So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth…
So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them, etc. Here is Jonah in Nineveh alone against the world. Oh, the moral grandeur of the sight! - resting on God alone - "according to his faith it was to him" - marvellous success of his preaching, through Divine power working in him and through him. Observe the contrast to Noah and to Lot. He is like John the Baptist - a torch, setting all on fire. We notice the effects of his crying the cry which God bade him.
I. THE PEOPLE OF NINEVEH BELIEVED GOD. (Ver. 5.) Apparently "the people" were first impressed - deep religious impressions commonly begin with them, and rise from them to the upper class - "the common people heard Jesus gladly." There are many hindrances among men of wealth and station to religious impression, but Providence gives compensations - "the poor have the gospel preached unto them." They believed God. They saw in Josiah only a messenger - the messenger of God, who made the earth and the sea. Probably they had heard his history, for "Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites." Before one, in whose person there had been given such tokens of the Divine power, both to punish and to save, they stood in awe. "The busy crowd is by and by arrested; a solemn awe steals over the minds of the people, they press around the preacher to know who and whence he is, and why he utters such an ominous cry in their streets; and hearing as they now do, that, so far from lightly denouncing this doom against them, he had already, at the hazard of his life, shrunk from executing the charge committed to him, that he had been cast out for his wilful resistance into the mighty deep, and miraculously restored only that he might be sent forth anew to utter the cry they now heard of approaching destruction - learning all this concerning Jonah and his burden, how solemn and perilous must their situation have appeared in their eves!" (Kitto). He whom they now heard proclaiming his warning was the messenger of that God who had roused the storm and cast him overboard; who had prepared the great fish to swallow him, keep him alive within its huge body, and then vomit him on the dry land; and who had sent him back to deliver his message, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be destroyed." The whole community were actuated by a common feeling. "Word came to the king." All ranks and classes were moved by the message of the strange preacher; all realized that the anger of God and the coming destruction of the city were awful calamities; as of the Pharisees at John's baptism, the question might have been asked, "Who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" When God makes his voice heard, he bows the hearts of the people like the heart of one man.
II. PROCLAMATION OF A FAST. An external token of distress is deemed fitting - heathen fasts extended to animals as well as men. "It was a custom among the ancient heathen to withhold food from their cattle as well as from themselves in times of mourning and humiliation; in some instances they cut off the hair of their beasts as well as their own" (Kitto). Attitude of the king, great and noble (ver. 6) - all his pride and vain glory laid aside - he humbles himself openly before God - contrast this with spirit of Sennacherib afterwards (2 Kings 18., 19.) - kings never so great as when they pay honour to him by whom kings reign - the King of Nineveh rose above all shame and vanity, saw only the dread reality, and acted accordingly. Kings are in their noblest attitude when leading their people to honour God.
III. PRAYER DEMANDED. "Let them cry mightily unto God." All their own gods are to be set aside - this God only is to be recognized. No one seems to have said a word for the Assyrian gods - "Our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased" (Psalm 115:3). Prayer is often derided by the world - in time of pressing danger the praying people are the wise, the patriotic, the true people. Real prayer is no barren form - "let them cry mightily to God" - throw their whole souls into the exercise - pray as for dear life. The true idea of prayer is beseeching God's mercy - beseeching it as the one only resource - what alone can save from misery and ruin.
IV. MORAL REFORMATION DEMANDED. "Let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands." The humiliation of the people more than external - "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts" (Isaiah 55:7) - instinctive recognition of the holiness of God - it is unholy acts and an unholy spirit that excite his displeasure (see Isaiah 58:5-7). Violence specified - the rapacious cruelty which characterized the people, and the cry of which had come up before God. When once conscience was roused, it would condemn these acts of violence very loudly. Interesting and beautiful sight - all classes hastening to put away their evil ways, and reversing them, doing the very opposite to what they had been wont to do.
"Sinners listened to Jonah,
And each one confessed his sins.
The polluted city heard him,
And quickly put off its abominations.
Masters also heard him,
And proclaimed freedom to their bondmen:...
At the voice of Jonah honourable women
Brought down their pride in sackcloth:
The repentance was indeed sincere
When haughty women put on humility!...
The gay laid restraint upon their eyes,
That they might not gaze on women.
Women laid aside their ornaments,
That those who looked on them might not stumble."
(Ephraem Syrus, translated by Burgess.) Abiding picture of what ought to be the attitude of kings and people in times of national calamity - sin is then felt to be a curse and a poison: "Search us, O God, and know our hearts; try us, and know our thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in us, and lead us in the way everlasting."
V. REASON FOR THESE STEPS. (Ver. 9.) "Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce wrath, that we perish not?" Only a possibility - "Who can tell?" But in time of extreme peril a possibility ought to be acted on. "We cannot plead this on the score of justice, neither can we ply his faithfulness with any specific assurance of mercy, given to meet the necessities of our case; we have nothing to encourage us but the general character of God himself, as manifested in his dealings with men on earth. But still we have that, and the matter is not altogether hopeless. For why should God have sent his prophet to admonish us of sin, and foretell his impending judgment - a prophet too who has himself been the subject of singular mercy and forbearance? If destruction alone had been his object, would he not rather have allowed us to sleep on in our sinfulness? And why in particular should these forty days have been made to run between our doom and our punishment? Surely this bespeaks some thought of mercy in God; it must have been meant to leave the door still open to us for forgiveness and peace" (Fairbairn). The proclamation and the reason for it were not perfect - did not go beyond the spirit of fear and trembling - but the Ninevites acted on their light. "if there be first a ready mind, it is accepted according to what a man hath, and not according to what he hath not" (2 Corinthians 8:12). Whoever faithfully follows the light he has may look for more - "to him that hath shall be given." It is interesting to think how Jonah's prophecy would affect the young, and it is the property of childhood to receive testimony with full belief in it. Possibly the emotion of the children may have helped to move the parents. Prospect of speedy death is naturally more terrible to young than old. The following picture of the scene by Ephraem Syrus may be quoted: -
"The children inquired while weeping
Of their fathers, in the midst of their tears,
Narrate to us, O parents,
How many days yet remain
Prom the time which that Hebrew preacher
Hath determined for us?
And what hour he hath indicated
When we shall go down below to Sheol?
And in what day will it be
That this fair city shall be destroyed?
And further, when will the last day be,
After which we shall not exist?
When will the season arrive,
When mortal pangs shall seize on all of us?
And when, throughout the world
Shall fly the tidings of our ruin?
And the passing spectators shall gaze upon
The city overthrown upon its masters?'
"When the parents listened to these things
From the mouth of their little ones,
Their tears most bitterly
Overflowed, and suffused their children,
And dropped at the same time on the persons
Of the speakers and the hearers.
And the fathers were not able
To find utterance through sighing;
For their grief had closed up
The straight path of words;
And their speech was interrupted
By the weeping of their beloved ones?" Read the analogy between threatened destruction of Nineveh and destruction of sinners at the last day. Reasons for repentance in one case infinitely stronger in other. Natural indifference and unbelief of men in reference to the latter. Accumulated guilt of those who refuse him that speaketh from heaven. "The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with the men of this generation, and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah: and behold, a greater than Jonah is here."
(1) They had but one preacher, and that a stranger.
(2) They heard but one message, and it was wrath.
(3) They had but a vague hope of mercy. - W.G.B.
Parallel VersesKJV: So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.