Lesson # 3 from Jonah (Lessons #1 and #2 in previous months’ web editions)

I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day, I’d rather one would walk with me than merely point the way,

The eye’s a better pupil and more willing than the ear; Fine counsel is confusing, but example’s always clear.

You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips. I sure wish someone had clued Jonah in on this point. His attitude was less than stellar when he landed on dry land. The text continues, “Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time”(3:1). We are familiar with this language from 1:1-3 when the word of the Lord came to Jonah telling him to go to Nineveh; however, he did not obey. Now again the word of the Lord came to Jonah telling him to go to Nineveh, but this time Jonah obeyed and went (3:3). Scripture says that Nineveh was a very important city. A visit required three days. On the first day Jonah started into the city (3:4). Of interest is the wording to describe Nineveh. Various translations use different descriptive words: an important city (NIV), an exceedingly great city (NASB), and a vast city (NEB). A literal translation would say Nineveh was “a great city important unto God.” In God’s sight Nineveh was a great important city to Him.

On the first day Jonah began to preach. For those who love short, sweet, simple sermons, this is it. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned!” (3:4). That’s it. He gets straight to the matter – no beating around the bush, no points all lined up, no plethora of illustrations. Jonah simply walks into this great city that is important to God and says “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” I wish I could have been there to see exactly how he said that. I think he was very excited about preaching “hell, fire, and damnation.” Nineveh was a great city, and he was ready to see it burn. Edmond Goode says, “In the author’s mind, Nineveh was not just a quantity, but a quality, not just a metropolis, but an immorality. He takes the symbol of the world’s most ancient impressive evil, magnifies and intensifies it by mass, and sends his timorous prophet into the middle of it.” Why does he do that? Because the sins of Assyria – personified by Nineveh – sins such as polytheism, brutality, exploitation, witchcraft, sorcery, alcohol abuse, prostitution, and illicit sex were in abundance. That’s where the prophet of God was going. Nineveh was a walled city, probably eight miles around it. The city walls have been discovered and records have been found that reveal that greater Nineveh beyond the walls extended at least forty miles outward. For example, Dallas proper is great, but the DFW Metroplex goes far beyond the Dallas city limits into surrounding suburbs and cities.

Jonah walked into the heart of Nineveh and said that God’s going to zap you. You’re going to be ‘overturned.’ The author gives a very interesting word usage in Hebrew. The word for ‘overturned’ is hapak. The Hebrew ear would hear this word and know that there are two distinct meanings to the word hapak. This word is probably one of the greatest usages of irony in the book of Jonah. When Jonah said that Nineveh would be overturned, no doubt in his mind he meant “overturned” in the same way as Sodom and Gomorrah. The word hapak is used for this in Genesis 19:25. We know the results of the overthrow of those cities. So, Jonah was all excited about going into the heart of the enemy and saying, “God’s going to get you!” However, there is another meaning to the word hapak. It is used also in Exodus 7:15 when Moses’ staff “changed.” It ‘changed’ into a snake. The water of the Nile changed to blood. In Hosea 11:8 hapak is used to describe change in the Lord’s heart. This seems to be incredible irony in our story because Jonah walked into Nineveh hoping that God was going to hapak (destroy) the city. But what ultimately happened was that Nineveh hapak (changed). Notice what happened after Jonah’s wonderful short sermon was given to the people of Nineveh.

“The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust” (3:5-6). There is an interesting word used here. The king “arose.” In chapter 1, God told Jonah to arise. Later, in the hull of the ship the captain told Jonah to arise. The author is building a theme. In chapter 3, God tells Jonah a second time to arise and go to Nineveh. Now it is the king who arose from his throne to put on sackcloth. He literally stood up when he heard the word of the Lord. Why is that so interesting? It is because God desired his servant to respond like the pagan king. It was the pagan king who heard the word of the Lord, and without prompting, stood up; he arose from his throne. It is an act of seriousness. By taking off his royal robes, he demonstrated an act of submission. In covering himself with sackcloth, he asked for repentance. Then he sat in the dust, symbolizing hopelessness. This is the attitude God wanted to see from the heart of Jonah, but He did not. Instead, the King of Assyria and his nobles issued the following decree:

“Do not let any man or beast, herd or flock, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish”(3:7-9).

Notice the Lord’s response. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened”(3:10). This leads us to our next growth indicator:

5. A life that is growing spiritually responds to God in humility, not in arrogance and pride.

This is a foundational principle in scripture. The Bible says, “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore under God’s mighty hand that He may lift you up in due time”(1 Pet. 5:5-6). Jonah was filled with arrogance and pride because he hated the Ninevites. It was the pagan king who responded in humility. (Growth Indicator #3). I would like to share with you a fable which came from Viet Nam years ago. It has made a great impression on my life.

One day a man received word that he had been appointed a mandarin, a high ranking official in the government. This appointment brought with it tremendous freedom and power. He was so excited that he could barely contain himself. “I’ll be a great man now,” he told his friend. “I must have a new robe made immediately, one that does justice to my new station in life.” “I know the perfect tailor for you,” his friend replied. “He’s an old wise man that knows how to give every customer a perfect fit. Let me give you his address.” So the new mandarin went to the tailor, who carefully took the measurements. After he put away his tape measure, the old man said, “There’s one more piece of information that I need to know. Sir, how long have you been a mandarin?”

“Why? What does that have to do with the fit of my robe?” his client asked in surprise. “Ah,” said the tailor. “I cannot make the robe without knowing that, Sir. You see, a newly appointed mandarin is so impressed with his office that He holds his head up high. He holds up his nose and sticks out his chest so that I have to make the front of his robe longer than the back. A few years later when He is busy with his work and levelheaded from the stings of experience, he looks straight ahead to see what is coming and what must be done next, then I cut the robe so that the front and the back are the same length. Later, after he has been stooped by old age and so many years of weary service, and the humility learned from a lifetime of experience, then I must cut the robe so that the back is longer than the front. Therefore Sir, I must know your seniority before I can fit you properly. The new mandarin walked out of the tailor’s shop thinking less of his robe, and more of why his friend had sent him to see just that tailor.

This lesson from Viet Nam involves the issue of the humility of the heart. As the last growth indicator reminds us, we must respond to God in humility, not in arrogance and pride. That humility extends beyond to the world around us. God has saved us by his grace; not by anything we have done (Eph. 2:8-9). Do not use that to boast yourself, but rather use it to build Him up.

The use of satire that sets up our next growth indicator is found in the tragic sentence that concludes chapter 3 and transitions into chapter 4. Satire is the attempt to effect reform by the ridicule of an idea, a person, or a type of person. It makes frequent use of irony and we see it in this final transitional sentence: “He (God) had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction He had threatened, but Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry” (3:10b-4:1a). Suddenly, our hero is not the hero. Yes, after he was vomited out of the fish, Jonah went and preached to Nineveh – reluctantly. A reluctant obedience is not an obedience of the heart. Obedience is more than just a function. The prophet of God could receive the grace of God but could not extend it. There is no greater tragedy than when the church, the very people who have received God’s mercy and blessing, cannot extend the same to others. Sadly, some demonstrate the spirit of Jonah as they look at the “weak and wounded” among us. The next growth indicator probably demands more soul searching than all the others:

6. A life growing spiritually extends grace to and rejoices in the maturity of others.

Friends, we should never be a “grace suppressor.” We dare not model Jonah’s example. He could accept God’s mercy, but could not extend it. I wonder how many of the ones who heard Jonah’s message, also saw the attitude and manner in which the prophet delivered it.

The lectures you deliver may be very wise and true, But I’d rather get my lessons by observing what you do. I may not understand the high advice that you may give But there’s no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.


-Mark Yarbrough lives  in Forney, TX and is a Vice President and Professor at Dallas Theological Seminary