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“A Symbol of the Invisible”: Spurgeon’s Teaching on Animals

Geoff Chang November 15, 2022

This is part two of a series on Spurgeon’s teaching on animals. See Part 1 here.

Perhaps the primary feature of Spurgeon’s thinking on animals is in using the animal world to illustrate spiritual truths. This can be seen particularly in his sermons. During a lecture to his students on preaching, Spurgeon once provided this basis for using sermon illustrations from nature:

There is a certain type of thought which God has followed in all things. What he made with his Word has a similarity to the Word itself by which he made it; and the visible is the symbol of the invisible, because the same thought of God runs through it all. There is a touch of the divine finger in all that God has made; so that the things which are apparent to our senses have certain resemblances to the things which do not appear. That which can be seen, and tasted, and touched, and handled, is meant to be to us the outward and visible sign of a something which we find in the Word of God, and in our spiritual experience, which is the inward and the spiritual grace; so that there is nothing forced and unnatural in bringing nature to illustrate grace; it was ordained of God for that very purpose. Range over the whole of creation for your similes; do not confine yourself to any particular branch of natural history… vary the instruction by stories, and anecdotes, and similes, and metaphors drawn from geology, astronomy, botany, or any of the other sciences which will help to shed a side light upon the Scriptures.

If you keep your eyes open, you will not see even a dog following his master, nor a mouse peeping up from his hole, nor will you hear even a gentle scratching behind the wainscot without getting something to weave into your sermons if your faculties are all on the alert.[1]

During a time when preaching tended to be intellectual and dry, Spurgeon was famous for his memorable and down-to-earth illustrations. As one biographer observed, “Mr. Spurgeon abounds in illustrations – illustrations gathered chiefly from nature.”[2] However, Spurgeon’s use of these illustrations was not merely pragmatic. Rather, in the quote above, Spurgeon gives a theological basis for using these illustrations from nature.

Spurgeon believed that the natural world was particularly suited for illustrating the spiritual world because both came from God. “The same thought of God runs through it all.” In other words, the visible, physical world is a reflection or an expression of God’s character and will. Therefore, “there is nothing forced and unnatural in bringing nature to illustrate grace; it was ordained of God for that very purpose.”

Now, to be clear, Spurgeon held to the inspiration and sole authority of the Holy Scriptures. These outward, visible signs did not illustrate a truth separate from or contrary to Scripture, but only that “which we find in the Word of God.” If someone were to interpret the natural world as proclaiming a message different from Scripture, Spurgeon would reject this as a misinterpretation. Natural revelation was ultimately not sufficient to replace special revelation. But for those whose minds have been regenerated by the Spirit and the gospel, natural revelation can serve as an aide to Scripture, shedding a “side light” to help illuminate its teaching.[3]

Animals Revealing Something About God

Spurgeon often used the animal world to teach his people about the nature and character of God. Though God is infinite and unknowable, the Creator can be partially revealed by contrasting him with his finite creatures. For example, regarding God’s aseity, Spurgeon declares, “God is the only self-existent Being… All else of nature is continually borrowing; vegetables draw their nourishment from the soil, animals from them, or from one another, [and] man from all.”[4] Even as man observes the dependence of animals on the world around them, he is reminded that God alone is self-existent, and therefore, He alone is worthy of praise.

Likewise, the animal world reveals the sovereign wisdom of the Creator. As Victorian scientists made advances in their study of the animal world, this opened whole new vistas into God’s wisdom. One example of this was in the study of ecosystems.

So beautiful is the order of nature, that we cannot want only destroy a race of little birds without suffering from their removal. When the small birds were killed in France, by the peasantry, who supposed that they ate the corn, the caterpillars came and devoured the crops. Man made a defect in an otherwise perfect circle; he took away one of the wheels which God had made, and the machine did not work perfectly; but let it alone, and no jars or grindings will occur, for all animals know their time and place, and fulfill the end of their being.[5]

As science has revealed, all the intricate details of the natural world are intentional, from small birds to caterpillars, and all function in their place according to God’s wisdom. Spurgeon uses this point to illustrate God’s sovereignty not only in nature but over our lives. For the Christian, God’s wisdom and sovereignty should inspire great hope and patience even “when you thought it was all confusion.”

The animal world also reveals something of God’s wisdom and patience in teaching his creatures all of their varied skills and instincts.

God not only teaches beasts, he also teaches fish, and I never heard of any man who could teach a fish as God does. The fishes of the sea know exactly the day of the month when they ought to begin to go round the English coast; and the herrings and the mackerel come exactly to the time, though nobody rings the bell to say to them, “It is such a day of the week, and such a month of the year; and you ought to swim away.” When the time comes for them to go back again, away they go, and they seem to understand everything that they should do. If God can teach even the fish of the sea, what a wise Teacher he must be![6]

Spurgeon refuses to attribute animal behaviors simply to natural, evolutionary forces. Instead, he envisions a God closely involved with his creatures, instructing them in everything they do. And if this is true for herrings and mackerel and all the other creatures, how much more should people made in the image of God be taught by Him? Spurgeon’s point in this illustration was to encourage his hearers to go to God as the great Teacher of their souls.[7]

Finally, the animal world also reveals God’s powerful and gracious beneficence toward his creatures. Reflecting on Psalm 104:28, Spurgeon writes,

THIS sentence describes the commissariat of creation. The problem is the feeding of “the creeping things innumerable, both small and great beasts,” which swarm the sea, the armies of birds which fill the air, and the vast hordes of animals which people the dry land; and in this sentence we have the problem solved, “That thou givest them they gather.” The work is stupendous, but it is done with ease because the Worker is infinite; if he were not at the head of it, the task would never be accomplished. Blessed be God for the great Thou- of the text. It is every way our sweetest consolation that the personal God is still at work in the world: leviathan in the ocean, and the sparrow on the bough, may be alike glad of this, and we, the children of the great Father, much more.[8]

Once again, he marvels at God’s intimate involvement with the animal world, feeding “the vast hordes” of creatures in every part of the world. For any human to attempt such a task would be impossible. But God does it day after day, as a comforting reminder to His children that “the personal God is still at work in the world.” As those who are prone to worry and to doubt God’s goodness, we must remember that “He who cares for birds and insects will surely care for men.”[9] In these and many other examples, Spurgeon turns to the animal world to reveal something of the power and goodness of God.

This paper was presented at the Andrew Fuller Center Conference in May 2021You can read the rest of the presentation here.

[1] Spurgeon, The Art of Illustration, 63.

[2] William Walters, Life and Ministry of the Rev. C. H. Spurgeon (London: Walter Scott, 1882), 261.

[3] “The works of creation are pictures to the children of God of the secret mysteries of grace. God’s truths are the apples of gold, and the visible creatures are the baskets of silver” MTP 8:109.

[4] Autobiography 1:322.

[5] MTP 52:98-99.

[6] MTP 57:484.

[7] “God is a needful Teacher. It is really necessary that every one of us should be taught of God; for, if we are not, somebody else will teach us, and that somebody else will so teach us that we shall lose our souls for ever.” Ibid.

[8] MTP 55:289.

[9] MTP 17:392.