More valuable than many sparrows

In the British Museum, you can visit The Taylor Prism, which lists the campaigns of King Sennacherib of the Neo-Assyrian empire, until the start of his final war against Babylon. Notably, the prism includes a description of Sennacherib’s dealings with Hezekiah, King of Judah in 701 BC.

As for the king of Judah, Hezekiah, who had not submitted to my authority, I besieged and captured forty-six of his fortified cities, along with many smaller towns, taken in battle with my battering rams. …
I took as plunder 200,150 people, both small and great, male and female, along with a great number of animals including horses, mules, donkeys, camels, oxen, and sheep.
As for Hezekiah, I shut him up like a caged bird in his royal city of Jerusalem. I then constructed a series of fortresses around him, and I did not allow anyone to come out of the city gates. His towns which I captured I gave to the kings of Ashod, Ekron, and Gaza.

The figurative language here, Hezekiah as a caged bird, is provocative in light of the Bible’s use of birds.

I’ve already written some about birds in the Bible. Their symbolic meaning has less to do with scientific accuracy and more about their meaningfulness within Hebrew cultural mythology. For example, in Isaiah, the pelicans, owls, ravens and ostriches, along with other plants and animals seen as wild represent wandering, the failure to exercise dominion.

Climbing Aroid and a Nest of White Sparrows, Java | Art UK
Climbing Aroid and a Nest of White Sparrows, Java
Marianne North (1830–1890)

But with other birds are other meanings. Small birds like pigeons, sparrows and turtledoves were offerings the poor brought to the Temple, likewise the meat of the poor (Lk 2:24). For this reason, small birds often symbolized provision and reliance on God.

But if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean.

Lev. 12:8

But this humble provision was not entirely material. As birds are often metaphors for the soul (Mt. 3:16), the Bible often uses them to evoke the promise of heaven. There, like the birds of the air, God’s people would at last have a place to lay their heads (Luke 9:58). The spiritual home which Christ secured through His victory over death would take on substance. The people of God, poor in spirit, would be set free from the cage of this life.

How lovely are Your dwelling places,
O Lord of hosts!
My soul longed and even yearned for the courts of the Lord;
My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
The bird also has found a house,
And the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young,
Even Your altars, O Lord of hosts,
My King and my God.
Psalm 84:1-3

So then. Small birds as the provision of the poor,
as sacrifice acceptable to God,
symbolizing God’s people themselves,
all this we carry with us when we meet Jesus’s words in Matthew 6 and 10, recorded also in Luke:

Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them …
Are not two sparrows sold for a cent?
And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 
But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 
So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.

The sparrow, the pigeon, the turtledove – all small birds are pictures God’s Word provides of the care our loving heavenly Father has for us. Though we are vulnerable for a time, as birds are, not one of us falls without God’s notice. And though like Hezekiah we are caged for a time in the kingdom of this world, likewise, as in Hezekiah’s time, our deliverance will come about suddenly

For ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that a man planted in his field. Although it is the smallest of all seeds, yet it grows into the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches‘ (Luke 13:18-19).

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s