If you come across a bird's nest with chicks or eggs, either in a tree or on the ground along the road, and the mother is sitting on the chicks or eggs, you must not take the mother along with the young.
The Law descends to very slight points of conduct. It keeps in view that character is made up of the result of our actions in the million trivial details of life. "Trifles," said Michael Angelo, when a friend thus characterized the slight finishing touches he was giving to a statue - "trifles make perfection." Matters which in themselves are of little moment acquire importance from the associations they awaken, the ideas they suggest, the consequences they lead up to. Little traits of humane behavior (vers. 6, 7), the habit of considering the bearings of what we do on others (ver. 8), respect for the ordinary and obvious distinctions of creation (ver. 9), etc., have all their influence on character, their effect in making us what we ultimately become. We may suggest, as lessons from these verses, that our conduct is to be marked:
1. By humanity.
(1) To animals.
(2) To our fellow-men.
In vers. 6, 7, the act forbidden is one akin to killing a cow and calf on the same day, or to seething a kid in its mother's milk (cf. on Deuteronomy 14:21) - an unfeeling violation of the sacredness of the relation between parent and offspring. Or the parent bird may be presumed to be taken only in wantonness, the young ones being really of service. This would be an act of cruelty. Humanity may be a motive in the precept of ver. 10 - "ox" and "ass" being obviously "unequally yoked together" (cf. Paul's allusion with application to marriage with unbelievers, in 2 Corinthians 6:14).
2. By caution. This is strikingly inculcated in ver. 8. How many accidents might be avoided if greater conscientiousness and caution prevailed in the different departments of labor! A shipbuilder puts in the side of a ship one wormy plank, and years after this costs the whole ship's crew their lives.
3. By simplicity. This is a lesson which may be learned from the precepts against mixing kinds (vers. 9, 11).
4. By mindfulness. The law of fringes in Numbers 15:38 - if this refers to the same thing - was intended to aid memory In another view of the precept, it inculcates decency and propriety. - J.O.
A singular word to be in a Book which we might have expected to be wholly occupied with spiritual revelation. Men are anxious to know something about the unseen world, and the mystery which lies at the heart of things and palpitates throughout the whole circle of observable nature, and yet they are called upon to pay attention to the treatment of birds nests. Is this any departure from the benevolent and redeeming spirit of the Book? On the contrary, this is a vivid illustration of the minuteness of Divine government, and as such it affords the beginning of an argument which must forever accumulate in volume and force, on the ground that if God is so careful of a bird's nest He must be proportionately careful of all things of higher quality. Jesus Christ so used nature. "If, then, God so clothe the grass," said He, "how much more will He clothe you, O ye of little faith?" So we may add, If God is so careful of birds' nests, what must He be of human hearts, and human homes, and the destinies of the human family? God's beneficence is wonderfully displayed in the care of the birds' nests. God is kind in little things as well as in great. The quality of His love is one, whether it be shown in the redemption of the race, in numbering the hairs of our head, in ordering our steps, or giving His beloved sleep. Did we but know it, we should find that all law is beneficent — the law of restriction as well as the law of liberty. The law which would keep a man from doing injury to himself, though it may appear to impair the prerogative of human will, is profoundly beneficent. Was not man to have dominion over the fowls of the air? Truly so, but dominion is to be exercised in mercy. The treatment of birds' nests is a sure indication of the man's whole character. He who can wantonly destroy a bird's nest can wantonly do a hundred other things of the same kind. To be cruel at all is to be cruel all through and through the substance and quality of the character. Men cannot be cruel to birds' nests and gentle to children's cradles. The man who can take care of a bird's nest because it is right to do so — not because of any pleasure which he has in a bird's nest — is a man who cannot be indifferent to the homes of children and the circumstances of his fellow creatures generally. It is a mistake to suppose that we can be wanton up to a given point, and then begin to be considerate and benevolent. We are all apt scholars in a bad school, and learn more in one lesson there than we can learn through much discipline in the school of God. The little tyrannies of childhood often explain the great despotism of mature life. Is not kindness an influence that penetrates the whole life, having manifold expression, alike upward, downward, and laterally, touching all human things, all inferiors and dependants, and every harmless and defenceless life? On the other hand, we are to be most careful not to encourage any merely pedantic feeling. Hence the caution I have before given respecting the purpose for which a man considerately handles even a bird's nest. Every day we see how possible it is for a man to be very careful of his horse, and yet to hold the comfort of his servant very lightly. We have all seen, too, how possible it is for a man to be more careful of his dogs than of his children. But the care which is thus lavished upon horse or dog is not the care dictated by moral considerations, or inspired by benevolence; it is what I have termed a pedantic feeling, it is a mere expression of vanity, it is not an obedience to conscience or moral law. There are men who would not on any account break up a bird's nest in the garden, who yet would allow a human creature to die of hunger. The bird's nest may be regarded as an ornament of the garden, or an object of interest, or a centre around which various influences may gather; so whatever care may be bestowed upon it, it is not to be regarded as concerning the conscience or the higher nature. We must beware of decorative morality; calculated consideration for inferior things; for selfishness is very subtle in its operation, and sometimes it assumes with perfect hypocrisy the airs of benevolence and religion. What if in all our carefulness for dumb animals we think little of breaking a human heart by sternness or neglect? Kindness to the lower should become still tenderer kindness to the higher. This is Christ's own argument: when He bids us behold the fowls of the air, that in their life we may see our Father's kindness, He adds, "Are ye not much better than they?" When He points out bow carefully a man would look after the life of his cattle, He adds, "How much, then, is a man better than a sheep?" It ought to be considered a presumptive argument in favour of any man's spirit that he is kind to the inferior creatures that are around him; if this presumption be not realised in his cases then is his kindness bitterest wrong.
If a bird's nest chance to be before thee.
Does God take thought for birds, then? Yes, even for birds. They sow not, neither do they reap; yet our heavenly Father feedeth them. Christ: cared for birds, then; and therefore we may be sure that God cares for them. And this God, says Jesus, is your Father. He loves you even more than He loves the birds, and guards you with a more watchful care. You would laugh if I were to ask you, What does your mother love best, the canary that sings in the cage, or the little girl who sits in her lap? And you may be quite as sure that you are "better" to your Father in heaven "than many sparrows"; yes, and better than all the birds He ever made. But if you are so dear to God, your Father, should you not love Him because He loves you, and prove your love by caring for what He cares for? Well, He cares for birds. He marks the trees "where the birds build their nests," and "sing among the branches"; and He shows us, in one of the Psalms (Psalm 104:12, 17
), that He observes what kinds of trees the different birds select for use; does He not say, "As for the stork, the fir trees are her house"? Now, I dare say some of you boys are pleased to find that there is such a law, or rule, as this in the Bible. You have not been quite sure in your minds, perhaps, whether it was right or wrong to take a bird's nest, or even to take the eggs from the nest. And, I dare say, when you heard me read my text you thought, "Well, that's a capital rule! If I mustn't take the old bird, at least I may take the young ones or the eggs." But are you sure that that is the right way to read the Rule? But, to be honest with you, I am afraid it is wrong. As God loves the birds and takes care of them, so will you, if you are good children of our Father who is in heaven. And is it taking care of them to rob them of the beautiful little houses which they have spent so much toil in building? Of course, if we really want eggs or birds we may take them, whether we want them as food for the body or food for the mind; for God has put them all at our service. But to take them wantonly, without thought, without necessity, simply for the fun of it, is to wrong creatures whom God loves.
I. IT SET A LIMIT TO THE NATURAL GREED OF MEN. What would be the first impulse of a Jew who found the nest of a quail, or a partridge, with the mother bird sitting on the young ones or the eggs? Of course, his first impulse would be to take all he could get, the old bird as well as the eggs or the young. But to do that might be very poor thrift, and very poor morality. For in destroying the parent bird with the young the man might be helping to destroy a whole breed of valuable birds. He would get a dinner for today, but he would be lessening his chance of finding one tomorrow, tie would be helping himself, but he might also be injuring his neighbour. "Don't be greedy," then, is the first lesson we find in our bird's nest. "Don't snatch at all you can for today, careless about tomorrow."
II. Another lesson taught by this law about a bird's nest is this — IT BRINGS THE LAW OF GOD INTO THE LITTLE THINGS OF LIFE. And that is just where we most need it, and are most apt to forget it.
III. But this rule about birds nesting teaches us that ALL LOVE IS SACRED; and this is the most beautiful lesson I have found in it. Now, think. If you were to find a nest, and saw the mother bird with a brood of young ones under her wings, what would it be that would give you a good chance of catching her? It would simply be her love for her nestlings. If she cared only for herself she could fly away out of your reach. But if the love of a bird is sacred, how much more sacred is the love of a boy or a girl, of a woman or a man! All love is sacred. It is base and wicked to take advantage of it, to turn it against itself, to use it for selfish ends. I would have you think, therefore, how great a power love gives you, and how base and wrong it is to abuse that power. Love is the strongest thing in the world. People will do for love what they would do for nothing else. And there are those who know that, and who take such base advantage of it that they sometimes ruin the character and spoil the life of those who love and trust them. There is nothing in the world so wicked, so base, so vile. If you have parents, or brothers and sisters, or young companions and friends, who love you dearly, oh take heed what you do! Their love will be the comfort and joy of your lives if you retain and respond to it. But that love puts them in your power. You may hurt them through it, and grieve them through it, and make them go wrong when, but for you, they would have gone right. And if you do, you will be scorned by all good men and women. If you do, what will you say to the God of all love, and what will He say to you, when you stand before Him? And that brings me to the very last word I have to say to you. Who is it that loves you best of all, most purely, most forgivingly, most tenderly? And perhaps you are abusing God's love.
Does God think it worth while to make mention of the nest of a bird? Yes, He does. In those old Hebrew days, if the people saw a lad coming with a bird's nest, and bringing the old bird as well as the young, they could tell him that his father and mother would most likely live to attend his funeral! He would not live to be a grey-headed man. No; length of days went with obedience. Birds nests are much more wonderful things than many people think. What labour, skill, and patience each little builder displays before he has at home for his bride! Has it ever occurred to you that each kind of bird builds its own kind of nest? The thrush makes his home very like the blackbird, only always papers it. By a clever mixture of decayed wood and clay he puts a lining inside the home. But it is in foreign lands, where birds have other enemies besides men to fear, that greater ingenuity is displayed. Some build their little homes so as to hang from the bough of a tree right over a sheet of water, so that if the monkey finds the nest he cannot get at it, because his weight would sink him into the water. The entrance to the nest of others is made at the bottom, and the little house is suspended from the branch of a tree. There is one kind of bird called the tailor, who sews two leaves together so as to deceive the eye, for they look like one leaf and not two, We should think it a wonderful thing if we saw a horse building its own stable, yet this is not more wonderful than the bird building its own dwelling. God has shown His wisdom and power in putting the skill into the life of the bird, and this skill gives him rights. We always count it due to originality that it should be benefited by its productions. Invention gives rights. If this be so, does not God's originality give Him a claim? What I am anxious to teach is this: Where you see the mark of God's hand, listen for His voice. Where creation comes, kingly claims must be mot. Let this rule be followed, and what a change would come over the world! None but God can make things grow. Ought He not, then, to be revered and obeyed wherever He creates? Who but God could have designed the horse, so strong and fleet? What a marvellous combination of muscular and nervous force there is in the noble animal! Did the Creator endue this splendid beast with this vigour and activity that men should meet by the thousand to win or lose money? But it is time we considered "the law of the bird's nest." If you saw the mother bird sitting, you might take eggs or young birds, but you must "let the dam go." Why? Because God sees that it is not wise to take all that is within your reach. Let the old bird fly; she will live to have another brood. This law acts beneficially on all sides. If George III had known this, he would not have been so greedy with the settlers in America. He strove to grasp all, and lost the United States. What might not that land have been under the Union Jack? It is a great nation, but not what it might have been. And how it would have nourished England, instead of being her rival! Many a family would have been saved irritation and heartbreak if grasping at all had not been the rule. Taking all within reach often means that affection is slain by selfishness, and duty driven away for want of knowing that God wants you to leave something for others to enjoy. When will Capital and Labour learn that to take all you can is to injure self? To grasp at too much is to lose greatly. When men have learned to let the old bird go, strikes and lock-outs will be no more. Commerce flourishes by not grasping at too much. One of the cleverest tradesmen I ever knew told me that one secret of his success was the way he bought his stock. He had great skill in this matter, and, said he, "When I buy well, I say, how much of this extra profit can I give to my customers?" Is it any wonder that his shop had a name for good stuff at a low price, and that he made money when others lost it? When men have learned to let the old bird go they will keep the Sabbath day holy. God gives men six days but claims the seventh. But we shall fail to get all the good taught in the text if we do not see that here we have God's tribute to maternal affection. It is wonderful how brave a little timid bird will become in the defence of her young. She will sit there, and not try to save herself in her anxiety for the helpless brood which nestles under her wings. Is there some poor woman reading this who wonders how she is to provide for the children, now that her husband is no more? Poor widow, dost thou not see that if God cares for the bird's nest He cares for thy home, and if He would protect the thrush or the wren He will not forget thy little ones? Does not God speak to young people here? If He thinks so much of a mother's love as to mark the affection of a bird for her young, how does He feel when He sees us treat our parents with neglect or cruelty? It is an old, and we fear true, proverb, that "The old cat catches mice for the kittens, but the kitten never brings the old cat one." Should that old saying apply to us? Yes, God has shown His approval here of a mother's affection. Do not let any of us feel as some men feel when they are summoned to see their mother die. I don't want you to feel as a man did who had been sent for to bid his mother goodbye. She had worked hard for her large family; washed and baked and wrought to bring them up and save a bit of money to start them in the world; and just when she ought to have been in her prime she broke down and had to die. As the young man looked at her face, wrinkled and faded, he thought of the way she had toiled for her children, he remembered that he had never shown her any attention, had not ever kissed her since he was a little child, and the tears came into his eyes! He bent down and put his lips to hers, lovingly though awkwardly, and said, "You have been a good mother to us, you have that! She looked at him as though she could not understand the kiss and the words of appreciation, and said with a sigh, "Eh, John, I wish thou had said so before!"
We are very much struck with this law, not because it has to do with a matter apparently trifling, but because there is annexed to it the same promise as to commandments of the highest requirement. The commandment may have to do with a trivial thing: but it is evident enough that it cannot be a trivial commandment; indeed, no commandment can be which proceeds from God. Let us endeavour to ascertain on what principles the precept before us is founded, what dispositions it inculcates, and we shall find that there is no cause for surprise in the annexment of a promise of long life to obedience to the direction, "If a bird's nest chance to be," etc. Now, you will see at once that, had the precept been of a more stringent character, it might, in some sense, have been more easily vindicated and explained. Had it forbidden altogether the meddling with the nest, had it required that not only should the mother bird be let go, but that neither the young birds nor the eggs should be taken, it would at once have been said that God was graciously protecting the inferior creation, and forbidding man to act towards them with any kind of cruelty. But the precept permits the taking the nest; it does not even hint that it might be better to let the nest alone; it simply confines itself to protecting the parent bird, and thus allows, if it does not actually direct, what may be thought an inhuman thing, the carrying off the young to the manifest disappointment and pain of the mother. It should not, however, be unobserved that the precept does not touch the case in which there is an actual looking for the nest. It is not a direction as to what should be done if a nest were found after diligent search, but only as to what should be done if a nest were found by mere chance or accident. Without pretending to argue that God would have forbidden the searching for the nest, it is highly probable that there was something significant in this direction as to taking the nest, in the particular case when that nest had been unwisely placed. We are sure, from various testimonies of Scripture, that God has designed to instruct us in and through the inferior creation, the birds of the air and the beasts of the field being often appealed to when men have to be taught and admonished. And we know not, therefore, that there can be anything far fetched in supposing that, by sanctioning a sort of injury to the bird, which had built its nest in an insecure place, God meant to teach us that, if we will not take due precautions for our own safety we are not to expect the shield of His protection. But now as to the permission itself. Were not the Israelites here taught to be moderate in their desires? It was like giving a lesson against covetousness, a lesson so constructed as to be capable of being reproduced in great variety of circumstances, when the finder of a prize, who might fancy himself at liberty to appropriate the whole, was required to content himself with a part. There was also in the precept a lesson against recklessness or waste. It required man, whilst supplying his present wants, to have due regard to his future; yea, and to the wants of others as well as to his own. You may apply the principle to a hundred cases. Whenever men live upon the capital, when the interest would suffice; whenever they recklessly consume all their earnings, though those earnings might enable them to lay something by; when, so long as, by eager grasping, they can secure what they like for themselves, they are utterly indifferent as to interfering with the supplies and enjoyments of others — in every such case they are violating the precept before us; they are taking the old bird with the young: as, on the other hand, by treating as a sin anything like wastefulness, by a prudent management of the gifts and mercies of God, by such a wise husbandry of resources as shall prove a consciousness that the Divine liberality, in place of sanctioning extravagance, should be a motive to economy, they may be said to be virtually obeying the precept; they are taking the young, but letting the dam go. But now let us look more narrowly into the reasons of the precept: we shall probably find, if we examine the peculiarities of the case, that the commandment before us has a yet more direct and extensive application. It could only be, you will observe, the attachment of the mother bird to its young which, for the most part, would put it in the power of the finder of the nest to take both together. And when you bring this circumstance into the account you can hardly doubt that one great reason why God protected the mother bird by an express commandment was, that He might point out the excellence of parental affection, and teach us that we were not to take advantage of such an affection, in order to any injury to the parties who displayed it. You must be all quite aware that the affection which one party bears to another may be taken advantage of, and that, too, to his manifest detriment. For example, circumstances place the child of another in your power; you are about to oppress or ill-use that child; the parent entreats; you agree to release the child, but only on conditions with which the parent would never have complied had it not been for the strong pleadings of natural affection — what do you do in such a case but make use of a power, derived solely from the parent's love, to effect the parent's injury? you seize, so to speak, the mother bird, when it is only her being the mother bird which has given you the opportunity of seizure. But evidently the involved principle is of very wide application. A parent may take improper advantage of a child's love, a child of a parent's. A parent may work on the affections of a child, urging the child, by the love which he bears to a father or mother, to do something wrong, something against which conscience remonstrates; this is a case in which improper advantage is taken of affection, or injurious use is made of a power which, as in the case of the bird and her young, nothing but strong affection has originated. But our text has yet to be considered under another point of view. We have hitherto contended that, though it be apparently an insignificant matter with which the commandment before us is concerned, principles are involved of a high order and a wide application, so that there is no reason for surprise at finding long life promised as the reward of obedience. But we will now assume the Jews' opinion to have been correct; they were wont to say of this commandment, that it was the least amongst the commandments of Moses. Admit it to have been so; yet is there any cause for wonder that such a blessing as long life should be promised by way of recompense to obedience? God enjoins a certain thing; but we can hardly bring ourselves to obey, simply because He has enjoined it. We have our inquiries to urge — why has He enjoined it? if it be an indifferent thing, we want to know why He should have made it the subject of a law; why not have let it alone? Why not? Because, we may venture to reply, He wishes to test the principle of obedience; He wishes to see whether His will and His word are sufficient for us. In order to this, He must legislate upon things which in themselves are indifferent, neither morally good nor bad; He must not confine laws to such matters as robbing a neighbour's house, on which conscience is urgent: He must extend them to such matters as taking a bird's nest, on which conscience is silent. It is the same as with a child. He is walking in a stranger's garden, and you forbid his picking fruit; he knows that the fruit is not his, and therefore feels a reason for prohibition. But he is walking on a common, and you forbid his picking wild flowers; he knows that no one has property in these flowers, and therefore he cannot see any reason for your prohibition. Suppose him, however, to obey in both cases, abstaining alike from the flowers and the fruit, in which case does he show most of the principle of obedience, most of respect for your authority and of submission to your will? Surely, when he does not touch the flowers, which he sees no reason for not touching, rather than when he does not gather the fruit, which he feels that he can have no right to gather. It is exactly the same with God and ourselves. He may forbid things which we should have felt to be wrong, even had they not been forbidden; He may forbid things which we should not have felt wrong, nay, which would not have been wrong unless He had forbidden them. But in which case is our obedience most put to the proof? Not, surely, as to the thing criminal even without a commandment; but as to the thing indifferent till there was a commandment.
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