the ambiguity of the message may reflect Jonah’s intent to condemn rather than redeem Nineveh. He would rather threat Nineveh like Sodom and Gomorah rather than like Jerusalem. Third, curiously, the “king of Nineveh” does not hear the message from Jonah directly. Instead, he apparently hears about it as the news spreads throughout the city. One might expect a prophet would go directly to the leader and work from the top-down.

Whether this language reflects Jonah’s hesitancy and begrudging participation or not, the message has God’s desired effect. God empowered this message even if Jonah was not fully committed to God’s gal in the message. Jonah preaches, and Nineveh repents.

Nineveh Repents

Though the word “repent” is not used in Jonah 3:6, their actions embody repentance. Explicitly, “the people of Nineveh believed God.”

This is significant for several reasons. First, they believed God. The Ninevites recognize Jonah’s preaching as a word from God, even though the text does not use the prophetic phrase “the word of the Lord.”

Second, they believed God (not Yahweh). This is a subtle but important difference. They did not believe in the covenant God of Israel as if they were part of the people of Israel. Rather, they believed God, who “made the sea and dry land” (Jonah 1:9). Like the sailors, the Ninevites trust the Creator God. They are addressed by the Creator; they are not addressed as the covenant people of Yahweh.

Third, they believed God. As Youngblood (p. 135) points out, this alludes to Genesis 15:6 where uncircumcised Abram is credited with righteousness through faith. Abram “believed Yahweh.” Abraham was justified through faith, and so are the Ninevites. Circumcision is not a requirement for salvation, and salvation comes to Nineveh just as it did for Abraham….through faith. Even the nations live by faith, just like Israel. All the righteous live by faith (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17).

Nineveh demonstrates its penitence through several rituals: fasting and sackcloth. Fasting is a time of prayer, self-denial, and seeking. Sackcloth typically reflects mourning. This included everyone—small and great. In other words, it transcended social hierarchies and equalized everyone before God. Even the “king of Nineveh” participated. He arose, removed his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. The verbs describe a movement from a privileged and honored status to a humble and penitent abasement. The whole city humbles itself before God in response to the preaching of Jonah.

Just as Jonah represents Israel, so the repentance of Nineveh serves “as a foil to indict Israel indirectly for her own lack of repentance” (Bryan Estelle, Salvation Through Judgment and Mercy, p. 110). Israel was supposed to model repentance for the nations but here Nineveh models repentance for Israel. The nations, therefore, teach Israel. Their roles are reversed.

God’s Mercy for the Nations

Drawing on Youngblood’s reading of this section in Jonah, it seems evident a considerable number of echoes and allusions in the text reflect the narrator’s intent to highlight God’s mercy to “uncovenanted” people, that is, the nations who have no share in Israel’s covenant with Yahweh.

Though “uncovenanted,” the Creator intends to show mercy to the nations. This is indicated by how the language of the narrative echoes the Genesis narrative. In each echo the narrator compares Nineveh with God’s relationship with the nations in Genesis.

Jonah Genesis
Nineveh belongs to God Israel belongs to God (17:7-8)
Forty Days to Repent Forty Days of Flood (7:4)
Overturn Nineveh Overturn Sodom (19:25)
They Believed God Abram believed Yahweh (15:6)
“King of Nineveh” “King of Sodom” (14:21)

Whatever the exact meaning or value of these echoes, the overall point is clear: God is sovereign over the nations, calls the nations to account, and offers the nations mercy through faith and repentance.

God loves the nations, and God uses Israel to bless the nations. Yahweh sent Jonah to show mercy to Nineveh, and thus Israel blesses Nineveh.

The problem, of course, is Jonah is not all that enthused about Yahweh’s intent.

“Uncovenanted mercies,” a phrase used in the history of Christian theology, is often a begrudging recognition that God may save people outside the covenant. James A. Harding, for example, used it to describe how might save those who are unimmersed (Gospel Advocate, November 30, 1882, p. 758). Others use it to describe those who have never heard about Jesus.

Whatever the application, the story of Jonah reminds us how God intends to show mercy to all people and God has the sovereign to do so outside the covenant. Indeed, God not only has that right, but in the story of Jonah God exercises that right and saves Nineveh through “uncovenanted mercies.”

We must not limit God from doing the same today.

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