4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. – Jonah 3:4-5 ESV
Jonah arose and went to Nineveh. Those six simple words would have hit the author’s Jewish audience like a brick. The thought of the lone prophet of God entering the gates of the infamous city would have created in them a sense of fear and foreboding. The Assyrians had a well-deserved reputation for immorality, idolatry, and wanton cruelty. Their empire-building aspirations had been marked by incessant conquest and marred by violent savagery. During the ninth century to the end of the seventh century BC, they were an unstoppable military juggernaut that used the torture and executions of its conquered enemies as a powerful public relations tool. They eagerly promoted this less-than-flattering aspect of their success to create a sense of fear and subjugation among those nations that remained yet unconquered.
One of their kings, Ashurnashirpal II, referred to himself as the “trampler of all enemies…who defeated all his enemies [and] hung the corpses of his enemies on posts” (Albert Kirk Grayson, Assyrian Royal Inscriptions, Part 2: From Tiglath-pileser I to Ashuer-nasir-apli II, Wiesbadan, Term.: Otto Harrassowitz, 1976, p. 165). He proudly chronicles his treatment of the nobles of one city that had refused to surrender.
“I flayed as many nobles as had rebelled against me [and] draped their skins over the pile [of corpses]; some I spread out within the pile, some I erected on stakes upon the pile…I flayed many right through my land [and] draped their skins over the walls” (Grayson, p.124).
It was not uncommon for the Assyrians to behead and dismember their conquered foes. One particularly gruesome form of torture was their impaling of prisoners on wooden stakes. These gory displays were intended to be a macabre form of outdoor advertising, informing the remaining citizens of a conquered city to cooperate or face a similar fate.
But the Assyrians were more than cruel. They were idolatrous and immoral. And as the capital city of this godless nation, Nineveh would have been the epicenter of Assyrian power and perversion. The author describes Nineveh as “an exceedingly great city” (Jonah 3:3 ESV). In Hebrew, the phrase actually says, “a great city even in God’s sight.” The word translated as “exceedingly” in the ESV is actually ‘ĕlōhîm, which was most commonly used to refer to a god or divine being. Throughout the book of Jonah, the author substitutes the name ‘ĕlōhîm for Yahweh when speaking of God in association with the Gentiles. So, when he describes Nineveh as “great,” he is essentially saying that “Nineveh was a great metropolis belonging to God.” Another interpretation of this enigmatic phrase is “an important city for God’s purposes.”
It seems that the author wants us to know that Nineveh’s greatness has been sovereignly ordained. It is an allusion to God’s divine role in Assyria’s rapid rise to power and fame. They are divinely appointed instruments in His hands, created to accomplish His coming judgment against the rebellious people of Israel. And if this book was written after the fall of Israel to the Assyrians in 722 BC, then its readers would have clearly understood the author’s reference to Nineveh as belonging to God.
The greatness of Nineveh had been God’s doing. And this brings to mind another powerful and pride-filled king whom God would raise up as His instrument of judgment against the rebellious southern kingdom of Judah. King Nebuchadnezzar would eventually rise to power and use his Babylonian army to conquer the city of Jerusalem in 587 BC. But this very same king would end up taking credit for his success. At one point, he would stand on the balcony of his palace, pridefully surveying the work of his hands.
“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” – Daniel 4:30 ESV
But Nebuchadnezzar would learn an important, if not humbling, lesson. God told the arrogant king that he was about to lose his mind and his kingdom. He would suffer a sudden bout of insanity and be forced to live like a wild animal in the wilderness. And the prophet Daniel told the king that his condition would last “until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:32 ESV).
Nineveh and Babylon were “great” cities ruled over by “great” kings. But their domains and dominion were the sovereign work of God. And, whether he realized it or not, as Jonah walked through the gates of the “great” city of Nineveh, he wasn’t entering into enemy territory. He was walking into the realm of Yahweh. Nineveh did not belong to Sennacherib any more than Babylon belonged to Nebuchadnezzar. And while Ishtar was the primary god worshiped by the Ninevites, Yahweh was the one true God of the universe.
Just imagine this lone prophet of God walking through the streets of this massive metropolis declaring, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 ESV). That took courage. He was delivering a divine ultimatum to the citizens of the most powerful nation on earth. Jonah’s little encounter with the fish had made a powerful impression. He was motivated and took to his task with a renewed sense of vigor. But despite his zeal and enthusiasm, it seems that Jonah was fixated on one thing: The destruction of Nineveh. The author only records one message coming from the lips of the prophet: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And Jonah was probably counting the days. He was hoping and praying that God would rain down judgment upon the wicked people of Nineveh.
Jonah had been given a message from God, but it seems that he might have misunderstood what God had in mind. The key to understanding his confusion is found in the Hebrew word translated as “overthrown.” While that is an acceptable meaning of the word hāp̄aḵ, it is more often translated as “turn” in the Hebrew scriptures. It conveys the idea of turning about or turning back. Or to put it another way, it can refer to conversion. What God was telling Jonah was that within 40 days, the people of Nineveh would turn to Him. But Jonah heard what he wanted to hear. To him, the meaning of God’s message was clear: The Ninevites were about to face the wrath of Yahweh. So, he eagerly and enthusiastically walked the streets of Nineveh, delivering God’s divine ultimatum.
But he was in for a shock. His message did get a reaction, but not the one he had been expecting. It is likely that Jonah had fully expected to be arrested and executed for his efforts. After all, he had spent days walking through the capital city declaring its pending destruction. It was only a matter of time before his message was conveyed to the authorities and his prophetic career came to an abrupt and less-than-pleasant end.
Yet, the author states, “the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5 ESV). What’s fascinating to consider is that nowhere in Jonah’s message does he seem to share the nature of their crime or the form of their pending punishment. There’s no indication that he provided them with a way to avert their “overthrow.” And the most glaring omission is his failure to mention the name of Yahweh. And yet, the people “believed God (ĕlōhîm).” Whether or not Jonah told them about God didn’t seem to matter. The Ninevites inherently understood that Yahweh, the God of the Israelites was sending them a message. And they heard that message and believed.
They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. – Jonah 3:5 ESV
We can only imagine how this sudden and surprising reaction impacted Jonah. He must have been beside himself with frustration and anger. This was exactly what he feared would happen, and it’s what had motivated him to run away in the first place. He longed for judgment against his enemies but instead, God had shown grace, mercy, and love. Jonah had been hoping for their overthrow but, instead, God orchestrated their conversion. They believed and repented. And they exhibited their change of heart by entering a state of mourning. They knew they were guilty and deserving of God’s judgment, but He had graciously provided them with an opportunity to turn to Him.
Once again, this story would have conveyed a powerful and convicting message to its original readers. The Jews living in exile in Assyria would have understood that they were being exposed for their own stubbornness and refusal to turn to Him. God had given them ample opportunities to hear His calls of repentance and respond in humility and belief. But they had refused – time and time again. And yet, here were the pagan Ninevites, hearing the message of God’s prophet for the very first time and responding in belief and humble repentance. Centuries later, Jesus recognized the underlying message found in the book of Jonah and conveyed it to His Jewish audience.
“The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.” – Luke 11:32 ESV
Even in 1st-Century Israel, the people of God remained just as obstinate and unwilling to hear God’s message of repentance. Jesus, the greater Jonah, had appeared, declaring, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). But as the apostle John points out, Jesus “came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). They refused to believe His message and rejected His offer of salvation. But John goes on to write, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13 ESV).
Jesus’ message of the Kingdom would be heard by Gentiles and they would believe. But the majority of His Jewish brothers and sisters would continue to reject His offer and remain stubbornly unwilling to repent and believe.
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.