A Publication of
Catholic Concern for Animals
Selections From The Ark Number 199 - Spring 2005
Biblical scholar, John Eaton , the speaker at the 2004 Ecumencial Animal Welfare retreat, writes about God’s kindness to animals
By John Eaton
I was once well under way with a student dissertation on the biblical Hebrew word hesed (‘mercy / steadfast love’ etc.). My circumstances changed and I let it go. But it didn’t let go of me. To this day I think about the word and notice wherever it comes.
Recently a very frail old lady rang me up two or three times, full of grief about the death of her cat. Did I think she would ever meet him again in some after-life? I’ll come back to this.
In the Psalms, the love of God is seen as wonderfully good and kind, compassionate and caring, and what is more, faithful and enduring. And this marvellous love is seen as not only for the chosen people, nor only for all humans, but for all his creatures. We can see this great truth clearly, for example, in Psalm 145 (in some Catholic Bibles, 144).
Some scholars have disparaged the psalm as not being very original. But that’s all to the good for us. We are happy to have the well-known teaching summarised and hammered home when it is so favourable to animals. The psalm has also been disparaged because it is one of the alphabetic psalms, the verses beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. This is very cramping for good poetry. But it can result in strong, succinct statements of a theme. Many verses sound like sayings complete in themselves and so the affirmations of God’s universal love are heaped up. It is like a beautiful melody which we are glad to hear again and again until we know it well.
The psalm contains warm and thankful praise offered to God ‘the King’ – meaning that he is the Creator, life-giver, ruler and carer of the universe. The singer wants to live every day and always in thankful adoration: ‘Every day I will bless you, and praise your name for ever and ever.’ He declares that the greatness of the Lord can never be searched to any limit, but that the generations can only sing of his works and pass down a testimony, especially to his kindness: ‘Let them pour out the story of your abundant kindness, and sing with joy of your goodness. Gracious and compassionate is the Lord, patient and great in faithful love (hesed)’. Then the singer spells out that this love is for all the creatures:
The Lord is good to all,
In our own care of animals a great deal of our loving attention is channelled into feeding them. With a lot of animals to look after the work is considerable. But the psalm pictures the Lord as feeding them all, at the right time, and by hand:
The eyes of all look to you,
But the picture is not just of animals, but also of humans being fed. To us also he gives each day our daily bread. In this we and other creatures are on a par. And there are likewise verses where we might think only of humans, but the animals should not be excluded: ‘The Lord is good in all his ways, and faithful in all his deeds (another reading actually has ‘to all his creatures’). Near is the Lord to all ... he will hear their cry and save them. My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord, and let all creatures (‘all flesh’) bless his holy name for ever and ever’ (compare verse 10 and psalm 150 verse 6).
Thus, in their own way, the animals acknowledge the Lord’s faithful care. In the rapture of praise, the psalm sees God’s work in the world in an ideal light – as it was meant to be and how it will be in his perfected kingdom, a delight to which we can even now be open. The animals and humans are bound together in the circle of God’s faithful and tender love.
The cruel person
In tension with this happy view is all the selfishness, greed and cruelty which are prominent in the world. The jarring contrast is powerfully expressed in Psalm 36 (35). First comes a description of a figure of evil, a description intended to evoke God’s action. The cruel person is portrayed thus: ‘Sin whispers to the wicked one in the depth of his heart; there is no dread of God before his eyes ... The words of his mouth are harm and deceit; he has ceased to act wisely and do good. He devises harm upon his bed; he sets himself on a path of wrong, and refuses no evil.’ To judge from what follows, it is a wide-spread evil that is lamented here. Ruin is done to all creation.
Then the singer opens up a contrasting picture – the world as God means it to be, and as it ultimately will be. The faithful love of God fills all, stretching from earth into the heavens. The goodness and justice of God fill the depths and the heights. Such ‘filling’ means that God’s love embraces all his creatures. This good and righteous Lord is the Saviour of all species, as verse 6 specifies: ‘Mankind and animals, Lord, you save / you will save.’ To the visionary singer it seems that this paradisal world centres on the Lord’s house. There his wings give shelter, hunger and thirst are amply satisfied, and from the Lord’s presence springs a fountain of life and radiance of light. ‘How precious is your faithful love!’ exclaims the singer. Then, returning to the present suffering, he begins his direct supplication: ‘Continue your faithful love to those who know you, and your justice to the true of heart.’
A prayer against cruelty
Thus, this distinctive psalm turns out to be a prayer against an arrogant wickedness and cruelty. The prayer holds on to the faithful love and salvation of God that embrace all the species: ‘Mankind and animals alike, Lord, you will save.’ It heartens us also to pray that he will put an end to the foot of arrogance and the hand of cruelty; that he will hasten the time when his goodness and love will be evidently seen to fill earth and heaven, and he will be fully revealed as the Saviour of people and animals alike.
In conclusion, I must come back to my unfinished dissertation. It brought me to appreciate the importance of this central term for God’s love, hesed. The traditional renderings ‘mercy’ and ‘loving-kindness’ were not adequate. This is a love which, above all, stands by its commitment. It will never let you down. And in the end we see that it is experience of this enduring love that undergirds the belief in the after-life – it is the very foundation of it. God does not abandon his faithful love, neither for the living, nor for the dead (Ruth 2:20). How significant, then, to find great biblical passages that see the animals also embraced in this hesed! To all his creatures he is committed. For all he has faithful love. Of all he is the Saviour. He will never abandon them. In his mystery beyond all our calculations, beyond all we can imagine, his animals too will live to him.
And so I felt able, in all sincerity, to tell the old lady on the phone, ‘Yes, you will meet Tigger again.’
· Introduction, translation and commentary on these psalms are offered by John Eaton in his The Psalms (T&T Clark International, 2003, £25) and Meditating on the Psalms (ditto, 2004, approx. £7.99).
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