Debra Isenbletter, Pastor, Christian AssemblySpringfield, Missouri
Jonah 3:5 “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.”
When we look at the People’s Response, three important actions are seen that are very revealing and an example of all who are convicted by the Word of God. (Faith, Fasting, Repentance). I do not know if Jonah only preached for three days, the time it took to cover the length of the city. What I do know is that while he preached and after he finished preaching there was a response that was amazing in its scope. Nothing like that every happened in Israel. Israel had many prophets come and preach and they were well known and preached for years. Many of those prophets did mighty miracles and yet Jonah is different. He was one prophet, not well known, he had only one short message, he did no mighty miracles. As far as we know he did not call upon them to repent or encourage them to repent. He only pointed out their sin and the consequence of that sin, a terrible judgment. What a different contrast to how God dealt with His people and what a different response to the message of one prophet. We can see how their response shamed God’s people.
Faith: The people of Nineveh believed God. The people were the first to see Jonah, they were the first to hear his message and they were the first to believe. What a testimony. They believed God because Jonah revealed God. They believed Jonah’s message was the Word of God. The word “believe” comes from “to build up or support, to foster as a parent or a nurse.” That shows the wonderful result of belief, it is a strength, it is a certainty, it is a trust. It is both the Word and God who has revealed the Word that brings this unshakeable faith, this unbelievable strength which is called faith. It is that belief in both the prophet and the message of the prophet that will bring about the reaction and action in the hearts and lives of the people. They are moved and motivated to do something, anything, whatever they can do to try to stop judgment.
I know that Jonah did not do any mighty miracles but he was a living miracle. It could be that they had heard from the sailors about their experience with Jonah, it could be that Jonah testified of his experience in the belly of the great fish. The Lord does not give us any other details other than Jonah preached and they believed. What this shows me is that believing God comes first, and that is the greatest work of all and it energizes anything else we might do. They were not saved because of their works, they were saved because they believed God and what they did showed their belief. Abraham believed God first (Rom.4:3; Gal.3:6; Jam.2:23). “Abraham believed in the Lord and he counted it to him for righteousness.” (Gen.15:6). I remember a comment by W.J. Franklin on this verse that I have never forgotten, He wrote: “Note that Abraham uttered no words, did no works, made no boast. He shed no tears, made no prayers. He simply believed God. His was an attitude not an action.”
Believing God is the definition of faith (Heb.11:1). What is striking is that they had faith in the negative part of Jonah’s message, in the judgment but somehow, they also had faith in something positive, in God’s mercy. They believed in God’s judgment but also believed in God’s mercy. They believed in what God would do (destroy them) but also believed in what God could do (deliver them). They believed and acted on that belief.
Fasting: and proclaimed a fast. This is a testimony of their faith. To “proclaim” means two things, first “to read aloud” and also “to call out to a person you meet.” That proclamation could have been a public decree which was read aloud in the market place. It could also have been a personal plea, carried by word of mouth from individual to individual. It was to abstain from all food or water for a stated purpose. We know the purpose of the fast was that they wanted to stop judgment. We do not know the period of the fast. I believe it started the day they heard the message and lasted until the forty-day deadline.
Repentance: and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least.
Visible Sorrow: and put on sackcloth”—In this we see a visible sorrow, an outward show of what they felt inwardly. They put on “sackcloth” which was a course loose black cloth made of black goats’ hair. It was used for repentance, mourning and sorrow. It seems every culture, Nineveh included, had this practice but we have many examples in the Old Testament. Jacob put on sackcloth and mourned his son Joseph (Gen.37:34). David and the people put on sackcloth and mourned Abner (2Sam.3:31). Sackcloth and ashes are a double sign of mourning and sorrow. Jeremiah described this type of sorrow, asking that God’s people do this (Jer.6:26). Ezekiel also described this type of sorrow asking those in captivity to do this (Ezek.27:30-31). In Esther, Mordecai and the Jews showed this type of sorrow when they heard the edict of the king concerning the Jews (Esther 4:1-3). Sackcloth also can show not just the sorrow of the people who hear the message but of the prophet who preaches the message because it is a message of sorrow. Elijah wore sackcloth from goat or camel hair (2Ki.1:8). John the Baptist was clothed with camel hair (Mark 1:6). The two witnesses wear sackcloth (Rev.11:3). It makes me wonder, what did Jonah wear?
Universal Sorrow: “from the greatest of them even to the least of them.” The “greatest” speaks of position and power and wealth. They could be the elders, the rich, the merchants, they were all men of importance. The “least” are those that had no position, no power, no wealth. They could be the young, the poor, the women, the children. Those that were not important. This really does show how widespread the effect of Jonah’s message was on the hearts of those that heard it or heard it passed on by others. Both fasting and sackcloth were outward expressions of an inward conviction. This shows a sorrow of the heart (Joel 2:12-13). This was often accompanied by prayer (Dan.9:3). This was also often accompanied by a confession of sin (1Sa.7:6). All of these things could have occurred and it would have felt like a tidal wave sweeping through the city. No wonder the king hears about it and reacted.
To be continued – The King’s Response (Vs.6-9)