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September 26, 2016

Saint Jerome's Commentary on the Book of Jonah (4 of 5)


1-2. And the word of the Lord came unto Jonah the second time, saying, arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid you. 

LXX: And the message of God came to Jonah a second time, saying, arise, go to Nineveh, the great city, and preach there this message that I have told you.

He did not say to the prophet, "why have you not done what you were ordered to do?." But the punishment of the shipwreck and his drowning are enough for him to understand the Lord, the liberator, whom he hadn't known to be ordering. Moreover it is superfluous to see his wounds as those of a false servant of God, once he has been smitten, for such a punishment is less of a correction than a reproof. And our Lord is sent to Nineveh a second time after his resurrection: he who had fled by whatever means beforehand when he said, "My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass me by"[139], and who had not wanted to give bread of children to dogs, now the children have cried out, "crucify him, crucify him! we have no king except Caesar"[140], he makes his way towards Nineveh of his own accord to preach after his resurrection that he underwent as he was ordered to do before his suffering. The command is given, he hears it, he refuses, then he is forced to want, and the second time he carries out the will of the Father: all of this is connected to man and to the "form of a slave"[141], to whom such expressions are appropriate.

3. So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days' journey. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey. 

LXX: So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was a city of godly size, around three days in journey. Jonah began to enter the city, about one day's travel.

Jonah immediately carries out the command that he has been given. Nineveh to which the prophet was journeying, was a great city, which it took around three days' journey to circle. But he remembers the command he has been given and the recent shipwreck and makes the normal journey of three days in one day. However, there are some people who believe that he simply proclaimed his message in a third of the city, and that his speech quickly was made known to the other inhabitants. And our Lord is said to arise and speak of his own accord after being in hell, and announces the word of the Lord when he sends the apostles to baptise those who were in Nineveh in the name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit[142]. So there are the three days of journey! And this sacrament of mankind's safety is "a journey of one day", that is it is finished by the proclamation of one sole God. Jonah preaches not so much to the apostles but more by the method of the apostles. He himself says, "and I will be with you always until the end of the world"[143]. There is no doubt that Nineveh was a city of godly magnitude because the world and all things have existed through God and because without Him nothing would ever have existed.[144] Note too that he has not said, "of three days and three nights" or "of one day and of one night", but simply "and of three days", and "of one day", to show that in the sacrament of the Trinity and of the confession of one sole God there is no darkness.

4. And Jonah began to enter into the city a day's journey, and he cried, and said, "Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown."

LXX: He proclaimed and said, "Another three days and Nineveh will be destroyed."

The number three written in the Septuagint does not agree with the penitence, and I am quite astonished at this translation, for in Hebrew neither the letters or syllables or accents or the word show any common element. For three is said, salos and forty arbaim. Moreover the prophet who was sent from Judea to the Assyrians was to claim after such a journey penitence worthy of his prediction to cure with a long-present dressing his old and putrid wounds. Moreover the number forty is appropriate to sinners, to hunger, to prayer, to sackcloth, to tears and to perseverance in prayer. In this way Moses fasted for forty days on mount Sinai[145] and Elijah fleeing Jezebel[146] is presented to us as having fasted for forty days after having told Israel about the famine[147], when the anger of God was upon them. And the Lord Himself, the true Jonah who is sent to preach to the world fasts for forty days[148]. And he leaves us as hereditary fasting to prepare our spirits, by this number of forty, as the food of his body. "he cried out": the Gospel shows this expression more fully: "standing, he cried out in the temple: if anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and he shall drink"[149], for all speech of the Saviour is called a cry because he speaks about weighty subjects.

5. 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. 

LXX: similar.

Nineveh believed but Israel did not believe; the foreskin believed, but circumcision remained without faith. First of all the men of Nineveh believed who had arrived at the age of Christ[150]: they announced a fast and dressed in sackcloth, from the greatest to the smallest of them. This regime and clothing is very worthy of penitence, so that those who had offended God through their indulgence or lust appeased him by condemning all that they had previously offended with. Sackcloth and fasting are the weapons of penitence, the rescue of sinners. First of all fasting, then sackcloth; first of all what is not seen, then what is visible; the one is always shown to God, the other sometimes to man. And if it were necessary to remove one from the two then I would rather keep fasting without sackcloth than have sackcloth without fasting. Elder men give the example which pertains to youths: for no one is without sin; and if his life only lasted one day, the years of his life would still be counted[151]. For if the stars are not pure before God, they are still more so than a worm or putrefaction, and those who are held by the sin of Adam, the great offender. Note here too the order, which is well written: God commands the prophet, the prophet proclaims to the city. First of all the men believe, announce fasting, and then everyone puts on sackcloth. The men do not announce the putting on of sackcloth, but only the fasting. All the same, with reason, those to whom penitence has been proscribed wear sackcloth and fast so that empty stomach and mourning clothes give the Lord more of an opportunity to remit.

6-9. 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. 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, 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. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?"

LXX: The message reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, took off his robe and covered himself with sackcloth, and he sat down upon the earth. And by the order of the king and his nobles it was announced throughout Nineveh, saying, "It is forbidden for any man or beast or oxen or sheep to eat anything, to drink any water. Men and beasts are to be covered in sackcloth and cry out to the Lord mightily. Let each one turn away from his wicked practices and from the unfairness that was in his hands, saying, who knows if God will turn and repent, if he will not abandon the fierceness of his wrath so that we might not die?."

I know certain men for whom the king of Nineveh, (who is the last to hear the proclamation and who descends from his throne, and forgoes the ornaments of his former vices and dressed in sackcloth sits on the ground, he is not content with his own conversion, preaches penitence to others with his leaders, saying, "let the men and beasts, big and small of size, be tortured by hunger, let them put on sackcloth, condemn their former sins and betake themselves without reservation to penitence!) is the symbol of the devil, who at the end of the world, (because no spiritual creature that is made reasoning by God will perish), will descend from his pride and do penitence and will be restored to his former position. To support this opinion they use this example of Daniel in which Nebuchadnezzar after seven years of penitence is returned to his former reign.[152] But because this idea is not in the Holy Scripture and since it completely destroys the fear of God, (for men will slide easily into vices if they believe that even the devil, the creator of wickedness and the source of all sins, can be saved if he does penitence), we must eradicate this from our spirits. Let us remember though that the sinners in the Gospel are sent to the eternal fire[153], which is prepared for the devil and his angels, about whom is said, "their worm will not die and their fire will not be extinguished"[154]. All the same we know that God is mild, and we sinners do not enjoy his cruelty, but we read, "the Lord is kindly and righteous, and our God will be merciful"[155]. The justice of God is surrounded by mercy, and it is by this route that he proceeds to judgement: he spares to judge, he judges to be merciful. "Mercy and Truth are to be found in our path; Justice and Peace are to be embraced"[156]. Moreover if all spiritual creatures are equal and if they raise themselves up by their virtues to heaven, or by their vices take themselves to the depths, then after a long circuit and infinite centuries, if all are returned to their original state with the same worthiness to all conflicting, what difference will there be between the virgin and the prostitute? What distinction will there be between the mother of the Lord and (it is wicked to say) the victims of public pleasures? Will Gabriel be like the devil? Will the apostles be as demons? Will the prophets be as pseudoprophets? Martyrs as their persecutors? Imagine all that you will, increase by two-fold the years and the time, take infinite time for torture: if the end for all is the same, all the past is then nothing, for what is of importance to us is not what we are at any given moment, but what we will be forever more. I am not forgetting what is often said to argue against this point, preparing hope for oneself and some kind of safety with the devil. But this is not the appropriate time to write at length against the opinion of the wicked and against the synphragma[157]of the devil from those who teach one thing in private only to deny it in public. It is enough for me to have shown what I believe this passage signifies, and as is appropriate in a commentary, to remark briefly who the king of Nineveh is, he who is the last to hear the word of God. Just how much eloquence and secular knowledge are worth to mankind can be seen in Demosthenes, Cicero, Plato, Xenophon, Theophrastus, Aristotle and the other philosophers and orators who are considered kings and their precepts are not taken as the work of mortals but as oracles of the gods. About which Plato says, happy are those states where philosophers rule, or if kings are philosophers. How difficult it is for such men to believe in God! I am neglecting though those examples from daily life, and pass over the stories of pagans and content myself with the text of the apostle who writes in Corinthians, saying, "look, brothers, to your vocation, among you. For there are not many who are wise about their flesh, nor many powerful, or noble. But there is much madness in the world, and this is what God has chosen to confuse wise men. That which is weak in the world, this is what God has chosen to confuse strength, and that which is in the world without good birth this is what God has chosen…"[158] and again he says, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reprove the knowledge of those who know."[159] And: "see that no one robs you, through philosophy, this is a vain seduction"[160]. From this the predication of Christ is clear, the kings of the world hear last; then they put down the clamour of eloquence and the beautiful appearance of words, they abandon themselves completely to all simplicity and rusticity, and return to the ways of peasants, sitting in the dirt and destroying what they had formerly said was good before. Let us take as an example the benevolent Cyprian: who is firstly the champion of idolatry, and had such a reputation of good speaking that he taught the art of rhetoric at Carthage. He finishes by listening to the speech of Jonah, is converted to repent and gains such courage as to preach about Christ in public and lays his neck under the sword for him. For sure we know that the King of Nineveh descended from his throne, exchanged his red gown for sackcloth, his perfumes for mud, and cleanness for uncleanness- not uncleanness of meanings but of his words. In the same way in Jeremiah it is said about Babylon that "Babylon is a golden chalice which makes all the earth drunk"[161]. Which man has not been made drunk by secular eloquence? Whose spirit has not been shot through by the composition of words and by the brightness of his elegant speech? Those powerful, noble and rich have great difficulty in believing in God; then how much more so for the masters of speech! Their spirit is blinded by riches, wealth, abundance, they are prevented by their sins and cannot see their virtues; they judge the simplicity of the Holy Scripture not on the majesty of its meanings, but out of the baseness of its words. But when they who have previously taught wickedness are converted to repent and start to teach what is good then we will see the people of Nineveh converted with a single proclamation, and the speech that we read in Isaiah will come true: "is a people thus born in one go?".[162] Men and animals are covered with sackcloth, crying out to the Lord, this is to be understood by the same meaning as this: that those who have reason and those who do not, the wise and the simple repent according to that phrase said elsewhere: "You will save men and the animals O Lord"[163]. It is possible however to interpret differently the animals covered in sackcloth, especially according to those passages in which we read, "the sun and moon will be dressed in sackcloth"[164], and in another passage, "I will cover the heavens with sackcloth".[165] This will be the clothing of mourning, the worry and sadness that are designated metaphorically by sackcloth. And this phrase: "who knows if God will turn and pardon?" places us in uncertainty and doubt. Thus men in hypothetical cleanness repent with more intent and arouse even more God's mercy.

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. 

LXX: God saw their works since they turned from their wicked ways. And God repented for their wickedness that he had said he would do to them and he did not do it.

According to the two meanings of this passage God is threatening the town of Assyria and threatens the people of the world every day so that they repent: if they convert then he will change his judgement, and it will be changed by the conversion of the people. Jeremiah and Ezekiel explain this more clearly: the Lord has not fulfilled the good that he has promised to do if the good turn to sinners; nor the wickedness that he threatened the wicked if they return to safety. Thus now God sees their works, since they turn from their wicked way. But he did not hear those vain promises that Israel was in the custom of making: "all that God has said, we shall do"[166], but he sees the works. And because he prefers a sinner's repentance rather than his death[167] he willingly changes his sentence because he has seen a change in the works. Or rather God has continued in his proposition, since he wanted to pity right from the beginning. No one in fact who desires to punish, threatens what he will actually do. The word 'wickedness' as we have noted above, can be taken to mean supplication or torture, not that God could think to do nothing on account of the wickedness.


[139] Mt. 26:39.
[140] Lk. 23:21; Jn. 19:15.
[141] Phil. 2:7.
[142] Mt. 28:19.
[143] Mt. 28:20.
[144] Jn. 1:3.
[145] Ex. 34:28; Deut. 9:18.
[146] III Kings. 19:8.
[147] III Kings. 17:1.
[148] Mt. 4:2.
[149] Jn. 7:37.
[150] Eph. 4:13.
[151] Job. 14:5 LXX.
[152] Dan. 4:24; 29:33.
[153] Mt. 25:41.
[154] Is. 66:24.
[155] Ps. 114:5.
[156] Ps. 84:11.
[157] 'defense'
[158] I Cor. 1:26-8.
[159] Is. 29:14; I Cor. 1:19.
[160] Col. 2:8.
[161] Jer. 51:7.
[162] Is. 66:8 LXX.
[163] Ps. 35:7.
[164] Ioal. 2:10.
[165] Is. 50:3.
[166] Ex. 24:3, 7.
[167] Ez. 33:11.