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Catholic Concern for Animals
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Selections From The Ark Number 198 - Winter 2004
Animals and humans in the psalms
Scripture scholar John Eaton, assisted by his wife Margaret, provided the teaching at this year’s ecumenical retreat in Chester. The talks were so appreciated that they will be serialised in The Ark, beginning with the first talk: Animals and humans in the scheme of things: two views from the Psalms
by John Eaton
Of all the things we do for our animals, the most important is feeding them – at least they seem to think so. Our late cat Talitha certainly thought so. She knew the times exactly and was always working to improve them. As I prepared her dish, she would get on my shoulder and hang around my neck, staring down intently. Also punctual and pressing are the birds in the garden. They wait for the curtains to be opened in the morning and for movement in the kitchen. Thora the song-thrush lands on the table just outside the window and stares at us with tilted head. She doesn’t move as we go out and open our hand to scatter currants in front of her. She gathers them quickly, as the blackbirds are hard on her trail. Charles the raven always comes for his chips, and Woodbine Willy the elegant woodpigeon loves his seeds.
But you know all about feeding animals. I mention it only because it is a picture of God in the Psalms – how they pray to him with imploring eyes and voices, how he remembers the right times for each of them, how he opens his hand and scatters the food and they gather it. We shall come back to this picture, so simple and homely, yet so deep. But first let’s stay with the relation of man with animals. What does God mean it to be? There are two angles on this in the Psalms.
In the first view, man appears as king over all the other creatures. But as we shall see, it is not a matter of unbridled power. For this angle we turn especially to the beautiful little Psalm 8. Here the human being is seen as a king crowned by God. ‘What is man?’ the singer asks, and continues:
You (God) have given him little less than the angels,
And crowned him with glory and honour.
You gave him rule over the works of your hands;
You put everything under his feet.
Such is the wealth and honour given to the human being, thinks the singer, that it is little short of what the heavenly beings have. To this rule are subject ‘flocks and herds of every kind, and animals of the wild, birds of the heavens and fish of the sea, and all that moves along the paths of the seas.’ How wonderful, meditates the singer, that God who created the vast world and shaped with his fingers the countless bodies of the night sky should have such thought and care for us as to give us this royal honour!
But there are other things in the psalm to guard us against abusing our position. It emerges that we best live, not in pride and strength, but in humility and thankful praise. To praise God we are wholly inadequate – inarticulate as babes at the breast. But he makes our feeble praises a bulwark against the tides of evil and chaos:
Out of the mouths of babes at the breast you have founded a stronghold,
to counter your foes and still the avenger.
So our royal mission is to be marked by humility and praise; here is something God can use against the tides of chaos and cruelty.
What ruling is all about
Furthermore, we learn from the psalm that as our Lord our ruler is ever mindful and loving towards us, so should we be to those put under our rule. The heavenly king shows us what ruling is about. In our turn we have the royal duty to protect and care for the creatures of every kind.
And yet again, the psalm emphatically points to the true king, the king above puny man. It is extremely significant that the psalm both opens and closes with these same words:
O Lord, our Lord,
How glorious is your name in all the earth!
On earth, as well as in heaven, God remains the true king. If our inner eye can be but opened, we shall see a world full of his glorious majesty. His ‘name’, shining out gloriously, is the giving of himself. He is the only king of supreme majesty. Our royal calling is then the duty to be his stewards, the agents of his will. Woe to mankind if it presumes to rule earth and her creatures in its own desire and power!
The ideal of the psalm is taken by the New Testament (Hebrews 2:6-8) as fulfilled in Christ. He is the royal Son of Man who reigns as the Father wills. So we receive the pattern from him He shows us the humility which is the bastion against evil. He teaches us ever to show to the little ones in our charge the kindness we ourselves have received from our master. And he teaches us that the kingdom, the power and the glory are God’s alone. In humility, praise and love we are to fulfil our stewardship over the animals.
But there’s a second view in the Psalms for our place in the scheme of things. This we see especially from Psalm 104 (103). Here is praise of the Lord; there is a survey of what he does for animals and humans. And here humans have no priority or lordship, but just take their place in the list of the creatures depending on the kindness and life-giving power of the Creator.
What a grand psalm this is! It starts with the singer bidding his very soul to ‘bless’ the Lord. That is, to praise him with heart overflowing with thankfulness. Then the Creator’s work is surveyed: the light, the heavens and their waters, the clouds, wind, lightning, earth, mountains, oceans. Then the springs and brooks, and at once the thought of their purpose concentrates on animals:
You send the springs into the brooks,
To run among the hills.
They give drink to every creature of the field;
The wild asses drink their thirst.
Along the flood-bed of the torrents grows a thicket of plants and trees in which God is caring for the birds: ‘By the brooks dwell the birds of the heavens and give voice among the branches.’ For the cattle God makes the grass to grow, and he provides crops also for the human labour that yields bread, wine and oil. Then back to the animals – the Lord himself has planted the great trees, another place for birds to nest and for the house-like dwellings of the storks. The rocky heights are his care for other species: ‘The wild goats have the highest mountains, the rock-badgers (hyraxes) find refuge in the cliffs.’ The night is God’s care for nocturnal animals.
You made darkness that night may fall,
When all the beasts of the forest creep forth.
The lions roar for their portion,
Praying for their food from God.
The sun rises and they are gone,
To lie down to rest in their dens.
Then man goes out to his work,
And to labour until the evening.
After this brief mention of man, it is the whole tapestry of creatures that excites the poet: ‘How many are your works, O Lord, and all of them done with wisdom! The earth is filled with your creatures!’ and now comes mention of the sea, so wide, and its creatures beyond all numbering, including the great sea-animals that God ‘formed to play’ in the waves. Much as all of us love and rejoice in animals, how much more does he who made them and daily feeds them! So the psalm reflects this love and joy of God, and even the sad reality of death is embraced in his eternal work of creation and renewal:
These all look to you,
To give them their food at the proper time.
When you give it them they gather it,
You open your hand and they are filled with good.
When you hide your face they are troubled;
When you take away their breath they die and return to their clay.
When you send out your Spirit they are created,
And you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the Lord be for evermore,
And the Lord ever rejoice in his creatures.
Such is the view of this psalm: the joy of the Lord is in all his creatures, and his loving care is for them all. Indeed, in the psalm’s survey the animals have the major part, with man just humbly having his place among them. It seems an ideal picture, but, at the very end, is this a sudden lapse into harshness?
Let sinners be taken from the earth, and the wicked be no more!
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
It is an outburst we can surely well understand. When our souls love and wonder at the creatures of God, how we grieve at man’s cruelty and ruinations! Our strong prayer must be that God will remove the cruel activity from the good kingdom of life, and by the mighty power of his Spirit turn the hearts of stone into living hearts of love.
Thus the two views from the inspiration of the ancient psalmists: our kingship and our kinship; our high calling, and our belonging with the animals in the loving embrace of the Lord who gave life to all. In the light of these psalms we may pray:
Lord, help us to fulfil our royal mission in humility and praise, thankful for your kindness to us, and kind in our turn to the creatures you have entrusted to our care. To you alone belongs the royal name and glory. May our service play its part in your turning back of the tides of cruelty and the coming of your kingdom of peace.
O God, glorious in the light of life and love, present in the breath of the Spirit, your care and delight are for all your creatures. Turn the hearts of the cruel, we pray, and lead us all to bless your name, and delight without harming in the beauty of your creation.
* Introduction, translation and commentary on these psalms are offered by John Eaton in his The Psalms (Edinburgh: T&T Clark International, 2003, £25) and Meditating on the Psalms (ditto, December 2004, approx £7.99).
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