Jonah spoke these few words:

Jonah 3:4b: "Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown."

Can we understand how such a slight message would be enough to convince the entire population of this perverted, Gentile city to repent and change their ways? Is there some historical fact that might have led to such a radical change based on the message of one Jew?

Jonah 3:5-9: "Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. 6When the word reached the king of Nineveh, he arose from his throne, laid aside his robe from him, covered himself with sackcloth and sat on the ashes. 7He issued a proclamation and it said, 'In Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles: Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water. 8But both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth; and let men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands. 9Who knows, God may turn and relent and withdraw His burning anger so that we will not perish.”

And that is what God did: He "relented and withdrew His burning anger"! Are we left with any interpretive clues that might help explain this remarkable change of heart in such a forsaken city?

  • 3
    I am sure that Jonah preach many more that 8 words and many more than 8 sentences or even 8 paragraphs. He probably preached more than 8 sermons.
    – Dottard
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 5:08
  • 2
    Can someone please explain to me why this question is getting downvoted? It's currently at -1 votes.
    – Austin
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 7:12
  • @Austin It's being downvoted because of the bizarre assumption that Jonah only preached 8 words while in Nineveh. By the same logic as this question, Noah must not have said anything until he cursed Canaan, so we can ask what type of sign language did he use to coordinate building the ark - such a question would also get downvoted.
    – Robert
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 7:35
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    @Robert, Thank you for your insight. To be fair to the OP, he doesn't seem to assume anything, but merely asks how "might" such an interpretation be historically supported. It seems those opposed to even asking are the ones assuming more was said by Jonah, though the Bible doesn't say. Honestly, I initially found it improbable that only one sentence was said, but after posting this question hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/q/50483/25589 I'm much more comfortable with the idea that not much more was needed and that the minimal effort best matches Jonah's character as recorded.
    – Austin
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 7:52

2 Answers 2


Is there some historical fact that might have led to such a radical change based on the message of one Jew?

Why, yes. Yes, there is.

I think we often underestimate just how familiar Israel's neighbors were with the notorious God of Israel. Through various ways, Israel's neighbors knew generally who God was, what He has done, who His people were, and were capable of placing unfolding events related to Isreal and her God into their proper contexts.

Here are a couple of examples:

Nehemiah 6:16 And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.

2 Chronicles 20:29-30 29 And the fear of God came on all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard that the Lord had fought against the enemies of Israel. 30 So the realm of Jehoshaphat was quiet, for his God gave him rest all around.

Joshua 5:1 1 As soon as all the kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan to the west, and all the kings of the Canaanites who were by the sea, heard that the Lord had dried up the waters of the Jordan for the people of Israel until they had crossed over, their hearts melted and there was no longer any spirit in them because of the people of Israel.

One of my favorite examples is of Rahab explaining why she was helping the Jewish spies. Obviously, she could tell these were Israelites, God's people, and so figured she should probably be on their good side.

Joshua 2:8-11 8 Before the men lay down, she came up to them on the roof 9 and said to the men, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. 10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. 11 And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.

My other favorite example is of the Philistines. Here they are obviously aware of the significance of the Ark and are appropriately afraid, but this doesn't prevent them from fighting the Israelites.

1 Samuel 4:6-9 6 And when the Philistines heard the noise of the shouting, they said, “What does this great shouting in the camp of the Hebrews mean?” And when they learned that the ark of the Lord had come to the camp, 7 the Philistines were afraid, for they said, “A god has come into the camp.” And they said, “Woe to us! For nothing like this has happened before. 8 Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods? These are the gods who struck the Egyptians with every sort of plague in the wilderness. 9 Take courage, and be men, O Philistines, lest you become slaves to the Hebrews as they have been to you; be men and fight.”

So it seems to me that it is most likely that the Assyrians were similarly very familiar with the nation of Israel, her God, and the dreadful things he's done to other nations. All it took was one man who likely very much looked like an Israelite and talked like Israelite with the audacity to walk alone into the middle of their city and boldly proclaim, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” for all of Nineveh to come to their knees in repentance before the fearsome God of Israel.

  • 2
    Appreciate your comments. You are correct that I assumed nothing from my initial question. You have a superior perspective: the fear instilled in the surrounding nations by the Jews. I don't believe for a second that it would take lengthy sermons to convince Nineveh of their desperate need for repentance; they even acknowledge this right in the text: Jonah 3:8: "[Let] men call on God earnestly that each may turn from his wicked way and from the violence which is in his hands." I'm amazed by the resistance I received asking this simple question - that's not how I operate at all. +1.
    – Xeno
    Commented Aug 3, 2021 at 21:49
  • @Xeno, you're welcome and thank you for your kind words. The resistance to asking this question was simply surprising.
    – Austin
    Commented Aug 7, 2021 at 19:06

The potency is not in the message itself, but in the messenger.

Jonah was not just 'one Jew'. Jonah was a prophet of the Lord.

These are men who stand out in history. These are men set apart by the Lord, kept by him, under his own hand. They are set apart from the womb, as Samuel. They are 'in the desert until their showing unto Israel', as John the Baptist.

Such men have been known to lie a year on one side, as a testimony, as did Ezekiel. Such a man went naked and barefoot for three years as a sign, as did Isaiah.

Such a man was in a mountain for forty days and forty nights who ate nothing and drank nothing the whole time, as did Moses.

And this particular man had just been through a storm so severe that, by his direction, sailors had hefted him over the rail into the roiling depths to quiet the waves. Thence to be preserved by a great fish (already prepared by the Lord).

Startling occurrences surrounded this prophecy. It was not given in a vacuum.

Only thereafter, walked he through that great city Nineveh and told the inhabitants of coming judgment.

And the men of Nineveh believed in God, and they called a fast and put on sackclothes, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. [Jonah 3:5 KJV]

They saw such a man. They heard his words. And seeing such a man, they believed God who had sent the man.

This was no 'slight message'.

This was a devastating message. It required no protracted oratory. It deserved no unnecessary embellishment.

It just required the proper, authorised, set apart, divinely appointed messenger to speak it.

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