Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
And the word of the LORD came unto Jonah the second time, saying,
Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.III.
THE PROPHET FULFILS HIS COMMISSION.
(2) Preach.—In Jonah 1:2 the word is rendered “cry.”
So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey.(3) Now Nineveh was . . .—The past tense here certainly seems to imply that at the time in which the author wrote the city was no longer in existence, but the force of a Hebrew tense is not to be estimated by the analogy of modern languages.
An exceeding great city.—Literally, A city great to God; an expression equivalent to a divinely great city, and taken, as Ewald thinks, from the language of the people, like the Arabic “to Allah,” in the saying “to Allah (i.e., divine) is he that composed this.” In the Hebrew poetic and prophetic writings a finer form is found, e.g., “mountains of God,” “cedars of God” (Psalm 36:6; Psalm 80:10), “trees of Jehovah” (Psalm 104:16), but in Genesis 10:9 a precisely similar proverbial use shows itself, also belonging to the Mesopotamian region, “Nimrod, a mighty hunter before the Lord.”
Of three days’ journey.—Hitzig takes this as giving the diameter of the city, but most commentators refer it to the circumference. The circuit of the walls was the most obvious measurement to give of an ancient city. Herodotus variously reckons a day’s journey at about eighteen or twenty-three miles (v. 53, iv. 101), and the circuit of the irregular quadrangle composed of the mounds of Koujunjik, Nimrud, Karamless, and Khorsabad, now generally allowed to represent ancient Nineveh, is about sixty miles. This agrees sufficiently with the obviously vague and general statement of the text.
And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.(4) And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey.—This is apparently equivalent to And Jonah entered the city, and walked for a day through it. To enter on a minute inquiry as to whether his course was straight or circuitous seems trivial. The writer has no thought of furnishing data for ascertaining the exact dimensions of Nineveh, but only of producing a general sense of its vast size.
Yet forty days.—The conciseness of the original, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh overthrown,” forcibly expresses “the one deep cry of woe” which the prophet was commissioned to utter. “This simple message of Jonah bears an analogy to what we find elsewhere in Holy Scripture. The great preacher of repentance, St. John the Baptist, repeated doubtless oftentimes that one cry, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Our Lord vouchsafed to begin His own office with those self-same words. And probably, among the civilised but savage inhabitants of Nineveh that one cry was more impressive than any other would have been, Simplicity is always impressive. They were four words which God caused to be written on the wall amid Belshazzar’s impious revelry: Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin. We all remember the touching history of Jesus, son of Anan, an unlettered rustic, who, “four years before the war, when Jerusalem was in complete peace and affluence,” burst in on the people at the Feast of Tabernacles with the oft-repeated cry, “A voice from the east, a voice from the west, a voice from the four winds, a voice on Jerusalem and the Temple, a voice on the bridegrooms and the brides, a voice on the whole people;” how he went about through all the lanes of the city, repeating, day and night, this one cry, and when scourged till his bones were laid bare, echoed every lash with “Woe, woe, to Jerusalem!” and continued as his daily dirge and his one response to daily good or ill treatment, “Woe, woe, to Jerusalem!” (Pusey.) Instead of “forty days” the LXX. read “three.”
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.(5) Believed God.—Or, believed in God. Notice again an implied contrast to the dulness of the Jews, who were “slow to believe” the prophetic warnings addressed to themselves.
Proclaimed a fast.—Apparently on a spontaneous resolution of the people themselves. (See Note to Jonah 3:6.) The fast would no doubt be for one day, according to the Jewish and the general Oriental custom.
For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.(6) For word came.—Rather, And the matter reached. The Authorised Version treats the royal edict that follows as the same with the proclamation in Jonah 3:5. This is possible, but it is more probable that the writer intended to describe the effect produced on each district of the vast city in succession, and on all grades of people. The piercing cry uttered from street to street, from square to square, reaches at last the king on his throne of state.
And he laid . . .—Stripping off the state mantle (the Hebrew word implies amplitude. See 1Kings 19:13.) It is interesting to find it used of the “Babylonish garment,” found in Achan’s tent. See Joshua 7:21), the monarch assumes a mourning dress. To form a conception of the change involved, the descriptions of Assyrian royal magnificence should be studied in Layard, or their representations in the Assyrian courts of the Crystal Palace. For the usual signs of Oriental mourning, comp. Genesis 37:34; 2Samuel 3:31; Job 2:8; Psalm 35:13; Ezekiel 26:16, &c.
And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water:(7) And he caused . . .—The fact that the word rendered “decree” in this verse was a technical name for the edicts of Assyrian and Babylonian kings (see Daniel 3:10; Daniel 3:29) would alone vouch for the accurate acquaintance of the author with the customs he describes. But the very form of the royal edict is here preserved. The verse should probably run: And he caused to be proclaimed, and be published in Nineveh “According to the decree of the king and his magnates be it proclaimed that,” &c. The word “saying” is apparently formal like our “thus saith,” &c.
And his nobles.—For this association of the great men with the autocrat, comp. Daniel 6:17. Traces of the custom can also be discovered in Assyrian inscriptions, e.g., “I am Assurbanipal king of nations, king of Assyria, Nabu-damiq and Umbadara the great men,” &c. (G. Smith, Assyrian Discoveries, p. 413). Ewald thinks the formal “saying” in the edict marks the omission of the names, which in the original would be given.
Beast.—The Hebrew word is general, and might include all the domestic animals, but from the addition of “herd nor flock” we must doubtless here confine it to the horses and mules, &c., which even, according to our ideas, might have their usual gay housings changed to those suited to a time of mourning. “Men think it strange that the horses at Nineveh were covered with sackcloth, and forget how, at the funerals of the rich, black horses are chosen, and are clothed with black velvet” (Pusey). Herodotus (9:24) and Plutarch (Alexander), have both preserved instances in which horses and mules were associated with human beings in the signs of public mourning. The instinct which underlies the custom is a true one. Not only are the destinies of the animals which minister to man’s wants often identical with his own; but there is a bond of sympathy between them naturally; and one remarkable feature of this book is the prominence given to this truth. (See Jonah 4:11.)
Let them not feed. . . .—Poetically, the beasts are said by Virgil to fast at the death of Daphnis (Eclog., v. 24-28), and in Joel 1:20 their mute appeal against suffering is represented as audible to God. In the horror of the impending ruin of Nineveh, superstition exaggerated the true feeling underlying such representations, and to the belief in the sympathy of the lower animals with man was added the hope that their sufferings would help to appease the wrath of God.
Let them turn.—Notice the insistence on a moral change, and the implied contrast, again showing itself, with the formality of Judaism. Even in this repentance the edict does not stop to distinguish beast from man, but includes all, as all were involved in the threatened destruction.
Violence.—This is the characteristic of Assyrian manners most frequently noticed in the prophets. (See Nahum 2:11-12; Nahum 3:1; Isaiah 10:13-14.) The cuneiform inscriptions abundantly illustrate this point. Take this for example from an inscription of Tiglath Pileser II.: “Tiglath Pileser, the great king, the powerful king, king of nations, &c, the powerful warrior who in the service of Assur his lord the whole of his haters has trampled on like clay, swept like a flood, and reduced to shadows” (G. Smith, Assyrian Discoveries, p. 254).
In their hands.—Comp. Psalm 7:3.
Who can tell . . .?—This sudden recognition of one God by a king of Nineveh appears far more striking if contrasted with the long lists of deities usually mentioned in the Assyrian inscriptions, e.g., “By command of Assur, Sin, Shamas, Vul, Bel, Nebo, Ishtar of Nineveh, Sarrat-Kitmuri, Ishtar of Arbela, Ninip, Nergal, and Nusku, into Minni I entered and marched victoriously” (from the Cylinder of Assurbanipal, Smith, p. 333).
And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.(10) And God repented.—See Note, Genesis 6:6.
And he did it not.—As we are entirely ignorant of the nature of the threatened destruction, so are we also of the mode in which it was averted. Possibly some inscription throwing light on the book of Jonah may yet be discovered.