First Glance: Jonah 3

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Sackcloth and Ashes on the Ponte San Angelo. Photo taken by Graeme Churchard.

And he cried out, “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. (Jonah 3:4b-5)

Jonah 3 is a reboot of the first chapter, but with one major variation: Jonah’s obedience. God told to Jonah to go to Nineveh and instead of running away, he went “according to the Word of the Lord” (3:2). Jonah learned that he could not run away from God’s call. God was relentless in pursuing and saving Jonah. Jonah reached a turning point in the belly of the fish, but while his heart for God and his own deliverance may have softened, it appeared that Jonah’s heart for Nineveh had not. By the time Jonah got to the great city, his obedience had worn thin and his resentment had resurfaced.

The great city was three days across, but Jonah only walked a day’s journey in. If Nineveh was a circle this would not have seemed so bad. However, Nineveh itself was not large enough to be three-days across, but the ‘city of Nineveh’ certainly was. Cities in the ancient Near East were often surrounded by walls and supported by crops and livestock from the surrounding area. The name of the city could refer to the city itself or include the surrounding area. Nineveh could be the city of Nineveh itself or include the surrounding ‘metro area.’ Present day Chicago is referred to similarly. People from the Chicagoland area will often tell non-natives that they live in Chicago, even if they live in Naperville.

Jonah only went a day’s journey in, which would mean that he may not have reached the city itself, but only the farmland outside of it. And it is there that he delivers the world’s shortest sermon – “Forty days more and Nineveh will be overturned.” My mother would have called this a ‘half-umph’ job (and you never wanted to ask what the ‘umph’ stood for). This is such an urgent message – impending judgment – and Jonah gives a short, half-hearted (that’s clearly what it stood for…) sermon at the far reaches of the city.

Then something crazy happens – everyone hears about it and the whole nation repents in sackcloth and ashes. The response to this short, pathetic sermon is overwhelming. It is overwhelming in that a city of 120,000 people (and many animals) believes God and turns from the way they had been living to call out to God for mercy. It is an overwhelming response in the physical nature of their repentance. People and animals put on sackcloth and fast from food and water. The image is as shocking as it is funny.

I think Jonah has something to tell us about preaching – about any activity where we proclaim the name of Jesus Christ and call people to follow Him.

It’s not up to us. The success of a sermon depends on God and not on us. Whether a person responds to our words with faith or not does not depend upon our strength or our eloquence. This doesn’t give us an excuse to be like Jonah – not even to try – but it does give us comfort when our best words seem to fall flat. If God can turn a whole nation to himself with the words of Jonah, our feeble words are no barrier to his work.

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