THE PROPHET FULFILS HIS COMMISSION.
(2) Preach.—In Jonah 1:2 the word is rendered “cry.”
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.
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.”
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.
And he laid . . .—Stripping off the state mantle (the Hebrew word implies amplitude. See 1 Kings 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; 2 Samuel 3:31; Job 2:8; Psalm 35:13; Ezekiel 26:16, &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 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.