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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Jonah Chapter 3


jon 3:0

Jonah's Preaching in Nineveh - Jon 3:1-10

After Jonah had been punished for his disobedience, and miraculously delivered from death by the mercy of God, he obeyed the renewed command of Jehovah, and preached to the city of Nineveh that it would be destroyed within forty days on account of its sins (Jon 3:1-4). But the Ninevites believed in God, and repented in sackcloth and ashes, to avert the threatened destruction (Jon 3:5-9); and the Lord spared the city (Jon 3:10).

Jonah 3:1

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The word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, to go to Nineveh and proclaim to that city what Jehovah would say to him. קריאה: that which is called out, the proclamation, τὸ κήρυγμα (lxx). Jonah now obeyed the word of Jehovah. But Nineveh was a great city to God (lē'lōhı̄m), i.e., it was regarded by God as a great city. This remark points to the motive for sparing it (cf. Jon 4:11), in case its inhabitants hearkened to the word of God. Its greatness amounted to "a three days' walk." This is usually supposed to refer to the circumference of the city, by which the size of a city is generally determined. But the statement in Jon 3:4, that "Jonah began to enter into the city the walk of a day," i.e., a day's journey, is apparently at variance with this. Hence Hitzig has come to the conclusion that the diameter or length of the city is intended, and that, as the walk of a day in Jon 3:4 evidently points to the walk of three days in Jon 3:3, the latter must also be understood as referring to the length of Nineveh. But according to Diod. ii. 3 the length of the city was 150 stadia, and Herodotus (v. 53) gives just this number of stadia as a day's journey. Hence Jonah would not have commenced his preaching till he had reached the opposite end of the city. This line of argument, the intention of which is to prove the absurdity of the narrative, is based upon the perfectly arbitrary assumption that Jonah went through the entire length of the city in a straight line, which is neither probable in itself, nor implied in בּוא בעיר. This simply means to enter, or go into the city, and says nothing about the direction of the course he took within the city. But in a city, the diameter of which was 150 stadia, and the circumference 480 stadia, one might easily walk for a whole day without reaching the other end, by winding about from one street into another. And Jonah would have to do this to find a suitable place for his preaching, since we are not warranted in assuming that it lay exactly in the geographical centre, or at the end of the street which led from the gate into the city. But if Jonah wandered about in different directions, as Theodoret says, "not going straight through the city, but strolling through market-places, streets, etc.," the distance of a day's journey over which he travelled must not be understood as relating to the diameter or length of the city; so that the objection to the general opinion, that the three days' journey given as the size of the city refers to the circumference, entirely falls to the ground. Moreover, Hitzig has quite overlooked the word ויּחל in his argument. The text does not affirm that Jonah went a day's journey into the city, but that he "began to go into the city a day's journey, and cried out." These words do not affirm that he did not begin to preach till after he had gone a whole day's journey, but simply that he had commenced his day's journey in the city when he found a suitable place and a fitting opportunity for his proclamation. They leave the distance that he had really gone, when he began his preaching, quite indefinite; and by no means necessitate the assumption that he only began to preach in the evening, after his day's journey was ended. All that they distinctly affirm is, that he did not preach directly he entered the city, but only after he had commenced a day's journey, that is to say, had gone some distance into the city. And this is in perfect harmony with all that we know about the size of Nineveh at that time. The circumference of the great city Nineveh, or the length of the boundaries of the city of Nineveh in the broadest sense, was, as Niebuhr says (p. 277), "nearly ninety English miles, not reckoning the smaller windings of the boundary; and this would be just three days' travelling for a good walker on a long journey." "Jonah," he continues, "begins to go a day's journey into the city, then preaches, and the preaching reaches the ears of the king (cf. Jon 3:6). He therefore came very near to the citadel as he went along on his first day's journey. At that time the citadel was probably in Nimrud (Calah). Jonah, who would hardly have travelled through the desert, went by what is now the ordinary caravan road past Amida, and therefore entered the city at Nineveh. And it was on the road from Nineveh to Calah, not far off the city, possibly in the city itself, that he preached. Now the distance between Calah and Nineveh (not reckoning either city), measured in a straight line upon the map, is 18 1/2 English miles." If, then, we add to this, (1) that the road from Nineveh to Calah or Nimrud hardly ran in a perfectly straight line, and therefore would be really longer than the exact distance between the two parts of the city according to the map, and (2) that Jonah had first of all to go through Nineveh, and possibly into Calah, he may very well have walked twenty English miles, or a short day's journey, before he preached. The main point of his preaching is all that is given, viz., the threat that Nineveh would be destroyed, which was the point of chief importance, so far as the object of the book was concerned, and which Jonah of course explained by denouncing the sins and vices of the city. The threat ran thus: "Yet forty days, and Nineveh will be destroyed." נהפּך, lit., overturned, i.e., destroyed from the very foundations, is the word applied to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The respite granted is fixed at forty days, according to the number which, even as early as the flood, was taken as the measure for determining the delaying of visitations of God.

(Note: The lxx, however, τρεῖς ἡμέρας, probably from a peculiar and arbitrary combination, and not merely from an early error of the pen. The other Greek translators (Aquil., Symm., and Theodot.) had, according to Theodoret, the number forty; and so also had the Syriac.)

Jonah 3:5

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The Ninevites believed in God, since they hearkened to the preaching of the prophet sent to them by God, and humbled themselves before God with repentance. They proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth (penitential garments: see at Joe 1:13-14; Kg1 21:27, etc.), "from their great one even to their small one," i.e., both old and young, all without exception. Even the king, when the matter (had-dâbhâr) came to his knowledge, i.e., when he was informed of Jonah's coming, and of his threatening prediction, descended from his throne, laid aside his royal robe ('addereth, see at Jos 7:21), wrapt himself in a sackcloth, and sat down in ashes, as a sign of the deepest mourning (compare Job 2:8), and by a royal edict appointed a general fast for man and beast. ויּזעק, he caused to be proclaimed. ויּאמר, and said, viz., through his heralds. מפּעם הם, ex decreto, by command of the king and his great men, i.e., his ministers (פעם = פעם, Dan 3:10, Dan 3:29, a technical term for the edicts of the Assyrian and Babylonian kings). "Man and beast (viz., oxen and sheep) are to taste nothing; they are not to pasture (the cattle are not to be driven to the pasture), and are to drink no water." אל, for which we should expect לא, may be explained from the fact that the command is communicated directly. Moreover, man and beast are to be covered with mourning clothes, and cry to God bechozqâh, i.e., strongly, mightily, and to turn every one from his evil ways: so "will God perhaps (מי יודע) turn and repent (yâshūbh venicham, as in Joe 2:14), and desist from the fierceness of His anger (cf. Exo 32:12), that we perish not." This verse (Jon 3:9) also belongs to the king's edict. The powerful impression made upon the Ninevites by Jonah's preaching, so that the whole city repented in sackcloth and ashes, is quite intelligible, if we simply bear in mind the great susceptibility of Oriental races to emotion, the awe of one Supreme Being which is peculiar to all the heathen religions of Asia, and the great esteem in which soothsaying and oracles were held in Assyria from the very earliest times (vid., Cicero, de divinat. i. 1); and if we also take into calculation the circumstance that the appearance of a foreigner, who, without any conceivable personal interest, and with the most fearless boldness, disclosed to the great royal city its godless ways, and announced its destruction within a very short period with the confidence so characteristic of the God-sent prophets, could not fail to make a powerful impression upon the minds of the people, which would be all the stronger if the report of the miraculous working of the prophets of Israel had penetrated to Nineveh. There is just as little to surprise us in the circumstance that the signs of mourning among the Ninevites resemble in most respects the forms of penitential mourning current among the Israelites, since these outward signs of mourning are for the most part the common human expressions of deep sorrow of heart, and are found in the same or similar forms among all the nations of antiquity (see the numerous proofs of this which are collected in Winer's Real-wrterbuch, art. Trauer; and in Herzog's Cyclopaedia). Ezekiel (Eze 26:16) depicts the mourning of the Tyrian princes over the ruin of their capital in just the same manner in which that of the king of Nineveh is described here in Jon 3:6, except that, instead of sackcloth, he mentions trembling as that with which they wrap themselves round. The garment of haircloth (saq) worn as mourning costume reaches as far back as the patriarchal age (cf. Gen 37:34; Job 16:15). Even the one feature which is peculiar to the mourning of Nineveh - namely, that the cattle also have to take part in the mourning - is attested by Herodotus (9:24) as an Asiatic custom.

(Note: Herodotus relates that the Persians, when mourning for their general, Masistios, who had fallen in the battle at Platea, shaved off the hair from their horses, and adds, "Thus did the barbarians, in their way, mourn for the deceased Masistios." Plutarch relates the same thing (Aristid. 14 fin. Compare Brissonius, de regno Pers. princip. ii. p. 206; and Periz. ad Aeliani Var. hist. vii. 8). The objection made to this by Hitzig - namely, that the mourning of the cattle in our book is not analogous to the case recorded by Herodotus, because the former was an expression of repentance - has no force whatever, for the simple reason that in all nations the outward signs of penitential mourning are the same as those of mourning for the dead.)

This custom originated in the idea that there is a biotic rapport between man and the larger domestic animals, such as oxen, sheep, and goats, which are his living property. It is only to these animals that there is any reference here, and not to "horses, asses, and camels, which were decorated at other times with costly coverings," as Marck, Rosenmller, and others erroneously assume. Moreover, this was not done "with the intention of impelling the men to shed hotter tears through the lowing and groaning of the cattle" (Theodoret); or "to set before them as in a mirror, through the sufferings of the innocent brutes, their own great guilt" (Chald.); but it was a manifestation of the thought, that just as the animals which live with man are drawn into fellowship with his sin, so their sufferings might also help to appease the wrath of God. And although this thought might not be free from superstition, there lay at the foundation of it this deep truth, that the irrational creature is made subject to vanity on account of man's sins, and sighs along with man for liberation from the bondage of corruption (Rom 8:19.). We cannot therefore take the words "cry mightily unto God" as referring only to the men, as many commentators have done, in opposition to the context; but must regard "man and beast" as the subject of this clause also, since the thought that even the beasts cry to or call upon God in distress has its scriptural warrant in Joe 1:20.

Jonah 3:10

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But however deep the penitential mourning of Nineveh might be, and however sincere the repentance of the people, when they acted according to the king's command; the repentance was not a lasting one, or permanent in its effects. Nor did it evince a thorough conversion to God, but was merely a powerful incitement to conversion, a waking up out of the careless security of their life of sin, an endeavour to forsake their evil ways which did not last very long. The statement in Jon 3:10, that "God saw their doing, that they turned from their evil ways; and He repented of the evil that He had said that He would do to them, and did it not" (cf. Exo 32:14), can be reconciled with this without difficulty. The repentance of the Ninevites, even if it did not last, showed, at any rate, a susceptibility on the part of the heathen for the word of God, and their willingness to turn and forsake their evil and ungodly ways; so that God, according to His compassion, could extend His grace to them in consequence. God always acts in this way. He not only forgives the converted man, who lays aside his sin, and walks in newness of life; but He has mercy also upon the penitent who confesses and mourns over his sin, and is willing to amend. The Lord also directed Jonah to preach repentance to Nineveh; not that this capital of the heathen world might be converted at once to faith in the living God, and its inhabitants be received into the covenant of grace which He had made with Israel, but simply to give His people Israel a practical proof that He was the God of the heathen also, and could prepare for Himself even among them a people of His possession. Moreover, the readiness, with which the Ninevites hearkened to the word of God that was proclaimed to them and repented, showed that with all the depth to which they were sunken in idolatry and vice they were at that time not yet ripe for the judgment of extermination. The punishment was therefore deferred by the long-suffering of God, until this great heathen city, in its further development into a God-opposing imperial power, seeking to subjugate all nations, and make itself the mistress of the earth, had filled up the measure of its sins, and had become ripe for that destruction which the prophet Nahum predicted, and the Median king Cyaxares inflicted upon it in alliance with Nabopolassar of Babylonia.

Next: Jonah Chapter 4