Who Hears the Fish When They Cry?

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This is my Father’s world,
And to my listening ears
All nature sings, and round me rings
The music of the spheres.

Henry David Thoreau took a boat trip with his brother John in 1839. Thoreau published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers 10 years later in 1849. The title suggests a simple travel narrative, but the book’s contents are not nearly that straightforward. Throughout the book, Thoreau waxes philosophical, exploring diverse subjects including Scripture, poetry, history, and fishing. What stood out to me while reading this book were Thoreau’s observations regarding human stewardship and environmental impact.

Thoreau witnessed the effects of the Industrial Revolution firsthand while navigating New England’s rivers. He was particularly troubled when he discovered that various dams erected along the river had obstructed the migration of the American Shad, a fish that returns to freshwater to spawn after spending most of its life in the ocean. Thoreau lamented, “Poor shad! where is thy redress? When Nature gave thee instinct, gave she thee the heart to bear thy fate?” And, in one of the book’s most memorable lines, Thoreau declares, “[a]way with the superficial and selfish philanthropy of men…Who hears the fishes when they cry?”[1]

How should Christians answer Thoreau’s question? Should proper Christian stewardship tune our ears to the fish’s cry? I say yes. As an avid fisherman, I’m interested in ethical and environmental questions concerning fishery management. But environmental stewardship is not only relevant for the sportsman. Hearing the fish’s cry, and caring for creation generally, are mandates firmly rooted in Scripture.

1. This is our Father’s world.

This is my Father’s world,
The birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white,
Declare their maker’s praise.

Rev. Babcock, a Presbyterian minister, penned the poem that would become This Is My Father’s World. When leaving to take walks near Niagara Falls, Rev. Babcock would tell his wife that he was “going out to see the Father’s world”. The lyrics of this hymn recall several passages of Scripture that articulate why Christians should be good stewards of creation.

The earth and everything on it belong to the Lord (Psalm 24:1). The flowers of the field, the singing birds, and the swimming fish all declare their maker’s praise (Psalm 19). Stewarding creation was man’s first responsibility (Genesis 1:28-30). God’s creation was good, and there was an expectation that man would do his part to preserve and maintain his environment. Somewhere along the road in evangelical Christianity, environmental stewardship became identified with progressive politics, and some Christians began to sneer at any talk of creation care. For the Christian who desires to express gratitude for the wonderful gift of creation, one way to show gratitude is good stewardship. Our stewardship is predicated on the truth that the world belongs to God and declares his glory.

God hears the fish when they cry. So should we.

2. Sin is the root cause of bad stewardship.

This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.

As previously stated, stewarding creation was man’s first responsibility. After man fell in Genesis 3, creation care became much more difficult considering the thorns and thistles our sin beckoned. Stewarding the cursed earth was now a painful experience for man. Since Genesis 1, mankind has abused God’s gift of creation as if the fall absolved humanity of its stewarding responsibly. Laziness causes us to shun the most minuscule acts of creation care. Greed leads us to exploit God’s gifts at unsustainable levels. Selfishness leads us to understand stewardship as a future generation’s problem.

3. God hears the fish when they cry. So should we.

As for Thoreau’s question, who hears the fish when they cry? God does. The Old Testament is full of instruction regarding how Israel should treat its animals (Prov 12:10, 27:23). Inherent in those guidelines is God’s concern for the ethics of man’s dominion over creation. Matthew 6:26 tells us that the birds of the air neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet God feeds them. Later in Matthew, Jesus says “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” These passages demonstrate that God’s sovereign control and care extends to the most insignificant of creatures, both the sparrow and the shad. Environmental stewardship need not be an act of self-interest or creation worship; instead, it can be done out of gratitude to the giver of all good gifts. God hears the fish when they cry. So should we.

This is my Father’s world:
Why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let earth be glad!

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[1] Henry David Thoreau, from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

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MA Ethics, Theology, and Culture

The Master of Arts Ethics, Theology, and Culture is a Seminary program providing specialized academic training that prepares men and women to impact the culture for Christ through prophetic moral witness, training in cultural engagement, and service in a variety of settings.

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Stephen Howard

Stephen Howard

Stephen is an attorney and M.Div. student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds degrees from the Pennsylvania State University, Dickinson School of Law and North Greenville University. He resides in Enola, Pennsylvania with his wife, Abby, and their two children. If you need to find Stephen, he is probably fishing at the river.

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