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Jonah 3 - The Reluctant Missionary

It's not about the fish, it's about the prayer, but this beautifully poetic prayer is missing something...

Written by David Steltz on .


We continue our study in Jonah today, and we’re going to focus on chapter 3 this week. Last week, Mike brought us through chapter 2, Jonah’s prayer from the belly of the fish. It’s a poem, and Mike brought up some key features of ancient Jewish poetry, and really helped us gain a better, deeper appreciation for biblical poetry in general, but in particular Jonah’s prayer. Which is pretty much the entirety of chapter 2.

And that chapter is kind of a break from the narrative that started in chapter 1, where God tells Jonah to go to Nineveh. Instead, of course, he runs away and pays to sail on a ship going the opposite direction. And God sends this great storm, they find out it’s Jonah’s fault, he says throw me over, and the storm goes away. And we talked about how chapter 1 introduces a story that is just so backwards and upside-down. It starts off like the other books of the prophets, but turns into a story in which the prophet, the man of God who’s name is Dove, and he’s the son of Faithfulness, he runs away from God, would rather die than repent, and the pagans who’s lives he risked end up being the ones to actually worship Yahweh, offer sacrifices, and ask for forgiveness.

And we have the fish swallowing Jonah at the beginning of chapter 2, and spitting him out at the end, but other than that, the rest of the chapter is a poem that doesn’t really advance the narrative much at all. Though it does reveal Jonah’s heart; he’s willing to follow God, but he’s not sorry or repentant whatsoever, and he doesn’t ask for forgiveness. As we saw last week, just because it’s a break from the story doesn’t mean we should skim over it! It’s there for a reason and it’s worth paying attention to.

Chapter 3

But chapter 3 picks the narrative back up. Jonah has been spit up or vomited back onto dry land, and Chapter 3 starts off with “The word of Yahweh came to Jonah a second time.” What does he say? “Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach the message that I tell you.”

Now, this is the second time the word of Yahweh has come to Jonah. And it’s pretty much the same message as the first time, isn’t it? Back in chapter one, verse 2:

“Get up! Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it because their evil has come up before me.”

Get UP, and go to Nineveh. But that first time has a little more context, it specifies that Jonah is to preach not just TO Nineveh, but AGAINST Nineveh. Why? Because their evil has come up before me God says.

Nineveh’s Evil

What kind of evil are we talking about here? Well, they certainly don’t know, fear, and worship Yahweh, but that’s not unique. The Jews are unique in that they do worship Yahweh, so why is Nineveh being singled out?

Well, remember first of all that Nineveh, the city, was the capital city of a larger empire, the Assyrian empire. They are known to have had great military brilliance, and effectiveness, which allowed them to grow very quickly, and control a vast area of the middle east, including, at times the region of Israel, so they were often in conflict with Israel. They were an enemy. But the Assyrians aren’t known just for being very smart and clever in how they conquered other people, they were also extremely brutal. They were one of the most violent empires known to history.


And we know this partly because of archeological discoveries, of artwork that was preserved and has been discovered. This artwork, which is mainly carved stone and clay, lined the halls of their own palaces and other important buildings, and they told stories through depictions of their various battles and exploits.

There’s even one such example, which is on display in the British Museum, that depicts the Assyrians besieging and conquering an Israelite city! It’s called “The Siege of Lachish” Lachish was a Jewish city, and the book of Kings also documents this same event.

It’s kinda cool that we can see it so well preserved. But it’s also kinda not cool, in that it does depict how brutal they were. And Mike did mention this last week, but you can see in some areas where they have their captives stripped bare and spread out, and they’re holding knives, ready to skin them alive! And they would impale people on poles, and set them on hills around the city to show that they had conquered it. And I know that these are really pretty sickening images to think about, and it should be a horrifying thought! That’s the point, if you’re somehow comforted by the thought of brutal torture, then there’s a problem!

God’s Judgement

God was NOT ok with how violent they were, which is why God called Jonah to go preach against them. And you would think that if your people had a history of being brutally conquered by this other people, you would be excited to bring God’s word of judgement against them, and see them be wiped out. Well, as we see in the next chapter, that’s exactly what Jonah wants, but he knows God too well and he’s too worried that God will actually spare them!

But will get there next week.

For now, the point I want to get across is that God’s judgement against Nineveh was very much warranted, and would have been, I think, from the Jews’ perspective, a long time coming.

Jonah’s Obedience…Sorta

So in verse 3, Jonah finally gets up, like God told him to, and sets out to proclaim God’s judgement on Nineveh.

The Size of the City

Now, there’s also an interesting note in verse 3, that says Nineveh was “an extremely great city, a 3 day walk.” This statement has thrown some people for a loop, because we know from historical records and archeological findings that no city, anywhere at that time would take 3 days to walk from one end to the other. Even today, Tokyo, one of the world’s largest cities, isn’t that big. I did the math, and it would be possible to walk from one end of Tokyo to the other, the long way, in 14 hours. So it could be done in one day. It would be a long day, but it could be done, or in 2 more comfortable days. So what do we do with this claim that Nineveh was a “3 day walk” in size? Well, one possibility is that it’s meant to be understood as a turn of phrase, not to be taken literally, but to emphasize that it was a large and important city. But there are at least 2 other, more likely, possibilities: one is that it’s referring to Nineveh not as we would consider the “city proper” but the city and the surrounding areas. Similarly to how we have the city of Watertown, and there are city limits, but then we have the greater Watertown area, which is a MUCH larger area, and can be defined a number of different ways.

But what I think is even more likely, is that the “walk” is not referring to an end-to-end measurement, rather a description of how long it would take to actually traverse up and down the roads, through each neighborhood, in order to proclaim a message such that it would cover the whole city. Tokyo would probably take months to cover that way! Watertown might be doable in 3 long days, I’m not sure. If anyone wants to map that out and do the math, let me know, I wasn’t up for that task.

Jonah’s Message

Either way, the point is that the city is big, and Jonah’s task is significant. He sets out in verse 4, and proclaims “In 40 days Nineveh will be demolished! Destroyed!” Now, this would have sounded like GREAT news for the Jews, and even probably some of the other people groups the Assyrians had conquered. But it was BAD news for Nineveh, and for Assyria; the destruction of Nineveh, the capital, would have spelled the downfall of the rest of the empire!

Nineveh’s Response

BUT, the people who heard Jonah’s message BELIEVED God, and once again we see the hilariously backwards nature of this book. From the greatest of them to the least, they did 3 things: they proclaimed a fast, they dressed in sackcloth, and they sat in ashes.

That’s pretty weird! Why did they do that? Well, we can see all three of those things being used to convey mourning and repentance, in quite a few other places in scripture.


Fasting is an interesting topic because of the 3, this is the one we actually see prominently used in the New Testament as well. Fasting even today is a spiritual discipline that many find helpful and even crucial in the life of a Christian. But we don’t talk about it very often, so I think we will be revisiting this topic in the near future. For now, it will suffice to say that fasting is a form of self-depravation, meant to humble one’s self, convey earnestness, and refocus one’s inner thoughts and desires with a specific purpose.


The Sackcloth and ashes are a bit more of a cultural custom specific to the Ancient Near East. The word “sackcloth” in Hebrew is just “saq” and it’s actually where we get our English word “sack,” through Greek and Latin, but originally Hebrew. We often think of a potato sack when thinking about dressing in sackcloth, with that really course, rough material, that would be really uncomfortable. Now, for them, it would have been made out of goat or camel hair, not burlap, but it’s still a similar idea. It would have been uncomfortable, unflattering, and served to humble one’s self for a specific occasion.


I’m not totally sure what the significance of the ashes was, other than that ashes were commonly associated with the dead. So they would often accompany the sackcloth when mourning for the dead. In their case, they weren’t so much mourning for anyone who had died yet, rather they were all preparing to be dead soon!


But again, in all of this, what really stands out is this incredible role reversal. Usually, it’s the Jews who we see repenting and fasting. Jeremiah for example told the Jews they should put on sackcloth and repent. But right after reading a chapter in which Jonah failed to repent, we see this city of brutally violent, sinful pagans, in the most powerful city of the known world at the time, humbling themselves before God.

The King

And it wasn’t just a small or partial group of Ninevites, was it? Even the KING (who was probably more like a governor, technically) the most influential and powerful person in the city, humbled himself, and made sure that the rest of the city did too as soon as he heard the news! He made a decree that not just every person fast and wear sackcloth, but all the animals too! This is another one of those topics we might come back to, the significance of animals in the story of the Bible. It’s interesting to see how often the fate or consequences or welfare of the people correlates with that of the animals.


The point here is that it was a complete and thorough repentance. Repentance. Notice that the king’s decree was not JUST the outward expressions of fasting and sackcloth, in verse 8 he says everyone must cry out earnestly to God AND…AND each must TURN from his evil ways! I talked about this word back in Malachi. It’s a very common word in the prophets! It’s the Hebrew word “shuv” (shoove) and it’s often translated as “repent.” That word “repent” is a very churchy, very religious word. But it wasn’t in Hebrew, when it was used in these prophetic contexts, it was a very practical term that was used as a metaphor for a spiritual decision. It literally means to be walking in one direction, then turn around and walk in the opposite direction.

So the prophets would be like when you see someone looking for the bathroom, and you know they’re going in totally the wrong direction, and you say “Hey, you! It’s the other way!” Any sensible person would say “oh ok, thanks!” turn around, and walk the other way! But you can also imagine pride getting in the way, and wanting to pretend like you really know what you’re doing because you just wanted to get something from over there before going where you really need to go…

But “shoove” is stopping in your tracks when you’ve been told you’re going the wrong way, having the humility to admit that you were wrong about where you were going, doing a 180, and walking the other direction.

And we can see that they did this with true humility, and an understanding that they still did not really deserve to be spared by God. Notice what the king says in verse 9: “Who knows? Maybe God will relent and change his mind and turn from his blazing anger so that we will not perish.

God’s Grace

And he did! In verse 10, God saw, and spared them. When GOD calls out and says “hey, turn around” it’s because he LOVES you enough to JUDGE what you are doing, TELL you it leads to destruction, and if you TURN AROUND, you’ll see it’s to be met with God’s grace staring you right in the face. Judgment is not the opposite of love, it is an expression of love.

Theological Truth

And here we come to a major takeaway from the book of Jonah. A big theological truth. So far, one of the primary theological truths we’ve talked about is God’s sovereignty. We saw that a lot in chapters 1 and 2, and we’ll see it again in chapter 4. But this is another big one. A big theological claim being made in this book.

It’s not just that God is merciful, and quick to forgive. That’s part of it, certainly! We’ve seen that demonstrated all throughout the Old Testament with how God dealt with Israel. But here, in this context, there is a demonstration of God’s character that we tend to take for granted.

It’s the evidence that God is willing to reach out and save even pagan, non-Jewish people from the wrath of his justice.

WHY did he send Jonah in the first place to tell Nineveh they were going to be destroyed? It obviously wasn’t because he wanted to destroy them! Otherwise, he could have just done it! Instead, he wanted to send a message that would cause them to realize their wickedness and give them opportunity to repent. Remember, that’s the whole primary function of a prophet, it’s to pronounce judgement, often, yes, but for the sake of leading people to repentance.

God wanting to save a non-Jewish community would have been appalling to many Jews at the time (it certainly was for Jonah!), and we take it for granted now, but really that’s what God’s mission has been all along! When he called Abraham, his promise was not only to make his descendants a great nation, but that through them all the other nations of the world would be blessed.

Ultimately, that was fulfilled through Christ, but even then it was difficult to grasp even for scholars of the Hebrew bible like Paul, who hated Jesus, but eventually came to identify himself as an apostle, a missionary of Jesus to the gentiles! It wasn’t an easy road for him to arrive at that 180 in his life, but he got there!

Jonah never really did a 180. I’d say he was an unwilling missionary. He was a very bad missionary. But God used him, nonetheless, to reveal himself to Nineveh, and to us. Jonah tried to foil God’s plan of mercy, but it only ended up hurting himself in the end. That’s certainly a lesson for us.

The story of Jonah reveals that the God of Israel is the God of the whole world. He’s the God of all people, and he wants justice for all people. Because he loves people. And because he loves people, he judges people.

I encourage you to ponder, fear, worship and joyfully praise our God of loving justice. And as you know him and hear him, ask him to reveal your own heart to you. Where are you in the story? Are you the Assyrians before hearing the message, blind to your own sin? Or are you aware and do you need to humble yourself in repentance before God? Are you Jonah, begrudgingly obeying God but with bitterness and ulterior motives, hating him for his mercy? In the ironic spirit of this book, let us be NOT like Jonah, but like the Ninevites, and like Paul, living in humble gratitude to God’s gracious love, and the salvation WE enjoy because of Jesus.

Jonah 3 - The Reluctant Missionary