The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.
When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.
What are the issues here? First is Jonah’s response to God’s call, second is the reason for the message, third is the message, fourth is the response of the people of Nineveh and their King, and finally that God changed his mind.
The first time the Lord came to Jonah (in chapter 1) he was told to go “to Nineveh, that great city and cry out against it, for their wickedness has come before me”. His response was to flee to Tarshish (possibly Tartessos (see Wikipedia) in Southern Spain, beyond the straits of Gibraltar, the furthest point in the known world) away from the presence of the Lord. To no avail, there was a storm, Jonah was blamed and thrown overboard, and was swallowed by a whale. He prayed to God from the belly of the whale (chapter 2) and three days later was spewed out upon dry land. The second time he obeys, presumably with both the first message (the cry against wickedness) and the second (the overthrow in forty days time). He does not even get to the centre of the city, but proclaims his message after a day’s walking. Amazingly the message strikes home and the people – poor and rich – believed God, fasted and put on sackcloth, those traditional marks of repentance. When the message reached the King and the Nobles, the King did likewise and made appropriate proclamations. When God saw that the whole of Nineveh had repented and turned from their evil ways, he changed his mind.
I do not think we have to worry about the actual size of Nineveh. A man can walk about 15 miles in a day, but I doubt if Nineveh was 30 miles across. The point is that the message, even given out in the suburbs, was so relevant and obviously true, and the threat so understandably real that it was accepted by everyone who heard it. The response was one of penitence. Even when it reached those at the top, the King and the nobles – the government – responded in the same way. And this message was from the God of Israel, not from one of their own gods. Thus it shows the God of Israel reaching out to the Gentiles and them responding.
What calls do we hear, what messages do we receive, how do we respond to them? We cannot escape from His presence; He is there ready to respond positively to us if we approach him with a sincere heart.