Civilla Martin was born in 1866 in Nova Scotia.
She was married to Walter Martin, a travelling evangelist, and helped her husband with the music in his church services.
In 1905, they were visiting friends, the Doolittles, in Elmira, New York.
The Doolittles had a very difficult life, as Mrs. Doolittle had been bedridden for 20 years. Her husband was permanently disabled and used a wheelchair to get around.
Despite their straitened circumstances, they radiated a hope and positivity that was difficult to understand.
They asked the Doolittles what their secret was.
Mrs. Doolittle answered, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”
That simple affirmation, that no matter what our circumstances God cares about us, inspired Civilla Martin to write her famous hymn.
Many artists have performed the song, including: Whitney Houston, Gladys Knight, the Statler Brothers and Mahalia Jackson, who won a Grammy award for her soulful rendition of it.
This story got me thinking about the use of birds as imagery in the Bible.
The passage that inspired this powerful song is in the Book of Matthew.
Jesus was talking to his disciples, urging them not to be fearful of the enemies of God, who had power to destroy the body, but had no power at all over the soul.
He said, “The very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”
In the Bible, in Psalm 84, the psalmist writes of how delightful it is to dwell in the house of God.
He writes, “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young — a place near your altar, O Lord Almighty, my King and my God.”
The image is one of immense blessing to be near the Holy of Holies.
The writer was likely inspired by nesting birds in the rooftop corners and crevices of the temple in Jerusalem.
Ravens are mentioned several times in scripture.
After the flood, Noah sent a raven out of the ark to see if dry land had appeared, but it found none.
The prophet Elijah declared that there would be a drought and a famine in the land for three years.
God directed Elijah to go to the Kerith Ravine, saying, “You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there….The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.”
So Elijah was miraculously fed by ravens, twice a day, for three years.
Jesus also used the raven to illustrate His messages. He urged his followers not to worry about temporal things:
“Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn, yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!”
This next passage, from the book of Isaiah, has special meaning for me. It was the text of the sermon I heard, on the day I answered an altar call. “…Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
When you see an eagle soaring effortlessly on the updrafts on a hot summer’s day, you can appreciate the imagery. It is as if the Lord is the wind beneath your wings.
No matter what your struggle or challenge, He equips and energizes you for what He has called you to do.
Probably the most important bird imagery in the Bible, is that of the dove.
After releasing a raven, Noah then sent out a dove.
At first, it returned to the ark. Noah waited seven days and sent it out again. The dove returned with a freshly plucked olive leaf.
He waited seven more days and sent the dove out a third time. When it did not return, Noah knew the waters had receded.
A dove carrying an olive leaf is still used as a sign of peace, the peace that God made with the world after the flood.
That peace is echoed in the book of Mark.
When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, scripture says, “…as he was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.”
The Holy Spirit of God is symbolized by the descending dove, which is prominently featured in the crest of the United Church of Canada.
Know that you are more precious to God than any bird, and do not fear what you cannot control.
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