Calvin, Commentary on Jonah, Part 7
(... continue from part 6) 

Lecture Seventy-eighth 
Jonah 3:6-8 
6 For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his 
throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered [him] with 
sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 
7 And he caused [it] to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh 
by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man 
nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor 
drink water: 
8 But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily 
unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from 
the violence that [is] in their hands. 
    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 counselors 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 "wayiga'" 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 
counselors. 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 "ta'am", as 
meaning reason or approbation. "Ta'am" 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 everyone 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 fasts 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 assess 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 
littler (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 
harmonizes 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 things. 
    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 favor 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 kings edict, "And let 
every one turn from his own wicked ways 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 dullness 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 novitiate of 
this king? These circumstances ought then to be carefully observed 
by us. Let us now proceed - 
Jonah 3:9 
Who can tell [if] God will turn and repent, and turn away from his 
fierce anger, that we perish not? 
    The mind and design of the king are here more distinctly 
stated, - that he thus endeavored to reconcile himself and the 
people to God. Some give a rendering somewhat different, "He who 
knows will turn and be led by penitence," &c.; they read not 
interrogatively; but this rendering cannot stand. There is in the 
meaning of the Prophet nothing ambiguous, for he introduces the king 
here as expressing a doubt, Who knows whether God will be reconciled 
to us? We hence see that the king was not overwhelmed with despair 
for he still thought of a remedy; and this is the purport of the 
    But this may seem contrary to the nature of faith; and then if 
it be opposed to faith, it follows that it must be inconsistent with 
repentance; for faith and repentance are connected together, as we 
have observed in other places; as no one can willingly submit to 
God, except he has previously known his goodness, and entertained a 
hope of salvation; for he who is touched only with fear avoids God's 
presence; and then despair prevails, and perverseness follows. How 
then was it that the king of Nineveh had seriously and 
undissemblingly repented, while yet he spoke doubtfully of the favor 
of God? To this I answer, that it was a measure of doubt, which was 
yet connected with faith, even that which does not directly reject 
the promise of God, but has other hindrances: as for instance, when 
any ones cast down with fear, afterwards receives courage from the 
hope of pardon and salvation set before him, he is not yet 
immediately freed from all fear; for as long as he looks on his 
sins, and is entangled by various thoughts, he vacillates, he 
fluctuates. There is, therefore, no doubt but that the king of 
Nineveh entertained hope of deliverance; but at the same time his 
mind was perplexed, both on account of the sermon of Jonah and on 
account of the consciousness of his own sins: there were then two 
obstacles, which deprived the king's mind of certainty, or at least 
prevented him from apprehending immediately the mercy of God, and 
from perceiving with a calm mind that God would be gracious to him. 
The first obstacle was the awful message, - that Nineveh would be 
destroyed in forty days. For though Jonah, as we have said, might 
have added something more, yet the denunciation was distinct and 
express, and tended to cast down the minds of all. The king then had 
to struggle, in order to overcome this obstacle, and to resist this 
declaration of Jonah as far as it was found to be without any 
comfort. And then the king, while considering his own sins, could 
not but vacillate for some time. But yet we see that he strove to 
emerge, though he had these obstacles before his eyes, for he says, 
Who knows whether God will turn from the fury of his wrath, and 
repent? We hence see that the king was in a hard struggle; for 
though Jonah seemed to have closed the door and to shut out the king 
from any hope of deliverance, and though his own conscience held him 
fast bound, he yet perseveres and encourages himself; in short, he 
aspires to the hope of pardon. 
    And it must be further noticed, that this form of expression 
expresses a difficulty rather than a mistrust. The king then here 
asks, as it were doubtingly, "Who knows whether God will turn?" for 
it was a difficult thing to be believed, that God, after a long 
forbearance, would spare the wicked city. Hence the king expresses 
it as a difficulty; and such an interrogation was no proof of the 
absence of faith. A similar expression is found in Joel, "Who 
knows," &c.? We then stated several things in explaining that 
passage: but it is enough here briefly to state, that the king here 
does not betray a mistrust, but sets forth a difficulty. And it was 
an evidence of humility that he acknowledged himself and his people 
to be sunk as it were, in the lowest hell, and yet ceased not to 
entertain some hope: for it is a strong proof of hope, when we still 
entertain it, though this be contrary to the whole order of nature, 
and wholly inconsistent with human reason. We now then see the 
meaning of the words. Of the repentance of God we shall speak 
hereafter, either to-morrow or the day after. 
    "Lest we perish", he says. We see how a heathen king thought of 
redeeming himself from destruction' it was by having God pacified. 
As soon then as any danger threatens us, let us bear this in mind, 
that no deliverance can be found except the Lord receives us into 
favor; such was the conviction of the king of Nineveh, for he 
concluded that all things would be well as soon as God should be 
propitious. We hence see how much this new and untrained disciple 
had improved; for he understood that men cannot escape miseries 
until God be pacified towards them, and that when men return into 
favor with him, though they ought to have perished a hundred times 
before, they yet shall be delivered and made safe; for the grace or 
the favor of God is the fountain of life and salvation, and of all 
blessings. It afterwards follows - 
Jonah 3:10 
And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and 
God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto 
them; and he did [it] not. 
    Jonah now says, that the Ninevites obtained pardon through 
their repentance: and this is an example worthy of being observed; 
for we hence learn for what purpose God daily urges us to 
repentance, and that is, because he desires to be reconciled to us, 
and that we should be reconciled to him. The reason then why so many 
reproofs and threatening resound in our ears, whenever we come to 
hear the word of God, is this, - that as God seeks to recover us 
from destruction he speaks sharply to us: in short, whatever the 
Scripture contains on repentance and the judgment of God ought to be 
wholly applied for this purpose - to induce us to return into favor 
with him; for he is ready to be reconciled, and is ever prepared to 
embrace those who without dissimulation turn to him. We then 
understand by this example that God has no other object in view, 
whenever he sharply constrains us, than that he may be reconciled to 
us, provided only we be our own judges, and thus anticipate his 
wrath by genuine sorrow of heart, provided we solicit the pardon of 
our guilt and sin, and loathe ourselves, and confess that we are 
worthy of perdition. 
    But Jonah seems to ascribe their deliverance to their 
repentance, and also to their works: for he says that the Ninevites 
obtained pardon, because God looked on their works. 
    We must first see what works he means, that no one may snatch 
at a single word, as hypocrites are wont to do; and this, as we have 
said, is very commonly the case under the Papacy. God had respect to 
their works - what works? not sackcloth, not ashes, not fasting; for 
Jonah does not now mention these; but he had respect to their works 
- because they turned from their evil way. We hence see that God was 
not pacified by outward rites only, by the external profession of 
repentance, but that he rather looked on the true and important 
change which had taken place in the Ninevites, for they had become 
renewed. These then were their works, even the fruits of repentance. 
And such a change of life could not have taken place, had not the 
Ninevites been really moved by a sense of God's wrath. The fear of 
God then had preceded; and this fear could not have been without 
faith. We hence see that he chiefly speaks here not of external 
works, but of the renovation of men. 
    But if any one objects and says that still this view does not 
prevent us from thinking that good works reconcile us to God, and 
that they thus procure our salvation: to this I answer - that the 
question here is not about the procuring cause of forgiveness. It is 
certain that God was freely pacified towards the Ninevites, as he 
freely restores his favor daily to us. Jonah then did not mean that 
satisfactions availed before God, as though the Ninevites made 
compensations for their former sins. The words mean no such thing; 
but he shows it as a fact which followed, that God was pacified, 
because the Ninevites repented. But we are to learn from other parts 
of Scripture how God becomes gracious to us, and how we obtain 
pardon with him, and whether this comes to us for our merits and 
repentance or whether God himself forgives us freely. Since the 
whole Scripture testifies that pardon is gratuitously given us, and 
that God cannot be otherwise propitious to us than by not imputing 
sins, there is no need, with regard to the present passage, 
anxiously to inquire why God looked on the works of the Ninevites, 
so as not to destroy them: for this is said merely as a consequence. 
Jonah then does not here point out the cause, but only declares that 
God was pacified towards the Ninevites, as soon as they repented. 
But we shall speak more on this subject. 
Grant, Almighty God, that as we are loaded with so many vices, and 
so many sins, yea, and scandalous crimes break out daily among us, - 
O grant, that we may not be hardened against so many exhortations, 
by which thou invites us to thyself, but that being made contrite in 
spirit, whenever thou denounces on us thy wrath, we may be really 
humbled, and so place ourselves before thy tribunal, that we may, by 
a true confession and genuine fear, anticipate the judgment which 
would otherwise have been prepared for us; and that in the meantime 
relying on Christ our Mediator, we may entertain such a hope of 
pardon as may raise us up to thee, and not doubt but that thou art 
ready to embrace us, when we shall be moved by a true and real 
feeling of fear and penitence, since it is a proof of thy favor, 
when thou art pleased to anticipate us, and by thy Spirit testifies 
that thou art a Father to us; and, in a word, may we be so cast down 
in ourselves, as to raise up our hope even to heaven, through Jesus 
Christ one Lord. Amen. 

Calvin, Commentary on Jonah, Part 7
(continued in part 8...)

file: /pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl-05: cvjon-07.txt