“A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel” (Proverbs 12:10).
Not too long ago, a court case in the United States attracted a great deal of notoriety. One of the best-known and best-paid professional football players was arrested, indicted, convicted, and sentenced to almost two years in federal prison for running a cruel and inhumane dog-fighting enterprise. Evidence was presented of deliberate torture of animals under his “care”, including savage beatings, stranglings, and electrocutions.
Compassion for animals is an indication of one’s character. Righteous people are kind to all of God’s creatures (see, for example, Deut 25:4) — because they recognize how they have enjoyed God’s kindness. If one is kind to the lower animals, he will surely be kind to humans. But even when the wicked are moved to act compassionately, they often show it in a cruel way.
The righteous are kind to all God’s creatures because, in doing so, they come closest to imitating the God who cares not for oxen only, but for all mankind too:
“For it is written in the Law of Moses: ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain’ [Deut 25:4]. Is it [only] about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?” (1Cor 9:9,10).
Furthermore, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt5:45). This is the God who spreads His caring wings over all His creation, who feeds the cattle and the young ravens when they call (Psa 147:9), who owns every beast in the forest, and the cattle on a thousand hills (Psa 50:10). This is the God who knows every bird that falls to the ground (Matt 10:29; cp Matt 6:26). And the God who, in the midst of impending judgment upon 120,000 Ninevites, takes time to remember and care for all their cattle as well (Jon 4:11).
“A righteous man cares for the needs of his animal”: “Needs” is the Hebrew “nephesh”, often translated “soul” or “life” (as in the KJV). But “nephesh” can also mean “appetite” or “desire”, and seems to be used here in that sense. Essentially, a righteous man feeds his animals when they are hungry.
Consider also Proverbs 27:23-27, which develops the idea of this verse:
“Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations. When the hay is removed and new growth appears and the grass from the hills is gathered in, the lambs will provide you with clothing, and the goats with the price of a field. You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed you and your family and to nourish your servant girls.”
Kindness toward, and care for, others (even animals) will repay us in many ways, practical and material as well as spiritual.
“But the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel”:
“But the tender mercies” — even the most seemingly compassionate actions — “of the wicked are cruel” (KJV).
This can be interpreted in two ways:
- When the wicked exhibit a kind act, they do it in a cruel way, or
- Even the kindest of their acts is cruel by all assessments, such as stuffing animals with food to fatten them for market; in other words, their “kindness” is driven by ulterior motives.
John Forbes has said: “A man who is cruel in the treatment of his animal cannot be a good husband, a kind parent, a humane neighbor, or a gentle and tender friend. Men cannot change their dispositions like they change their clothes; whatever disposition they encourage, it will become habitual and natural. Cruelty to animals makes men sullen, rude, ferocious, wrathful, physically threatening, impatient, argumentative, and prone to every evil work” (Biblical Illustrator).
A wicked man cannot be gentle. Men should remember this, and distrust all the “gentleness” that is supposedly shown by men who have no conscience. The tenderness of such men is an investment, a political trick, or bait to catch the unwary. A philosopher once said he would not value any man’s religion whose cat and dog were not the better for his faith. This is the beauty of the Christian religion: like a living stream, it flows throughout the whole life, watering every part of a believer’s existence, carrying along with itself gentleness, sympathy and kindness.
The plain fact is the animal can almost never do anything to hurt the owner, and will one way or another probably be as devoted to the master whether it is hurt or not. (The devotion, or even love, of some horses, and dogs, for their masters has become legend — the stuff of inspiring novels.) So to care for one’s animals — whether it be as a farmer or rancher, or a pet owner — is to demonstrate, to some degree, that we are conscious of a God in heaven, who takes notice of what we do to others.
There may always be some measure of self-interest in our “doing good” to others. Perhaps we invite others to dinner, knowing full well that they will invite us in turn. Perhaps we give to charities, knowing that others will think better of us for doing so. Perhaps we are courteous and “kind”, knowing that little acts like this will oil the wheels of commerce and business, and help us financially. Perhaps we “feel the pain” of others, in some kind of pseudo-sympathy, merely to get on in the world. Perhaps we act friendly merely to pick the pockets of the unsuspecting buyer.
Somewhere in this list of “small kindnesses” there is really cruelty, because we may have stopped caring for others, and are only caring for ourselves. When we seek to advance our interests or make more money, it may be then that our kindest acts are cruel, as the proverb says.
So if you want to know whether a man is really kind — deep-down, honestly kind, and not just play-acting — pay attention to how he treats dumb animals, or even how he treats people who can’t do anything to hurt, or help, him.
Along these lines, Robert Horton wrote: “It is one of the surest tests of a man’s character to see how he treats servants; if he is uniformly courteous, considerate, just, and generous in his treatment of them, we may safely infer that he is a noble character. If he is haughty, domineering, revengeful, and malicious to them, we need not attach much importance to his pleasing manners and plausible services to those whom he considers his equals” (Expositor’s Bible).
Show me a person who treats a stray dog with kindness, or gives a few dollars to the beggar on the street corner, or tips the hardworking waitress a bit more than usual.
That is the man, or woman, whom I will trust.