Is This Why Birds Sing?
The return of springtime means many of us will hear birds singing! After winter—and migration—birds return and grace our days with their chirping and singing. Birds fly. Birds build nests. And birds sing!
Singing birds are one of the joys of nature. Their bright “songs” brighten our days. We marvel at how such “music” can emerge from these small creatures. Scientists tell us birds sing to “mark” their territories and to attract a mate for nesting. Or, in migrating, they may issue “contact calls,” chirps to help them stay in touch with each other. These are “scientific mechanics” which explain the function of birds singing.
But, we wonder: Is there more? Are there other “reasons” birds sing? Are there dimensions beyond the “scientific”? Are there perhaps “theological” reasons why birds sing? What if there are theological reasons? What if birds singing can be a “witness” to us, a reminder of God our Creator, who created us and also created all the birds which have ever lived!
Birds show up through Scripture in various ways. But the basic point is to remember that God has created the birds, just like God created all things. More, God has created the birds and even “knows” the birds. So the Psalmist proclaims that God says: “I know all the birds of the air, and all that moves in the field is mine” (Psalm 50:11). Imagine! God knows all the birds we see and that have ever sung their bird songs!
This is the basic relationship God has with birds: God created birds, and God knows birds. Just like: God created us, and God knows us!
Why do birds sing? Let us say, theologically, that birds sing to remind us as a witness for:
Praise to God. In our prayers, we praise God. In church, we sing hymns that praise God. So birds sing, witnessing to the praise of God! The Puritan, Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686), wrote:
“Look into the Air, the Birds with their chirping Musick sing Hymns of Praise to God, saith Anselm. Every Beast doth in its kind glorify God (Isaiah 43:20)” (A Body of Practical Divinity , 3).
When we hear birds sing, we can believe they are praising God. They are even helping us praise God! They do not know their heavenly creator and redeemer in the ways we do. But singing forth is what a bird does, fulfilling God’s divine purpose for the little creature. Their whole being is devoted to the music of praise. Watson again wrote: “Look into the air, there the Birds make Melody, and sing forth the Praises of their Creator.” (Practical Divinity, 68).
When we look into the air and see the birds or when we hear birds beyond our view breaking forth in their singing—they are doing it all to the glory of God—witnessing to how we should live as well (1 Cor. 10:31). William Ames (1576-1633) wrote of God that whoever “offereth praise doth glorify me” (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity , 253). When God is praised—through birds’ music or our prayers or hymns—God is glorified! This is the great purpose of our life: to glorify God and enjoy God forever, as the Westminster Shorter Catechism put it. When we hear birds sing, their witness points us to the praise of God!
Thanks to God. Ames also wrote that “celebration of the praises of God belongs to thanksgiving” (Marrow, 253). When we praise God, we are led to thanksgiving. We thank God for all we are and all we have. We thank God for all God has done for us. Praise of God leads to thanksgiving to God. Our thanksgiving to God leads us to further praise of God! Said Ames: “Thanksgiving is prayer, of those things which we have received, that the honour may be given to God (Psalm 50:15, 23); Marrow, 253).” When the birds sing, they witness in praise and thanks to their creator. They point us to the thanksgiving we want to offer to God for the blessings of our lives, “for all those things which we have received” (Marrow, 253).
But notice a lesson we can learn from the birds about their songs of thanksgiving. Birds sing in winter. They sing in the dead of winter when all else around them is barren, even foreboding or dangerous. Birds sing in praise and thanks, even in their “afflictions.” Will we?
Watson noted that:
“We shall meet many Christians who have tears in their eyes, and complaints in their mouths, but few with Harps in their hands, who in affliction praise God; to be thankful in affliction, is a work peculiar to a Saint. Every Bird can sing in Spring, but some Birds will sing in the dead of Winter. Everyone almost can be thankful in prosperity, but a true Saint can be thankful in adversity. A good Christian will blessed God, not only at the Sun-rising but at the Sun-setting” (A Divine Cordial , 79-80). Will we thank God, even when troubles come? Will we sing praise and give thanks to God, as Paul and Silas did—even in prison (Acts 15:25)? Watson urged: “Be as Birds that sing in Winter” (Body of Practical Divinity, 533).
Trust in God. Jesus referred to the “birds of the air”: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). The birds of the air are trusting in God for their very lives!
John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote about this verse: “We must diligently note, that He says the heavenly Father feeds the birds. Though it is virtually a miracle that they sustain themselves, which one of us actually takes thought that their lives depend on God, who condescends to extend His providence even to their level? If it were firmly fixed in our minds that by God’s hand nourishment is brought to the birds, it would be easy to take hope for ourselves, for we are founded on His image, and are reckoned among ourselves” (Calvin, Commentary on Matthew 6:26).
Birds fly by the grace and power of God. God feeds, sustains, nourishes, and preserves the birds. This is God’s providence—God providing for the needs of the birds! If we recognize this care for the birds, so we should “take hope for ourselves.” God’s providence provides and cares for us as humans, too. We are created by God, too, and we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-30). God takes care of the birds, and God will take care of us as well. Calvin saw this directly. He said: “Clearly, Christ’s sole intention was to teach His people to cast their cares upon God.” We trust in God just as the birds that sing remind us to do!
The witness of the birds surrounds us as we hear them singing. Now, in considering what their singing may point us toward, we may know why it is that birds sing! They praise God. They thank God. They trust God. May we “look at the birds of the air” and hear them singing!
Donald K. McKim is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is a former pastor, seminary Academic Dean and Professor of Theology, as well as Executive Editor for Theology and Reference for Westminster John Knox Press. He has written and edited a number of books including Everyday Prayer with John Calvin, Coffee with Calvin: Daily Devotions; and Moments with Martin Luther: 95 Daily Devotions. He and his wife LindaJo live in Germantown, Tennessee.