Who knows? God may turn and relent; He may turn from His fierce anger, so that we will not perish."
A state of uncertainty, a suspense between hope and fear, about a matter of importance, is a very painful and anxious state. What can be more important, what more interesting, than our country! When the fate of our country is doubtful; when we can only ask with painful solicitude, What will be the end of these things? Every mind must be agitated with doubtful expectations. This was the state of Nineveh. What was the cause of its denunciation? Sin; national, epidemical sin, against an unknown God. They sinned against the light of nature, and that sufficed to bring down remediless destruction upon them. Before the fatal blow fell they had one warning more. We have the substance of Jonah's sermon. They understood him to plead for repentance. We have a very moving sight before us, a gay, magnificent city in mourning. The repentance does not wholly consist in ceremonies: they are sensible of the propriety and necessity of earnest prayer to God, and a reformation of life, as well as of afflicting themselves with fasting. The light of nature directed them to this as the only method of deliverance, if deliverance was possible. The case of such a people looks hopeful. Yet so sensible was the king of Nineveh of their demerit and of the insufficiency of their repentance to make atonement for their sins, that he is doubtful, after all, what would be the consequence. "Who can tell," he says, "whether God will turn and repent." Let us humble ourselves ever so low, we are not assured we shall escape. It is natural to a penitent, while he has a full view of all his sins, in all their aggravations, to question whether such sins can be forgiven by so holy a God. And Jonah was reserved on this point. National as well as personal repentance may come too late. When a nation is in such a state that no man can certainly determine what will be its doom, if there be any possible hope, it is only in the way of general humiliation, earnest prayer, and public reformation.
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.
Who can tell if God will turn? During the Civil War in America some soldiers of the Southern Army deserted, and found themselves caught in a wood between their own regiment and the Northern lines. To go forward or backward equally meant death. So here they hid and starved, feeding on berries. Meanwhile the Southern Confederacy was broken up, and peace was made between North and South. One day an officer riding through found them and challenging them, heard their fears. You have nothing to fear, he said. "Peace has been proclaimed. You can have all you want by going to the nearest village and asking for it." So it is between the race and God. Men want to know that in Christ God has reconciled the world unto Himself.
This was the forlorn hope of the Ninevites. The Book of Jonah should be exceedingly comfortable to those who are despairing because of the wickedness of their times. Is this, O God, Thy way? Wilt thou make Nineveh repent at the bidding of one man? So skilful is He that with the weakest instrument He can produce the mightiest workmanship.
I. THE MISERABLE PLIGHT IN WHICH THE MEN OF NINEVEH FOUND THEMSELVES. They were like those in the days of Noah. They were rich and mighty above all people. Locked in security, they fell into abomin able sins. Their vices probably rivalled those of Sodom. Suddenly they were startled from their security, and convinced of their sin. Their miserable plight consisted in three discoveries — their great sin; the shortness of their time; the terrible character of their destruction.
II. THE SLENDER GROUND WHICH THE NINEVITES HAD FOR HOPE. In Jonah's message there was no proclamation of mercy made. It was the trumpet of the judge, but not the silver trump of jubilee. He was sent with a thundering commission, and he dealt it out in a thundering fashion. The king's answer was, "Who can tell? There may be hope." Another thing that would cut off the hope of the Ninevites was, that they knew nothing of God except, it may be, some dreadful legends of His terrible acts. They lacked another encouragement that we have. They had never heard of the Cross. Jonah's preaching was very powerful, but there was no Christ in it.
III. THE URGING OF DIVINE REASONS WHY WE SHOULD IMITATE THE NINEVITES IN REPENTANCE. God, in order that you may know His mercy, has been pleased to preserve instances thereof, that so often as you look upon them you may be led to say, if such and such an one was saved, why may not I? If you are conscious of guilt, your only hope of deliverance lies in the mercy of God. While it will be a happy thing for thee to be saved, it will be a serious thing for God to save thee. God delighteth to save sinners, because this puts jewels in His crown. He is glorified in His justice, but not as He is in His mercy.
1. Sometimes a nation may be in such a situation that no man can tell what will be their doom; whether the threatened vengeance will fall upon them, or whether they shall escape.
2. The event of the present war will appear dismally doubtful if we consider some scriptural prophecies, particularly in Daniel and the Revelation.
3. The event of the present war, and the doom of our country and nation, will appear dreadfully uncertain if we consider our national guilt and impenitence. When a nation is in such a doubtful situation that no man can know its doom, if there be any hope, it is only in the way of repentance, reformation, and earnest prayer. This appears to be the only way of hope on two accounts.(1) National sin has a direct tendency, in its own nature, to weaken and destroy a nation. Repentance, reformation, and prayer are the proper cures for this disease.(2) This too is the only method to turn away the displeasure of God, and obtain His favour and protection. It is only to the penitent that promises of deliverance are made. National judgments are inflicted for national sins, and therefore reformation from national sins is the only hopeful way to escape them.
()There is a simple distinction between the promises of Scripture and its threatenings to which we should carefully attend. That distinction is, that the promises are recorded that they may be fulfilled, while the threatenings are written to prevent their fulfilment. We see the right influence of Jehovah's threatenings in the case of Nineveh of old. Only one thing could retard or prevent its ruin. That was repentance. Jonah's mission to Nineveh was really designed to prevent desolation. The threatening message was delivered. The heart of man was touched, sin was abandoned, and misery was, through grace, averted or postponed. Here we see the hopes and fears and agitations of the Ninevites. "Who can tell? etc. They had something to encourage, but nothing to assure. They had the forty days of respite. That brought in conditions and hopes. We know that the gifts and calling of God are without repentance; but, in imparting revelation from the unchanging One, language is employed which is strictly applicable to man, in order that man may understand the truth imparted. Human feelings and affections are thus described to the Divinity, though He be, in fact, unaffected by them all. It is man that changes, not God; but the language employed can occasion no difficulty to any humble mind.
TopicsAnger, Burning, Changing, Compassion, Destruction, Fierce, Heat, Knoweth, Overtake, Perish, Purpose, Relent, Repent, Repented, Turn, Turning, Whether, Withdraw, Wrath, Yet
Outline1. Jonah, sent again, preaches to the Ninevites.
5. Upon their repentance,
10. God relents.
Dictionary of Bible ThemesJonah 3:1-9
1055 God, grace and mercy
7757 preaching, effects
8479 self-examination, examples
6027 sin, remedy for
6742 sackcloth and ashes
8431 fasting, reasons
6629 conversion, examples
6740 returning to God
1120 God, repentance of
5036 mind, of God
'And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, 2. Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. 3. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey. 4. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall he overthrown. 5. So the people of Ninoveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and …
Alexander Maclaren—Expositions of Holy Scripture
Who Can Tell?
With this by way of preface, I shall now somewhat turn aside from the narrative, to address myself to those who are trembling on account of sin and who are in the same position as the men of Nineveh, and like them anxiously desiring mercy. I shall notice briefly this morning three things. First, the miserable plight in which the men of Nineveh found themselves; secondly, the scanty reasons which they had for hope; and then, thirdly, I shall observe that we have stronger reasons to compel us to pray, …
Charles Haddon Spurgeon—Spurgeon's Sermons Volume 5: 1859
Of the Public Fast.
A public fast is when, by the authority of the magistrate (Jonah iii. 7; 2 Chron. xx. 3; Ezra viii. 21), either the whole church within his dominion, or some special congregation, whom it concerneth, assemble themselves together, to perform the fore-mentioned duties of humiliation; either for the removing of some public calamity threatened or already inflicted upon them, as the sword, invasion, famine, pestilence, or other fearful sickness (1 Sam. vii. 5, 6; Joel ii. 15; 2 Chron. xx.; Jonah iii. …
Lewis Bayly—The Practice of Piety
Whether it is Lawful for Religious to Wear Coarser Clothes than Others?
Objection 1: It would seem unlawful for religious to wear coarser clothes than others. For according to the Apostle (1 Thess. 5:22) we ought to "refrain from all appearance of evil." Now coarseness of clothes has an appearance of evil; for our Lord said (Mat. 7:15): "Beware of false prophets who come to you in the clothing of sheep": and a gloss on Apoc. 6:8, "Behold a pale horse," says: "The devil finding that he cannot succeed, neither by outward afflictions nor by manifest heresies, sends in advance …
Saint Thomas Aquinas—Summa Theologica
Whether Things Known or Declared Prophetically Can be False?
Objection 1: It would seem that things known or declared prophetically can be false. For prophecy is about future contingencies, as stated above (A ). Now future contingencies may possibly not happen; else they would happen of necessity. Therefore the matter of prophecy can be false. Objection 2: Further, Isaias prophesied to Ezechias saying (Is. 38:1): "Take order with thy house, for thou shalt surely die, and shalt not live," and yet fifteen years were added to his life (4 Kings 20:6). Again …
Saint Thomas Aquinas—Summa Theologica
Whether all are Bound to Keep the Fasts of the Church?
Objection 1: It would seem that all are bound to keep the fasts of the Church. For the commandments of the Church are binding even as the commandments of God, according to Lk. 10:16, "He that heareth you heareth Me." Now all are bound to keep the commandments of God. Therefore in like manner all are bound to keep the fasts appointed by the Church. Objection 2: Further, children especially are seemingly not exempt from fasting, on account of their age: for it is written (Joel 2:15): "Sanctify a fast," …
Saint Thomas Aquinas—Summa Theologica
Concerning the Sacrament of Penance
In this third part I shall speak of the sacrament of penance. By the tracts and disputations which I have published on this subject I have given offence to very many, and have amply expressed my own opinions. I must now briefly repeat these statements, in order to unveil the tyranny which attacks us on this point as unsparingly as in the sacrament of the bread. In these two sacraments gain and lucre find a place, and therefore the avarice of the shepherds has raged to an incredible extent against …
Martin Luther—First Principles of the Reformation
Use to be Made of the Doctrine of Providence.
Sections. 1. Summary of the doctrine of Divine Providence. 1. It embraces the future and the past. 2. It works by means, without means, and against means. 3. Mankind, and particularly the Church, the object of special care. 4. The mode of administration usually secret, but always just. This last point more fully considered. 2. The profane denial that the world is governed by the secret counsel of God, refuted by passages of Scripture. Salutary counsel. 3. This doctrine, as to the secret counsel of …
John Calvin—The Institutes of the Christian Religion
Upon Our Lord's SermonOn the Mount
Discourse 7 "Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: And thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly." Matthew 6:16-18. 1. It has been the endeavour of Satan, from the beginning of the world, …
John Wesley—Sermons on Several Occasions
The Doctrines of Salvation A. Repentance. B. Faith. C. Regeneration. D. Justification. E. Adoption. F. Sanctification. G. Prayer.
THE DOCTRINES OF SALVATION. A. REPENTANCE. I. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DOCTRINE. II. THE NATURE OF REPENTANCE. 1. AS TOUCHING THE INTELLECT. 2. AFFECTING THE EMOTIONS. 3. WILL. a) Confess Sin. b) Forsake Sin. c) Turn to God. III. HOW REPENTANCE IS PRODUCED. 1. DIVINE SIDE. 2. HUMAN SIDE. 3. QUESTION OF MEANS. IV. RESULTS OF REPENTANCE. 1. GODWARD. 2. MANWARD. A. REPENTANCE. I. THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DOCTRINE. The prominence given to the doctrine of Repentance in the Scriptures can hardly be overestimated. …
Rev. William Evans—The Great Doctrines of the Bible
Of a Private Fast.
That we may rightly perform a private fast, four things are to be observed:--First, The author; Secondly, The time and occasion; Thirdly, The manner; Fourthly, The ends of private fasting. 1. Of the Author. The first that ordained fasting was God himself in paradise; and it was the first law that God made, in commanding Adam to abstain from eating the forbidden fruit. God would not pronounce nor write his law without fasting (Lev. xxiii), and in his law commands all his people to fast. So does our …
Lewis Bayly—The Practice of Piety
The Unchangeableness of God
The next attribute is God's unchangeableness. I am Jehovah, I change not.' Mal 3:3. I. God is unchangeable in his nature. II. In his decree. I. Unchangeable in his nature. 1. There is no eclipse of his brightness. 2. No period put to his being.  No eclipse of his brightness. His essence shines with a fixed lustre. With whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.' James 1:17. Thou art the same.' Psa 102:27. All created things are full of vicissitudes. Princes and emperors are subject to …
Thomas Watson—A Body of Divinity
The book of Jonah is, in some ways, the greatest in the Old Testament: there is no other which so bravely claims the whole world for the love of God, or presents its noble lessons with so winning or subtle an art. Jonah, a Hebrew prophet, is divinely commanded to preach to Nineveh, the capital of the great Assyrian empire of his day. To escape the unwelcome task of preaching to a heathen people, he takes ship for the distant west, only to be overtaken by a storm, and thrown into the sea, when, by …
John Edgar McFadyen—Introduction to the Old Testament
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