Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel logo

God’s Word for You

Jonah 3:1-3 a journey of three days

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Saturday, November 3, 2018

3  The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying,  2 “Get up, go to Nineveh that great city and preach against it with the message I am giving you.” 3 Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, obeying the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was a very large city, a journey of three days.

The Lord commands Jonah once again, with the same command as the first one: Get up and go to Nineveh to preach against it. God emphasizes that the message is from him, not from any man—neither Jonah, nor Jeroboam the king of Israel, or anyone else. In fact, if God had not given this command once again, what would Jonah have had to do? Should he go, having once disobeyed God?

Something like this had happened before. When the Israelites rebelled against God during the Exodus and let themselves be led astray into thinking that they could not conquer the land, the Lord became angry with them. When this happened, they thought that they should go and fight anyway, but the Lord told them: “Do not go up and fight, because I will not be with you. You will be defeated by your enemies” (Deuteronomy 1:42). Then he made them wander for thirty-eight more years, until the entire generation of fighting men had died (Deuteronomy 2:14). Jonah knew his Bible; he knew what Moses had written. But now, the word of the Lord came to him, and it was the very same message as before. He was forgiven. He was being given another commission to serve his Savior.

This time Jonah did not run. He traveled to the city. The prophet gives us no details at all about how he got there. Since he arrived on dry land stinking of whale guts and without any of his baggage (which doubtless was still on the Phoenician trading ship bound for Tarshish), he would have had to walk to get there, and he would have had to beg for his food and shelter, and perhaps even for something to wear. Although the text does not tell us these things, it is virtually certain. And Jonah knew the Psalms as well as he knew Moses. David had written: “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread” (Psalm 37:25). Well, now Jonah was begging for his bread. The Law of God convicted him of his sin and exposed his unbelief. But the very same verse also says, “I have never seen the righteous forsaken,” and here he was, rescued from storm, sea, and sea monster. He was on his feet with air in his lungs and bread in his hand, on his way to Nineveh at the command of God. The law and gospel were at work in his life. Condemned yet forgiven, Jonah was a living example of the Lord’s power and mercy. This could be an example for both himself and for Nineveh.

The last sentence of verse 3 tells us that Nineveh was “a very large city, a journey of three days.” What does that mean? It isn’t that Nineveh was a three-day journey from where Jonah was. No place on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea is just three days from Nineveh. The journey on foot would take weeks.

Some understand “a journey of three days” to mean that was of such a circumference that it would take three days to walk around it. This might be possible if the city were “Greater Nineveh,” that is, comprised of several suburbs. A group like this is described in Genesis 10:11-12, where Nimrod the mighty hunter built “Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah and Resen, which is between Nineveh and Calah.” The trouble with this is that those cities would make a Greater Nineveh some 60 miles in circumference, which would be more than double Jonah’s estimate of “a journey of three days.”

“Well,” says Luther, “I’ll let those people have their interpretation, but this would have to be a nice little town indeed…. I understand these words to mean that Nineveh was so large that one needed three days to traverse all its streets, not chasing, but with a leisurely gait such as one usually adopts when strolling on a street. For later on (v. 4) we read that Jonah walked a day’s journey into the city and preached. That, I believe, indicates that it was a city which one can leisurely traverse in a day.” (LW 32)

Jonah had finally arrived. A beggar on foot with nothing but the word of God, he had a gargantuan task ahead of him. But the Lord was at work in his holy word. Jonah’s task was going to be far more difficult than he had imagined; not because the people weren’t going to listen to him, but precisely the opposite. They were going to listen. They were going to repent. They were going to beg God’s forgiveness. The challenging task for Jonah was not in his preaching, but in his understanding of what God’s grace truly means. What happens when God’s word changes hearts, and we had hoped it wouldn’t? How often do we prepare ourselves for the failure of the gospel, because we forget who truly holds and wields the power? We must prepare for the success of the gospel and be ready when God flings open the doors of his Church, whether it’s one pair of feet entering, or a thousand.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

Browse Devotion Archive