“When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes.” Jonah 3:6
If you read my two part introduction to Jonah you might remember a section I covered regarding Ashur-dan III who was the king of Nineveh. At the time of Jonah’s coming there were two plagues that that ravaged the land. One plague happened in 765 B.C. and the other in 759 B.C. There were multiple rebellions that were breaking out in the kingdom from nations that would not be subject to their brutal overlords. Ashdur-dan III had generals and other high ranking officials within Assyria challenging him for power. These adversities were in fact softening the hearts of the people for the message that Jonah was about to bring, even as high as the king.
The word of Jonah’s preaching reached the king (Ashur-dan III). The Hebrew word used for “reached” was “naga”. Properly, it means “to touch” with the implication of “to reach”. The message of repentance spread throughout Nineveh and even touched the king and his court. Even though Jonah did not cover every square inch of Nineveh, the word spread like a raging forest fire. The king heard the message and was “touched” by it to the point of belief, and the belief immediately manifested into action as the king humbled himself. Now, the king laid aside his royal robe and put on sackcloth and laid in ashes. As I read this, I was reminded of Christ who humbled Himself and stepped down from His throne and took on the form of lowly man, yet was the sinless King of kings. The king of Nineveh humbled himself, recognizing his sinful state as he covered himself in sackcloth and ash. I believe the king took personal responsibility for the immoral state of Nineveh.
Sackcloth and ashes were a practice by the ancients for repentance as well as showing great distress, but the context of this passage is repentance. Sackcloth was made of goat hair which was very uncomfortable to wear. The goat skin represented putting aside all earthly comforts, and I couldn’t help but think that Christ put aside the comforts of heaven for His Father’s work on Earth. The ashes were meant to show ruin. As you know ashes are the faint remains of something physical that once existed and was completely destroyed by fire. It can never be made whole again. The leader of the Ninevites realized the sin that ruined he and his people before an all holy God and showed his desolation metaphorically.
“He issued a proclamation and it said, in Nineveh by decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.” Jonah 3:7-9
So, the king, whom I believe to be Ashur-dan III is now taking the lead over this revival of Nineveh by making a “decree” (taam). The word used is not really a Hebrew word, but Akkadian, which was of the Babylonian and Assyrian dialects. This word is used in Daniel 3:10, 29; and Daniel 4:6, which were all decrees by Nebuchadnezzar. The most ominous was Daniel 3:10 where every person who did not bow down to the golden statue of Jonah would be thrown into the furnace of blazing fire (Daniel 3:6). Jonah may have used this word to show the authenticity of the decree to the reader by using this term. These decrees were law and usually carried with them consequences for noncompliance. The text doesn’t say that there were consequences as clearly stated in Daniel 3:10, 29, but when a decree is made it is final and enforceable. That said, it may have been assumed that the consequence for noncompliance would assure the destruction of the city. After all, Ashur-dan III said in verse 9, “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.” It is assumed that the city would be destroyed in 40 days. With all the rebellions happening in the kingdom this was a very real threat, so compliance to this decree might have been easier knowing that this may be their only shot for mercy. Keep in mind that the nobles were behind Ashurdan (Jonah 3:7), this would include Ashur-dan’s brother Ashur-nirari V who would be his successor. I chronicle why I think Ashur-nirari was redeemed in Nineveh in the second part of my introduction to Jonah.
What I do want to make clear is that this decree cannot save the lives of the people from destruction. That is like saying strict adherence to the Law will save a sinner from God’s wrath. It is not the Law that redeems, but Christ. He is the one that convicts man of their sin and brings them to faith and repentance. “For it is by grace we are saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9. Salvation is not works based. The great theologian Jonathan Edwards said, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” Nothing we do can appease God’s wrath against us for our sinful rebellion except for His intervention where He plucks us off the path to Hell. He gives us the faith to believe in Him and turn away from our sins, while imputing to us Christ’s righteousness. We can do nothing to earn salvation with God. We are helpless, hopeless, and all deserving of the fires of Hell for eternity because of our depravity. This is what makes God so rich in grace and mercy, in that, man was separated from God, but Christ paid the penalty for sin, paving a way of salvation back to God for those who believe and repent (turn away from) of their sin. It is staggering to think that God imputed my wickedness on Christ, chastising Him for my sin, and then imputed Christ’s righteousness to me, rewarding me for Christ’s sacrifice. This is unfathomable grace. It was not Ashur-dan’s decree that saved Nineveh, but the regenerating hand of God that breeds contrite hearts that turn away from their sin.
There is one thing about the king of Assyria that most people do not know. They played the role of king and high priest. The Assyrian king was seen as a mediator between the people and the deities. The King was the high priest of Ashur who was the patron god of the city of Assur, and was the head of the Assyrian godhead. What I would like to point out if you haven’t figured it out already is that the Assyrians derived their name from their god Ashur just as Christians derive our name from Christ who is part of the Holy Trinity. Now, I would like to point out that each Assyrian city had a patron god. For Nineveh it was Dagon. The king of Assyria was the human agent of their god (Ashur) and exalted over all other men. Even King Sennacherib recorded that he pursued a military campaign not by his will, but by Ashur’s will. He said, “In my second campaign, Ashur my Lord impelled me.” I find it simply amazing how the pagan nations try to mimic Christ who is both king and high priest. It becomes clear that Ashur-dan III had immense power as a king and high priest of Ashur, but now his roles would change.
Before I go any further, I am aware that Jonah was in the belly of a fish for parts of 3 days, not 3 full 24 hour days. While he was in despair in the stomach of the fish the acid began to break down his skin. The pigment in his skin would start to discolor as the stomach acid eroded its color. He would also have a stench that would more than likely emanate from his body for many days. Many commentators will bring this up for one main reason. The chief god of Nineveh was the fish god Dagon. He was half man and half fish. Jonah’s story of being in the fish, along with the evidence of the bleached skin, and possibly the smell would send chills up the spine of the Ninevites. You see, this would show Elohiym as being stronger than Dagon because Elohiym’s servant was freed from the judgment of the fish. This could in many ways give Jonah credibility when he preached. I do think there is merit to this, yet only in a manner supportive of Jonah’s provocative final cry for repentance.
Now, Ashur-dan as you remember was formerly the king and priest of Ashur who was now redeemed. The king removed his royal robe, dressed himself in the highly uncomfortable goat hair sackcloth, and then sat in ashes. Ashes were symbolic of ruin and desolation. The king saw his sinful ruin like a city burned to the ground before almighty God. He also recognized his people’s desolation as well. In his contrition he makes a decree with the full support of his nobles that every person and animal was to abstain from eating or drinking anything. The people were so overwhelmed with grief that they fasted from two necessities of life. Furthermore, he decrees that all citizens and their animals were to dress in the goat skin sackcloth as a further act of submission to God. After doing this he implores his people to examine their lives and turn away from their evil ways. For Ashur-dan to understand their evil ways meant that he had truly repented and recognized good from evil. The King of Nineveh must have understood God’s mercy and grace. Which brings me to some other points…Their humbling themselves before God showed that they also accepted the consequences for their sin.
“Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish (Jonah 3:9).”
First, Ashur-dan appeared to accept the consequences as he said, “Who knows”. He expected Nineveh to be destroyed acknowledging God would be right to do so, yet he and the city still humbled themselves before God and waited for His will to be revealed.
Secondly, the king appeared to understand that God is merciful. Repentance appeals to God’s mercy, not His justice. This is a pagan nation that knew nothing of mercy, which showed in how they brutalized the other nations around them. It certainly could be that in their penitent state that they finally understood the need for mercy. They may have even questioned why they had been allowed to live in their evil state for so long and realized the long suffering of almighty God against the nations. This may have indeed given the king hope that in their sincere repentant state that, God, if He so chooses, may show them mercy. In addition, there is a probability that Jonah told the Ninevites of his rebellion and how God chastised him with the storm and put him into the belly of a fish. The physical evidence was there (his discolored flesh). Yet, God rich in His mercy removed His heavy hand from upon Jonah and restored him to his position. It might be that Jonah conveyed his story of repentance and God’s mercy, which gave them a glimmer of hope that God may too remove His judgment from upon them.
Thirdly, they went from polytheism to monotheism. They suddenly realized that there was only one God of creation. All the gods that they had worshipped were both created and inspired by the wiles of man.
Fourthly, the king realized the sovereignty of God. “Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.” That is a man who understands that God is sovereign over all of creation. This very sentence acknowledges the complete sovereignty of God, especially as Judge. Only He is just, and only He has the right to hand out judgments or mercy to the wicked.
“When God saw their deeds, that they turned from their wicked way, then God relented concerning the calamity which He had declared He would bring upon them. And He did not do it.” Jonah 3:10
Let me start by saying that God did not relent because of their deeds. The deeds revealed a heart that was penitent for their sins against Him. God, as Judge, was within His rights to turn them over to the earthly consequences of their sin from their murderous oppression of the nations. The Ninevites would still have a place in heaven if He did turn them over to the consequences. However, God in His mercy did not give them what they deserved. Many times, we believers do not escape the consequences of sin in this life even though we are destined for Heaven. I remember harboring bitterness to two individuals in my life. I was unwilling to repent of my unforgiving heart, so God turned me over to my sin and chronic health issues ensued. I eventually repented, but I have a permanent health issue for the rest of my life as a consequence of my sin. Despite this, His grace is sufficient for me to continue on in the race. If a man commits murder and is set up for execution or life imprisonment, he may come to know Christ as His Lord and Savior and repent of his wickedness, including this murder, but the earthly consequences remain. God spared the Ninevites in His great mercy of their earthly consequences as a nation for their sin. It just means that they wouldn’t be destroyed as a nation. This does not mean that they didn’t suffer personal consequences for their sin. Personal sin always has consequences. The longer we allow a sin to continue in our lives the stronger the consequences will become. Look at David and all his wives and concubines and how that led him into sin with Bathsheba. He repented, but still shouldered the consequences with the death of his child, his daughter being raped, his kingship being usurped, his son murdered, etc… How about Sarai giving Abram the okay to sleep with Hagar and conceive a son that would be a thorn in the side of their offspring for generations? Sin has painful consequences that we will have to endure on earth. Believers in general are hardly ever spared of any of the consequences of their personal sin. Why is that? Because it is the consequences of our sin that keep us from repeating it.
Note, “that they turned” in verse 10 in the Hebrew is “shuwb” which means “to turn about”. The Greek word is ἀποστρέφω (apostrepho) from “apo” (away from) which intensifies “strepho” (to turn). Properly, “turn away from”. It implies the personal aspect involved in rejecting something. The Ninevites realized their evil and they chose to turn away which would signify that they had been redeemed by God. Conversely, Judas Iscariot recognized his evil, but he never chose to turn away from it. He had remorse which was a deep guilt for his betrayal, but that remorse did not lead to repentance. When faced with their sin, the Ninevites not only had sorrow for their sin, but turned away from doing it any longer. I can imagine that during the Ninevite fast that the brothels were empty, idols were melted down, murders ceased, merchants did not use dishonest scales, and soldiers who had flayed men or impaled them on poles cried out for forgiveness.
Some people might say, “God said he was going to destroy the city in 40 days. Did He lie?” No. In fact, God’s word says, “At one moment I might speak concerning a nation or concerning a kingdom to uproot, to pull down, or to destroy it; if that nation against which I have spoken turns from its evil, I will relent concerning a kingdom to build up or to plant it.” Jeremiah 18:7-8. God is saying that if he speaks to the destruction of a nation that he will “relent” if they turn from its evil. The same word for “relent” (nacham) in Jeremiah 18:8 is used in Jonah 3:9 and 3:10. The Greek translation of “nacham’ (relent) is μετανοέω (metanoeo) in the LXX. Meta means, “After with” and implies a change afterward. Better stated it is the after-effect. Combined with “noeo” which means “to think/ponder”. It is translated often as “repent”, but within the context of Jonah it speaks to “a change of mind”. Repentance requires pondering and then a change of direction. In the context, it is God pondering on their change of heart and so changes His actions of immediate judgment. This does not mean that the city escaped judgment. God judged Nineveh in 612 B.C. and completely destroyed them a little less than 150 years later. If you read my introduction you would see that the revival in Nineveh lasted about 13 years. Tigleth Pileser usurped Ashur-nirari’s throne by killing him and became the new king of Assyria, leading them back into their brutal ways. What you must understand is that God does not change His mind as we understand the changing of one’s mind. He is omniscient, meaning that He is all knowing, and we are not. He knew that Nineveh would repent because He predestined the redemption of the people. One theologian named John Brown stated regarding God changing His mind as, “It is more of a fulfillment of His ultimate desire for Nineveh than a change of mind.” If a man changes his mind it is because he is not omniscient. Man in incapable in our design to be all knowing, not only because of sin but because we are a creation, and as such grow in wisdom progressively. If a man changes his mind it shows that he was in error. God is never in error because He knows all, so He never changes His mind like a man. His plans always succeed and His will is never thwarted. Praise God for Nineveh’s repentance. Our God is truly a merciful and gracious God.