found this 19th Century article on the birds of the Bible charming. It is filled
with dated concepts such as the idea that different species of the "animal
kingdom" correspond with human emotions and "affections," but in
making the observation of nature a part of one's religious practice, the author's
train of thought is imaginative and helpful! Enjoy.
"How are birds
peculiar among animals? Their arms are wings, enabling them to rise above the
ground and to fly quickly through the air. Birds also have very quick, sharp sight.
An eagle or a hawk as he circles about, high in the air, is watching the little
objects on the ground far below. How quick a little bird's sight must be, to fly
safely through the woods, in and out among the branches! And we must not forget
the sweet songs of some birds and the bright colors of others, which are their
means of sharing with us the delights of their happy life.
of the animal kingdom, birds correspond to affections of some sort.
you think they picture affections for passive enjoyment? No, evidently affections
for intense mental activity of some kind. How quickly, almost nervously, birds
move, hardly resting long enough to be distinctly seen! They suggest at once the
thoughts which "flit" incessantly through the mind; the mental pictures
and conceptions-ideas, we call them-which chase one another in rapid succession.
The birds with their quick flight and their sharp eyes are much like the affections
for forming and enjoying these mental pictures.
When we remember that the
birds are the noblest of flying creatures, and that their sight is wonderfully
penetrating, we must conclude that they correspond to our enjoyment in mental
pictures of the noblest kind. The mental birds enjoy not mere natural scenes,
but pictures of human life, which have a living, spiritual interest.
a thought to the bird's wonderful power of flight, which enables his bright
eyes to enjoy such broad and such quickly changing views. To some people, and
to some states of mind in us all, nothing seems real and sure but the things of
the earth which we can see and feel. But we may learn the substantial reality
of spiritual things; states of affection and thought and spiritual influences
become as real to us as our natural surroundings, and much more important. We
can think of them as of real things; the thought finds in them a substantial support,
and delights to look at life from that spiritual point of view. So the mental
bird rises from the ground into the air.
Thought which looks at life from
the spiritual side, understanding something of spiritual causes and general principles,
can take a broad and comprehensive view, seeing many things at a glance and in
their true relations. Such thought also, not being tied to mere outward circumstances,
can enter with sympathy into states of life quite unlike our own. So the mental
bird flies quickly and gains distinct ideas of many different kinds of life.
seems strange to caution you not to mistake a bird for a horse; yet perhaps it
is necessary, our sight of spiritual objects is so dim.
is that between gaining an idea of some state of life, and actually coming into
it. The horse is the affection for carrying you step by step, by laborious reasoning,
into a new state, or of bringing some new element into your life. The bird does
not attempt this, but simply gives you a picture, an idea, of another state. You
may gain an idea even of the life of heaven, where love to the Lord and the neighbor
rule; but to bring your own mind into that heavenly state is another matter and
much more laborious.
The sense of the reality of spiritual things,
and the power to rest the thought upon them, is as various as the power of flight
in different birds. See a great eagle soaring without effort high in air, or circling
with undazzled eyes towards the sun! A noble bird with such powers of flight and
of sight pictures an affection for spiritual thought of the strongest, most searching
kind, which rises highest above superficial appearances, and takes the most comprehensive
views of life, the most in accord with the Divine wisdom.
In Isaiah we read,
"They that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount
up with wings as eagles." (Isa. xl. 31) They shall become strong in will
for what is good, and shall rise into spiritual intelligence. We can now understand
more completely the lament for Saul and Jonathan "They were swifter than
eagles, they were stronger than lions." (2 Sam. i. 23) It tells of the spiritual
intelligence and the strength which come with the first principles of Divine truth
which are adopted to rule the life. Again, "Ye have seen what I did unto
the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself."
(Exod. xix. 4) Power to grasp intellectually spiritual truth, is the means of
lifting us up from natural obscurity into heavenly light. Of the Lord's care for
His people it is said: "He led him about, he instructed him, he kept him
as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her
young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings; so
the LORD alone did lead him." (Deut. xxxii. 10-12) It tells of the Lord's
effort to lift men up to understand spiritual truth in heavenly light, imparting
to them of His own Divine intelligence.
It is easy to see how the eagle,
which represents the most spiritual and penetrating power of human thought, may
in a supreme sense be a type of the Lord's omniscience and His ever watchful care.
What a beautiful symbol of Divine watchfulness - the stately bird soaring above
the earth, observing all that goes on below! John saw four animals in the midst
of and about the throne, "The fourth beast was like a flying eagle."
(Rev. iv. 7) In this way was expressed the Divine intelligence and guard and providence.
When, in other places, "eagles " are spoken of as evil birds
- "Wheresoever the body is, thither will the eagles be gathered together
" (Luke xvii. 37) - vultures are usually meant, representing affections for
filthy and evil thoughts. Such thoughts abound when spiritual life is dead.
contrast with the eagles, there are multitudes of birds which make comparatively
short flights, resting often, and never rising high above the ground. They also
correspond to affections for thinking about states of human life, but not profoundly,
not abstractly, not rising far above the forms in which spiritual qualities manifest
themselves in social and domestic life. In these concrete forms the little birds
of the mind enjoy the quickly passing pictures of human life.
Some of the
little birds have bright plumage, and some delight our ears with song. So they
express their gladness. And are happy thoughts content to remain unexpressed?
The faculty which delights to see the happy things of human life in the world
around us must surely express its delight to the minds and hearts of others. The
sweet songs of birds and their bright colors, are but suggestions of the happy
thoughts of home and friendship and use and recreation which should find expression
in our conversation and our song.
The Lord's care for the sparrows
- and "sparrows " in the Bible is usually a general name for all little
birds - suggests His knowledge of all our passing thoughts and His care for them.
"Not one of them shall fall to the ground without your Father." (Matt.
x. 2931) "Yea, the sparrow hath found an house, and the swallow a nest for
herself, where she may lay her young, even thine altars, O LORD of hosts, my King
and my God." (Ps. lxxxiv. 3) It is the cry of exiles, perhaps in Babylon,
whose thoughts have flown like birds to the beloved courts of the Lord. (AE 282
end) So our thoughts may delight to dwell upon the life of heaven, and may rise
even to the Lord in worship, while still we are far away.
occur to every one where birds have a bad meaning. In the parable of the sower,
for example: "Some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured
them up. . . . When any one heareth the word and understandeth it not, then cometh
the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart." (Matt.
xiii. 4, 19) The fowls here are plainly the enjoyments in untrue and distracting
thoughts, which are inspired by evil and cause the Lord's words to be forgotten
and without fruit.
One bird we must especially remember, the dove.
all know its gentle loving nature. It is among birds what the lamb is among animals.
And to what affection does the lamb correspond? To innocent love for the Lord
and for one another. The dove then corresponds to the affection for thinking innocent
thoughts of trust in the Lord and of love for one another. The likeness of the
dove and the lamb is shown in the permission of the Jewish law: "If she be
not able to bring a lamb, then she shall bring two turtle-doves or two young pigeons."
(Lev. xii. 8; Luke ii. 24. See also Lev. v. 7 and xiv. 21, 22) It means that if
we are not as yet able to bring to the Lord the innocent, trustful affection which
He desires, we shall at least bring thoughts of trust and innocence, and these
are acceptable to the Lord till we are stronger. "Oh that I had wings like
a dove! for then would I fly away and be at rest." (Ps. Iv. 6) It is a prayer
for that affectionate grasp of the truths in regard to innocent love for the Lord
and for one another, which would free us from states of temptation and bring peace.
. Remember in the story of the flood, that grand but awful picture of temptation,
how Noah "sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from
off the face of the ground; but the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot.
. . And again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; and the dove came in to him
in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive-leaf pluckt off: so Noah knew
that the waters were abated from off the earth." (Gen. viii. 8-11) It is
the affection for perceiving in human life the signs of innocence and nearness
to the Lord, rejoicing in their first return after a season of darkness and temptation.
"And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water:
and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending
like a dove, and lighting upon him." (Matt. iii. 16) The baptism represented
the laying aside from our Lord's humanity what was from men. After each such effort
there descended upon Him some new gift of Divine innocence, with the happy perception
of new possibilities of innocent life among men. The dove seems especially to
represent the delight of perceiving these innocent states of human life now made
Another bird several times mentioned in the Bible is the raven.
The name brings to mind no bright plumage and no sweet songs; it suggests
blackness, for this is the raven's color. He is also a clumsy bird, without music
in his voice, and somewhat harmful through his habit of preying upon small and
feeble animals. These qualities do not suggest an affection for wise, interior
thought as the spiritual raven. His blackness suggests ignorance. He is a picture
of the ignorant thought of those who have had no. opportunity to learn, or of
those. who prefer ignorance.
You remember that Noah, before he sent the
dove, "sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters
were dried up from off the earth." (Gen. viii. 7) It is a type of the false
thoughts which still are active till the season of temptation is past. (AC 864-868)
But remember how Elijah, when he fled from Ahab, "went and dwelt by the brook
Cherith, that is before Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in
the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening." (1 Kings xvii. 5, 6) Elijah,
who spoke the Lord's Word so boldly, stands as a type of that Word in its plain,
literal form. When the precepts of the Word are rejected and hated by those in
the church, the Lord provides that they shall be cherished in the thoughts of
Gentiles and ignorant people. So it was at His coming, when "the common people
heard him gladly." "He giveth to the beast his food, and to the' young
ravens which cry." (Ps. cxlvii. 9) How beautifully this familiar verse teaches
us the Lord's care for those who are in ignorance but desire instruction! (AE
650) And again: "Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which
neither have storehouse nor barn, and God feedeth them how much more are ye better
than the fowls? " (Luke xii. 24) The Lord provides what knowledge we will
receive .of heavenly life, and even if our affections for spiritual thought are
very feeble and imperfect, they are objects of His tenderest care."
WL Worcester, The Language of Parable (New York: New-Church Press, 1897)
If you want to talk with someone in person, please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.