We would see a sign from thee - See Luke 11:16, Luke 11:29-32. A "sign" commonly signifies a miracle - that is, a sign that God was with the person or had sent him. Compare the notes at Isaiah 7:11. Luke adds that this was done "tempting him;" that is, trying him, doubting if he had the power to do it. If these persons had been present with him for any considerable time, they had already seen sufficient proofs that he was what he claimed to be. They might have been, however, those who had recently come, and then the emphasis must be laid on "we" - we, as well as the others, would see a proof that thou art the Christ. In either case it was a temptation. If they had not seen him work a miracle, yet they should have believed it by testimony. Compare John 20:29. Perhaps, however, the emphasis is to be laid on the words "from heaven." They might profess not to doubt that his miracles were real, but they were not quite satisfactory. They were desirous of seeing something, therefore, that should clear up their doubts - where there could be no opportunity for dispute. A comet, or lightning, or thunder, or sudden darkness, or the gift of food raining upon them, they supposed would be decisive. Possibly they referred in this to Moses. He had been with God amid thunders and lightnings, and he had given them manna - "bread from heaven" to eat. They wished Jesus to show some miracle equally undoubted.
An evil and adulterous generation - The relation of the Jews to God was often represented as a marriage contract - God as the husband, and the Jewish people as the wife.
See Isaiah 57:3; Hosea 3:1; Ezekiel 16:15. Hence, their apostasy and idolatry are often represented as adultery. This is the meaning, probably, here. They were evil, and unfaithful to the covenant or to the commandments of God - an apostate and corrupt people. There is, however, evidence that they were literally an adulterous people.
There shall no sign be given to it ... - They sought some direct miracle "from heavens." Jesus replied that no "such" miracle should be given. He did not mean to say that he would work no more miracles, or give no more evidence that he was the Christ, but he would give "no such miracle" as they required. "He would give one that ought to be as satisfactory evidence to them that he was from God, as the miraculous preservation of Jonah was to the Ninevites that he was divinely commissioned." As Jonah was preserved three days by miracle and then restored alive, so he would be raised from the dead after three days. As on the ground of this preservation the Ninevites believed Jonah and repented, so, on the ground of his resurrection, the people of an adulterous and wicked generation ought to repent, and believe that he was from God. "The sign of the prophet Jonas" means the "sign" or "evidence" which was given to the people of Nineveh that he was from God - to wit, that he had been miraculously preserved, and was therefore divinely commissioned. The word "Jonas" is the Greek way of writing the Hebrew word "Jonah," as "Elias" is for "Elijah."
For as Jonas was three days ... - See Jonah 1:17
This event took place in the Mediterranean Sea, somewhere between Joppa and Tarshish, when he was fleeing from Nineveh. It is said that the "whale" seldom passes into that sea, and that its throat is too small to admit a man. It is probable, therefore, that a fish of the "shark kind" is intended. Sharks have been known often to swallow a man entire. The fish in the book of Jonah is described merely as a "great fish," without specifying the kind. It is well known that the Greek word translated whale, in the New Testament, does not of necessity mean a whale, but may denote a large fish or sea-monster of any kind. - Robinson, Lexicon .
Three days and three nights - It will be seen in the account of the resurrection of Christ that he was in the grave but two nights and a part of three days. See Matthew 18:6. This computation is, however, strictly in accordance with the Jewish mode of reckoning. If it had "not" been, the Jews would have understood it, and would have charged our Saviour as being a false prophet, for it was well known to them that he had spoken this prophecy, Matthew 27:63. Such a charge, however, was never made; and it is plain, therefore, that what was "meant" by the prediction was accomplished. It was a maxim, also, among the Jews, in computing time, that a part of a day was to be received as the whole. Many instances of this kind occur in both sacred and profane history. See II Chronicles 10:5, II Chronicles 10:12; Genesis 42:17-18. Compare Esther 4:16 with Esther 5:1.
In the heart of the earth - The Jews used the word "heart" to denote the "interior" of a thing, or to speak of being in a thing. It means, here, to be in the grave or sepulchre.
The men of Nineveh - Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian empire.
It was founded by Asshur, Genesis 10:11. It was situated on the banks of the River Tigris, to the northeast of Babylon. It was a city of vast extent, and of corresponding wickedness. It was 48 miles in circuit; its walls were 100 feet high and 10 thick, and were defended by fifteen hundred towers, each 200 feet in height. It contained in the time of Jonah, it is supposed, six hundred thousand inhabitants. The destruction of Nineveh, threatened by Jonah in forty days, was suspended, by their repentance, two hundred years. It was then overthrown by the Babylonians about six hundred years before Christ. During the siege a mighty inundation of the river Tigris took place, which threw down a part of the walls, through which the enemy entered, and sacked and destroyed the city. This destruction had been foretold one hundred and fifteen years before by Nahum Nahum 1:8; "But with an overwhelming flood he will make an utter end of the place thereof:" and Nahum 2:6; "The gates of the river shall be opened, and the palace shall be dissolved." Its ruins have been lately discovered by Layard, and have contributed much to the establishment of the truth of Scripture history. Those remains are on the east side of the river Tigris, nearly opposite to the city of Mosul.
Shall condemn it - That is, their conduct, in repenting under the preaching of Jonah, shall condemn this generation. They, ignorant and wicked pagan, repented when threatened with "temporal" judgment by a mere man - Jonah; you, Jews, professing to be enlightened, though threatened for your great wickedness with eternal punishment "by the Son of God" - a far greater being than Jonah - repent not, and must therefore meet with a far heavier condemnation.
The queen of the south - That, is, the Queen of Sheba, I Kings 10:1
Sheba was probably a city of Arabia, situated to the south of Judea. Compare the notes at Isaiah 60:6.
From the uttermost parts of the earth - This means simply from the most distant parts of the habitable world "then known." See a similar expression in Deuteronomy 28:49. As the knowledge of geography was limited, the place was, "in fact," by no means in the extreme parts of the earth. It means that she came from a remote country; and she would condemn that generation, for she came "a great distance" to hear the wisdom of Solomon, but the Jews of that age would not listen to the wisdom of one "much greater" than Solomon, though present with them.
Other Barnes' Notes entries containing Matthew 12:39:
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