And the Lord spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land. 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. 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. 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.
The gracious miracle of Jonah’s salvation continues with his being vomited out somewhere on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea or the Black Sea by the fish that swallowed him. The fish, specially prepared by God to chastise His disobedient prophet, is now miraculously used by God to set Jonah once again on the way to Nineveh and in the way of obedience to God. The whole story of Jonah and the fish is the story of a miracle. The great miracle, however, is the miracle of Jonah’s repentance and conversion. As so, miraculously and graciously brought to repentance, Jonah sets out for Nineveh.
The miracle of the fish and the miracle of Jonah’s repentance are important. They point ahead to the greater miracle of Christ’s coming and work. Jonah, as we have seen, cannot be a type of Christ. He is not identified as a type in Scripture, but the miracle or sign of his deliverance does foreshadow our deliverance through the death and resurrection of Christ. That is what Christ means when He compares Jonah’s three days in the belly of the fish to His own three days in the belly of the earth. The one miracle points ahead to the other and greater miracle.
The miracle of Jonah’s deliverance also becomes part of his preaching in Nineveh whether he intended it to be so or not. He not only preached to them but was a sign to them and it was that sign, as much as Jonah’s actual preaching, that God used for the salvation of the Ninevites. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that Jonah himself, as much as the words which came from his mouth, was the sermon he preached in Nineveh.
That Jonah was a sign is stated in Matthew 12:39 and Matthew 16:4 (cf. also Luke 11:29). That he was a sign to the Ninevites we know from Luke 11:30: “For as Jonas was a sign unto the Ninevites, so shall also the Son of man be to this generation.” It was that sign, added to Jonah’s preaching of repentance, that saved the Ninevites. Jonah’s preaching, therefore, included both the call of the gospel to repentance and the good news of the gospel, the promise that whoever repents and believes will be saved.
We should not be surprised that the gospel was preached in that way in Nineveh. God, in the Old Testament, not only sent His Word through His prophets, but very often made them living examples of the Word they brought. Hosea, commanded to marry a whorish woman, was a living sermon to Israel in the days of Jeroboam II, the same king in whose days Jonah prophesied (Hos. 1:2-11). Ezekiel, lying on his side in front of an iron pan for fourteen months, was a sign and sermon to Judah in the last days of that kingdom (Ezek. 4:1-8). The Heidelberg Catechism reminds us in Lord’s Day 6 that God gave His Word in many different ways in the Old Testament. So it was in the days of Jonah.
There are those who speculate about Jonah’s appearance after being in the belly of a fish for three days. Some say he was bleached white by the stomach acids of the fish. Others speak of the sad state of his clothes and his smell. This was a miracle and the Word of God does not tell us what it was like in the belly of the fish or anything of Jonah’s condition after those three days. It was not his appearance but what happened to him, first under the anger of Jehovah, and then in his repentance, that were a sign to the Ninevites of God’s justice and of His mercy. How the Ninevites learned his story is beside the point, but it was the sign as well as the threat of destruction that brought them to their knees.
Perhaps the sign was more effective than an actual recitation of the promises would have been, for the Ninevites would hardly have understood a passage like Isaiah 53, had it been preached to them. Many in Israel, who knew of the promised Messiah, did not understand how the Messiah could be like a root out of a dry ground or like a sheep led to the slaughter. But the Ninevites would have understood from Jonah’s story that the God whom he served was different from their idols, the God of heaven and earth and sea. They would have understood Jonah’s disobedience and would have learned from his story that the God of Israel was able to punish and did punish sin. They would have listened fearfully, therefore, when that man who had suffered such awful punishment preached to them the necessity of repentance. They would have realized, too, from Jonah’s story, that the God of Israel, unlike the gods they served, was a God not only just but merciful, a God able and willing to save. They would even have realized that there was in God’s sight no difference between Jonah, the Israelite, and themselves. Though not yet written, Jonah was an illustration to them of what Paul would write in Romans 3:9-11: “What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.” They would have seen what Jonah confessed in the fish’s belly, that because “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), salvation must be and is of the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Thus was the gospel preached in Nineveh and thus was Nineveh saved.
The Ninevites knew, as all men do, God’s power and divinity from the things that are made (Rom. 1:18-20), the creation itself, that “most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, His power and divinity, as the apostle Paul saith, Romans 1:20.” But that was only “sufficient to convince [them], and leave them without excuse.” They needed the gospel and the Word of God “through which God makes Himself more clearly and fully known…as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to His glory and our salvation” (Belgic Confession, Art. 2).
Where the fish deposited Jonah we do not know. Nor do we know what happened to the fish thereafter. We do not even know how long it took Jonah to reach Nineveh. The sign is what matters and all the other details are of no account. Jonah, vomited back onto the dry land by the fish, sorry for his disobedience, had no option but to go to Nineveh and preach and be a sign there, used by God for Nineveh’s salvation. Thus the Lord often deals with us, leaving us with no other way than the way of repentance and renewed obedience. That Jonah was not entirely cured of his sin is evident in his later attitude, but he is no different from any one of us in that respect, and so, still a sinner but back in the way of obedience, he finally arrived at Nineveh.
The Bible tells us it was a three-day journey through Nineveh. At one time the Bible’s account of Nineveh’s size was mocked by scholars who thought they knew better and insisted that no ancient city was that large. Since then archaeological excavations have shown that Nineveh was indeed a great city, the greatest city of the ancient world, though anyone who believes the inspiration of the Bible would never have doubted the Bible’s description of Nineveh’s greatness.
There Jonah preached, adhering strictly to his commission (Jonah 1:2; 3:2). That this was not entirely a matter of obedience was evident from his later attitude: Jonah would now do what God commanded but without any sympathy for Nineveh, hoping that God would indeed destroy this capital city of Israel’s chief enemy, Assyria. He could not help, however, being a sign, and thus served in spite of himself the salvation of Nineveh. Grudgingly he preached and grudgingly he witnessed the repentance of Nineveh, but the power of the gospel is not in those who bring it, nor in their attitude and oratory. The gospel is “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). It is that because Christ speaks through the Word with the power of Almighty God.
It is the power of that Word that sends Jonah to Nineveh, for we read that the Word of the Lord came to him a second time, “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.” Even in this matter of Jonah’s commission, God’s Word is irrevocable and accomplishes His purpose. It comes like a hammer to Jonah, continuing the work of bringing this disobedient child of God to the way of obedience (Jer. 23:29). There is mercy in God’s dealings with Jonah but a mercy that is severe and just.
So it is always. God allows no excuses, does not allow even our sins and failures to come between us and our calling. Husband, wife, parent, child, or church member, we are required to fulfill our calling no matter what happens and the Word of God will come to us repeatedly until we do. For that reason and as a lesson to us, the Word of God to Jonah is really the same as before: “Go to Nineveh and preach there.”
If there is any difference in this second call of Jonah, it is in a hint of God’s intention to bring Nineveh to repentance and save the city. The first time He had emphasized Nineveh’s wickedness and told Jonah to cry against it. Now He tells Jonah to preach there using a word not often used in the Old Testament, but a word that corresponds to the New Testament words for the preaching of the gospel (cf. Is. 61:1). In effect, by that word He already answers Jonah’s objections to the sparing of Nineveh and says to him, “I am God. I will do as I please, and in doing so will use you, whether you like My ways or not.”
There is a lesson in what God says to Jonah about the preaching of the Word. Not only is the Word the power of God unto salvation, but when it is brought it must be brought exactly as God has spoken it. God gives Jonah no latitude to add to that Word or detract from it but simply says, “Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee.” What a lesson for the church today and for those who preach the gospel! The preaching is replaced by many other things in the church world and the preaching of the Word is considered tedious and unsuited to our times, but it is God’s appointed means for the salvation of His people, be they ever so wicked and cruel as the Ninevites. It is that power of God unto salvation when it is carefully preached according to God’s own Word in Scripture.
Not only that, but that Word of God always comes with a call to repentance and a threat of judgment against those who do not repent. It is not, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” but “repent of your sins and believe in Me or perish.” There is no catering to human beliefs and prejudices, no compromise, no attempt to be relevant and to adapt the gospel message to the hearers: just simply the age-old gospel call that God is pleased to use for saving His own, whomever they may be. It was so with Jonah and ought to be so today.
God used Jonah to preach that Word. There is also a lesson in this for preachers that God uses weakest means to accomplish His purpose. The preacher who feels as Paul did, insufficient for the great task of bringing the gospel message, should remember Jonah. So should those who sit under the preaching. Rev. Carl Haak says it well:
To Nineveh, a society that was enamored with human might and human glamour, God sends a man vomited from a fish’s belly. And He puts His word in Jonah’s mouth (Reformed Witness Hour, No. 3736).
This is what Paul calls in I Corinthians 1:18-25 the foolishness of preaching. God is pleased to use preaching as the principal means of grace and salvation and is pleased to use men who are seldom among the wise and mighty and noble of this world, but rather from among the weak and base and despised and foolish. Yet His “foolishness” is still wiser than men, and His “weakness” stronger than men, and so, too, all the glory and honor of salvation is His alone. It is, in fact, Jonah’s sinfulness and unworthiness that make him a sign of God’s saving grace to the Ninevites.
Thus, too, Christ Himself is a sign today (Luke 11:30). Come in the flesh, crucified and slain, but risen again, He is a sign that the weakness of God is stronger than men and His foolishness wiser than men, for no one but God Himself could have devised such a way of salvation and grace. No one but God Himself in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ could have put to nought all the efforts of man to better himself and save himself by crucifixion and resurrection. No one by God in Christ could have confounded all man’s “wisdom” in thinking that he is evolving into something better and improving himself. No one but the same God, who humbled Himself and came in the form of a servant through our Lord Jesus Christ, would have chosen the preaching of the Word as the means of salvation. No one but a God whose grace is sovereign would have eternally loved the Ninevites and sent Jonah to preach the gospel among them for their salvation: “For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (I Pet. 1:24, 25).
May we, learning from the story of Jonah, have a higher regard for the preaching of the gospel and humbly submit ourselves to it, believing that His Word does not return void (Is. 55:1). May we never forget that though it is preached by weak and sinful men, it is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe (Rom. 1:16). May we, vomited out of the belly of hell by God’s amazing mercy, continue to give attendance on the preaching of the Word so that when we fall into sin, as Jonah did, we too may be set again on the path of obedience by the power of the Word. And may all glory and praise be to Him, to whom alone belongs the glory both of the means He has appointed and their good fruit (Canons III/IV, Art. 17).