The Meaning of Jonah 3:5 Explained

Jonah 3:5

KJV: So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.

YLT: And the men of Nineveh believe in God, and proclaim a fast, and put on sackcloth, from their greatest even unto their least,

Darby: And the men of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.

ASV: And the people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.

What does Jonah 3:5 Mean?

Verse Meaning

The people repented, apparently after only one day of preaching ( Jonah 3:4), because of the message from God that Jonah had brought to them. [1] Fasting and wearing sackcloth demonstrated self-affliction that reflected an attitude of humility in the ancient Near East (cf. 2 Samuel 3:31; 2 Samuel 3:35; 1 Kings 21:27; Nehemiah 9:1-2; Isaiah 15:3; Isaiah 58:5; Daniel 9:3; Joel 1:13-14). Sackcloth was what the poor and the slaves customarily wore. Thus wearing it depicted that the entire population viewed themselves as needy (of God"s mercy in this case) and slaves (of God in this case). This attitude and these actions marked all levels of the city"s population (i.e, the chronologically old and young, and the socially high and low). The Ninevites did not want to perish any more than the sailors did (cf. Jonah 1:6; Jonah 1:14).
Some commentators believed that two plagues, a severe flood and a famine, had ravaged Nineveh in765,759 B.C, plus a total eclipse of the sun on June15 , 763 , and that these phenomena prepared the Ninevites for Jonah"s message. [2] The Ninevites probably viewed these phenomena as indications of divine displeasure, a common reaction in the ancient Near East. [3] However this providential "pre-evangelism" is not the concern of the text. It attributes the Ninevites" repentance to Jonah"s preaching.
Some commentators have credited the repentance of the Ninevites at least partially to Jonah"s previous experience in the great fish"s stomach. They base this on Jesus" statement that Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites ( Matthew 12:39-41; Luke 11:29-32). Jonah was a sign in a two-fold sense. His three days and nights in the fish foreshadowed Jesus" three days and nights in the grave ( Matthew 12:40), and his ministry as a visiting prophet delivering a call for repentance to an evil people under God"s judgment previewed Jesus" ministry ( Matthew 12:41; Luke 11:30; Luke 11:32). These commentators note that the Ninevites worshipped Dagon, which was part man and part fish. [4] They have also pointed out that the Assyrian fish goddess, Nosh, was the chief deity in Nineveh. Some of them have argued that Jonah came to the city as one sent by Nosh to proclaim the true God. However the text of Jonah attributes the repentance of the Ninevites primarily to the message that God had given Jonah to proclaim. Whatever the Ninevites may have known about Jonah"s encounter with the fish-the text says nothing about their awareness of it-the writer gave the credit to the word of the Lord, not to Jonah"s personal background.
One writer saw this text as support for the historic evangelical doctrine of exclusivism in salvation and used it to argue against religious inclusivism (pluralism). [5]
"God delights to do the impossible, and never more so than in turning men to Himself. Instead, then, of denying on the grounds of its "human" impossibility the repentance that swept over Nineveh, let us see it as an evidence of divine power. For this, not the episode of the sea monster, is the greatest miracle in the book." [6]

Context Summary

Jonah 3:1-10 - A Repentant City
Peter was not only forgiven, but restored to his office; so also was Jonah again sent to Nineveh. Thank God for our second chances! There was no hesitancy this time. The prophet arose and went. The story of his deliverance seems to have reached Nineveh and to have prepared its people to receive his word, Luke 11:30. We must deliver God's messages and preach only as He bids us. He will tell us what to say.
Nineveh is said to have been sixty miles in circuit, the distance of a three days' journey. It was full of violence and cruelty. But the sight of that strange figure, clad in a rude sheep-skin mantle, smote its conscience. The alarm spread from the streets to the palace. Even the great king felt it within his sculptured chambers. It stirred him to action, so that king and court, peers and people, and even the brute creation, became united in one act of common humiliation. The repentance was city-wide in its scope, Jonah 3:5; was practical, Jonah 3:8; and directed toward God, Jonah 3:9. What a contrast to Israel! There, prophet after prophet was exposed to refusal and even to cruel usage. Whatever fear there may have been upon man's side, there was no hesitation upon God's. He abundantly pardoned! See Isaiah 55:7. [source]

Chapter Summary: Jonah 3

1  Jonah, sent again, preaches to the Ninevites
5  Upon their repentance,
10  God relents

What do the individual words in Jonah 3:5 mean?

So believed the people of Nineveh God and proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest and to the least of them
וַֽיַּאֲמִ֛ינוּ אַנְשֵׁ֥י נִֽינְוֵ֖ה בֵּֽאלֹהִ֑ים וַיִּקְרְאוּ־ צוֹם֙ וַיִּלְבְּשׁ֣וּ שַׂקִּ֔ים מִגְּדוֹלָ֖ם וְעַד־ קְטַנָּֽם

וַֽיַּאֲמִ֛ינוּ  So  believed 
Parse: Conjunctive waw, Verb, Hifil, Consecutive imperfect, third person masculine plural
Root: אָמַן 
Sense: to support, confirm, be faithful.
אַנְשֵׁ֥י  the  people 
Parse: Noun, masculine plural construct
Root: אִישׁ 
Sense: man.
נִֽינְוֵ֖ה  of  Nineveh 
Parse: Proper Noun, feminine singular
Root: נִינְוֵה  
Sense: capital of the ancient kingdom of Assyria; located on the east bank of the Tigris river, 550 miles (880 km) from its mouth and 250 miles (400 km) north of Babylon.
בֵּֽאלֹהִ֑ים  God 
Parse: Preposition-b, Noun, masculine plural
Root: אֱלֹהִים  
Sense: (plural).
וַיִּקְרְאוּ־  and  proclaimed 
Parse: Conjunctive waw, Verb, Qal, Consecutive imperfect, third person masculine plural
Root: קָרָא  
Sense: to call, call out, recite, read, cry out, proclaim.
צוֹם֙  a  fast 
Parse: Noun, masculine singular
Root: צֹום  
Sense: fast, fasting.
וַיִּלְבְּשׁ֣וּ  and  put  on 
Parse: Conjunctive waw, Verb, Qal, Consecutive imperfect, third person masculine plural
Root: לָבַשׁ  
Sense: to dress, wear, clothe, put on clothing, be clothed.
שַׂקִּ֔ים  sackcloth 
Parse: Noun, masculine plural
Root: שַׂק  
Sense: mesh, sackcloth, sack, sacking.
מִגְּדוֹלָ֖ם  from  the  greatest 
Parse: Preposition-m, Adjective, masculine singular construct, third person masculine plural
Root: גָּבֹול 
Sense: great.
וְעַד־  and  to 
Parse: Conjunctive waw, Preposition
Root: עַד  
Sense: as far as, even to, until, up to, while, as far as.
קְטַנָּֽם  the  least  of  them 
Parse: Adjective, masculine singular construct, third person masculine plural
Root: קָטָן 
Sense: young, small, insignificant, unimportant.