The Whale and the Cow

Surprising Mercy in Jonah’s Story

Article by

Pastor, Hudson, Wisconsin

Though only four chapters long, the book of Jonah is filled with strange and unique elements.

Whereas most prophets speak to other nations from Israel, God calls Jonah to address Nineveh from Nineveh. Prophets often resist God’s call, but Jonah actually runs away. On the boat headed for Joppa, idolatrous sailors encounter the living God and immediately begin to worship him. And then, of course, Jonah survives the sea by being swallowed by an enormous fish and living in its belly for three days.

When Jonah finally does preach to the Ninevites, they respond to his preaching with unrivaled repentance — and everyone, including the animals, takes part in mourning for sin. And though every preacher I know longs for Nineveh-like revival, Jonah is distraught at the city’s repentance and angry that God would show such wide compassion.

Finally, the book doesn’t end with a nice resolution. By the Lord’s providence, a plant grows up quickly to shade Jonah from the heat, but then, by that same providence, a worm destroys the plant. In the face of Jonah’s anger, God asks the prophet a question that is also intended for the reader: “Should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11).

Among all these strange and unique elements, consider the book’s last phrase. Why does the story of Jonah end with the mention of “also much cattle”?

God’s Angry Prophet

To get to an answer to that question, let’s remember the near context. Chapter 4 begins with Jonah enraged with God. And here, we find out why Jonah ran away from Nineveh the first time. He tells the Lord, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2). Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew the Lord’s heart to bless; he knew and believed the Lord’s own self-disclosure that he is gracious and merciful and relents from disaster (Exodus 34:6–7).

Because Jonah knew God’s character, he knew that if he went to Nineveh and preached, the Ninevites might turn from their violence — and God, being the gracious God he is, would relent. Jonah was running away from giving Nineveh an opportunity to experience the mercy of God. One of the tragic ironies of this book is that Jonah himself experiences great mercy from the Lord (who spares him from death through the great fish), and yet Jonah is angry when the Ninevites experience that same mercy.

“God is the missionary in this book, pursuing both Nineveh and his prophet with amazing grace.”

But just as God drew near to Cain when Cain was angry at him (Genesis 4:6–7), in mercy and compassion, God draws near to Jonah. Though Jonah is quick to anger, the Lord is slow to anger. He asks Jonah an important heart-revealing question: “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4). God is not only interested in Nineveh experiencing his mercy; he is also pursuing Jonah. God is the missionary in this book, pursuing both Nineveh and his prophet with his amazing grace.

While Jonah waits to see what God will do with Nineveh, God moves into the next stage of pursuing Jonah’s angry heart. After Jonah makes some shade for himself from the heat, the Lord appoints a plant to add extra shade. Jonah is very happy about the Lord’s kindness to him (Jonah 4:6). But when God appoints a worm to destroy the plant, and a scorching east wind to beat down on, Jonah is angry again — this time about the loss of the plant that shaded him from the heat. And now, in a very personal way, the Lord draws near to highlight his own compassion for Nineveh.

Pitying Plants and People

God’s words to Jonah follow a common form of argumentation as he moves from the lesser to the greater:

You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle? (Jonah 4:10–11)

In this question, God affirms that Jonah is right, in a way, to have pity for the plant. But Jonah neither labored for nor cultivated the plant, and he experienced its relief for only a day. If Jonah is right to have compassion on the plant, is not the Lord’s right to have compassion on a city of more than 120,000 people, along with much cattle?

Now, with the context settled, we can get back to our question: Why does the Lord mention cattle?

In one sense, the mention of cattle is simply a part of the lesser-to-greater argument. Plants are important, and Jonah is right to have pity for the plant, but people and cattle are even more important than plants. Isn’t it right for the Lord to have pity on a great city with all kinds of people and cattle?

But to me and other commentators, the mention of cattle also signals something important that we need to remember about God’s love for all creation, for all he himself has made, from plants to animals to humans.

God’s Care for All His Works

God has made humans in his image (Genesis 1:26–27), and this was the crowning act of the six days of creation. He made humans a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5). To save humans, the Son of God became like us in every way, except for sin (Hebrews 2:17; 4:15). We humans are of great value to God, and though we have rebelled, God has much mercy for us.

At the same time, though not in the same way, God cares about animals. He has pity and compassion on animals. Animals are his creation, and God cares about what animals experience in his world. This is one of the reasons Israel was not to muzzle the ox (Deuteronomy 25:4). This is also why Jesus teaches us not to be anxious, based on the beauty of the plants of the field and the Father’s care for birds (Matthew 6:25–34). Notice Jesus’s lesser-to-greater argument regarding our Father’s care:

Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? (Matthew 6:26)

Jesus’s logic is clear. Our Father feeds and cares for the birds of the air; they have what they need when they need it, though they do not sow, reap, or gather. The Father himself feeds them. And we are of more value than birds.

“Just because we humans are of more value than birds, plants, or cattle doesn’t mean they are of no value.”

But just because we humans are of more value than birds, plants, or cattle doesn’t mean they are of no value to our gracious and compassionate God. Cattle are of value to God, and we are to value them, as he does.

He Cares for Cattle — and Dogs

We could apply God’s surprising regard for animals in various ways, but I want to close with just one.

In 2007, I had to euthanize the first dog my wife and I owned. His name was Elliott, and he was a black-and-white English springer spaniel who went everywhere with us. We loved Elliott. I learned how to pheasant and grouse hunt with him, and we had a great bond. But in time, his body filled with cancer. When I took him to the vet to be with him in his last moments, I was not prepared for the waves of grief that would come upon me then and for weeks after we put him down. I felt silly and embarrassed telling friends about this because I would start to weep. He was just a dog, but I was grieving as if I had lost a close friend.

And that’s when Jonah 4:11 and the Lord’s pity for cattle started to help me. Yes, Elliott was a dog. But the Lord cares about dogs because he created dogs. I am right to have compassion on my dog. The Lord is right to have compassion on cattle; he made, sustains, and cares for cattle. Even more, God is right to have compassion on Nineveh, that great city. And it is absolutely amazing that the Lord would have compassion on me and you.

is married and the father of three sons. He is also the Senior Pastor of Faith Community Church in Hudson, Wisconsin.