“So the people of Nineveh believed God, proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.”
So the people of Nineveh believed God,
The city of Nineveh believed God, not Jonah. They came to ready accord with the message of Jehovah that judgment would come to the city in no uncertain terms. Note that they “believed God.” This does not say that they believed in Him or on Him but that they rested their case in God. The Hebrew word for “believed” is “Amen.” “Amen” means I believe it, so be it.
The people of Jonah’s generation repented, but the people of Jesus’ generation did not repent. A greater than Jonah came, but He did not get the same results as Jonah did. It is remarkable that Jonah performed no miracles and did not do the works that Jesus did, but he had a greater result than Jesus. Jonah did not raise the dead, heal the sick, or give sight to the blind but a whole city turned to God.
Our Lord’s comment on this scene is found in Mt 12:39-41 and 16:4f. Nineveh repented at Jonah’s preaching.
Mt 12:38-41, 38 “Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered, saying, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ 39 But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.”
proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest to the least of them.
A “fast” is an outside manifestation of an inward attitude. This is proof that they believed in God. The king “proclaimed” this fast or published it so that the entire city would take part in it. A fast is a methodology for focusing on the Lord. It allows those who fast to exclude other issues so that they can give concentrated time to God.
“Sackcloth” is a hair garment. It was harsh and irritated the body. Sackcloth was like burlap of our day. All the politicians, businessmen, and military leaders did this. They were not used to doing something like this, for they pampered themselves.
God designed fasting so we could focus on Him.
A fast does not make our prayers more effective. The objective of a fast was to give more time and energy to thinking about God and His purposes for us. It is a time of concentrated prayer.
There is a great deal of difference between the doctrine of prayer in the Old Testament and the New Testament. Prayer in the Old Testament was on a different basis altogether than in the New. No one prayed in Jesus’ name in the Old Testament. Jesus provided new access to the Father based on sonship. Jesus gained the approbation of God, so we do not have to earn it. Fasting was never designed to curry brownie points with God or propitiate His favor. We get God’s ear through Jesus Christ; that is why we come to Him “in Jesus’ name.”
Jn 16:24, “Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”
Today, we do not have to wear sackcloth and ashes to get God’s attention. We do not have to cut ourselves or undergo some sacrifice. All we have to say is, “Father, I need you. Provide for my family and me.”
Mt 9:14-15, 14 “Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, ‘why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?’ 15 And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
Our children should not have to get a half-nelson on us to get a meal out of us! They do not have to shave their hair to get our attention and walk around in a burlap bag. No, they do not have to do that because they are family. They rest in our provision. We also rest our case with God. We do not have to argue with Him; we do not have to debate with Him.
It is not part of grace to seek merit by putting on horsehair shirts or burlap bag underwear, sitting on ashes or wearing ashes, going without meals, or giving up Limburger cheese in trying to curry favor with God.
Mt 6:16-18,16 “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”