Jonah is associated with the giant fish, a reluctant prophet of hope to the enemies of his people.
In chapter 3, Jonah’s eight word sermon results in mass revival.
At the beginning of this chapter, God gave Jonah a second chance. All was forgiven, and seemingly forgotten. It was a true reboot, God came to Jonah a second time and delivered a very similar instruction—go to Nineveh and prophecy.
For Jonah, this was as real a resurrection as a person could get. He had been as good as dead, buried not just in the sea but in the belly of a fish. Yet God had miraculously given him back his life!
That is why Jesus pointed to Jonah as the sign of his own resurrection.
The account is recorded in two of the gospels, from slightly different angles. Matthew’s gospel was intent on showing how even the people of Nineveh would rise up in judgement against the people surrounding Jesus. Here is how it went:
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”
But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.
For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.
The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!Jesus, Matthew 12:38-41 (NRSV)
Luke’s gospel says much the same thing, but brings out a further point:
For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation.Jesus, Luke 11:30 (NRSV)
There is no doubt Jonah’s strange resurrection acted as a sign of hope for the people of Nineveh.
Jesus’ resurrection is recorded in all four Gospels, referred to often in the epistles and described by Paul.
I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that
Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he was buried,
and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.Paul, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 (NRSV)
Jesus’ resurrection is the proof of most other important doctrines, and he said it was God’s sign to the Pharisee’s generation
- Jonah’s burial in the fish foretold of Jesus’ burial in the grave.
- Jonah’s miraculous emerging from the fish to proclaim God’s judgement would be the same as Jesus’ emerging from the grave to proclaim God’s judgement on sin and death – vanquished for all who believed.
- Jonah’s preaching of repentance, for the God of Grace was ready to forgive and restore, was also Jesus’ message.
Jonah preached a simple sermon, only eight words long: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He walked the full length of the city, taking three days to traverse Nineveh from end to end. To his great chagrin, Jonah’s obedience was followed by the outpouring of God’s power.
You see, Israel was not the only nation living under constant threat from enemies. Assyria had its own troubles. They, too, had an enemy to the north, the Medes and Persians had begun to attack Assyria with some success, and in fact history records Assyria’s eventual demise to the Persian empire.
It is possible the people of Nineveh immediately thought of God’s judgement through Persia.
A few years before Jonah arrived so spectacularly there had also been two massive plagues and an eclipse of the sun. Ancient people interpreted such events as divine judgements.
In 2003, an earthquake in Iran turned an entire city to rubble and killed thirty thousand people. The Middle East has always been given to earthquakes, so it is possible the people of Nineveh thought perhaps God’s judgment would come in a devastating temblor.
Whatever the case, they believed God and entered into real repentance, from their king to the populace to even their flocks and herds. Every man, woman and child went into deep mourning, “They proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.”
The king went a step further, for he was the leader of their city-state, representative of them all, and responsible for them all. He rose from his throne, no longer worthy of it, and sat in ashes instead.
Then the king prepared a proclamation to be read in every corner of Nineveh,
By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water.
Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God.
All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands.
Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”Nineveh’s king, Jonah 3:7-9
Did you see what specific sin the king called his people to confess? Their violence.
There is some corroborating historical evidence that during the reign of Ashurdan III (771‑754 BC) a religious awakening occurred. Then in 745 BC Tiglath‑pileser III (745‑727 BC) came to the throne and Assyria again became a major power. Under his leadership the Assyrians became “the rod of God’s anger” and the “club of God’s fury” against God’s rebellious people Israel.
Israel finally fell to the Assyrians with the capture of Samaria in 722 BC through the efforts of Tiglath‑Pileser’s successors—Shalmaneser V and Sargon II.
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.Jonah 3:10 (NRSV)
When the Lord saw the repentance of the Ninevites God had compassion and held back judgement. In the Hebrew the language used is God “repented,” God “changed [God’s] mind.” Knowing God is, by God’s own description, “unchanging,” then I read this as meaning God did not change God’s mind in the way you and I do. When the Lord “repents” of the judgement the Lord would have exacted, God takes the punishment for that evil upon God instead.
When the Hebrew language speaks of God “repenting,” the word most often is “nacham,” referring to inner suffering that needs to be consoled.
נָחַם nâcham, naw-kham’; a primitive root; properly, to sigh, i.e. breathe strongly; by implication, to be sorry, i.e. (in a favorable sense) to pity, console or (reflexively) rue;
or (unfavorably) to avenge (oneself):—comfort (self), ease (one’s self), repent(-er,-ing, self).(Strong’s Definition)
God’s compassion poured out for the Ninevites and God’s judgment would later be fulfilled in Jesus’ time. God the Son took upon himself the world’s evil so that God could fully “nacham,” “repent” of judging those who would believe God, repent and hope on God’s mercy.
Every time God repented of bringing judgement on evil in the Hebrew Bible it was a fresh prophecy of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
God’s judgement Is always averted by genuine repentance
God is gracious and compassionate.
Anyone who is willing to repent and turn to God can find salvation.
God achieved the second part of God’s purpose in discipline through revival in both Jonah and the people of Nineveh. (The first part is yet to come.)
[Nineveh | Austen Henry Layard / Public domain]