10 A righteous man regards the life of his animal,
But the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.
Do you love animals?
(And no, I do not just mean “medium rare.”)
Most of us have a soft spot in our hearts for animals. You are probably no different. Like the rest of us, you probably have a pet (or pets), visit zoos, aquariums, wildlife refuges, and enjoy seeing God’s creatures that inhabit the great outdoors.
We have dogs and cats that we refer to as “fur babies,” and often give them privileges that we deny our own children. We are allergic to them, curse the spots they make on the floor, hate the claw marks on the couch–but stay up all night with them when they are sick, and spend inordinate amounts of money on them at the vet.
God has created and filled the earth with a multitude of animals and living things. Animals are featured in the Bible from the Creation story and Noah’s Ark, to the beasts of Revelation and the triumph of Jesus, the Lamb of God. It is no wonder then, that Solomon speaks of animals throughout the book of Proverbs, from the industriousness of the ant:
6 Go to the ant, you sluggard!
Consider her ways and be wise–Proverbs 6:6
To the messiness of progress as shown by cleaning up after oxen:
4 Where no oxen are, the trough is clean;
But much increase comes by the strength of an ox.–Proverbs 14:4
I grew up on a farm and so can relate to this one, with the mess that livestock make–and the chores required of kids who clean up after them…in summer heat and winter cold.
Here in Proverbs, chapter 12, Solomon again uses animals to instruct his young charges on walking in the way of wisdom:
10 A righteous man regards the life of his animal,
But the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel.–Proverbs 12:10
This is a passage teaches that how you consider animals and their well-being reveals a lot about your own heart. However, deep within this verse, a fascinating question is raised: do animals have souls?
Before you get to that, you must first consider “a righteous man.” Many places in the world are still agrarian systems, and up until the last hundred years or so, the west was largely rural. Only the advent of automobiles, mass communication, and the ability to provide large amounts of food to urban areas, has the average westerner abandoned rural or farm life.
Until recently, in most towns and cities people kept chicken coops, rooftop or backyard gardens. With the change to cheap processed foods, fast food, and large supermarkets on every corner, most of this has gone away. With it, the knowledge required to grow food and manage livestock–a skill that was once far more common in our society than it is today.
Can you imagine your suburban neighborhood, or city block alive with the sound of roosters crowing in the pre-dawn hours, horses and mules in the streets below your windows, or a shed out back housing the family cow?
Do not forget that (according to legend) the great Chicago Fire was sparked by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocking over a lantern in her shed. This sparked a major conflagration that burned a relatively modern western city, as well as sparked a popular song that swept the nation just the same.
The popular minstrel song “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” sprang up in saloons and dance halls across America not long after the fire, taking Gilded Age society by storm. The lyrics were a bit on the nose with the blame:
Late one night, when we were all in bed,
Mrs. O'Leary lit a lantern in the shed.
Her cow kicked it over,
Then winked her eye and said,
"There'll be a hot time in the
old town tonight!”–Theodore Metz (attributed)
The song combines imagery and music from back-alley saloons, minstrel shows, and African American revival meetings. It was so popular it has been recorded and covered for over a century by numerous artists from Bessie Mae Smith to Bing Crosby. Troops played it in the Spanish-American War, and Theodore Roosevelt adopted it to be the theme song of his “Rough Riders.”
But I digress. (I had feared going down bunny trails over animal souls, and here we are talking about Teddy Roosevelt and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Lets get back on track.)
When you raise animals and produce for sustenance or income, you must have a working knowledge of how to care for them. This involves feeding, protecting, harvesting, and tending any medical needs that arise. This takes a certain understanding of many things, the rhythm and patterns of life–and the understanding that if you make the wrong choice, your animals or crops could die.
Solomon is saying here that a righteous man is one who possesses and wisely uses this knowledge in the care of the creatures for which he is responsible. Or, as commentator Bruce Waltke suggests:
If the wise care for their animals, how much more will they care for their slaves or servants.–Bruce Waltke, “Proverbs”
You and I do not have slaves or servants, but the point remains: how do you relate to those who are dependent on you for survival or their livelihood? Do you treat your employees with value and respect? Are you rude to the cashier at the grocery store, or on the phone to the receptionist at the doctor’s office?
These workers may not be beholden to you specifically for their pay, but you can be tempted to run roughshod over others when you are having a bad day, or seeking recompense for an error.
How about your pastor and his family? Do you see him as the anointed one of God who is called to shepherd, pray and preach the Word to you–or do you look down on him with a critical eye? Do you comment on or talk about how he raises his children, mistreat his wife with unrealistic expectations, or do you recognize the sacrifice he and his family have made in order to serve Christ in your midst?
Solomon is reminding you that your true worth lies in having a servant’s heart, just as Jesus tells His disciples (Matthew 20:24-28).
But what of animals? You may not be a farmer, but how you consider God’s creatures that inhabit creation around you is reflected in this same attitude.
In verse 10, Solomon tells you that the righteous man cares for the “life of his animal.” How do you treat animals under your care? Animal abuse is a terribly common occurrence in this world. You hear stories of people being arrested for “puppy farms” with cruel conditions, or neglected pets in locked cars. It takes a cold and calloused heart to laugh at an animal’s pain, or treat them like disposable things.
There is nothing wrong with hunting and fishing–or eating meat. How you conduct yourself as a hunter or fisherman matters. I have been on dove hunts where grown men overshot their limit and left birds on the field (I never joined them again). Overfishing threatens sea life, and game can be hunted to extinction.
Outdoor columnist Robert Ruark shared the wisdom of sportsmanship that he learned in his childhood:
You might as well learn that a man who catches fish or shoots game has got to make it fit to eat before he sleeps. Otherwise it’s all a waste and a sin to take it if you can’t use it.–Robert Ruark, “The Old Man and the Boy” (1957)
The wording in verse 10 is curious. The word for “life” is also sometimes translated “soul.” Does this mean that animals have souls? It is easy to look into your pets eyes, or witness the majesty of wildlife and ponder this question. The short answer is “yes,” but the long answer is, “no.”
Since I spent my youth on a farm, the books of James Herriot and the BBC TV series All Creatures Great and Small have always held a special place in my family’s heart. The tales of an animal vet in rural Yorkshire are a joy for anyone to relate to. They are filled with interesting people and the animals in their care, by which they owe their livelihoods:
What made John Skipton trail down that hillside every day in all weathers? Why had he filled the last years of those two old horses with peace and beauty? Why had he given them a final ease and comfort which he had withheld from himself? It could only be love.-James Herriot
A good farmer will do more than simply handle and harvest his livestock, he will care for them as well. Animals, though impacted by the Fall as we are, nevertheless possess an innocence that you can recognize, as does Herriot:
If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans.-James Herriot
The Hebrew concept of “soul” in Proverbs is slightly different than that of its use in the New Testament. The word נֶ֣פֶשׁ (nepes) is used 56 times in Proverbs and refers to “passionate drives and appetites.” The New Testament, psyche is different, and is the “seat and center of life that transcends the earthly.”
The “soul” here, then, concerns the “passionate drives and appetites” of all breathing creatures. (Incidentally, plants were not considered “breathing creatures” in the Hebrew mind.)
God cares for His creatures, and as a son of Adam or daughter of Eve, so should you. After all, they were created to tend and care for His garden, thus you and I are stewards of the earth.
In the Old Testament, God repeatedly shows His love and care for the beings He has created. In the Fourth Commandment, the animals share in His sabbath rest. He tells Job of the majesty of his created beasts:
27 Does the eagle mount up at your command,
And make its nest on high?–Job 39:27
Jesus reveals His Father’s care for even the smallest animals He has made:
26 Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?–Matthew 6:26
You, and others made in His image are indeed more important, and the lesson here is that if animals must be shown mercy, how much more humans. In contrast, even the “mercies of the wicked” are cruel, for natural man does not fear God and like the animals, he passes away without eternal hope:
12 Nevertheless man, though in honor, does not remain;
He is like the beasts that perish.–Psalm 49:12
Sadly, in this modern world, it is all too common for people to put great effort into protecting wildlife or raising pets, while hating or neglecting the people around them. Our culture will readily abuse helpless children by twisting sexual identity, or exposing them to pornography.
Perhaps you have been hurt by others in your own life and have a bad view of people. As a believer in Christ, you cannot isolate yourself, for the gospel and His love must be shared, and you are called to do this. How can you share the love of Christ if you despise the very ones who need to hear this good news (Romands 10:14)?
So no, animals do not have “souls” like you and I. Jesus was obedient unto death on a cross for those whom His Father had given him (John 17:9), and not for animals. However, they do hold a special place in God’s heart–and so do you. As the classic hymn sings:
I sing because I’m happy
I sing because I’m free
For His eye, his eye is on the sparrow,
And I know, I know He watches over me.
The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.