The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:6-10 ESV
Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire. It was a large city and it is believed that it contained a population of at least 1 million people. The Assyrians were known for their military prowess and their cruelty. They were far from being barbarians, though. Nineveh was a great city and its inhabitants would have been civilized and somewhat sophisticated. Yet, God had deemed them as wicked. And He had told Jonah to warn them of their coming destruction. That message had made a dramatic impact on the people, leaving them in a state of mourning, wearing sackcloth and ashes. And when the king of Nineveh, who would have been the king over all Assyrian, heard the message of Jonah, he too reacted the same way. We’re told, “removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6 ESV). This great king who ruled over one of the most powerful nations of that time, took the warning of God seriously, and he issued a decree that was sent throughout the entire city.
No one, not even the animals from your herds and flocks, may eat or drink anything at all. People and animals alike must wear garments of mourning, and everyone must pray earnestly to God. They must turn from their evil ways and stop all their violence. – Jonah 3:7-8 NLT
He proclaimed a city-wide fast that was to include even the animals. Everyone and everything was to be covered in sackcloth and ashes. But not only that, the people were to “stop all their violence”. In other words, they were to change their ways. And that word, translated “violence” is the Hebrew word chamac and it means “violence, wrong, cruelty, injustice” (“H2555 – chamac – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was used of someone who misused their power over others in an unjust and cruel manner. The Assyrians were conquerors, and they were known for their extreme cruelty toward the nations they defeated. But there were probably all kinds of “violence” and injustice taking place within the walls of the city. And the king knew that this was the basis of God’s warning of impending destruction. They were going to have to change their ways. So, he issued a proclamation.
The prophet, Nahum, would later pen these words regarding the city of Ninevah, as part of God’s words against them.
What sorrow awaits Nineveh,
the city of murder and lies!
She is crammed with wealth
and is never without victims.
Hear the crack of whips,
the rumble of wheels!
Horses’ hooves pound,
and chariots clatter wildly.
See the flashing swords and glittering spears
as the charioteers charge past!
There are countless casualties,
heaps of bodies—
so many bodies that
people stumble over them. – Nahum 3:1-3 ESV
Violence and cruelty were part of their DNA. It was in their nature. And it was through violence and cruelty that they had become a great nation. And yet, the king of Nineveh knew that what they were guilty. He was well aware that their behavior was wrong and they were far from innocent. And he hoped that their change in behavior would garner them the favor of God.
Who can tell? Perhaps even yet God will change his mind and hold back his fierce anger from destroying us. – Jonah 3:9 NLT
The prophet, Isaiah, wrote some very harsh words to the people of Israel regarding their practice of fasting.
“‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
and you don’t even notice it!’
“I will tell you why!” I respond.
“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the Lord?” – Isaiah 58:3-5 NLT
The people of Israel were guilty of going through the motions. They were prone to act like they were sorrowful, while continuing to do the very things for which they were supposedly fasting and mourning over. But in the pagan city of Nineveh, the king and his people vowed to change their ways. They were willing to repent, to change their minds and their actions regarding the very things that had made them a great nation and a formidable city. They were known and feared for the cruelty. And yet, they were willing to give it all up in order to escape the wrath of God.
It is important to point out that this was probably not a repentance leading to salvation. They were simply wanting to escape death. But they believed the word of the prophet and took seriously the threat that Yahweh, the god of the Jews was powerful enough to do what He said He would do. And so they bowed in reverence and awe to Him. This was not a wholesale conversion of the population of the city of Nineveh. But it was a transformation or turning of their hearts from the pagan gods to the one true God. During this point in time, they knew that their hopes of salvation were in the hands of the Hebrew God, not their own. So they called out to Him, and God spared them.
When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened. – Jonah 3:10 NLT
Did their actions change God’s mind? Was God somehow convinced to alter His plans and go from destroying the city of Nineveh to sparing it? One of the main messages contained with the book of Jonah is the sovereignty of God. He is in control. Jonah could try and run from Him, but God controlled the wind, waves and the sea. Jonah could try and end his own life in an attempt to thwart the plan of God, but God controlled the creatures in the sea. And when God had originally told Jonah to “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 ESV), it was a clear indication that He was fully aware of all that was going on within the walls of the city of Nineveh. God is omniscient. God is omnipresent. And God knew exactly what was going to happen before it happened. Yes, He had given Jonah a message.
“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” – Jonah 3:4 ESV
But as we saw before, that word, “overthrown” has a variety of meanings in the Hebrew. While it can mean “destruction,” it can also mean “to turn or transform”. When God told Jonah what to say, Jonah and the people of Nineveh heard one thing only: God was going to destroy them. But God had something else in mind. He was going to transform them. He was going to take a great city, known for its cruelty, injustice, and polytheism, and have them bow before Him, changing their behavior in the process.
But wait, doesn’t the text clearly say, “God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it”? Yes, it does. But that does not mean that God was always aware that they would repent. He knew all along that His word of warning, spoken through Jonah, would have the very effect that it did. It is from our finite perspective as men, that the outcome looks as if it was dictated by the actions of men. They repented, therefore, God spared them. But this would make God far less than sovereign and His will left up to the whims of men. What if they had failed to repent? Would God have been forced to destroy them? Was their future in God’s hands or their own? The overarching message of the Bible is that God is in full and complete control. And while that may be hard for us to accept as men, it is the reality of God’s character and the nature of the universe He has created. God leaves nothing up to chance. H. L. Ellison explains it this way:
“We may know the character of God only from what he does and the words he uses to explain his actions. When he does not do what he said he would, we as finite men can say only that he has changed his mind or repented, even though we should recognize, as Jonah did, that he had intended or desired this all along.” – Ellison, “Jonah,” pp. 383-84. Cf. Feinberg, p. 37.
Why would God spare a pagan city like Nineveh? The text doesn’t tell us, but it would be easy to assume that God was using the repentance of this immoral, wicked city to shame the people of God. He sent one prophet, and a reluctant one at that, to share a single message of coming destruction. And He sent him to a people who were not His own. And yet, they heard, they listened and the repented. They believed God. It is similar to what God did in the New Testament, when He took His gracious offer of salvation to the Jewish people and they refused to accept it. Instead, they crucified the messenger. So God took His message to the Gentiles, the non-Jews, and they heard and believed. Paul would later write:
God has appointed me as the apostle to the Gentiles. I stress this, for I want somehow to make the people of Israel jealous of what you Gentiles have, so I might save some of them. For since their rejection meant that God offered salvation to the rest of the world, their acceptance will be even more wonderful. It will be life for those who were dead! – Romans 11:13-15 NLT
God was using the Ninevites to shame the Israelites. But He was also showing His sovereign power to save anyone He might so choose. There is no sinner too great that God cannot redeem him.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.