Jonah and the Great City

3: 1-10

This chapter concerns ADONAI and the Ninevites, with Yonah as God’s agent. The chosen prophet’s coming dispute with YHVH is not anticipated. The son of Amittai is called once again, goes to Nineveh, and preaches; the Ninevites repent, and the LORD forgives them.

This chapter may be summarized in three words: overthrown, repentance, and compassion. These words represent the three major actions in chapter three: Jonah’s preaching, the Ninevites’ giving up their evil ways, and God’s mercy. They also represent the eternal truth of a genuine relationship between sinners and HaShamayim. Reconciliation with YHVH is a threefold movement.

This three-part pattern is common in HaShem’s relationship with Isra’el. In First Samuel 7:3-11, the Philistines threatened Isra’el. The children of Abraham put away their Ba’al and Ashtoreth idols and gathered at Mizpah for repentance. They came under attack, but the LORD delivered them with a thunderstorm. This general pattern is repeated in Esther 4 in Persia (see my commentary on Esther Ba – I Will Go to the King: If I Perish, I Perish), in Ezra 8:21-23 at the Ahava Canal, and in Joel 2:11-19. In each of these cases, the Israelites were under the threat of being overturned in destruction. They turned to ADONAI in repentance, and were delivered by God’s compassion. In Jonah the same pattern is seen in the Assyrian enemy.

Overthrowing (hapak) means wholesale, complete, sudden change, either for the worse (destruction) or for the better (conversion). On the first day in Nineveh, the Jewish prophet proclaimed: Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown (3:4). The Ninevites obviously knew the threat of hapak and feared destruction. But when God says He will hapak them, there is a possibility it means something positive. God may change them for good. The word carries this dual meaning throughout the TaNaKh. Overthrown (hapak) has two possibilities in this chapter. The first is destruction (ra’ah) meaning evil or calamity, and the second is repentance, t’shuvah (noun), shuv (verb), meaning repent or turn.

The Hebrew word for destruction (ra’ah) in 3:10 is translated differently in various English translations: the evil (KJV, RSV), calamity (NRSV, NASB), punishment (CJB) and destruction (NIV). It is useful to look at several translations to see the wide semantic range of the word ra’ah. God does not do evil, which is the basic meaning of ra’ah. The meaning of ra’ah in the TaNaKh depends on the eye of the beholder. The LORD called the prophet to preach because of Nineveh’s ra’ah (wickedness 1:2). The sailors considered the storm a ra’ah (calamity 1:7, trouble 1:8). The king of Nineveh knew that his people were engaged in all kinds of ra’ah (evil 3:8). God saw that they turned from their ra’ah (evil ways), and He did not bring on them the ra’ah (destruction) that he had threatened (3:10). So ra’ah can be wickedness, or it can be destruction based upon strict justice.

Believers experience the same dilemma today. Do we view ra’ah as evil or as just? On what basis do God’s people decide about their experiences and the experiences of others? When calamity falls as a righteous judgment on the wicked, do we rejoice and hope for another kind of overthrowing? Yonah did not approve of a God who relents in sending calamity (4:2c). But another kind of overthrowing is offered to those who recognize justice, even the justice of God’s destruction.

Repentance before HaShem is blind to race or culture. Overthrowing is also used in chapter three to describe repentance (shuv). Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up (shuv) or turn from their evil ways and their violence (3:8b). When God saw what they did and how they turned (shuv) from their evil ways, he relented with compassion (3:10). Yonah did not preach specifically to Gentiles but against wickedness. ADONAI makes the same call to turn from evil practices for all of His human creation (Second Chronicles 7:14; Jeremiah 25:5, 26:3-6).

Therefore, Jonah is read annually on Yom Kippur (see my commentary on Exodus Go – The Day of Atonement). It is read as a model for the proper attitude for repentance with Isaiah’s description of proper fasting (Isaiah 58:4-7). The rabbis teach that this reading reflects the view that this book depicts the concept of repentance so starkly and completely that it can stir hearers to repent of their ways and even modifies their conduct. The Ninevites’ repentance and YHVH’s forgiveness reject the ancient view, expressed by the disagreeable prophet . . . that only punishment can cleanse sin. The sovereign LORD accepted the Ninevites’ repentance of their wickedness and they were forgiven. The people’s turning in repentance (shuv) is mirrored by God’s turning with compassion (naham). God had compassion and did not bring on them the destruction He had planned (3:10).

Compassion means that God relented from His impending calamity. The LORD had compassion and Jonah complained the He relented from sending disaster. The words relent and compassion come from the Hebrew word naham. To an Israelite, to repent was to turn (shuv) from pride to compassion. To turn toward ADONAI meant to comfort the oppressed and dispossessed (see my commentary on Isaiah Hc - Comfort, Comfort My People Says Your God). To comfort the widow, fatherless and the foreigner meant repenting of one’s self-serving ways of pride. To have compassion was to turn from one’s own selfish ideals concerning wealth and acknowledge God’s viewpoint. True repentance meant that compassion and comfort would increase in the world.

The timeless truth of Jonah 3 is that compassion is a primary attribute of HaShem. When it comes to justice, the LORD would rather be known as a God who forgives and is just. This is exactly what Yonah bitterly complains about: Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity (4:2).

God’s openness to change strict judgment is part of His character from the beginning of His dealings with Isar’el. At Mount Sinai, during the golden calf incident (see my commentary on Exodus Gs – Now Leave Me Alone So That My Anger May Burn Against Your People), Moshe pleaded with HaShem to relent (naham) and have compassion in the midst of calamity. YHVH did relent, in striking similarity to Nineveh. Then God relented (naham) and did not bring on His people the disaster He had threatened (Exodus 32:14). In Yonah, ADONAI had compassion (naham) and did not bring on them the destruction He had threatened (Jonah 3:10).

ADONAI is not like us. He is free to judge the rebellious by strict justice and not forgive them when they repent. But God is also free not to judge the rebellious by strict justice and to forgive them when they repent. King David knew this eternal truth. When his son by Bathsheba was ill as a result of his murder and adultery, he said the same thing: While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, “Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live” (Second Samuel 12:22). In David’s case, YHVH judged according to strict justice.

YHVH is free from the necessity of strict justice and can pursue a better justice in His relentless love of His creation. The king of Nineveh also acknowledged God’s freedom when he said: Who knows? God may yet relent (naham) and with compassion turn from His fierce anger so that we will not perish (4:9). ADONAI’s judgment of destruction is just, but His compassion may prevail. The reality of Yonah is that the Ninevites of his day were not punished for their wickedness. But they did not force the hand of the Grandmaster, nor were they certain of God’s response. It could have gone either way.

To really understand the LORD’s compassion, we need to understand our need and our desperate spiritual situation. This leads us to humbly acknowledge: Who knows? The heart that believes in its own righteousness cannot receive even the certainty of Yeshua’s love and forgiveness. The fact that the hearts of the violent can be overthrown by the mere hint of ADONAI’s compassion is precisely the point of Yonah’s argument in chapter 4.

A The LORD’s Speech (3:1-2)

B Nineveh the great city (3:3)

C Jonah enters the city (3:4)

D The Ninevites Believe God and Repent (3:5-9)

E God did not bring on them the destruction He had planned (3:10)

D Jonah is angry because the Ninevites Repented (4:1-4)

C Jonah leaves the city (4:5-8)

B Nineveh the great city (4:11)

A The LORD’s Speech (4:10-11)

Chapters three and four should be viewed as one unit. The scenes alternate: in the country (3:1-3), in the city (3:4 to 4:4), and in the country (4:5-11). Nineveh is called the great city at the beginning and at the end of the section.75


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