Animals have achieved unparalleled status in modern society. Although they have been venerated in various cultures since ancient times, Rom. 1. 23, the creatures have probably never enjoyed greater popularity than they currently do on the contemporary scene. Millionaires have bequeathed their wealth to pets, while those of humbler stations in life sometimes confer on their domesticated animals the position of family members. Meanwhile, the environmentalists lobby hard for all creatures to be afforded the same rights and protections as humans. Some ardent animal rights activists have devoted their entire lives to fighting for the maintenance and protection of reptiles, birds, mammals, and various other lower life forms. While it is true that animals are important, they are not of ultimate value – nor do they even equal mankind in worth. Only in appreciating their connection to the Almighty does one properly comprehend the place and purpose of animal life.
It is ironic that the modern mindset that elevates animals’ importance also undermines their ultimate significance – indeed, the purpose of humans as well – for they mostly affirm that all life is the product of inanimate forces and matter coupled with chance. They see no guiding hand behind creation; nor do they perceive any future that is not tied to this world as it currently is. In so doing, they actually devalue all life by attributing it to mere cosmic accidents. If life is accidental, then assigning any value to animal or human life is completely arbitrary. Genocide, cannibalism, racism, total eradication of animal species – these are all permissible! Moreover, many of those who most ardently wish to see animal life protected have no problem with the abortion of human babies. It is a strange world indeed, when ‘Save the whales’ trumps ‘Save the babies’ as a slogan for human conduct! Yet the Bible clearly teaches that life is not accidental, but has significance, for it is made by the creator God, Gen. 1.
As the maker and sustainer of the universe, God has the right to determine the purpose and destiny of everything that exists. He assigns value to animals and humans, but the worth of each is different. Nevertheless, mankind and the beasts are linked in the divine scheme for this planet. Man is higher, for he is made in the image and likeness of God, Gen. 1. 26. Although he is placed over the animals, Ps. 8. 5-8, he is not independent of them. As God’s representatives over the earth, Adam and his descendents are meant to be caretakers of this world and its resources (including the animals).
Man was created with a custodial role in mind, Gen. 2. 5. The Garden of Eden was God’s training school for man to learn how to ‘work it and keep it’, Gen. 2. 15 ESV, or ‘to care for it and to maintain it’ NET. Under divine tutelage, the lessons learned in the garden would prepare man to ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’, Gen. 1. 28 ESV. If man was to order planet earth after the divine will by making it flourish in keeping with all of its innate potential, then he must first be properly instructed. Above all, he must learn the fundamental principle of life; everything and everyone must obey the Lord God. This principle would later be articulated in a different way, ‘man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live’, Deut. 8. 3. In the garden this principle was put forth as a command not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, Gen. 2. 16-17.
Unfortunately, Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command regarding this tree, and for this act of rebellion were banished from the paradise that the Almighty made for them, Gen. 3. Because he was God’s steward over the earth, Adam’s fall had catastrophic consequences for the natural creation. Death became a new and unwelcome reality on the planet, Rom. 5. 12. The animals themselves became a threat to one another, as well as a danger to man, if not handled carefully. Additionally, animals’ link to man’s struggle with sin and its consequences also extended to the commencement of animal sacrifices as a picture of atonement, Gen 3. 21; 4. 4; Lev. 1-7. In subsequent centuries, God would unfold in type the great redemptive and propitiatory work of Christ by means of the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament era.
When mankind’s sin and violence reached epic proportions, the animals shared in the corruption that mankind brought on the planet, and so perished in the Noahic flood, Gen. 6. 7; compare Zeph. 1. 2-3 where He once again threatens to wipe out animals because of man’s wickedness. Yet, like their fallen custodians, animals found deliverance in the ark, Gen. 6. 19-21. In the postdiluvian world, men’s relationship to the animal creation was reiterated and clarified:
‘And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fi shes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man’, Gen. 9. 1-5.
Thus, man could use animals for food, but must be careful in the matter of blood shedding; the Lord clearly did not want things to devolve into the antediluvian maelstrom of violence and wanton blood-letting. Implicit in these instructions is the same principle since the beginning of creation:
Even in this fallen world, God still oversees nature providentially for the maintenance of His animal creation. The 104th Psalm shares some lovely pictures of this aspect of the Lord’s goodness, Ps. 104. 11-30. In speaking of God’s fatherly care for people, the Lord Jesus mentions the natural creation, saying, ‘Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?’ Matt. 6. 26. In Matthew chapter 10 verse 29 He says, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father’. This last verse prompted our late brother William MacDonald to quip, ‘God attends the funeral of every sparrow’.1 That whimsical comment well sums up the goodness, attention to detail, and providential care that the Creator shows for even the least esteemed creatures. In keeping with this ethos, the law contains many instructions stressing kind treatment for beasts, Deut. 25. 4. Indeed, treating such creatures well is a matter of right conduct, as it says in Proverbs chapter 12 verse 10, ‘A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel’.
God’s sovereignty over the animals is most clearly seen in connection with the Son of Man. As the Lord Jesus rode into Jerusalem for the final week of His ministry, He did so on a colt the foal of an ass, Luke 19. 30. Not only did this fulfill Old Testament prophecy, Zech. 9. 9, it also demonstrated His control over the animal creation. This unbroken steed did not buck or try to throw Him off. Rather, Christ humbly rode into the city to present Himself to Israel once again, and the beast bore Him without complaint.
Only when the Lord Jesus returns at His second coming will nature be under the dominion of perfectly administrating hands. Currently, man is at odds with the animal kingdom – desperately trying to manage fish, birds, and other creatures with only limited success. Yet, when the last Adam reigns from Jerusalem the earth will see all things – including the animals – put under His feet, Heb. 2. 8-9. During His millennial kingdom the natural order will be peaceable, as shown by the specific scene of wolves lying down with lambs, Isa. 65. 25. Tennyson’s well-known phrase ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ will be an obsolete relic of the past, as the universe beholds the King of kings making the earth to flourish according to all of its potential and all of the divine will.
It is evident that God considers animals to be important, for they are His creatures. They are valuable in benefitting mankind as well as in glorifying their Creator. Moreover, God has used them in interesting ways to do His bidding. He employed ravens to transport food to Elijah, 1 Kgs. 17. 6. When He wanted to defend Elisha, bears were used, 2 Kgs. 2. 24. To discipline his erring prophet and redirect him to Nineveh, He used a great fish, Jonah 1. 17. On another occasion, a donkey rebuked Balaam at the Lord’s behest, 2 Pet. 2. 16. God can close lions’ mouths, Dan. 6. 22, and can send a lion to kill, 1 Kgs. 13. 24. The sovereign Lord uses animals to accomplish His will for this planet!