The Cattle Upon a Thousand Hills
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.