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The Symbols of Christianity: Birds of the Bible

I 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.

Being members of the animal kingdom, birds correspond to affections of some sort.

Do 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.

Give 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.

It 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.

The difference 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.

In 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.

Instances will 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.

We 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 possible.

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."

from WL Worcester,
The Language of Parable
(New York: New-Church Press, 1897)

For more on the sources of symbolism in Christianity

For more on the significance of animals in Christianity

Charles Henderson

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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, 2005).
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.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.