And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

Jonah 4:11

The book of Jonah ends in a strange way with a reference to Nineveh’s cattle: “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?” The last word, then, in this marvelous book is “cattle.”

The reference to the 120,000 small children in Nineveh is understandable. Jonah’s lack of pity extended even to them, children born in a heathen nation who, except for the grace of God, would perish along with their parents, for they, like all of us, were born dead in trespasses and sins and were children of wrath. Their salvation along with the majority of Nineveh’s citizens displayed the sovereignty and wideness of God’s mercy, for they were unable to understand the preaching of Jonah or to humble themselves in repentance before God. Yet Nineveh’s salvation in the days of Jonah included them, though God did not continue to save Nineveh’s generations.

The reference to the cattle is more difficult to understand. Most commentators are of the opinion that it is part of a scale of values that God is establishing by way of teaching Jonah. Jonah had pity on the gourd, but not on the cattle that are of much greater value than gourds, nor on the citizens of Nineveh who are of much greater value than the cattle. Calvin says, “Oxen were certainly superior to shrubs. If Jonah was right in grieving over one withered shrub, it would surely be a harder and more cruel thing for so many innocent animals to perish” (Commentary on the Minor Prophets).

Others focus on passages such as Proverbs 12:10, “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast,” and Matthew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.” They find in the reference to cattle a reference to the character of God’s mercy, an explanation, we believe, that is closer to the truth.

The mention of cattle must be another way in which the book of Jonah’s displays the wideness and sovereignty of God’s mercy. He had showed that mercy in sending Jonah to Nineveh, in saving the heathen sailors who threw Jonah overboard, in saving Jonah from his disobedience, in sending Jonah a second time to Nineveh to preach there, in making Jonah a sign to the Ninevites and saving them by that sign, and in saving Nineveh’s children. Jonah acknowledged that: “For I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (v. 2). Now God shows the wideness and sovereignty of His mercy by mentioning Nineveh’s cattle.

The mention of the cattle is in harmony with Psalm 145:8, 9: “The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy. The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.” We do not believe that these verses are a reference to a common mercy or grace or love of God that is shown to all men, but rather to a mercy of God that extends beyond the world of men and is shown even in the creation. That is clear from the reference to all God’s works in verses 9 and 10 and from verses 15 and 16: “The eyes of all wait upon thee; and thou givest them their meat in due season. Thou openest thine hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing.”

God shows the greatness of His mercy and salvation by saving not only those whom He has chosen, but in saving the brute creation. So we read, for example, in Romans 8:19-22: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” These verses demonstrate that the creation, which came under the curse as a result of man’s sin, for it was “made subject to vanity, not willingly,” will also participate in the “glorious liberty of the children of God.”

This does not mean that individual trees and dogs will be saved or have souls that can be saved and raised to heavenly glory; but it does mean that there will be not only a new heavens but also a new earth, redeemed and glorified, delivered from the curse and purified of all wickedness and sin, “delivered from the bondage of corruption.” It is difficult to imagine what that new earth will be like, but it will be wonderful, on the order of but much more glorious than the original paradise.

There are several reasons why God’s mercy extends to the creation. The creation is God’s handiwork and He does not forsake the work of His own hands. He who created all things did not create them to be destroyed forever, but to show His glory for all eternity. That requires the deliverance of the creation from the curse and its participation in the glory that is coming.

This deliverance of the creation from the curse is through the work of Christ. Colossians 1:20 says, “And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.” That this cannot refer to our reconciliation to God by the blood of Christ is evident, for our reconciliation is the subject of the next verses, “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight.” That reconciliation of all things in heaven and on earth is necessary because all have been affected by the fall of Satan and the fall of man, the earthly creation subjected to the bondage of corruption as result of man’s sin, and subject to his sinful and destroying rule, groaning under it.

Another reason why God’s tender mercies are over all His works is the organic connection of all things. Man does not exist separately from the creation, though he was specially created, but is part of it, lives in it and by it, was created from it and returns to it at death. It is his home, adapted to his needs and he adapted to it. Even his rule over the creation, part of his connection with the creation, did not end with his fall into sin, but continues, though now it has become the rule of an evil tyrant rather than a benevolent king. When God saves man, therefore, He does not save Him alone and out of the creation but saves him in those organic connections to the creation and to all else.

This organic connection of all things is the reason why, when God saves, He does not save randomly and individually, but saves His people to be part of a body and saves them in their generations, saves His world. This never means that He saves every person, every individual thing, or every angel; but it does mean that in the new heavens and the new earth all that He created in the beginning will have its place: “Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself: That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him” (Eph. 1:9, 10).

It is this writer’s belief that the organic connection of all things is a reflection of the unity of the three Persons of the Godhead, the unity of God Himself in three Persons. That He created all things for His glory (Rev. 4:11) and unites them for the praise of His glory suggests this. That all things must and do glorify Him, is not just a matter of chance, but the result of His work in creation, in providence, and in salvation. Created by Him, the creation is His handiwork, displaying the skill, the wisdom, the beauty of its Creator as clearly as a painted masterpiece shows the skill and hand of the artist who created it. Thus all things, the covenant, grace, salvation, man himself as first created and now redeemed, as well as the organic unity of all things, show who and what God is.

This is, of course, only hinted at in Jonah 4:11’s reference to the cattle, but it is difficult to find any other reason for that abrupt and unique ending to the book. It fits the theme and message of the book and in its own way forces us to the conclusion we must draw from the book of Jonah: “Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth” (Rom. 9:18).

The sovereignty of God’s mercy as displayed in so many ways in the book of Jonah remains for us a reason for humility, for reverence, and for thankfulness. Those who are the objects of His mercy must be forever thankful. They must be thankful that in His sovereign mercy He has shown kindness, pity, and mercy to them while not showing it to others. They must find His mercies “new every morning” and praise Him for His merciful kindness. And they must not carp at the sovereignty of God’s mercy when in mercy He does as He pleases and not as we will and when in mercy He discriminates between one and another.

They must also be humble, for His tender mercies are over all His works. That the creation is included in God’s work of redemption and mercy, through Christ, reminds us that we are not everything in the purpose of God. As did Israel, we tend to have that self-centered view of things and even tend to see ourselves as indispensable in the purpose and good pleasure of God. “And much cattle” says that we are only a part of His vast and wonderful purpose. We “and much cattle” shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into glorious liberty. All things “and much cattle” will be gathered in one for the glory of His name. All things in heaven and on earth “and much cattle” are reconciled to God in Christ. And when the Rising Sun of Righteousness comes with healing in His wings, He will come as He always has, not only for our healing but also for the healing of all things. What a reason for deepest humility!

And as we wait for that last morning, we see the hope of an eternal morning written into the creation itself, for the creation—beasts and birds, cattle and creeping things, suns and sunflowers—are waiting for the hope of all God’s children—Jonah, Ninevites and ten thousand times ten thousand besides: “For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19). So Nineveh’s cattle teach us “that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us,” glory that will be revealed in us when, forever delivered from the belly of hell by the mercy of our great God, we will no longer be grudging and complaining but forever content and forever thankful.