The Old Testament refers to deer ten times (called hart in the KJV and identified as hind by various commentators). That biblical deer are not identical with the various species of deer that we are familiar with in North America goes without saying, but they share a kinship and features that we might readily recognize from observing the species that live on our continent. Deer are mentioned four times among clean animals that may be eaten. The remaining references, though brief, are wonderfully instructive.
Deer remind us that we are helpless, fearful creatures before the presence of Almighty God. David speaks of the power of God in terms of “The Voice of the Lord in the Storm” (heading, Psa. 29). “The voice of the Lord is powerful,” he writes; “the voice of the Lord is majestic. . . . The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars. . . . The voice of the Lord hews out flames of fire [lightning]. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness” (vv. 4, 5a, 7, 8a). Small wonder, then, that “The voice of the Lord makes the deer to calve” (v. 9). The terror of the thunder and lightning provokes premature labor in pregnant does. Nature may have its schedule, but with one blast of His powerful and majestic “voice,” God can disrupt the pattern of nature to accomplish His purposes. As the deer is at the mercy of the omnipotent God, so too are we. But unlike the deer, though we may quake for a moment, we know the Owner of that fearful voice and can rest in His goodness and love.
Deer remind us that we render ourselves helpless prey to our enemies when we persist in sinning against God. Because of Israel’s rebellion against God, Jeremiah laments that “Her princes have become like deer that have found no pasture; and they have fled without strength before the pursuer” (Lam. 1:6b). When Israel walked with God, she lived as the predator—no enemy could stand before her. She subdued and decimated nation after nation. But when in her pride she chose heathen gods and practiced idolatry, the predator became the prey, Babylon razed Jerusalem, ravaged the entire countryside, and killed or took into captivity a large portion of the population. God is longsuffering and merciful, but He is also holy and just. He will not wink at sin. Sin will find us out and exact just recompense.
Deer picture a holy longing for God. In probably the most familiar reference to deer in the Bible (one that has spawned at least one hymn), the psalmist (probably David) groans: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God?” (Psa. 42:1, 2). Anyone who has observed a deer being chased by hounds or other predators is familiar with the psalmist’s depiction. Tongue hanging out, sides heaving, the deer dashes and leaps over fallen trees, crashing through the underbrush to escape its hunters and to slake its thirst in a cool stream. Nothing will satisfy that thirst, nothing will diminish it but a refreshing drink of water. The thirst cannot be ignored; it will not go away. It will be satisfied with a draught of water or it will continue until the whole being, the whole life is about nothing but finding water. Believers are to have a thirst that nothing quenches but fellowship with the Lord. The fellowship and praise of men, the pursuit of pleasure, the satisfaction of work well done will not satisfy the soul of a saint. He must have the presence of the Lord.
Deer depict joy. Those who bask in the presence of the Lord experience a gladness of heart beyond description (though Isaiah does a good job depicting it). Unlike the panting, gasping, heaving deer nearing collapse, the believer who is refreshed by the salvation of the Lord “will leap like a deer”—even those who were formerly lame, Isaiah says (35:6a). And refreshed with the living water of God, “the tongue of the mute will shout for joy” (v. 6b). Surefooted, light-footed, as the deer leaps and cavorts and as “David was dancing before the Lord with all his might” (II Sam. 6:14a) when the Ark was returned to Israel, so the believer thrills and rejoices as he basks in the fellowship of the Lord’s presence. Nothing on earth can compare with this manifestation of God’s love for us. May we, too, leap like deer before Him.
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