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.
51. 1. The Word is not understandable without a body of teaching. This is because in its literal meaning the Word is entirely made up of correspondences, to allow spiritual and heavenly matters to be gathered within it in such a way that each word can be their container and support. That is why in many passages the literal meaning is not made up of bare truths but of clothed truths, which we may call semblances of truth. Many of them are adapted to the comprehension of ordinary people who do not raise their thoughts above what they can see with their eyes. There are other passages where there seem to be contradictions, though there are no contradictions in the Word when it is seen in its own light. Then too, there are places in the prophets where we find collections of personal names and place-names that make no sense to us - see the examples in §15 above.
Since that is what the literal meaning of the Word is like, it stands to reason that it cannot be understood without a body of teaching.
(References: Teachings about the Sacred Scripture 15)
 Some examples may serve to illustrate this. It says that Jehovah repents (Exodus 32:12, 14; Jonah 3:9; 4:2). It also says that Jehovah does not repent (Numbers 23:19; 1 Samuel 15:29). Without a body of teaching, these statements do not agree.
It says that Jehovah visits the iniquities of the parents on the children to the third and fourth generation (Numbers 14:18), and it says that parents will not be put to death for their children and children will not be put to death for their parents, but each will die in his or her own sin (Deuteronomy 24:16). Seen in the light of a body of teaching, these statements do not disagree but agree.
 Jesus said,
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. Everyone who asks receives, those who seek find, and to those who knock it will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8; 21:21-22)
In the absence of a body of teaching, people would believe that everyone’s request is granted, but a body of teaching yields the belief that we are given whatever we ask if we ask it not on our own behalf but on the Lord’s. That is in fact what the Lord tells us:
If you abide in me and my words abide in you, you will ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. (John 15:7)
(References: Matthew 21:22)
 The Lord says “Blessed are the poor, because theirs is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Without a body of teaching, we might think that heaven belongs to the poor and not to the rich. A body of teaching instructs us, though, that this means those who are poor in spirit, for the Lord said,
Blessed are the poor in spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of the heavens. (Matthew 5:3)
 The Lord says,
Do not judge, or you will be judged; with the same judgment you pass [on others] you yourself will be judged. (Matthew 7:1-2; Luke 6:37)
In the absence of a body of teaching, this could be used to support the assertion that we should not say that an evil act is evil or judge that an evil person is evil. A body of teaching, though, tells us that it is permissible to pass judgment if we do so in an upright, righteous way. In fact, the Lord says,
Judge with righteous judgment. (John 7:24)
 Jesus says,
Do not be called teacher, because one is your Teacher: Christ. You should not call anyone on earth your father, because you have one Father, and he is in the heavens. You should not be called masters, because one is your Master: Christ. (Matthew 23:8-10)
In the absence of a body of teaching, it would turn out that it was wrong to call anyone a teacher or a father or a master; but from a body of teaching we come to know that this is permissible in an earthly sense but not in a spiritual sense.
 Jesus said to the disciples,
When the Son of Humanity sits on the throne of his glory, you will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (Matthew 19:28)
These words could lead us to believe that the Lord’s disciples will be passing judgment, when quite the contrary, they cannot judge anyone. So a body of teaching unveils this mystery by explaining that only the Lord, who is omniscient and knows the hearts of all, will judge and can judge, and that his twelve disciples mean the church in the sense of all the true and good principles that it has received from the Lord through the Word. A body of teaching leads us to the conclusion that these principles will judge everyone, which follows from what the Lord says in John 3:17-18; 12:47-48.
 People who read the Word without the aid of a body of teaching do not know how to make sense out of what it says in the prophets about the Jewish nation and Jerusalem, namely, that the church will abide in that nation and that its seat will be in that city forever. Take the following statements, for example.
Jehovah will visit his flock, the house of Judah, and transform them into a glorious war horse; from Judah will come the cornerstone, from Judah the tent peg, from Judah the battle bow. (Zechariah 10:3-4)
Behold, I am coming to dwell in your midst. Jehovah will make Judah his inheritance and will again choose Jerusalem. (Zechariah 2:10-12)
On that day it will happen that the mountains will drip with new wine and the hills will flow with milk; and Judah will abide forever, and Jerusalem from generation to generation. (Joel 3:18, 20)
Behold, the days are coming in which I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humankind, and in which I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This will be the covenant: I will put my law in their midst and I will write it on their heart, and I will become their God and they will become my people. (Jeremiah 31:27, 31, 33)
On that day ten men from every language of the nations will take hold of the hem of a man of Judah and say, “We will go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.” (Zechariah 8:23)
There are other passages of the same nature, such as Isaiah 44:24, 26; 49:22-23; 65:18; 66:20, 22; Jeremiah 3:18; 23:5; 50:19-20; Nahum 1:15; Malachi 3:4. In these passages the subject is the Lord’s Coming and what will happen at that time.
 However, it says something very different in any number of other passages, of which I will cite only the following:
I will hide my face from them. I will see what their posterity is, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom there is no faithfulness. I have said, “I will cast them into the most remote corners, I will make them cease from human memory, ” for they are a nation devoid of counsel, and they have no understanding. Their vine is from the vine of Sodom and the fields of Gomorrah. Their grapes are grapes of gall; their clusters are bitter. Their wine is the venom of dragons and the cruel gall of poisonous snakes. All this is hidden with me, locked away in my treasuries. Vengeance and retribution belong to me. (Deuteronomy 32:20-35)
These words were spoken about that nation, and there are similar statements elsewhere, as in Isaiah 3:1-2, 8; 5:3-6; Deuteronomy 9:5-6; Matthew 12:39; 23:27-28; John 8:44; and all through Jeremiah and Ezekiel. All the same, these statements that seem to contradict each other turn out to be in agreement in the light of a body of teaching, which tells us that Israel and Judah in the Word do not mean Israel and Judah but the church in each of two senses - one in which it lies in ruins and the other in which it is to be restored by the Lord. There are other contrasts like this in the Word that enable us to see that the Word cannot be understood apart from a body of teaching.