By New Christian Bible Study Staff
In the third chapter of the Book of Jonah, Jonah finally reaches Nineveh, and starts preaching repentance and reformation to the people there. And... they listen! Even the King of Assyria listens!
The inner meaning of the story is pretty close to the surface here, and there's important symbolism. Swedenborg summarizes the chapter's meaning in this one sentence:
"The nations, hearing from the Word of God about their sins, and that they would perish, were converted after repenting, and were heard by the Lord, and saved." (The Inner Meaning of the Prophets and Psalms 213)
Rev. George McCurdy, in his exegesis of this chapter, offers this summary:
The great city of Nineveh has many spiritual representations. The world saw Nineveh as a mighty nation, but in the eyes of the Lord, it represented the shallowness and weakness (death) of false doctrines, contrived beliefs confirmed by the proprium (self love), the fallacies of the senses, and the unenlightened understanding that spawns spiritual ignorance.
The Lord’s mercy and love for all prompted Him not only to send His message to Nineveh, but to ensure that it would be preserved for eternity. Jonah’s call to "arise and go" preach to Nineveh is a call for spiritual renewal. It is a call for repentance. The fasting, sackcloth, and ashes symbolize a call to be aware that "where there is no truth, there is no church."
Where the Word is closed, and not loved, there is a loss of conjunction with the Divine resources. The fasting of man and beast symbolizes a need for the spiritual and natural appetites to come to the Lord for that "bread which comes down from heaven." The Ninevites giving up their natural food and drink represents their turning away from "as-of-self" concepts and reminds all who read and hear the Word of the Lord to rely on heavenly manna.
"Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance…" (Isaiah 55:2)
The king sitting in ashes and mourning represents a sorrowful attitude toward "the remains of the fire of self-love." Repentance involves self-examination, making oneself guilty for the sins and evils committed, asking the Lord for His help, and desiring to attain a new life.
As we mull over this concept, think about the Lord’s preaching on earth. As He went about His mission, He often used these words: "You have heard it said of old… but I say unto you…" Putting aside human traditions and taking on the Lord’s teachings is an ongoing effort. Jonah was told to preach the words of the Lord. He was not to make things up from his memory. He was to be a true and faithful prophet of the Lord’s ways.
Here's a link to an interesting (audio) sermon on this chapter, by Rev. Todd Beiswenger.
Rev. Martin Pennington suggests two explanatory passages from Swedenborg's theological writings:
"Forty days means a period of temptation combats or severe change." (Arcana Coelestia 730)
"A fast represents those who are in a state of unhappiness when good is no longer joined to the truths." (Arcana Coelestia 9182)
Other references of interest listed by Rev. McCurdy include:
"As ‘forty’ signified what is full or complete… forty signifies what is complete in respect to instruction and influx… for this reason it was said by Jonah to the Ninevites that ‘the city would be overthrown after forty days" (Jonah 3:4) (Arcana Coelestia 9437)
"By being clothed in sackcloth is signified mourning on account of the vastated truth in the church; for garments signify truths; and therefore, to be clothed in sackcloth, which is not a garment, signifies mourning that there is no truth; and where there is no truth, there is no church." Jonah 3:5-6 is cited. (Apocalypse Revealed 492)
"…the rite of putting sackcloth on the loins to testify…mourning may be seen from the historic and prophetic parts of the Word, as in… Jonah 3:5-8… for a sign representative of mourning over the evil on account of which Nineveh was to perish; thus over destroyed good." (Arcana Coelestia 4779)
"From the signification of garments it is also manifest why they rent their garments, when any one spoke against the Divine truth of the Word… and why, on account of transgressions against Divine truths, they put off their garments, and put on sackcloth." Jonah 3:5, 6, and 8 are cited. (Apocalypse Revealed 166)
"That ‘ashes’ denote falsity, may be confirmed from passages where another word for ‘ashes (cinis)’ is used, for these ashes have a like origin…" Jonah 3:6 is cited. (Arcana Coelestia 7520)
"…by ‘ashes’ in the opposite sense, namely, what is condemned that remains after the burning from the fire of self love. This is signified by ‘the ashes’ which they carried on the head, and in which they rolled themselves when bewailing their sins." Jonah 3:6 is cited. (Arcana Coelestia 9723)
"In the spiritual sense by kings those who are in truths are signified, by the great ones those who are in goods, by the rich those that are in the knowledge of good, by the mighty they that are in erudition, by servants they that are in such things from others, and thus from memory, and by freemen they that are in such things from themselves…" Jonah 3:7 is cited. (Apocalypse Revealed 337)
"The interior good and also the interior evil…are signified by ‘man,’ are those which are of the intention or end, for the intention or end is the inmost of man; but the exterior good and also the exterior evil which are signified by ‘beast,’ are those which are of the thought, and of the consequent action when nothing stands in the way…By ‘beast,’…in respect to the external or natural man, a man is nothing else than a beast, for he takes delight in the like cupidities and pleasures, as also in the like appetites and sense…Therefore… from a holy rite it was commanded by the king of Nineveh, that both man and beast were to fast, and were to be covered with sackcloth (Jonah 3:7, 8)." (Arcana Coelestia 7523)
"… in the spiritual world a man’s affections appear at a distance like beasts… and beasts, viewed in themselves, are nothing but forms of natural affections… By man and beasts together is signified man as to spiritual and natural affection, in the following passages… Jonah 3:7, 8…" (Apocalypse Revealed 567)
"Here ‘webs’ and ‘garments’ are predicated of things of the understanding, that is, of the thought; ‘iniquity’ and ‘violence,’ of things of the will, that is, of works. In Jonah 3:8… the ‘evil way’ is predicated of falsities, which are of the understanding; and ‘violence,’ which are of the will." (Arcana Coelestia 623)
"…the ‘wrath of anger’ is attributed to Jehovah, and consequently ‘repentance.’" (Arcana Coelestia 588)
"…the Word is such in the sense of the letter, it may be evident that it cannot be understood without doctrine. But let examples illustrate this. It is said that Jehovah repenteth (Jonah 3:9; 4:2), and it is also said that Jehovah repenteth not (Num. 23:19…): without doctrine these statements do not agree." (Teachings Regarding the Sacred Scripture 51)
"In these passages (Jonah 3:9,10) Jehovah is said to have ‘repented,’ when yet it cannot be that He repents, because He knows all things before He does them; from which it is evident that by ‘repenting’ is signified mercy." (Arcana Coelestia 10441[2-4])
Finally, here's a link to Rev. McCurdy's study guide for the Book of Jonah, which is available for free as a .pdf, for your use.
9723. 'And you shall make [its] pans to take away [its] ashes' means the removers of things which have served their purpose. This is clear from the meaning of 'pans to take away the ashes' as the removers of things which have served their purpose; for 'ashes' means the kinds of things which remain in a person's natural or external memory after they have served their purpose and which must be removed lest they get in the way of other things which come later to serve further purposes. The kinds of things which serve to effect such a removal are meant by 'pans', since ashes were taken away by means of them. To enable people to know what is meant by the ashes remaining on the altar after a burnt offering or sacrifice, the nature of things remaining in a person after they have served their purpose must be stated first. From early childhood right through to the end of his life in the world a person is being perfected in intelligence and wisdom, and if all is to go well for him, in faith and love. Items of factual knowledge contribute primarily to this end and purpose. These items of knowledge are absorbed through hearing, seeing, and reading, and are deposited in the external or natural memory; they serve inward sight or that of the understanding as a whole field of objects from which to choose and draw forth such as will help to make the person wiser. For interior sight or that of the understanding uses its own light, which comes from heaven, to see down into that field, that is, into the external memory which lies below it. From the many different items there it chooses and draws forth such as are suited to its own love; it summons them from there and deposits them in its own memory, which is the internal memory, regarding which, see 2469-2494. This is how the life of the internal man develops, along with its intelligence and wisdom. The situation is similar with those things that constitute spiritual intelligence and wisdom, namely matters of faith and love. Those which have to be implanted in the internal man are in like manner served by items of factual knowledge, but ones drawn from the Word or from what the Church teaches, which are called cognitions of truth and good. These cognitions deposited in the memory of the external man serve, in a similar way, as objects seen by the internal man. The internal man sees them in the light of heaven, then chooses and draws forth such as are suited to its love; the internal man sees no others within the external man. For what a person loves he sees in light; but what he does not love he sees in shade. He rejects the latter and chooses the former.
 All this goes to show what the situation is with the truths of faith and forms of the good of love present with a person who is being regenerated. It shows that the good which belongs to love chooses for itself truths of faith that are suited to it and perfects itself by means of them, and that for this reason the good of love occupies the first place and the truth of faith the second, as has been abundantly shown before, in 3325, 3494, 3539, 3548, 3556, 3563, 3570, 3576, 3603, 3701, 4925, 4977, 6256, 6269, 6272, 6273. After the items of knowledge or the cognitions of good and truth in the external man's memory have served that purpose they disappear so to speak from that memory. They are like the things taught to a person which have served since early childhood as the means to perfect his private life and his public life. After those things have served that informative purpose and the person has begun to live as they direct, they fade from view in the memory; only the practice of them remains. In this way a person learns to speak, learns to think, learns to discriminate and form opinions, learns to be honourable in dealings with others and to behave politely. In short, he acquires languages, good manners, intelligence, and wisdom.
(References: Arcana Coelestia 6272-6273)
 Items of knowledge which have served those purposes are meant by ashes which need to be removed; and cognitions of truth and good by means of which spiritual life is brought to a person, after they have served their purpose, that is, imparted that life, are meant by the ashes of the altar, which too need to be removed. But when they are removed they are first deposited at the side of the altar, then later on are carried outside the camp to a clean place, the fire on the altar all the while being kept alight to serve a new burnt offering or sacrifice, in accord with the process described by Moses in Leviticus,
The priest must see to it that the burnt offering burns 1 on the hearth upon the altar all night until dawn. After this he shall put on his linen robe and linen breeches, and take up the ashes into which the fire has burned the burnt offering on the altar and place them at the side of the altar. Afterwards he shall take off his own garments and put on other garments and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place. But the fire on the altar shall go on burning and not be put out. The priest shall kindle pieces of wood on it at every dawn, and lay the burnt offering on it, and burn on it the fat of the sacrifices. Fire shall burn unceasingly on the altar and not be put out. Leviticus 6:8-13.
All the details here hold the arcana of heaven within them and have as their meaning the Divine things that belong to worship of the Lord springing from the good of love. What is therefore meant by 'ashes' has been stated above. The fact that something heavenly is meant by 'the ashes of the altar' - for instance in the requirement that when the priest took the ashes off the altar he had to put on a linen robe and linen breeches, and after that wear other garments to carry them outside the camp and deposit them in a clean place - may be recognized by anyone who stops to consider the matter. Nothing mentioned in the Word is devoid of meaning, not a single word, nor thus any step in this whole process.
(References: Leviticus 6:9-13)
 All this shows pretty clearly what is meant by the ashes from the red cow that had been burned, by means of which the water of separation and of cleansing was prepared, referred to in Numbers 19:2-11, 17, and what is meant in the contrary sense by 'the ashes', namely the harm which has been done and remains after consumption by the fire of self-love. This harm is meant by the ashes which people bore on their head and in which they rolled in grief because of their sins, Jeremiah 6:26; Ezekiel 27:30; Jonah 3:6.