The Symbolism of Animals in the Psalms

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We have been commenting on Psalm 26 as an opportunity to see central themes that appear throughout the Psalms. Our main purpose is to pray the Psalms better – but also to learn from the Psalms to enrich other aspects of our spiritual life.

Psalm 26 has no animals in it. But let us pause, following last week’s consideration of worship in the Tabernacle and the Temple, to consider the rich use of animal symbolism in the Psalms. Much of this animal symbolism appears in the sacrificial worship of the Temple: all Temple sacrifices used goats, sheep, cattle, or birds, along with inanimate objects like oil, wheat, and salt.

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Jesus speaks of separating the sheep and the goats. The contrast is arresting.

It is often said that sheep are stupid animals, but that’s not quite right. As Jesus points out, sheep recognize the voice of their master. They are one of the few kinds of animals that come when called, and that follow, instead of having to be driven with a stick. Consider the difference between a cowboy, who chases the cows with a whip, and a shepherd, who calls them to follow.

Sheep go astray, to be sure, but what distinguishes them is precisely the intelligence that allows them to recognize who cares for them and follow him. Goats are the extreme opposite: utterly unruly and unrulable. For this reason, the Law of the Temple uses goats as a symbol of sin: of failing to listen, failing to know that our Shepherd cares for us, failing to follow.

Sheep, too, are herd animals, part of the flock. Goats are individualists. The Lord calls us into his sheepfold, his Church.

Finally, sheep are discerning: they eat what is clean and pure. Goats are undiscerning. Those more familiar with goats than I am say that goats are the same way in their sexual habits: gross and undiscerning. We are called to stay in the pastures of the Lord, and to eat what really nourishes.

Finally, among the sheeps are rams: a sign of regal authority. Just as the sheep follow their Good Shepherd, so also among them some are set out for leadership and special respect.

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The Psalms also use the symbolism of cattle. We think of cattle mostly in terms of milk and meat, but that is not what distinguishes them in the Psalms. Indeed, it is interesting to note that all the animals used in sacrifice are healthy animals: the kind that give nourishing meat and clean milk. Partly for this reason, some cultures worship the dairy animals (sheep, goats, and cows). We are called not to worship them, but to subordinate them to our own good: to use them well.

What distinguishes cattle from the other dairy animals, however – especially in an earlier kind of agriculture – was their strength. Cow are not only farm animals, but beasts of burden. We are meant to identify with them, too: they stay together, work hard, and keep their heads down.

Meanwhile, the Psalms also call us to identify with birds, especially simple doves. Although, like cattle, we should work hard and keep our heads down, like doves, we should not be earthbound, but should stretch to heaven. Doves are a symbol of contemplation.

But also a sign of simplicity. We are not to be like hawks and eagles, who prey on lesser birds, but like doves, who are friendly, gentle, and simple. That is the way to true contemplation.

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Finally, let us consider some animals in the Psalms that are not used in sacrifice.

The lion is, in Scripture, a sign of Satan. He is a killer, too strong for us. And, interestingly, he both roars, striking fear in our hearts, and stalks quietly in the darkness, where we will not see him. Beware the lion!

The deer, meanwhile, like doves, are barely tied to the ground. With their nimble feet, they are able to climb to the heights – and to flee from the predator. They show that the way to reach the good and flee the evil is through lightness, not brute strength.

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All of these animals take us into the wonderful world of symbolism. God gave us an imagination to use. He speaks in symbols for at least two reasons. First, because faith is for the simple – especially for the simple – and not just those who can understand fancy philosophy.

And second, because even those of us who study fancier stuff do better sometimes to realize that the spiritual life is richer than our explanations. Sometimes, rather than trying to puzzle out why we are working, we do better just to put our head down and think about oxen.

How could animal symbolism nourish your spiritual life?

eric.m.johnston

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