Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 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 3:1-5 ESV
God gave Jonah a second chance. And He appeared to Jonah a second time and gave him a second commission. But it’s interesting to compare the content of those two commissions. In chapter one, we read that God said, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). The second time, God said, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2 ESV). This time, God evidently gave Jonah the exact message He wanted conveyed. We are not told what that message was, but the words that Jonah used are recorded for us: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 ESV). Was that the message God had given Jonah or had he taken liberties with the wording? We don’t know for certain. But it’s interesting to note that the word, “overthrown” is the Hebrew word, haphak and it can mean to overthrow, upturn, turn or transform. It is the same word used in the book of Genesis in the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. – Genesis 19:24-25 ESV
God transformed those two wicked cities by complete destroying them. He turned them into rubble. And I have a feeling that when Jonah gave his message to the people of Nineveh, that is exactly what he was hoping the outcome would be for them. He probably enjoyed walking through the streets of Nineveh, telling them their city was going to be transformed into a heap of rubble. Calling down God’s judgment and wrath on a city full of sinful pagans came easy to Jonah. But what Jonah didn’t seem to understand was that the overthrow or upturning of Nineveh was going to be dramatically different than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. There was not going to be any sulfur and fire. There would not be any death and destruction. Jonah was in for a surprise.
The text simply tells us, “And the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5 ESV). We’re told that they immediately “called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5 ESV). What was it they believed? They heard the word of warning from God regarding their eminent destruction and they believed it to be true. Now, it is important to note that the message Jonah preached contained no specifics. He provided them with no details regarding what it was they had done to deserve their overthrow. He pointed out no specific sins or acts of wickedness. And there was no call to repentance or demand from God that they turn from their wicked ways. All Jonah had said was that their overthrow was coming in 40 days.
Compare the message of Jonah with that of the prophet, Jeremiah:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
broken cisterns that can hold no water. – Jeremiah 2:12-13 ESV
God had been very specific regarding the sins of Israel. We find them outlined in great detail throughout chapters two and three of the book of Jeremiah. But God also had Jeremiah call them to repentance.
“Return, faithless Israel,
declares the Lord.
I will not look on you in anger,
for I am merciful,
declares the Lord;
I will not be angry forever.
Only acknowledge your guilt,
that you rebelled against the Lord your God
and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree,
and that you have not obeyed my voice,
declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:12-13 ESV
God offered them a chance to repent of their sins and to return to Him. He would show them mercy and grant them forgiveness. But we see no such offer in the message of Jonah. He simply warned them of their coming destruction. But they believed that what he said was true and they put on sack cloth and ashes – from the greatest of them to the least of them. They had no guarantee that God would spare them if they did so. They had been offered no mercy. They had been given no hope of a reprieve. But they were a religious people. They had their own gods and knew that their only hope was if they could somehow satisfy the deity who was angry with them. And since Jonah was a Hebrew and spoke for the Hebrew God, they did they only thing they knew to do: They mourned and called out to Him. And we will see that this attitude of repentance will permeate the entire society, all the way to the royal palace. Even the king would hear the words of Jonah and believe.
But let’s go back to the book of Jeremiah and God’s indictment against the people of Israel. Here were the people of God, who had rebelled against Him and were being called to repent of their sins and return to Him. And this was not the first time God had sent a prophet to warn them of their coming destruction and call them to repentance. In fact, earlier in the book of Jeremiah, God exposes their track record of stubbornness and gives Jonah his assignment:
“From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers.
“So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. And you shall say to them, ‘This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips.’” – Jeremiah 7:25-28 ESV
What an interesting contrast. Here you have Jonah, the Hebrew prophet, who initially refused to obey God’s command and take His message to the people of Nineveh, finally doing what God had called Him to do. And the people of Nineveh hear his words and believe. They take God at His word and realize that their destruction is eminent. No mercy offered. No hope of reprieve. Yet they mourn and call out to God. Unlike the stiff-necked people of God, they bow their knees to Yahweh and beg for His mercy.
Which takes us back to that Hebrew word, haphak. Remember, it can mean to overthrow, but also to turn or transform. In the book of Exodus, it is the word used to describe the rod of Aaron turning into a snake or the water of the Nile turning into blood. In the book of Deuteronomy, it is used to speak of God turning the curse of Balaam into a blessing. It is a word that speaks of transformation or change. And that is exactly what we see happening in Nineveh. Jonah thought the transformation was going to come in the form of destruction, but instead, it came in the form of repentance. The great and powerful city of Nineveh was brought to its knees. The pagan people of Nineveh were calling out to the God of the Hebrews. What a radical change. What a transformation.
In the book of 1 Samuel, we are told the story of how God called Saul to be the first king of Israel. In chapter 10, he is anointed with oil by the prophet, Samuel, and commissioned to be king. And then it says, “When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart” (1 Samuel 10:9 ESV). The word “gave” is the same Hebrew word, haphak. God transformed Saul. He gave him a new heart.
One of the things Jonah seems to have overlooked, was the power of God to transform. God can overthrow a people in any of a number of ways. He can destroy them or He can redeem them. He can turn them to dust or He can turn their hearts to Himself. He is sovereign and all-powerful. Jonah was looking for destruction. But God was planning something completely different. A pagan, sinful and doomed people heard a message of judgment and they were changed. Rather than reject the message and kill the messenger, like the Israelites had done so many times, they bowed their knees to God. And as we will see, their transformation didn’t stop there.
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.