Formations 05.18.2014: A Reluctant Prophet

Jonah 3

Hans Vredeman de Vries, Ninive nach der Prophezeiung Jonas, 1577–78

Hans Vredeman de Vries, Ninive nach der Prophezeiung Jonas, 1577–78

In the Old Testament, obedience ranks high on the list of things God expects from God’s people. Granted, the Bible is clear that there are also other, nobler responses to God: love, adoration, faith, etc. But these things count for little if we are unwilling simply to do as God says.

In Jonah 3, the prophet at least rises to the level of bare obedience. God told him a second time to go preach to the Ninevites. This time, he complied. As we shall see, however, his heart was not really in it. The five Hebrew words this reluctant prophet speaks probably constitutes the shortest sermon ever delivered.

Sometimes, the best we can manage before God is bare obedience. We may not want to admit it, and we may not feel good about ourselves for having this attitude, but we’ve all been there.

One of the amazing things about this story is that God chooses to bless Jonah’s efforts, as halfhearted as they are. The city, earlier denounced for its great wickedness, repents of its evil ways with only the slightest encouragement from God’s chosen messenger. Maybe this should tell us that things are likely to work out better than we expect if we would but listen to what God is telling us and have the courage to obey.


• Have you ever obeyed God reluctantly or halfheartedly? Why? What happened?
• When have you seen God bless a believer’s grudging efforts with great success?
• How do outward acts of repentance interact with our faith today?
• What does it mean that God “changed his mind” (v. 10) and withdrew the divine punishment of Nineveh?

Reference Shelf


Whatever its style, the sackcloth was worn as a sign of mourning and/or repentance. The practice must have begun early in Hebrew history, probably consistent with practices of other inhabitants of the ancient Near East. Although sackcloth is not mentioned in the Law, its use seems to have continued throughout the OT and into the NT periods. Jacob wore sackcloth to mourn his loss of Joseph (Gen 37:34), and the practice appears in connection with Ahab and Elijah (1 Kgs 21:27). Jerusalem’s fall (Lam 2:10; Ezek 7:18), Jonah and Nineveh (Jonah 3:5, 6, 8), and the Maccabees (1 Macc 2:14; 3:47). In sackcloth priests mourn for their people (Joel 1:13) and the virgin mourns for her bridegroom (Joel 1:8). In the Gospel of Matthew (11:21) and its Lucan parallel (10:13) swearing sackcloth is a sign of repentance.

Robert W. Crapps, “Sackcloth,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 782 .

Nineveh Repents

Despite receiving no instructions from YHWH’s prophet, the Ninevites intuitively react with fear and contrition. Jonah 3:5 reports the response was immediate, unequivocal, and surprising: “The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest of them to the least of them.” The people put on sackcloth to show remorse. They do not question Jonah’s message; they presume he speaks the truth. They do not ask Jonah what
they can do to avert the disaster; they know 
they must demonstrate contrition. They do
 not ask who is to blame; they all take responsibility. Rarely does a biblical text recount such a
 positive response on the part of anyone, which
 is then all the more surprising that it is the 
people of Nineveh, a despised, pagan people, who show such remarkable resolve to change in response to the word of YHWH, no matter how poorly that word was communicated.

To heighten the importance of this response, 3:6-9 narrates that the king followed suit by repenting before proclaiming an official edict to give the fast his imprimatur. When he learns of Jonah’s message, the king leaves his throne, removes his royal robes, and puts on sackcloth before throwing himself into the dirt in an act of self-abasement and repentance. By his actions, the king divests himself of royal authority. He steps down from the seat of power and sits on an ash heap. He replaces his royal garments with sackcloth. Conversely, these actions cartoonishly present a leader as one who is trying to catch up with those whom he is supposed to lead. The king is the last one to hear the message. He responds first by repenting with great panache, but the king’s edict is essentially superfluous. He calls for a fast, but the people have already beaten him to the punch by proclaiming their own fast in 3:5. He demands that everyone wear sackcloth, but they are already doing so (3:5). The only thing the king can add is the requirement that the fast applies to animals as well as humans—hardly actions that would have moved YHWH in their own right. The author of Jonah does things in unexpected ways. Perhaps the author narrated these events to accentuate the complete and total submission of the Ninevites, but it also fits the pattern of the story of Jonah—one in which things happen the opposite way one would expect.

Nevertheless, the king’s speech in Jonah 3:8-9 explains what has motivated the people, the nobles, and the king. They are genuinely afraid of YHWH and know that only a radical change of heart and behavior can possibly prevent YHWH from executing the pronouncement of doom. The king explains in Jonah 3:8-9, “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.” Immediately, two things are clear in this text. First, the people of Nineveh realize their behavior threatens their existence. Second, only the God who pronounced the judgment can remove it. The people can do everything in their power to show remorse, but they must ultimately rely on God’s mercy if they are to survive. Even the king who commands the people and animals to fast shows considerable deference in recognizing that the ultimate decision belongs to God, not to the king.

James Nogalski, The Book of the Twelve: Hosea–Jonah, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2011) 433–34.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary.

Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email