Taking Seriously God’s Message

 

Sunday School Lesson for December 14, 2003

 

Focal Teaching Passage: Jonah 2:10-3:10

 

Jonah’s Second Commission (2:10-3:4)

 

Verse 10

Having preserved Jonah alive in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights (1:17), the Lord “commanded the sea creature and it “vomited” the prophet “up onto the dry land.” This amazing action was further confirmation that what Jonah had declared to the men on the ship was true—the God he served was indeed the Creator and Lord of “the sea and the dry land” (1:9). This scene not only provided evidence of God’s infinite mercy and grace toward the rebellious prophet and His determination to save Nineveh, but also His divine “sense of fun [in] depositing Jonah in this undignified fashion to clean himself up and start again” [Joyce Baldwin, “Jonah,” The Minor Prophets, vol. 2., 574].

 

Earlier, while confined inside the fish, Jonah repented before God (2:1-9) and came to understand the most important lesson prophets of God should know—“Salvation is from the Lord” (2:9).  With his heart broken and his will made pliable, the Lord ordered the fish to safely (yet, unceremoniously!) dump Jonah on the shore where he would once again have the opportunity to obey his divinely-granted commission to preach the Word.

 

Verses 1-2

In exactly the same fashion as he was initially called, the “word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” James Limburg observes that this second-chance calling separated Jonah from other biblical prophets and dramatically illustrated the kind of compassion and mercy “Jonah himself will soon declare” to Nineveh [75].  As before, the Lord ordered Jonah to “Arise, go to Nineveh the great city”—the city the Lord still wanted to save.  His desire to have the Word preached there would not be “frustrated by the effrontery of the prophet” [Baldwin, 576]. Once there, Jonah was instructed to “proclaim” what God would tell him to say. The word translated “proclaim”—a Hebrew word found only here in the Old Testament—means essentially to preach.  Limburg also notes that in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) this same word is rendered kerygma—the very term employed in the New Testament for the preaching of the gospel [75].  Jonah, however, was to preach only what the Lord commanded him to preach. Consequently, his message would be a verbatim recitation of the inspired, authoritative, and effectual words of Yahweh Himself.

 

Verses 3-4

With the divine commission still ringing in his ears, Jonah immediately did as the Lord commanded—he “arose and went to Nineveh according to the word of the Lord” (v. 3). Again we are told that the city of Nineveh was an “exceedingly great city” (cf. 1:2).  Some interpreters take this to mean that the city was “great” or important in the eyes of God. It was also a rather large city—one that would require a “three days walk” for the typical citizen to pass entirely through it. That is, one day to travel into the heart of the city from the outlying areas, one day to transact business in the city’s central section, and a third day to make the journey back home [Baldwin, 576]. 

 

Verse four indicates that Jonah walked for one day and then began to preach the Lord’s message to the city’s inhabitants. Interestingly, Limburg observes that this is “the only instance in which the Bible portrays a prophet walking down the streets of one of the great non-Israelite cities of the world” [86]. The sermon that Jonah “cried out” consisted of only five words in the original Hebrew—“Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” The significance of the forty-day period is its obvious connection to other major Biblical events and acts of judgment. The word “overthrown” is the same term used to depict the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:21, 25). 

 

Nineveh Hears the Word and Repents (3:5-9)

 

Verse 5

Incredibly, the people of the city of Nineveh, whose violence and evil ways were legendary, “believed in God” and immediately responded to Jonah’s message by engaging in acts of repentance and contrition.  A citywide “fast” was enacted and the inhabitants of the city “put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them.”  These dramatic acts of “self-humiliation and the extreme discomfort are a means of expressing submission to the correction of God” [Baldwin, 579], and are the “hallmarks of true repentance” [Alexander, 122].  In short, Jonah’s message, which consisted of the very Words of the Lord Himself, effectually produced a spirit of faith and repentance among the people.

 

Verses 6-9

Just as quickly, Jonah’s message, “the word,” made its way to the “king of Nineveh” (v. 6).  When the king heard and accepted the message for what it was—a divinely given summons to faith and repentance from the one true God—he “arose from his throne, laid aside his robe,” and “covered himself with sackcloth, and sat on the ashes” (v.6). Joyce Baldwin comments on this extraordinary action:

 

The self-abasement of the king, who deliberately steps down from his throne and strips off his royal robe in order to be one with his people in their dejection, symbolizes the repentance of the whole city. Far from considering himself in a category apart, the king sets an example to his people by acknowledging his own need to repent [579].

 

Furthermore, the king “issued a proclamation” calling every citizen in Nineveh to participate in a comprehensive fast—one that would involve abstinence from both food and water and would include even the animals of the outlying rural areas (v. 7).  In addition, he ordered that “both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth” indicating an intense time of corporate mourning for the kingdom (v. 8).

 

Next, the king of Nineveh commanded the people of the city to “call on God earnestly” and “turn from,” or repent of, their “wicked” ways and acts of “violence” (v. 8). The mention of “hands” in connection to acts of violence displays the personal accountability of each person for their sins before God. The king had surely come to realize that no “vague or superficial confession of sin [would] do; it [had] to be accompanied by a change of behavior” on the part of each individual [Baldwin, 580].  However, the king also knew that repentance on the part of the sinner in no way automatically obligated God to forgive.  His “Who knows . . . ?” reflected his authentic humility before the God of Jonah. Clearly the king fully understood that such actions “may” (and not necessarily would) result in a divine pardon—that God might “turn and relent, and withdraw His burning anger” (v. 9).  T. Desmond Alexander explains:

 

Like the pagan sea captain (1:6) and his crew (1:14), the king and his nobles acknowledge the absolute freedom of God to do as He pleases. They realize only too well that pious actions and prayers can never merit or guarantee divine forgiveness (cf. Joel 2:13-14); God is under no obligation to pardon [124].

 

 

God Has Mercy (3:10)

 

With the entire population of the city manifesting the outward evidence that they had repented, or “turned from their wicked way,” the Lord “relented concerning the calamity which He declared He would bring upon them.”  That is, the Lord was moved with compassion and pity toward the spiritually broken people of the city and, consequently, “did not do it.” That God “relented,” or changed His mind about the situation, “does not represent a divine failing, but rather reveals his earnest desire to be true to his own immutable nature” [Alexander, 124].  From the eternal, or transcendent, perspective God is thoroughly unchanging. Yet, as He relates to the finite creatures He has made in His very image and likeness, He truly responds to their actions in time and space (the interplay between God’s timeless transcendence and His real immanence is a profound mystery that should cause us to worship and adore Him).  When the people repented, God had mercy on them and, by means of His infinite grace, He spared the city from being “overthrown.” Ironically, however, the city was, in fact, overthrown spiritually. As the prophet proclaimed the Word, God brought genuine revival and spiritual reformation. The city was turned upside down! 

 

 

Questions to Consider as You Prepare to Teach

 

  1. Is God obligated to give a person a second chance like He gave to Jonah?

 

  1. Is there any fundamental difference between the message Jonah was commanded to preach—“the proclamation which I am going to tell you” (v. 2)—and the message that modern preachers, evangelists, and witnesses are to proclaim?

 

  1. What were the factors that led to the immediate repentance of the city’s inhabitants?  See if you can discover some key events in their history that may have prepared them for Jonah’s ministry. Hint: Use a Bible dictionary or other resource to discover more about the interesting history of Nineveh.

 

  1. What does the lesson passage say about the power and efficacy of the preached Word?

 

  1. How does this amazing story relate to the subject of foreign missions?

 

  1. What have you learned about the grace of God?