Jonah Lesson Three: Jonah 3:1-10 – Jonah’s Message to Nineveh

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach the message that I tell you.” So Jonah got up and went to Nineveh according to the Lord’s command. 

Now Nineveh was an extremely large city, a three-day walk. Jonah set out on the first day of his walk in the city and proclaimed, “In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished!” The men of Nineveh believed in God. They proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth—from the greatest of them to the least. 

When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he issued a decree in Nineveh: 

By order of the king and his nobles: No man or beast, herd or flock, is to taste anything at all. They must not eat or drink water. Furthermore, both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to God.  Each must turn from his evil ways and from the violence he is doing. Who knows?  God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish. 

10 Then God saw their actions—that they had turned from their evil ways—so God relented from the disaster He had threatened to do to them. And He did not do it. (HCSB)

Now that Jonah was released from the great fish, he received a second commission to go and preach a message to the city of Nineveh. Jonah repented from his previous disobedience and followed the command of Yahweh. Let’s take a closer look at the details in this passage.

Chapter two ended with Jonah being vomited onto dry ground. Now, the narrative quickly changes to God giving Jonah the command to preach to Nineveh a second time. Let’s consider this quick transition.

  • Did Jonah expect such a quick deliverance?
  • How much time passed between his deliverance and receiving the word of God?
  • Did Jonah simply wait on the beach, or did he go somewhere in the interim?
  • Scripture doesn’t specify, but it would be safe to conclude that at least a short period of rest occurred between the events allowing Jonah to regain his composure.

Now, let’s move on to the passage.

  • The first two verses of chapter three are almost identical to chapter one.
    • The same three imperatives are there; get up, go, preach.
    • However, in chapter three, the reason isn’t included. This is likely because Jonah already knew the reason, and the emphasis is on delivering the message.
  • The message would come from Yahweh. There are three possibilities to ponder regarding this message.
    • Was it the same message as before?
    • Was it a new message God was giving at this point?
    • Would God give the message to Jonah once he arrived in Nineveh?
  • We don’t know which of the three it was, but we do know the message would be from God, and it would be a formal proclamation similar to one made by an official messenger or ambassador.
  • Because Jonah was obedient this time, we might think he has learned his lesson. However, we’ll find out in chapter four that Jonah’s heart still wasn’t in the right place as he became angry when Nineveh was spared.
  • Starting in verse three, we see the primary contrast between chapters one and three.
    • In chapter one, Jonah got up to flee.
    • In chapter three, Jonah got up in obedience to go to Nineveh.
  • Depending on where Jonah began his journey, the trip would be approximately 500 hundred miles.
    • If Jonah traveled by camel or donkey, the trip would take about one month.
    • If Jonah traveled by foot, the journey would take even longer.
  • Depending on the translation you use, the description of Nineveh may vary.
    • In chapter one, it was described as a “great city” and here as an “extremely large city.” Both descriptions should be interpreted in the same manner. Its greatness was its size, not that it was viewed in a positive light.
    • Some translations add the phrase “to God” after the descriptor large or great. The reader should understand that the original Hebrew implied this, demonstrating God’s dominion over Israel’s biggest enemy.
    • Regardless of the Ninevites’ relationship with Israel, God cares deeply about every person and desires to see them turn from their wicked ways.
    • Historical records also record the vastness of the city and the administrative district of Nineveh.
      • Records from the first-century b.c. say the circumference of the city was fifty-five miles.
      • The administrative district included the cities of Assur, Calah, and Dur-Sharruken. A position supported by Genesis 10:11-12.
    • Regardless of the various possibilities for the size of Nineveh, the point to take from the verse is that Jonah’s mission was a three-day event.
      • Since Nineveh was a major diplomatic center during this period, God’s message could not be shared in a hasty manner.
      • Jonah would have had to travel to various sections of the city to ensure everyone either heard the message first-hand or the message would be spread by those who did hear it.
      • There is also a minority position on the interpretation of a three-day walk. The ancient Oriental practice of hospitality required a visit of three days; the first day for arrival, the second for the primary purpose of the visit, and the third day for the return.

Now let’s move on to the visit itself and the reaction of the city.

  • Although the passage doesn’t give details, it’s probably safe to conclude that Jonah didn’t just wander into Nineveh and start shouting God’s message of impending judgment as he walked the streets. 
  • Typically, the first day of an “official” visit would include meeting with officials and, most likely, the presentation of some type of gifts to the dignitaries. 
  • The official meeting may have taken place in the morning, allowing Jonah to begin preaching by the afternoon.
  • There is scholarly debate about the contents of the message Jonah preached to the city.
    • In Hebrew, the message was only five words long.
    • It was probably more likely the message would have been delivered in Aramaic, the typical language of the region at that time.
    • From chapter four, we can also conclude Jonah didn’t want the city to repent, so it’s possible the message only included the coming judgment.
    • However, proclamations of judgment often were thought to include an implied deliverance if the offenders repented.
      • The inhabitants of Nineveh certainly felt that the judgment was not an absolute certainty.
      • When Jonah said it would occur in forty days, it implied a sense of ambiguity.
        • Was it a message that the judgment was imminent?
        • Did it mean the judgment could be avoided if a change occurred within forty days?
    • There’s another aspect to consider regarding Jonah’s message from God.
      • If this was a proclamation of an unalterable impending judgment, the prophecy ended up being false.
      • However, we know that God doesn’t lie, so the correct understanding of the judgment is that it would occur in forty if Nineveh didn’t change its offensive behavior.
      • Additionally, the book of Jonah never declares that this judgment is a prophecy from God. It is a message to be preached against the city of Nineveh.
      • Jeremiah 18:7-8 also clarifies that when God pronounces a judgment against a nation or kingdom, the judgment won’t occur if they repent of their evil.
  • There are a few key points to take from the warning and judgment in this passage.
    • The seriousness of sin.
    • The certainty of judgment if the sin continues.
    • The warning to those outside the family of God and the use of believers to deliver the message.
    • God’s concern for those outside the family of God and His plan for using disciples in the grand picture of salvation.
  • The city’s response to the message is quite amazing.
    • It is evident from the context of the passage that Jonah’s message spread throughout the city.
    • Not only did the entire city hear the message, they believed the seriousness of the message.
    • Just like the sailors in Jonah 1:5, the Ninehites’ reaction is summarized in three verbs; believed, proclaimed, and dressed in. These verbs describe three stages of response; inward, articulated, and outward.
    • Since the passage doesn’t indicate Jonah preaching beyond the first day, it’s possible the initial proclamation had such an impact that nothing was required beyond that point.
    • It’s not far-fetched to say that a miracle occurred.
      • Because of Nineveh’s reputation and normal behavior, the odds were heavily stacked against a favorable response to Jonah’s message.
      • As a comparison point, when Jeremiah preached against Jerusalem about one hundred years later, he was arrested and imprisoned for treason.
      • Why would the Ninevites accept the strong message from a complete stranger?
      • Think of the questions that might be going through their minds.
        • Who was going to destroy the city?
        • How would it occur?
        • Why should we believe this message?
    • The reason they accepted the message is that they believed Jonah’s God would do it.
      • In the original Hebrew, Jonah uses the word Elohim instead of Yahweh to denote God.
      • Jonah wasn’t proclaiming the God of Israel to an unbelieving nation.
      • He was proclaiming the “supreme God” was about to show His power and judgment.
      • From the book, there is no indication the Ninevites turned from their gods.
      • The Ninevites acceptance of the message doesn’t appear to be a salvation event; it was a postponement of judgment decision.
      • They didn’t have a lasting repentance. Later, the Assyrians would be defeated when Sennacherib invaded Judah during the reign of Hezekiah.
    • The citizens then proclaimed a fast and dressed in sackcloth.
      • Because Jonah’s message was accepted, the citizens proclaimed a fast to ward off judgment.
      • The fast included all groups of citizens, regardless of socio-economic status.
      • Sackcloth was a traditional expression of mourning for the sins of a nation.
  • However, not only did the citizens of the city react favorably to the message, the king did the same thing.
    • From the context of the passage, it appears Jonah’s message first resonated with the common people, regardless of their status, and then made its way to royalty.
    • We don’t know with certainty who the king was, but historical records seem to point to Assur-dan III. 
    • The king reacts with fervor to Jonah’s message.
      • He took off his royal robe and put on sackcloth.
      • He sat in ashes, a sign of deep humiliation.
    • The king then issues a royal decree, an official response to Jonah’s message. The first two are external, and the other two are internal and spiritual.
      • The decree describes four behavioral responses to Jonah’s message.
        • Fasting, consisting of two parts.
          • A general order to not taste anything.
          • A specific order to avoid food and drink.
          • Since the king included animals in the fast, it was an indication of the desperate state of mind of the king.
        • Wearing sackcloth.
        • Pleading with God.
        • Turning from evil and violence.
          • Their lives should match their prayers.
          • It’s a typical Hebrew way of joining the general and the specific.
          • The command is also singular in nature. Each person was to turn from their evil and violent ways.
      • The king’s words in verse nine are very similar to what the ship’s captain said in 1:6.
        • Both were looking for a divine response to their predicament.
        • In the present case, the king was looking for the anticipated judgment to be avoided if they changed their behavior and demonstrated contrition.
  • One can imagine the anxiety the city was experiencing during those forty days.
    • There was hope but no guarantee that God would turn from the proclaimed judgment.
    • Did the anxiety increase as the days ticked down?
    • Did Jonah faithfully make use of the forty-day time period by sharing the truth of God with them?
    • Scripture isn’t clear on any of those points.
  • The fact the Ninevites turned from their evil way demonstrated they at least understood and acknowledged their actions.
  • At the end of the forty days, God saw they demonstrated genuine repentance.
    • They turned from their evil ways.
    • In response, God relented from executing judgment on them.
  • An unmistakable point here is that God has a compassionate heart and is always sensitive and receptive to those who cry out with a genuine heart for mercy.
    • God possesses incredible mercy.
    • God demonstrated incredible love.
    • We find here irrefutable evidence that God doesn’t wish for the destruction of the sinner. Instead, He longs for the redemption and reconciliation of even the most evil of people.
  • The narrative of the sparing of Nineveh in chapter three parallels Jonah’s own experience.
    • Jonah had been the object of divine anger, yet later experienced God’s miraculous redemption.
    • The same thing happened to the Ninevites.
    • The same is true of every believer who takes God’s promise through Jesus Christ of salvation.
      • All have sinned and stand condemned.
      • Through Jesus, all have a path to redemption.
  • There’s one further point to consider here.
    • What God accomplishes through a person may be unrelated to the heart condition of that person, in this case, Jonah.
    • A successful pastor may not be in a close, obedient relationship with God.
    • An unsuccessful past may not have lost touch with God.


  • When given a task by God, do it without delay. Not only should you do it without delay, but you should also do it with a proper heart condition.
  • If you have committed sins, demonstrate repentance with a humble heart. The Assyrians were mortal enemies of Israel. Yet, they were spared judgment, at least for a period of time, because they repented with a humble heart.
  • God is long-suffering. He always wants the lost to come back to Him. But the onus is on the sinner to turn and run to God. Never doubt that God loves every person. Because of that, we should never hold back the message of salvation from someone because we don’t like that person or people group. 

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