By Mark Scott
God’s forgiving love was in place for Nineveh but also for Jonah himself. The God of the Bible is the God of the second chance, and Jonah got his. The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time. Even though Jonah was a reluctant prophet who did not have forgiving love in his heart (evident in next week’s lesson), he headed off to Nineveh. But he was no doubt shocked by Nineveh’s repentance and acceptance of God’s forgiveness. Sometimes in contrast to what we might think, people actually do believe (Exodus 4:29-31; Acts 16:34). Perhaps Jonah 3 gives us a formula for forgiving love.
The Word of the Lord
A phrase that appears hundreds of times in Scripture (most often in Jeremiah) is the word of the Lord. It occurs twice in our text. It may not mean the B-I-B-L-E, but it does mean that God revealed to Jonah a specific authoritative message for Nineveh. God told Jonah to go and proclaim (call out) the message. In this case message equals the word of the Lord.
In contrast to running from the presence of the Lord, Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. The second half of verse 3 gives a historical note of the size and significance of the city of Nineveh. What does it took three days to go through it mean? Symbolically spoken of as three days (the other number in our text is 40, which also has some symbolism attached to it in the Bible)? Would the journey include the surrounding villages as well? Or do we account for Jonah stopping and preaching as he went, as verse 4 seems to indicate? No matter, what we do know is that Nineveh was very large.
Jonah proclaimed (cried out) a message of judgment. If Nineveh did not repent it would be overthrown in 40 days. But many proclamations from God’s prophets in the Bible are conditional. It is like calls in the NFL: the referee’s call is confirmed (they’re sure), it stands (not enough evidence to overturn), or it is reversed (changed). In Jonah’s case the prophecy of judgment never happened because the people repented. (But consider the judgment of God on Nineveh in the book of Nahum, which took place 100 years later.) The ruling in the city for now was reversed.
Plus Belief and Repentance
Our belief and repentance does not force the hand of God to forgive. But our belief and repentance becomes the means by which we appropriate the forgiveness that God offers. The belief in Jonah’s message was complete and comprehensive. It was complete in that it involved prayer, fasting, contrition, and an abandonment of evil ways (particularly abandoning violence, for which the Assyrians were quite well known). It was comprehensive in that it took place from the king and his nobles down to the tiniest calf and lamb (greatest to the least).
Jonah’s warning caused the king to take spiritual ownership of his people by proclaiming (to cry out, same word as in verse 4) an imposed fast (to abstain from food for spiritual purposes—and in this case, from drink as well) to have time to call urgently on God. Since so much of a given day in the ancient world was working to secure enough food to eat for one day, this would allow sufficient time for prayer.
The king did not expect more from the people than he himself was willing to give. He set the example by covering himself with sackcloth and by sitting down in the dust (signs of sincere repentance; see Genesis 18:27; 1 Samuel 2:8; Psalm 113:7; Ezekiel 27:30). Part of the king’s decree even included the animals to be covered with sackcloth, which might have seemed quite odd to them. But the king was banking on the compassion of God.
Equals Forgiving Love
The king was more accurate in assessing the heart of God than Jonah was. The king thought that God might relent, and God saw that the Ninevites turned (same Hebrew word as relent) from their evil ways. This allowed God to relent (console, be moved to pity) and not bring evil on them. Forgiving love cannot be earned, but it can be appropriated.
Dr. Mark Scott teaches Preaching and New Testament at Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
Based on International Sunday School Lesson, © 2012, by the Lesson Committee. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version ©2011, unless otherwise indicated.