The Cattle Upon a Thousand Hills

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A theme of the Old Testament is that God doesn’t want ever more sacrifices—burnt offerings and other such things. In Psalm 50, for instance, when God is unhappy with Israel, he says it is not because of their sacrifices. “I will not reprove thee because of thy sacrifices,” he says. And “as for thy burnt-offerings, they are alway before me.” God then turns ironic. “I will take no bullock out of thine house, nor he-goats out of thy folds.” God isn’t going to take any of our animals. The reason is that he has plenty at hand! “For all the beasts of the forest are mine, and so are the cattle upon a thousand hills.” And not only are there a lot of them, God already knows and sees them. “I know all the fowls upon the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are in my sight.”
    The clincher is next: “If I be hungry, I will not tell thee”! God, of course, is never hungry; he doesn’t need to eat animals; but even if he did, he wouldn’t need our food.
    It’s good ironic poetry. It amuses us. But there’s a hook in it. If God isn’t going to tells us if he is hungry, what sort of thing might he tell us?
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    There’s nothing about God himself that God tells us. Anything he says will be a revelation of who we are and what we should do, and some of that pertains to our relationship with God. But through it all, God himself remains a mystery.
    And that mystery moves us to many things.
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    One movement: to a respect for all the things in the world. The beasts, the cattle, the fowls, the wild beasts; the forest, the thousand hills, the mountains, the field; all are God’s, known and loved by him.
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    Right after these verses, Psalm 50 has this: “Offer unto God thanksgiving, and pay thy vows unto the Most Highest.” This, the Coverdale translation (slightly adapted in the 1928 Prayer Book), is different from its translation as the familiar communion verse instructing us to offer a “sacrifice of thanksgiving.” Here it is just “thanksgiving.” What can we offer God? Thanksgiving.
    I think it is the fundamental human duty. Whoever we are, whatever our circumstances, our first task is to give thanks. “It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto thee.”
    Giving thanks to God is part of paying our vows.
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    Psalm 50 goes on to argue against “the ungodly” who ignore God’s words, speak wickedness, slander people, enjoy the company of thieves, and so forth. And the end of the psalm promises that the one who “ordereth his way aright” will see the salvation of God.
    So thanksgiving, the heart of goodness, is wrapped around with a concern for godly relations with other people, and an awe-filled respect for the other beings in this world. May we remember the cattle upon a thousand hills!
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    Out & about. I will give the Fall Theology Lecture, “What Good Is Authority?” at Church of the Incarnation, Dallas, on Sunday, October 22, at 6 p.m. Among other things, I plan to speak on how authority works in practice, taking as examples clergy authority and authority in sport. So, our favorite topics: church and sports! The lecture is free and open to the public.

Obituaries

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It comes from the Latin verb, “ire,” which means “to go.” The prefix “ob-” can mean “towards, to,” and the like. So the verb altogether, “obire,” means “to go to meet.” It also means to die.
    From it we get “obituary,” the account of a person’s life published at the time of death. Back when people read newspapers, obituaries formed a favorite section. It still is, in many small towns. You’ve perhaps heard an old timer say of his morning paper, “I read the obituaries first, to make sure I’m still alive.”
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    In a small town, just about a week apart, two obituaries appeared, both of women in their 30s. One had a hardscrabble life. Reading between the lines, one sensed she had some personal demons, as we say. And a good deal of bad luck. Was there a story to be told about this life, a story that would make it a life? Nothing ever seemed to add up, to build upon what had gone before. And now it was over.
    The other’s picture showed a glamorous woman. Her life was a full resume of accomplishments, social and professional. She had married just a couple of years ago and was leaving behind a baby as well as a husband. This beautiful life, which had seemed to be moving continuously upward, was suddenly stopped by a heart attack, totally unexpected, and fatally efficient.
    Someone said to me, “It’s like a tale of two cities.” Rich and poor, glamour and suffering, success and loss.
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    Yet, to say the obvious, we do not know, cannot know, the meaning of either of these lives. Just as (may I say it again?) we remain in ignorance of what our own life will mean in the end.
    On that ultimate judgment day at the end of all things, God Incarnate will show us what our lives have meant. His judgment is an act of love! His love is a searing love, a fire of love! (See 1 Cor. 3:11-15.) Everything about us must pass through that fire. Not everything about us can survive that fire. Nothing about us can pass through it unchanged. That fire of love may disclose to us that things we thought were really good about us actually were quite flawed. And it may also disclose glorious things about our lives that we could never apprehend. But when judgment is done, any person whose life is built on the foundation of Jesus will be able to say, “Yes, that is my life. Thank you for making it a life.”
    Who knows the real meaning of her own life? Who knows the real meaning of anyone else’s life? “To go to meet”: that is “obire.” We go to meet our Jesus, and he will then read to us our true obituary.
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    A postscript to my fellow clergy in the diocese of Dallas. As Theologian-in-residence, I am available to visit your congregation for teaching and the like. Write me if you’d like to schedule something (on Sundays or otherwise): .

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."