God's Word has been given to man to point out the way of salvation. It is not intended to be a book of nature. However, in it there are a multitude of references to the natural world, many of them used to illuminate spiritual truths. The birds of the Bible alone provide a fascinating springboard for study.
There are nearly 300 verses in the Bible that mention birds. More than one hundred of these merely use the word "fowl" or "bird," leaving the reader to guess at the species. It is interesting to note that the Old Testament writers knew more about birds, and apparently were more interested in birds than were the New Testament writers. Paul, for instance, refers to birds only twice in all of his epistles.
Birds are seldom confused with other members of the animal kingdom because of two conspicuous characteristics—wings and feathers. Since they do have these prominent features, one can easily see that some of the Bible writers were thinking of birds when they used such words as "flying," "wings," and "feathers."
How fittingly the Bible uses birds to teach spiritual lessons. To one beset by the cares of this life comes the verse: "In the Lord put I my trust: how say ye to my soul, Flee as a bird to your mountain?" (Ps. 11: 1). For one who has evaded the intrigue of Satan is the text, "Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare" (Ps. 124:7). For one who is perplexed because of trouble there is recorded, "Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, a curse that is causeless does not alight" (Prov. 26:2. R.S.V.). For those who cannot understand why unbelievers are exalted the prophecy is given, "Their glory shall fly away like a bird" (Hosea 9:11). To the man who is filled with self-pity because he is not blessed with all the modern comforts, Jesus says, "The birds of the air have nests; ... but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20).The favorite bird of ancient Israel seems to have been the dove. This is easy to understand, for the rock dove of Palestine was abundant. It nested in holes of the cliffs that protected pleasant valleys. This gentle and beautiful bird had the same love for its dovecote and the same fidelity to its mate that our mourning doves have today. No wonder it was spoken of affectionately in the Psalms thus: "As the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold" (Ps. 68:13).
The dove was released by Noah to determine how much the flood waters had abated. It was used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit at Jesus' baptism. Those who were impoverished might use a dove in place of a lamb for a sacrificial offering. Even of Mary and Joseph, the parents of Jesus, it is said: "And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord . . . and to offer a sacrifice . . . , 'a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons'" (Luke 2:22-24, R.S.V.).
"The dove was a rabbinical symbol for Israel as a nation."—SDA Bible Dictionary, p. 278. This fact gives special significance to the verse, "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matt. 10:16). It was as if to say, "Be clever, be wary, be wise, but in all of this, remember you are Jews. Keep the innocence, the gentleness, and the harmlessness of the dove which has been your mystic symbol."
Using the same appropriate symbolism, the prophet Isaiah had visions of Gentiles coming in large numbers to worship the God of the Jews; and they too would possess the same ennobling virtues of the dove: "Who are these that fly as a cloud, and as the doves to their windows?" (Isa. 60:8).
The eagle with its powerful wings, its fierce talons, its sharp curved beak, and its predatory habits was used often in the Old Testament to encourage and stimulate the hosts of Israel. In the trackless wilderness, where they so often failed to trust God's care and judgment and to obey His laws, He remonstrated with them thus: "Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself. Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people" (Ex. 19: 4, 5).
Israel knew what God was talking about. They were in the wilds of Arabia. This was eagle country. Daily they saw these majestic wild birds soaring across the valley of their encampment. The lesson was elementary and lucid. They, His people, would soar above their troubles. In the security of His strength they would laugh at the storms that beat about them—if they kept His covenant. No wonder they responded with "All that the Lord hath spoken we will do" (Ex. 19:8)!
During David's generation this divine care and gracious protection was voiced by the psalmist himself, using the same symbolism: "He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust" (Ps. 91:4). And perhaps imagining new spurts of energy on the part of the eagle, possibly after molting, David again writes concerning the blessings of God: "who satisfieth thy mouth with good things; so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's" (Ps. 103:5).
It was understood by Israel that God might need to permit trials to keep them from settling into complacency, but in these trials He would not forsake them. "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, . . . beareth them on her wings: so the Lord alone did lead him" (Deut. 32: 11, 12).
Sometimes God concedes reluctantly to the rebellious pleadings of His people. So it was when He gave Israel quails to eat in the wilderness. Even though God apparently planned a vegetarian diet for Israel, they had lived so long among "the flesh pots of Egypt" that they were not satisfied with the food provided, even though some of it was heavenly manna especially and miraculously given.
Moses, somewhat out of patience with the complaining host, told them, "Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will shew to you today" (Ex. 14:13). His sublime faith was rewarded in the spectacular phenomenon of quails falling on the camp in such numbers that they could not use them all. On that very day God "rained flesh also upon them as dust, and feathered fowls like as the sand of the sea" (Ps. 78:27).
It is thought by many that God used natural circumstances, as He has done at other times, to bring this about. It was the time of the year when these quails were migrating, and it was customary for great flocks to pass over a portion of the Mediterranean or the Red Sea. This is a long and tiresome trip for birds having heavy bodies and small wings, and many of them were exhausted when they reached land, and were easily caught. In any case, they usually fly close to the ground and may be caught with nets. A natural occurrence or not, the Lord saw to it that the flock was larger than usual; they landed providentially in the right place; and the timing was miraculous. In their hunger any meat would have satisfied their perverted appetites, but God in His indulgent kindness gave them the delicacy of quail flesh.
The longest list of birds in any one chapter of the Bible is found in Leviticus 11 (a similar one is in Deuteronomy 14). This list is made up of the "unclean birds." We do not know all the reasons why God permitted certain birds and animals to be eaten and prohibited others, but we do know that this list includes several carnivorous birds. Some writers think that the sacred ritual of the shedding of blood was involved. Israel was not permitted to use blood for food, nor apparently should they eat carnivorous birds that ate all parts of their prey including the blood.
Translators differ in regard to the English names of these unclean birds, but we would be nearly correct in saying that the list included the following: Vultures, eagles, kites, falcons, buzzards, ravens, rooks, owls, hawks, ospreys, storks, herons, and cormorants, all of which are carnivorous, or scavengers.
Strange to say, the list also includes the bat, which is not a bird at all. In those days, before scientific zoological classifications had been made, the Israelites probably would not have understood if the bat was not included. It flies, does it not?
The above list contains birds of many sizes, from the griffon vulture with a wingspread of eight feet to the little eight-inch scops owl. Some are soarers, such as the eagle, the vulture, the buzzard, and the hawk; some are definitely water birds, as the osprey, the heron, and the cormorant; and some were nocturnal, as the owl.
It was the raven that God used to bring food to Elijah. These are voracious, unclean birds that seem always to be hungry; and yet they kept the prophet alive during a famine while he was hiding from the wrath of Ahab. Unlovely or not, the ravens are under God's care. He provides for them and their young (Job 38:41), and used them miraculously to provide for one of His servants.
Jesus used the sparrow to emphasize one of His most precious lessons—that of His care for each individual. Here the word "sparrow" must surely have meant one of the smaller, colorless birds similar to our race of sparrows, because it apparently had little commercial or sentimental value. "Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?" (Matt. 10:29). Jesus says, "Fear not them which kill the body. . . . The very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows" (Matt. 10:28-31). Especially in these troublous times it is reassuring to know that the God who notes even a falling sparrow has an even stronger love for each person. He cares for you; He cares for me. Let us put our trust in Him, knowing that we are sheltered under His wings.