Taking Seriously God’s Message
Sunday School Lesson for December 14, 2003
Passage: Jonah 2:10-3:10
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.
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 .
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 . 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.
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].
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”
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)
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.
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
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 .
God Has Mercy
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
- Is God
obligated to give a person a second chance like He gave to Jonah?
- 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?
- 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.
- What does the lesson passage say about the power and
efficacy of the preached Word?
- How does this amazing story relate to the subject of
- What have you learned about the grace of God?