In Jonah 3, we find Jonah freshly vomited onto the beach by the great fish that had housed him for three days in its own belly. Some people think that there might be a significant amount of time between Jonah’s divinely ordained regurgitation and 3:1, when the word of the Yahweh returns to him a second time to renew his prophetic call. Regardless, Jonah has been to hell and back (“out of the belly of Sheol I cried,” 2:2), and in the process Yahweh has taught him not to disobey.
We read, “Then the word of Yahweh came to Jonah the second time, saying, ‘Arise! Go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out to it the message that I tell you.'” This call in 3:1-2 is almost word-for-word identical to his call in 1:1-2 with three minor differences:
- Instead of identifying Jonah as the “son of Amittai” (1:1), 3:1 has, “Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time.”
- Although the ESV translates the phrase “and call out against it” the same way in 1:2 and 3:2, the word against is actually a different preposition in Hebrew. In 1:2, the phrase is literally “and call out upon it,” a way of speaking in which the word typically would mean against. In 3:2, the phrase is literally “and call out to it,” and while it could mean against, such a meaning must be determined by context. Biblical scholars are divided on whether or not 3:2 should be translated as against. My take is that, based on context, the meaning is not hostile (and calling out against Nineveh would be hostile), and so I would translate this as “and call out to it.” This is a one-letter hint that Yahweh has already settled on dealing kindly with Nineveh.
- Yahweh tells Jonah this reason for sending him in 1:2: “and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” In 3:2, though, Yahweh simply gives instructions: “and call out to it the message that I tell you.”
And this time, Jonah obeys. What is fascinating about how this text is written, though, is the way in which the text gives us clue after clue that Jonah is furious about what he is doing. We know that he is angry when Nineveh eventually does repent (cf. 4:1-3), but this anger is clearly displayed in chapter 3.
For example, Nineveh is described as being “an exceedingly great city [lit., great to God], three days’ journey in breadth.” There is a lot of scholarly hand-wringing over this comment, because in no way could Nineveh possibly have required three days to walk across, for no ancient city would have been that big. Phillip Cary gives the best explanation for the significance of this literary exaggeration:
But of course the reference to three days is also meant to remind us of the three days Jonah spent in the guts of the fish. We are not supposed to miss the parallel: for Jonah to walk into Nineveh, that great city, is like being swallowed up again by the monster in the depths of the sea and exiled from the land of the living. He cannot possibly be enjoying this mission….Yet above all we must of course remember the three days our Lord spent in death, being the sign of Jonah, making all these experiences look different because death itself is different after our Lord is swallowed up in it. (Phillip Cary, Jonah, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible [Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008], p. 107)
For Jonah to face Nineveh was death to him. Just as much as he faced death for three days in the belly of the fish, and foreshadowing the way in which Jesus actually descended into the grave for three days after his crucifixion, this mission would be the death of Jonah. And indeed, he begs Yahweh to take his life in 4:3, 8, and 9, once Nineveh repents.
More than this, Jonah’s message to the Ninevites contains clues as to what Jonah himself is going through as he preaches: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” The sermon is short and terse, spanning only five words in Hebrew.
Phillip Cary (whose commentary is remarkable–if you only read one commentary on Jonah, read this one) observes a subtle clue in the idea of forty days:
In the Bible the number forty indicates a time of trial or testing that leads to holiness, renewal, homecoming, and salvation. The waters of Noah’s flood are upon the earth forty days (Gen. 7:17), Moses is on the mountain with God for forty days (Exod. 24:18), and Ezekiel bears the iniquity of Judah for forty days (Ezek. 4:6). Most paradigmatic are Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, which point forward to the forty days that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness after his baptism. Jonah has already had his baptism, plunged into the depths of the sea and brought back up to new life: could it be that these are his forty days of testing? (Cary, Jonah, p. 108)
Certainly, the 40 days lead to renewal within Nineveh. The more we read, though, the more it seems that everything that Jonah is called to do has a double meaning for his own life–the repentance of Nineveh leads him directly into a wilderness experience with Yahweh, just like Israel underwent, and just like Jesus would later undergo.
And even the language of Nineveh being “overturned” has a double meaning. Cary writes this:
Still, the irony of the story is even more satisfying if we suppose that Jonah himself, prophet posing as bureaucrat, supplies the evasive passive-voice term, so uncharacteristic of the LORD’s very unevasive habits of speech, by altering the message the LORD has given him. We can almost hear the gracious and merciful God chuckling and saying to himself, “Okay, Jonah, have it your way. You want to say Nineveh will be overturned? Well then, I will make sure Nineveh is overturned for you! I will surely turn them upside down, convert them and turn them into something altogether new.” Eventually, it seems, the LORD aims to turn the whole world upside down (Acts 17:6). Things keep getting better than Jonah wants them to be. (Cary, Jonah, p. 109-10)
Cary reads a bit more into the use of a passive verb here than I am comfortable doing, since I don’t necessarily see Jonah subverting Yahweh’s message. Still, there is no doubt that Jonah was preaching with veiled, hopeful delight, desiring deeply to see Nineveh overturned. And of course, the city was indeed overturned–just not in the way he was hoping it would be. Rather than judgment and wrath, the city was turned upside-down through repentance and faith.
Given the utter reluctance of the missionary, for whom this mission is death itself, Nineveh’s repentance is stunning. Of course, his feet-dragging should convict us of our own laziness in evangelism and lack of love for the nations.
But rather than being brow-beaten into missionary zeal, we should allow ourselves to be transformed by seeing what this passage is proclaiming: the extent to which God will go to save the nations. Jonah is a stubborn missionary, but Yahweh is far more stubborn still. He will be exalted among the nations, and no one (not even Yahweh’s own messengers) can do anything to impede Yahweh’s desires.
And so we are left with a choice: will we delight in the unstoppable glory of our great God by gladly proclaiming his majesty among the nations, or will we selfishly and coldly attempt to veil his glory in the world and fail trying?
Post Series on Jonah 3:
- God’s Stubborn Missionary (Jonah 3:1-5)
- God’s Stubborn Mission (Jonah 3:6-10)