The Lord of all creation responded to the prayer by ordering the fish to deposit Jonah somewhere on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. When God decides to act, he can do so in any part of his creation, and it is always an act of wonder.
Jonah had surrendered to God and was ready to serve him. The command was basically the same as the first one (1:2), except that the wickedness of the city is not mentioned.
Even in obedience, Jonah seemed to have mixed emotions about making the trip to Nineveh (see comments on 4:1-11), but he went anyway. He had learned through experience the truth of the doctrine that the living God is everywhere.
Nineveh was located on the east bank of the Tigris River about five hundred miles from the nearest beach on the Mediterranean. Nineveh was a great city in the sense that it was part of a four-city complex, but it was not yet the capital of the Assyrian Empire.
The three days seems to be an idiom with a meaning that is no longer clear, especially to those of a Western culture.
The prophet did not delay his mission; on the first day of his arrival he began to preach.
The message was brief and clear cut: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” The sentence bears no conditional clauses, no loopholes. The punishment was unequivocal. Overthrowing a city means an enemy captures and reduces it to ruins.
The response of the people of Nineveh was remarkable. They heard the message and perceived within the time span of forty days an opportunity to repent. They went even further; they believed God, the living God of this strange prophet and had hope that this God was really the God of mercy. They expressed their repentance the only way they knew, by fasting and covering themselves with sackcloth, a rough burlap-like material.
The king heard of Jonah's message and the response of his people. Instead of taking a stand in favor of the deities of Assyria, many of whom were mean and warlike, he too decided to repent. Whatever the economic and political problems of Assyria may have been, it is known that the empire was in serious trouble. Such a situation in an idolworshiping society would create serious doubt about the power of the idols and the deities they represented. The city seemed ripe for conversion to the living God.
Through the centuries, Christian missionaries have often found idolworshiping people totally disillusioned with their idols and ready to respond to the Gospel. In many cases, whole tribes or ethnic groups have turned to God in repentance.
Including animals in the act of repentance seems strange to Western cultures but indicate that the king wanted to spare no means to catch the attention of the Almighty. His decree urged the people to give up their evil ways and their violence. Deeds of repentance must be matched with deeds of conversion. Jeremiah later urged that his own people do this, but they refused (7:3; 25:5).
The king's statement of hope reveals a concept of possibility. Though the message was one of judgment, perhaps the God who threatened them was compassionate too and would deliver them. Far better to hope than to live in despair.
The king of Nineveh was right; the God who had threatened destruction was a God of compassion. The intent of his threat was first of all to incite repentance and then to forgive; only as a last resort would he carry out his threat. The Lord explained this truth clearly to another prophet; it applied to all nations equally (Jer 18:7-10). The key element in all such cases is a genuine and earnest joining of repentance with a total change of practice. On the other hand, the Lord's switch from judgment to salvation is not a contradiction within his being, but the joyful expression of who he is, the God of love.
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