What’s worse than being a beast? Being like a beast. Animals are supposed to be beastly; humans aren’t. When we become like animals, it’s against our nature; it’s perverse. And we won’t be that impressed with our salvation until we're thoroughly digusted by the perversion we're saved from.
When we are arrogant enough to stand up against God, we make ourselves like animals to him. The Lord made this metaphor literal with Nebuchadnezzar.
As Nebuchadnezzar was walking on his palace rooftop, he looked out and proclaimed:
Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?
God was unimpressed. To show the king who was in charge, God immediately snatched the kingdom from him.
He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers, and his nails were like birds’ claws.
Nebuchadnezzar went from being the very definition of pomp and style to being nastier than the lowest Babylonian beggar.
The same thing happened to the prodigal son. He rebelled against his father, ran away with his inheritance, and was soon so poor and demeaned that he was jealous of pigs.
A poem by Stephen Crane displays the horror of this descent into the ranks of animals because of our own self-love:
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, "Is it good, friend?"
"It is bitter—bitter," he answered,
"But I like it
Because it is bitter,
And because it is my heart."
When we rail against God, we are like the freak of these lines who loves himself so deeply and insanely that he savors his own bitterness.
The psalmist Asaph writes:
When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you.
When we become bitter against God or his decisions, we become like Nebuchadnezzar, the prodigal son, and Crane’s disgusting creature.
Fortunately, the psalm continues:
Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.
We are unworthy before God—sometimes like animals. Nevertheless (But God, being rich in mercy…) he cares for us, guides us, and saves us.
But I still have vestiges of Nebuchadnezzar’s self-reliance, remnants of the prodigal son’s individualism. And, like the creature in the desert, I often prefer myself simply because I am me. So one of my first reactions to this good word from the Psalms is not gladness, but revulsion at the idea of needing to have my hand held. Am I a child?
I hope so. Because I only have two options: I can pursue the hopeless egotism that leads to Nebuchadnezzar’s brutish insanity, the prodigal’s porcine jealousy, and Crane’s cannibalistic desert; or I can pursue the humble childlikeness that puts my hand up to be held and then follows my father until I’m received in glory.