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Jonah 3

Overview

  • God calls Jonah a second time. “Yo, Joe, get up (again) and go to your worst enemy’s capital city (for reals this time) and tell them my message.”
  • This time, Jo-Jo listens and heads towards Nineveh.
  • Back then, Nineveh was a great, big ol’ metropolis. It was so big it took three days to walk to the other side (though only one day by tour bus), so Jonah walks about a third of way in to town, takes a deep breath and says, “Um… in, like, 40 days, this city is going to be… um, overthrown. So, um, you know, like that’s it. Close chat window.”
  • Instantly the Assyrian people believed in Jonah’s God, called for a fast to begin, and switched their comfy, normal clothes for uncomfortable, itchy clothes. Everyone in the family had to comply, parents, kids, master, slaves, young and old. It was the top trending hashtag by noon (#myrepentencematters).
  • In no time the Assyrian king gets word of the people’s reaction to Jonah and is all, “What? I’m repenting too!” Then he whips off his super fancy, super comfy clothes and puts on old, itchy sweatpants and sits on a pile ashes instead of his throne to show his solidarity and morning.
  • “Send out this decree,” the king declares. “No man or animal in my kingdom is to eat or drink until this thing is resolved! I want everyone to call on Jonah’s God, and stop doing bad stuff and quit being so dang violent all the time. Maybe if we change our ways God will divert this impending catastrophe.”
  • And when God saw that they repented and had changed their wicked ways, he changed his mind. He didn’t let destruction come on them.

Historical Context

Sackcloth and Ashes

Sackcloth and ashes were used in Old Testament times as a symbol of debasement, mourning, and/or repentance. Someone wanting to show his repentant heart would often wear sackcloth, sit in ashes, and put ashes on top of his head. Sackcloth was a coarse material usually made of black goat’s hair, making it quite uncomfortable to wear. The ashes signified desolation and ruin.7

They were used as an outward sign of one’s inward condition. Such a symbol made one’s change of heart visible and demonstrated the sincerity of one’s grief and/or repentance.7

God Changing His Mind

There are several views on passages that relate God changing his mind.

The first is that since God has an unchangeable in nature, he must also have an unchangeable in will, and therefore he does not really change his mind. This view would lend itself to implying that either 1) God “pretended” to change his mind to better help mankind relate to him, 2) God threatened destruction not because he meant it, but because that’s what he knew it would take for man to change, or 3) that the author merely perceived God as changing his mind.

The second is that God actually does change his mind. This view espouses the idea that God limits his power to give mankind freewill so that his relationship with us can be built on of genuine devotion to him, not forced or coerced faithfulness. As a result, God will alter his actions in order to work cooperatively with mankind to achieve his will.

Below is a list of scriptures in which God is said to change his mind:9

  • 1 Chron 21:15—God said that he would destroy Jerusalem, but then he relented.
  • 2 Kings 10:1-6—King Hezekiah was told through an inspired prophet that he would not recover from sickness. But after Hezekiah pleaded with God, the Lord told him “I will add fifteen years to your life.”
  • Ex 32:14—Because of Moses’ intercessory prayer, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster he planned to bring on this people.”
  • Ex 33:1-3, 14—In the light of Moses’ pleading, the Lord reversed his plan not to go with the Israelites into the promised land.
  • Deut 9:13-29—The Lord “intended to destroy” the Israelites, and was even ready to destroy Aaron. Moses’ 40-day intercession altered God’s intention.
  • 1 Kings 21:21-29—The Lord says that he will bring disaster because of Ahab’s sins. But when Ahab repents, he says that he will not bring disaster.
  • 2 Chron 12:5-8—The Lord was going to allow the Israelites to be conquered because of King Reheboam’s rebellion. The king and his officers repent, so the Lord changes his plan.
  • Jer 26:2-3—The Lord tells Jeremiah to prophesy to Israel that they should repent, saying, “I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on [Israel] because of their evil doings.”
  • Ez 4:9-15—God tells Ezekiel to act out a prophesy with human dung, but Ezekiel objects. God then allows Ezekiel to act it out with cow dung.
  • Amos 7:1-6—The Lord revealed two judgments and two times Amos intercedes. Twice the Scriptures say, “The Lord relented concerning this …”

In addition to God changing his mind, scripture also tells us that sometimes God expresses regret and disappointment over how things turned out—sometimes even including the results of his own will (Gen. 6:5–6; 1 Sam. 15:10, 35; Ezek. 22:29–31), and that sometimes God is surprised at how things turned out because he expected a different outcome (Isa. 5:3–7; Jer. 3:67; 19–20).9

Observations

  • The text does not give any information concerning where Jonah was deposited by the fish, what Jonah did next, or where he was when this second commission came from the Lord or how long the interval was. Jonah may have had enough time to go up to Jerusalem and worship at the temple as he had indicated he would do in his prayer.3
  • God says to Jonah virtually the same words which He had said before; only perhaps now he gives him an intimation of his purpose of mercy, in that instead or saying, “cry against her,” (Chapter 1) he says, “cry unto her.” He might “cry against” one doomed to destruction; to “cry unto her,” seems to imply that she had some interest in, and so some hope from, this cry.1
  • The speed at which the Ninevites accepted Jonah’s message has led some commentators to speculate on the popularity of Jonah’s exploits with the great fish prior to his arrival in Nineveh. Many writers have wondered if he carried in his body any evidence of the terrible ordeal through which he had passed. Was his skin forever altered in color by the digestive juices in the fish? Were there scars that he would carry to the grave?3
  • The fact that a lone Jewish prophet, a member of a hated and despised race, who reciprocated in every way the hostility and hatred in which their respective nations held each other, could simply walk into the city, declare its immediately forthcoming destruction, and be greeted by the enthusiastic and wholesale repentance is truly an extraordinary occurrence.3
  • The circumference of the great city Nineveh, or the length of the boundaries of the city of Nineveh in the broadest sense, was nearly ninety miles, not reckoning the smaller windings of the boundary.2
  • Jewish writers  reckoned that an easy day’s journey is ten “parsas” or about four miles. A hard day’s journey may be three to four times this amount.2
  • The number forty is often associated in the scripture with humiliation. It was forty days that Moses and Elijah fasted. Furthermore, Israel’s probation in the wilderness lasted forty years. When the flood came in the time of Noah, it rained, as a sign of judgment upon the earth, for a total of forty days and forty nights. The number forty is considered the number of probation, testing, punishment, chastisement and humiliation. In the First Century, those who were punished with whips usually were given forty lashes, save one.3
  • Jonah’s message was exceptionally simple, to the point, and frightening, especially compared to the elaborate, poetic and lengthy proclamations of later prophets.4
  • It is interesting to note that the people repented with no invitation to repent. There was nothing in Jonah’s message that implied any other outcome than destruction. Also, the Ninevites repented without promise that it would do any good.3
  • It is particularly interesting to note that there was apparently no need for the people to be told what their wicked ways were. The issue, then, was not one of having inadequate knowledge of what God considered sin, but lacking the desire to abstain from it. The issue was not that of information, but that of motivation.4
  • In ancient times people would’ve been slow to carry matters of distress to their king. Particularly matters in which they could not help.1
  • At this time, the king of Nineveh would’ve been one of the most powerful people in the world. His name was dreaded far and wide, his will was imposed as he delighted.
  • The kings of Assyria were generally very religious. They typically ascribed all their victories to their god, Asshur.1
  • The king’s robe would’ve been a large costly upper garment, so called from its amplitude It was the most magnificent part of their dress, and a special part of their state. Kings were buried as they lived, in splendid apparel; and rich adornments were buried with them.1
  • The phrase, “By the decree of the king and his nobles,” gives us a hint of the political state of Nineveh. It may not have been an absolute monarchy.1
  • Before the final fall of Nineveh nearly 100 years after Noah, the last Assyrian king ordered a fast of one hundred days and nights to the gods in order to avert the threatened danger.5
  • Having the animals mourn alongside the people was not uncommon in ancient times. The ancient historian, Herodotus, relates that the Persians, when mourning for their general, Masistios, who had fallen in the battle at Platea, shaved off the hair from their horses.2
  • Scripture often alludes to the fact that all of creation has been drawn into man’s sinful state.  In this way, the suffering of animals is often perceived as helping to appease the wrath of God.2
  • The speed of the acceptance and subsequent repentance of the pagan Assyrians implies a contrast to the dulness of the Jews, who were “slow to believe” the prophetic warnings addressed to themselves.8

Discussion

  • Does God change his mind based on our actions? Why? Why not? Why do we pray? What do we think the outcome is reliant on? Why does God seem to respond in some circumstances and not others? How does your understanding of this issue refrain from making God appear cruel, weak, ignorant or controlling?
  • Why do you think the Ninevites believed Jonah? Why do you think they repented without being told to do so?
  • Jesus uses the Ninevites’ quick acceptance and subsequent repentance in response to Jonah’s rescue from the great fish and simple message as a way to imply that his death and resurrection would be a much more compelling story, yet people would be less apt to accept it. Why do you think this is so? Why are we so slow to accept the simple call to repentance?
  • What do you make of the fact that the Assyrians had their animals fast and wear sackcloth and ashes? What does this say about the extent of their repentance? What does this say about the connection between people’s sin and the world around us?
  • Are we lacking information about our sinfulness or the motivation to change? The church often tries hard to make people aware of their sinfulness by emphasizing their sant’s goodness, and often uses the motivation to change the threat of an eternity of torture in Hell. Is this the best message? What was Jesus’ message? Is the good news of the gospel that you are a dirty sinner who can avoid torture, or is there more to it? What information and motivation makes us want to turn towards Jesus and start following him?

References

  1. Barnes’ commentary
  2. Kiel’s commentary
  3. Coffman’s commentary
  4. Deffinbaugh’s commentary
  5. Pulpit commentary
  6. Gil’s commentary
  7. Sackcloth and Ashes
  8. Ellicot’s commentary
  9. God Changing His Mind – ReKnew

 

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