- Locate the Passage.
Jonah 3:1-9. This passage begins in the third of Jonah’s four chapters. It records events which occur after his experience in the belly of a fish.
- Determine the structure of the passage
The passage begins with a renewed call for Jonah to preach the LORD’S message in Nineveh. It proceeds with the account of Jonah’s compliance. This time, he goes to Nineveh and delivers the assigned message. The remainder of the passage records the repentance and belief of Nineveh’s inhabitants, giving particular attention to the actions and words of the king.
- Exegete the passage
In verse 1, notice the repetition of the prophetic formula: the word of the LORD (Yahweh) came, or “was,” to Jonah. The verse also highlights that this is the second occurrence of such a reception by Jonah. Verse 2 indicates that the assignment for Jonah has not changed. His orders are the same as those initially received in Jonah 1:2. A series of qal imperatives (arise, go, call out) form the foundation of his assignment. Verse 3 describes Jonah’s compliance and highlights its basis with a repetition of the “word of the LORD.” That Nineveh was a large city is evidenced by the reference that a “visit was a three days’ journey.” However, the focus of the narrator is concerned with more than the city’s physical magnitude. The phrase, “exceedingly great city,”may be translated “a great city to God.” Given the repetition of the word “city” (three times in verses 1-3), the distinct impression is that the city, with its mass of people, was important to the LORD and the object of His special concern.
According to verse 4, Jonah went a day’s journey into Nineveh and proclaimed his message from LORD. The designation of 40 days is of significant interest in light of its occurrence elsewhere in key historical events (flood, days of Moses, days of Elijah). In Jonah, the designation is used in the context of warning of the impending execution of wrath upon the city in light of its evil. The LORD’S message through Jonah is that Nineveh’s days are numbered. Apart from a turning to the LORD, Nineveh will be “overturned.”
Verse 5 offers a general summary of the response of the people of Nineveh. They believed and were “convinced” of the LORD’S word. The Hebrew root for the word “believed” is “amen.” Thus, the people agreed with the divine assessment. This reality is underscored by the calling for a fast and the putting on of sackcloth. Note also that this action was comprehensive (from the greatest to the least of them). Biblically, fasting is associated with a heightened sense of need for God and the recognition that there is something greater than physical need. Putting on sackcloth is associated with mourning, sorrow over sin and repentance.
Verses 6-9 provide details related to the response of the people and, particularly, to the king’s role in implementing a city-wide posture of repentance. In verse 6, the word from the LORD had literally “struck” the king. In response, he exchanges his throne and robe for sackcloth and ashes. Such action would seem to indicate genuine repentance. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus uses the response of Nineveh to the preaching of Jonah to condemn the unbelief of skeptics in His day (Mt. 12:41) serves as support to the reality of genuine repentance on the part of the people of Nineveh. Verse 7 continues with the details of the king’s actions. He issues a proclamation calling upon the populace and, even their livestock, to fast, put on sackcloth and cry out desperately to God (Elohim). Verse 8 includes a comprehensive call for the people to turn from their evil and violent ways. Verse 9 communicates the fervent desire of the king. Not presuming upon the LORD, he asks, “Who ‘ knowing?’ Elohim may turn and ‘have pity’ and turn from his ‘hot’ anger so that we may not perish.” The verb translated “relent” is nacham and refers to God’s compassion and mercy. The LORD is not like a man who changes his mind (see 1 Sam. 15:29). However, in His sovereign freedom He has ordained that judgment may be averted by repentance.
- Let the structure of the text drive the structure of the sermon
This passage should be preached inductively. Begin by re-telling the story using the following structure:
- Jonah is called to preach to Nineveh a second time. (1-2)
- Jonah obeys and preaches of impending judgment (3-4)
- The people of Nineveh believe God and give evidence of repentance. (5-9)
*summary of response (5)
* The king’s actions and words (6-9)
After re-telling the story, deliver the main idea/thesis. Out of His great mercy and according to His word, the LORD deploys delivered sinners as instruments to bring about the deliverance of more sinners. Follow the main idea with appropriate end-loaded application. Such application should emphasize God’s mercy to Jonah as well as His mercy to the masses of people in Nineveh.