8. It is uncertain whether Jonah had preached for some days in the city before it was known to the king. This is indeed the common opinion; for interpreters so expound the verse, which says that word was brought to the king, as though the king himself knew, that the whole city was in commotion through the preaching of Jonah: but the words admit of a different sense, that is, that the preaching of Jonah immediately reached the king; and I am disposed to take this view, as Jonah seems here to explain how the Ninevites were led to put on sackcloth. He had before spoken briefly on the subject, but he now explains what took place more fully; and we know that it was commonly the manner of the Hebrews—to relate the chief points in few words, and then to add an explanation. As then Jonah had said in the last verse that the Ninevites had put on sackcloth, and proclaimed a fast, so he now seems to express more distinctly how this happened, that is, through the royal edict. And it is by no means probable that a fast was proclaimed in the royal city by the mere consent of the people, as the king and his counsellors were there present. Inasmuch then as it appears more reasonable that the edict respecting the fast had proceeded from the king, I am therefore inclined so to connect the two verses, as that the first briefly mentions the fruit which followed the preaching of Jonah, and that the second is added as an explanation, for it gives a fuller account of what took place.
Jonah then now says, that a fast was proclaimed by the Ninevites, for the king and his council had so appointed: and I regard the verb ויגץ, uigo, as being in the pluperfect tense, When word had come to the king; for Jonah now states the reason why the Ninevites proclaimed a fast; it was because the king had been apprised of the preaching of Jonah, and had called together his counsellors. It was then a public edict, and not any movement among the people, capriciously made, as it sometimes happens. He says, that it was an edict published by the authority of the king and his council, or his nobles. At the same time, some take טעם, thom, as meaning reason or approbation. טעם, thom, means to taste, and Jonah afterwards uses the verb in this sense; but it is to be taken here in a metaphorical sense for counsel; and I think this meaning is more suitable to this passage. I come now to the subject.
It is worthy of being noticed, that the king of so splendid a city, nay, at that time the greatest monarch, should have rendered himself so submissive to the exhortation of Jonah: for we see how proud kings are; as they think themselves exempt from the common lot of men, so they carry themselves above all laws. Hence it comes, that they will have all things to be lawful for them; and while they give loose reins to their lusts they cannot bear to be admonished, even by their equals. But Jonah was a stranger and of a humble condition: that he therefore so touched the heart of the king, must be ascribed to the hidden power of God, which he puts forth through his word whenever he pleases. God does not indeed work alike by the preaching of his word, he does not always keep to the same course; but, when he pleases, he so efficaciously touches the hearts of men, that the success of his word exceeds all expectation, as in the memorable example presented to us here. Who could have said that a heathen king, who had ever lived according to his own will, who had no feeling as to true and genuine religion, would have been thus in an instant subdued? For he put aside his royal dress, laid himself in the dust, and clothed himself in sackcloth. We hence see that God not only spoke by the mouth of Jonah, but added power to his word.
We must also bear in mind what Christ says, that the men of Nineveh would rise up in judgment against that generation, as they had repented at the preaching of Jonah; and “Behold,” he said, “a greater than Jonah is here,” (Matth. 12:41.) Christ, at this day, proclaims the voice of his Gospel; for though he is not here in a visible form among us, he yet speaks by his ministers. If we despise his doctrine, how can our obstinacy and hardness be excused, since the Ninevites, who had no knowledge of the true doctrine of religion, who were imbued with no religious principles, were so suddenly converted by the preaching of Jonah? And that their repentance was sincere we may conclude from this circumstance—that the preaching of Jonah was severe, for he denounced destruction on a most powerful city; this might have instantly inflamed the king’s mind with rage and fury; and that he was calmly humbled, was certainly a proof of no common change. We have then here a remarkable instance of penitence,—that the king should have so forgotten himself and his dignity, as to throw aside his splendid dress, to put on sackcloth, and to lie down on ashes.
But as to fasting and sackcloth, it is very true, as we have observed in our remarks on Joel, that repentance consists not in these external things: for God cares not for outward rites, and all those things which are resplendent in the sight of men are worthless before him; what, indeed, he requires, is sincerity of heart. Hence what Jonah here says of fasting, and other outward performances, ought to be referred to their legitimate end,—that the Ninevites intended thus to show that they were justly summoned as guilty before God’s tribunal, and also, that they humbly deprecated the wrath of their judge. Fasting then and sackcloth were only an external profession of repentance. Were any one to fast all his life, and to put on sackcloth, and to scatter dust on himself, and not to connect with all this a sincerity of heart, he would do nothing but mock God. Hence these outward performances are, in themselves, of small or of no value, except when preceded by an interior feeling of heart, and men be on this account led to manifest such outward evidences. Whenever then Scripture mentions fasting, and ashes, and sackcloth, we must bear in mind that these things are set before us as the outward signs of repentance, which, when not genuine, do nothing else but provoke the wrath of God; but when true, they are approved of God on account of the end in view, and not that they avail, of themselves, to pacify his wrath, or to expiate sins.
If now any one asks whether penitence is always to be accompanied with fasting, ashes, and sackcloth, the answer is at hand,—that the faithful ought through their whole life to repent: for except every one of us continually strives to renounce himself and his former life, he has not yet learned what it is to serve God; for we must ever contend with the flesh. But though there is a continual exercise of repentance, yet fasting is not required of us always. It then follows that fasting is a public and solemn testimony of repentance, when there appears to be some extraordinary evidence of God’s wrath. Thus have we seen that the Jews were by Joel called to lie in ashes, and to put on sackcloth, because God had come forth, as it were, armed against them; and all the Prophets had declared that destruction was nigh the people. In the same manner the Ninevites, when terrified by this dreadful edict, put on sackcloth, proclaimed a fast, because this was usually done in extremities. We now then perceive why the king, having himself put on sackcloth, enjoined on the whole people both fasting and other tokens of repentance.
But it seems strange, and even ridiculous, that the king should bid animals, as well as men, to make a confession of repentance; for penitence is a change in man, when he returns to God after having been alienated from him: this cannot comport with the character of brute animals. Then the king of Nineveh acted foolishly and contrary to all reason in connecting animals with men when he spoke of repentance. But, in answer to this, we must bear in mind what I have before said—that destruction had been denounced, not only on men, but also on the whole city, even on the buildings: for as God created the whole world for the sake of men, so also his wrath, when excited against men, includes the beasts, and trees, and every thing in heaven and on earth. But the question is not yet solved; for though God may punish animals on account of men’s sins, yet neither oxen nor sheep can pacify the wrath of God. To this I answer—that this was done for the sake of men: for it would have been ridiculous in the king to prohibit food and drink to animals, except he had a regard to men themselves. But his object was to set before the Ninevites, as in a mirror or picture, what they deserved. The same was done under the law; for, whenever they slew victims, they were reminded of their own sins; for it ought to have come to their minds, that the sheep or any other animal sacrificed was innocent, and that it stood at the altar in his stead who had sinned. They therefore saw in the ox, or the lamb, or the goat, a striking emblem of their own condemnation. So also the Ninevites, when they constrained the oxen, the asses, and other animals, to fast, were reminded of what grievous and severe punishment they were worthy: inasmuch as innocent animals suffered punishment together with them. We hence see that no expiation was sought for by the king, when he enjoined a fast on brute animals, but that, on the contrary, men were roused by such means seriously to acknowledge the wrath of God, and to entertain greater fear, that they might be more truly humbled before him, and be displeased with themselves, and be thus more disposed and better prepared and moulded to seek pardon.
We now then see that this must be considered as intended to terrify the consciences of men, that they, who had long flattered themselves, might by such a remedy be roused from their insensibility. The same was the intention of different washings under the law, the cleansing of garments and of vessels; it was, that the people might know that every thing they touched was polluted by their filth. And this ought to be especially observed; for the Papists, wedded as they are to external rites, lay hold on anything said in Scripture about fasting, and ashes, and sackcloth, and think that the whole of religion consists in these outward observances: but bodily exercise, as Paul says, profiteth but little, (1 Tim. 4:8.) Therefore this rule ought ever to be our guide—that fasting and such things are in themselves of no value, but must be estimated only by the end in view. So then, when the animals were constrained by the Ninevites to suffer want, the men themselves, being reminded of their guilt, learned what it was to dread God’s wrath; and on this account it was that fasting was approved by God.
Now, if any one objects and says, that nothing ought to be done in the worship of God beyond what his word warrants, the answer is—that the king of Nineveh had not appointed any kind of expiation, neither did he intend that they should thus worship God, but regarded only the end which I have mentioned; and that end fully harmonises with the word of God and his command. Hence the king of Nineveh attempted nothing that was inconsistent with the word of God, since he had in every thing this in view—that he and his people might go humbly before God’s tribunal, and with real penitential feelings solicit his forgiveness. This then is an answer sufficiently plain.
When therefore Jonah afterwards subjoins, that the king commanded both the people and the beasts to put on sackcloth, let us know, that if any one now were to take this as an example, he would be nothing else but a mountebank; for this reason ought ever to be remembered,—that the king sought aids by which he might lead himself and his people to true repentance. But the disposition of man is prone to imitate what is evil: for we are all very like apes; we ought therefore always to consider by what spirit those were actuated whom we wish to imitate, lest we should be contented with the outward form and neglect the main thing.
Jonah afterwards adds, And they cried mightily to God. This must be confined to men; for it could not have been applied to brute animals. Men then, as well as the beasts, abstained from meat and drink, and they cried to God. This crying could not have proceeded except from fear and a religious feeling: hence, as I have said, this cannot be applied indiscriminately to the beasts as well as to men. But it deserves to be noticed, that the king of Nineveh commanded the people to cry mightily to God; for we hence learn that they were really frightened, inasmuch as he speaks not here of ordinary crying, but he adds mightily, as when we say, with all our power, or as we say in French, A force, or, fort et ferme. Jonah then expresses something uncommon and extraordinary, when he tells us that it was contained in the king’s edict, that men should cry mightily to God; for it was the same as though he said, “Let all men now awake and shake off their indifference; for every one of us have hitherto greatly indulged ourselves in our vices: it is now time that fear should possess our minds, and also constrain us to deprecate the wrath of God.” And it is also worthy of being observed, that the king proposes no other remedy, but that the people should have recourse to prayer. It might indeed have been, that Jonah exhorted the Ninevites to resort to this duty of religion, &c. We may, however, undeniably conclude that it is a feeling implanted in us by nature, that when we are pressed by adversities, we implore the favour of God. This then is the only remedy in afflictions and distresses, to pray to God. But when we, taught by the Law and by the Gospel, use not this remedy, whenever God warns us and exhorts us to repentance, what shadow of excuse can we have, since heathens, even those who understood not a syllable of true religion, yet prayed to God, and the king himself commanded this with the consent of his nobles? Hence this edict of the king ought to fill us with more shame than if one adduced the same doctrine only from the word of God: for though the authority of that king is not the same with that of God, yet when that miserable and blind prince acknowledged through the dictates of nature, that God is to be pacified by prayer, what excuse, as I have said, can remain for us?
But Jonah shows more clearly afterwards, that it was no feigned repentance when the Ninevites put on sackcloth, and abstained also from meat and drink; for it follows in the king’s edict, And let every one turn from his own wicked way, and from the plunder which is in their hands. Here the heathen king shows for what purpose and with what design he had given orders respecting fasting and other things; it was done that the Ninevites might thus more effectually stimulate themselves to fear God; for he here exhorts them to turn from their evil way. By way the Scripture usually means the whole course or manner of man’s life; it was as though he said, “Let every one of you change his disposition and his conduct; let us all become new creatures.” And this is true penitence, the conversion of man to God; and this the heathen king meant. The more shameful then is their dulness who seek to pacify God by frivolous devices, as the Papists do; for while they obtrude on God trifles, I know not what, they think that these are so many expiations, and they tenaciously contend for them. They need no other judge than this heathen king, who shows that true penitence is wholly different, that it then only takes place when men become changed in mind and heart, and wholly turn to a better course of life.
Let every one then turn, he says, from his evil way, and from the plunder which is in their hand. One kind of evil is here subjoined, a part being stated for the whole; for plunders were not the only things which stood in need of amendment among the Ninevites, as it is probable that they were polluted by other vices and corruptions. In a city so large, drunkenness probably prevailed, as well as luxury, and pride, and ambition, and also lusts. It cannot indeed be doubted, but that Nineveh was filled with innumerable vices: but the king, by mentioning a part for the whole, points out here the principal vice, when he says, Let every one turn from his evil way, and from his rapacity. It was the same as though he had said that the principal virtue is equity or justice, that is, when men deal with one another without doing any hurt or injury: and well would it be were this doctrine to prevail at this day among all those who falsely assume the Christian name. For the Papists, though they accumulate expiations, pass by charity; and in the whole course of life equity has hardly any place. Let them then learn, from the mouth of a heathen king, what God principally requires from men, and approves of in their life, even to abstain from plunder and from the doing of any injury. We now then perceive why rapacity was especially mentioned. But we must bear in mind that the king, as yet a novice, and hardly in a slight degree imbued with the elements of religion, through hearing what Jonah preached, gave orders to his people according to the measure of his faith and knowledge: but if he made such progress in so short a time, what excuse can we pretend, whose ears have been stunned by continual preaching for twenty or thirty years, if we yet come short of the noviciate of this king? These circumstances ought then to be carefully observed by us.
8 Like the captain of the ship in ch. 1, who exhorted Jonah to call to his God, the king of Nineveh exhorts his people to call out to God, thus continuing the thematic emphasis on this activity. It has been considered strange that the animals are included in the order to don sackcloth. The nearest parallel to Jonah in ancient literature occurs in the apocryphal book of Judith (4:10–14), in which animals were dressed in sackcloth as part of a day of repentance. It is possible, however, that this example derived from imitation of the book of Jonah. That even beasts should be adorned with the signs of repentance is not outlandish. Even today funeral directors use black hearses to transport the dead, and horses in funeral processions are outfitted with black accessories.
Involvement of the animals (v. 8a)
By the king’s decree, cattle and sheep were also to be deprived of food and water. They, of course, did not share in the guilt that invited God’s judgement, but man and beast were bound together within the life of the community. The animals shared in the good times; they would suffer if harm came to their city and benefit if she was spared. It was therefore appropriate that the bellowing and bleating of distressed animals should mingle with the cries of the people as they sought God—one united voice ascending to the Lord, just as their wickedness had done (1:2).
Call urgently on God (v. 8b)
The king directed the people to plead with the Lord. He was right to do so. After all, the people had something to say to the Lord. It was far more important that they express the inner turmoil of their hearts in words than merely demonstrate the emotion of grief through the external signs of fasting and wearing sackcloth. Although God sees us, he particularly wants to hear us.
The sin of Nineveh was something in which the entire community shared. It was therefore appropriate that the entire community come together in repentance over it. Yet, sin is committed by individuals and each must carry the burden of his own sin. Knowing this, the king tells them that every one of them should personally turn from his own evil and violent ways. Again he is right. Man’s sinfulness has an individual as well as a corporate dimension to it.
And so as the city wept for its sin, individuals also sought the Lord personally. Each person carried two burdensome weights to the Lord. One was in a package marked ‘our sin’; the other in a package marked ‘my sin’.
8. cry … turn—Prayer without reformation is a mockery of God (Ps 66:18; Is 58:6). Prayer, on the other hand, must precede true reformation, as we cannot turn to God from our evil way unless God first turns us (Je 31:18, 19).
Ver. 8—Let man and beast be covered with sackcloth. As we put trappings on horses in funerals. The LXX. wrongly makes this verse give an account of the execution of the edict instead of being part of the edict itself; thus: “And men and beasts were clothed with sackcloth,” etc. Cry mightily; i.e. let man cry mightily; Septuagint, ἐκτενῶς. “with intensity;” Vulgate, in fortitudine. Let them turn every one from his evil way (Jer. 25:5; 36:3, 7). The edict recognizes the truth that outward acts of penitence are worthless without moral reformation—a truth which the Jews themselves had been very loth to admit (see Isa. 58.). And from the violence that is in their hands. The acts of violence that their hands have committed (Job 16:17; Ps. 7:3). This is the special sin of the Assyrians, always grasping after empire, oppressing other nations, and guilty of rapine and avarice at home (see Isa. 10:13, 14; 37:24, etc.; Nah. 2:11, 12; 3:1).
 Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets (Vol. 3, pp. 101–110). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Walton, J. H. (2008). Jonah. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Daniel–Malachi (Revised Edition) (Vol. 8, p. 484). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Mackrell, P. (2007). Opening up Jonah (pp. 80–81). Leominster: Day One Publications.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 1, p. 686). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Spence-Jones, H. D. M. (Ed.). (1909). Jonah (p. 60). London; New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company.