The text of Scripture, from which the above theme is taken is as follows: “And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?”Jonah 4:11.
What gave rise to these words of the Lord, were a complex set of factors, recorded by Jonah, beginning with the revelation of God’s determinate counsel concerning Nineveh. God revealed to Jonah, that in Nineveh, there was an elect nucleus among the Gentiles. For the sake of these remnants by election, God was pleased to direct Jonah to arise and go to Nineveh, that great city, and capital of the Assyrian empire, and cry against its sins and wickedness, in the preaching of the Word. Thus, it pleased God to proclaim this holy gospel to a people sitting in darkness, in a heathen land. The content of this gospel of God’s redeeming grace, through the mouth of his servant, is summed up in the prophet’s words: “Salvation is of the Lord” (verse 9). These words mean essentially this: God saves the righteous, who in themselves are hell-deserving sinners, through election; and destroys the wicked, on account of their sins, through reprobation. While this Gospel was proclaimed to all, in Nineveh, yet only the elect there heard it unto salvation. These elect, nationally, were not Jews; they were of Nineveh. Their salvation was rooted in sovereign, divine love, the fruit of election. They were saved because they were elect. The rest of Nineveh—the reprobate wicked, were hardened in their sins, through the very same preaching of Jonah. It was through the preaching that the thoughts of many hearts was revealed. Therefore, it was very necessary for Jonah to go to Nineveh, to preach unto that great city. Jonah, however, in sinful rebellion against God, and willful disobedience, refused to go. This was Jonah’s sin.
Next, the record points out Jonah’s futile attempt to flee west to Tarsish. God intervened. Raising up a great fish for the purpose, the Lord used the fish as a means of returning Jonah to a place where he could once again start on a journey to Nineveh. The word of God came to him a second time, saying: “Arise, go unto Nineveh.” He obeyed.
In Nineveh, the book goes on to relate, the prophet preached God’s word, and it pleased the Lord to give the prophet fruit upon his labors, from the greatest to the least. This result was no surprise to Jonah. He knew, and he had also testified, that the Lord is a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest of the evil, that He said He would do.
But the question arises, quite naturally, “Why did he flee from the Lord’s presence, if he knew of the mercy of Jehovah, to save?” He fled, (he thought), from Jehovah’s presence because he knew that, in the salvation of the elect, God would postpone, for the present, at least, the destruction that God said He would bring to pass on that wicked city. To be sure, the prophet longed for the salvation of the righteous, in Christ—else he would be no true prophet—but he longed for the destruction of the reprobated wicked, and ail that denies God. This tone is solemnly announced by the psalmist who wrote: “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered . . . as wax melteth before the fire, so let the wicked perish at the presence of God.” (Psalm 68:1, 2). Jonah, knowing that God would spare the wicked for the sake of the righteous, had fled from Jehovah. Had not God blessed Potiphar’s house, for the sake of Joseph? Yet, in not obeying the voice of Jehovah, Jonah fell into sin. He had refused to trust the Lord, in the unfolding of God’s counsel concerning Nineveh. But when God thwarted his evil plan, the prophet went to Nineveh and preached as divinely directed.
Next, this prophetic scripture tells of the object lesson God used—a rapid growing gourd that ultimately withered when attacked by a worm—as a pointer to Jonah that the ways of God’s mercy and providence are ways of consummate wisdom, great depth, and determinate sovereignty. The Lord affirmed His right and justice, to spare Nineveh and its much cattle.
Now, the question arises, “What was God’s purpose in sparing much cattle?” At first glance, the question seems to be easily answered, when the text is taken literally, as it stands. The text tells the reader three facts: First, the Lord is sovereign; it is His good pleasure to spare or destroy the city, as He wills. Secondly, the Lord spared a city of one hundred and twenty thousand persons unable to discern between their right and left hand—that is, a large number of immature children. Thus, the population, by implication, is six or seven hundred thousand persons. Thus, Nineveh, was a large city. Thirdly, the Lord spared much cattle in this city. This, He may do, since he hath given life and breath to all creatures. He may spare, or destroy them. In this case, it pleased Him to spare the cattle when He spared Nineveh, at the time of the preaching of .Jonah. Their being spared, on this occasion, provides both meat for food, hides for leather, or any other purpose.
At other times, it was the Lord’s pleasure to utterly destroy the cattle. A case in point is the instance of the war of extermination against the Amalekites. On this occasion, Saul was directed by the Lord of Hosts to smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that the nation had. The charge to Saul included the slaying of both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. He was to spare them not. Who would be capable, we may ask, from a human standpoint, of carrying out such a charge? Only when one is armed with the shield of faith. Saul, though, sinned. He spared Agag, the king, and the best of the sheep and the oxen, ostensibly as sacrificial animals for Jehovah. This act of Saul, God did not approve. It was then that Samuel spoke so beautifully to Saul, saying: “To obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken, that the fat of rams.” (I Samuel 15:22).
Considering the two instances—the cattle in Nineveh, and the cattle in the city of Amalek—the cattle simply serve the purpose of, God, as God has His purpose revealed in each case. In one instance, He spares them, in the other He destroys them. Being irrational creatures, they are non-moral. Their function is subservient to God’s purpose, which is primary. The cattle are a part of the brute creation that lies under the curse of God, because of man’s sin. The original purpose of this brute creation was to serve God’s glory and man’s usefulness (Gen. 1:29, 30). This purpose, according to God’s revelation, was not to be realized through man’s obedience, but through man’s fall, the curse, sin, and death. The whole creation was subjected to vanity, in the bondage of corruption, in groaning and travailing, unto the restoration of all things, with the coming of the Lord. This purpose He works out, as the revelation of His glory. The cattle then, belong to the organism of God’s creation. This creation He loves (John 3:16) and pronounces good. (Gen. 1.) The purpose of His creation is the service of His counsel concerning all things in their organic connection with each other, and in their connection with Christ, who is the Head of His Church. The creature serves the creator.
Thus the text may be understood. However, a difficulty arises, in the understanding of this text, when it asked: “Do we not have here, a gracious disposition of God unto salvation, in sparing Nineveh and its much cattle?” At first glance, it would almost seem so. It would almost seem that we have an instance here in which support could be found for the view of “common grace.” Not so. Closer examination of the text, in the light of the whole Word will prove that “common grace” is not taught in Jonah 4:11 for the following reasons:
The first, the text speaks of the Lord “sparing” Nineveh, its inhabitants and its cattle. This act of God, whereby He “spares” the city, in and of itself, does not indicate that God is gracious, in the sense of blessing, unto salvation. For, if sparing Nineveh means blessing the city unto salvation, then all the city would be saved, and a ground for universal atonement would be found in the text. Every last Ninevite then, would be saved. This interpretation is inconsistent with the current teaching of Holy Writ.
Secondly, if the text is to be understood to mean that sparing Nineveh, its inhabitants, and its cattle signifies grace unto salvation, then the question follows, “are cattle saved; do cattle need grace?” The answer, obviously is “no.”
On the other hand, what does “sparing” Nineveh mean? The Lord “sparing” Nineveh is this: the Lord takes pity on the city; He is compassionate to it; He is indulgent towards it. The word “sparing” indicates an anthropomorphism. God repents of the evil which He said that He would do unto them (Jonah 3:10). That God spares the city in the sense of preserving it unto His purpose, is the idea of the text.
But, let it be understood: to ask the question, “Is God gracious, in the sense of blessing,” is not to get an answer to a really significant question. It is only when we ask “In sparing Nineveh, to whom is God gracious,” that we ask a very pointed inquiry. Before we turn to an answer, let us examine a parallel situation in the Bible record.
God has revealed to Abraham that He would destroy Sodom and Gomorrah on account of their grievous sins (Gen. 18:16-33). Abraham, in deep humility, and in love for the election of grace, pleaded for the righteous in Christ, living in the city; pleading for fifty; later for ten. God, in answer to Abraham’s prayer for mercy, promised not to destroy the cities for the sake of the righteous in the city, even if there be only ten. Note here, that God promised that He would spare these plains cities for the sake of the righteous elect, in Christ, in the cities. Therefore, the conclusion is certainly reasonable, that the Lord, through the mouth of His prophet, spares Nineveh, its inhabitants, and its much cattle means that the Lord spares the city for the righteous, in Christ, in its population. That is, the elect, in Nineveh, are the reason for the city being spared.
A very important reason why it is to be concluded that the text indicates there is no support for a theory of “common grace,” lies in the nature of grace itself. Grace is a spiritual-ethical concept. Grace is rooted in ethical perfection. (For an excellent development of the whole concept of grace, see the “Standard Bearer,” volume 31, September 1, 1955, p. 462, 463).
Because grace is rooted in ethical perfection and goodness, it has its origin in God Himself: God is the gracious and good God; He is the infinitely perfect one. As God, He wills to seek Himself as the highest good in the sphere of absolute ethical perfection. This is His blessedness. This blessedness, He Himself, wills. When He wills to bless the creature, He wills to be gracious unto the creature by bringing him into communion and fellowship with Him, to partake of His blessedness—not essentially, of course; but ethically—spiritually. Only the elect in Christ may be the recipients of His blessedness to save, and His grace. By nature, the elect are worthy of hell; not grace. This is spiritual and ethical. Therefore, the nature of grace itself excludes an interpretation of the text, by which the sparing of Nineveh and its cattle is to be understood as an operation of the grace of God. Only when the question is asked, “To whom is God gracious” when He spares Nineveh, are we to get a satisfactory answer to Jonah’s words.
In conclusion, it may be said that God spares Nineveh because of its elect remnant, and the cattle, because it belongs to the sphere of the creation which God has made, in order to fulfill His Counsel concerning the salvation of His Church, in Christ.