Eagles in Sacred Scripture

The Eagle, the king among the birds of the air as the lion is king among the beasts of the earth, graces more than a few pages of the Sacred Scriptures. The swiftness and height of the eagle’s flight is often referenced by the Sacred Authors. Sometimes the eagle represents sin, death and destruction. Other times he represents the love of God for his people, and the saints for God.

As the eagle is the king of birds, it is not surprising that various kings and princes are compared to the eagle. For example, David in his lament of Saul and Jonathan exclaims: “Saul and Jonathan, lovely, and comely in their life, even in death they were not divided: they were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions.” (II Kings 1:23)

The eagles is swift in flight, and avid in its pursuit of prey. When prophesying the chastisements that would come upon the people of Israel for their sins, the prophets would often compare invading armies, and the kings who led them, to these attributes of the eagle. Even Moses predicted: “The Lord will bring upon thee a nation from afar, and from the uttermost ends of the earth, like an eagle that flyeth swiftly.” (Dt 28:49) Likewise, the prophet Habacuc said: “horsemen shall come from afar, they shall fly as an eagle that maketh haste to eat.” (Hab 1:8) The prophet Jeremiah wrote: “Behold he [Nabuchodonosor] shall come up as a cloud, and his chariots as a tempest: his horses are swifter than eagles: woe unto us, for we are laid waste.” (Jer 4:13) After Jerusalem was destroyed by the Chaldeans, the same prophet lamented: “Our persecutors were swifter than the eagles of the air.” (Lam 4:19)

The eagle is not only a symbol of the chastisements brought upon the people by their sins, but sometimes a symbol of sin itself. The eagle’s tendency to build its nest in high inaccessible places, as well as the height of its flight make it a symbol of pride. The Prophet Jeremiah wrote of the Edomites: “Thy arrogance hath deceived thee…though thou shouldst make thy nest as high as an eagle, I will bring thee down from thence, saith the Lord.” (Jer 49:16) Likewise the prophet Abdias said: “Though thou be exalted as an eagle, and though thou set thy nest among the stars: thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord.” (Abd 4)

Sacred Scripture also shows the eagle in a positive light. The Sacred Authors refer to the care eagles show their young, as an image of the love and care that the Good Lord has for His People. As the Lord said to Moses: “You have seen what I have done to the Egyptians, how I have carried you upon the wings of eagles, and have taken you to myself.” (Ex 19:4) In the great canticle Moses composed before he died, he again uses the image of an eagle teaching it young to fly to describe God leading His people out of Egypt: “As the eagle enticing her young to fly, and hovering over them, he spread his wings, and hath taken him and carried him on his shoulders.” (Dt. 32:11)

            The most well known use of the eagle in Sacred Scripture, though, is the image of the fourth evangelist. The images of the evangelists are first seen in a vision of Ezechiel, who saw four cherubim which he described thus: “And as for the likeness of their faces: there was the face of a man, and the face of a lion on the right side of all the four: and the face of an ox, on the left side of all the four: and the face of an eagle over all the four.” (Ez 1:10)

            Saint John has a similar vision in the Apocalypse where he sees what he calls “four living creatures” before the throne of God: “And the first living creature was like a lion: and the second living creature like a calf: and the third living creature, having the face, as it were, of a man: and the fourth living creature was like an eagle flying.” (Apoc 4:7) Tradition has identified these four ‘living creatures’ with the four evangelists. St. John is always identified with the eagle because in his Gospel he soars to the heights of spiritual contemplation. If we read and reflect prayerfully on the Gospel, it will indeed inflame our love for God and raise our souls to the spiritual heights where our Heavenly Father is calling us.