Context and the Cattle on a Thousand Hills

Ever hear someone talk about God owning the cattle on a thousand hills? How do people generally employ that phrase? Usually, you will hear a Christian say that who is exulting in God’s riches. They are in need. They know they cannot provide some thing they want. And so they rejoice that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, so God can give them what they want.

But take a look at that phrase in context. You’ll see its intent is different than that usage.

Psalm 50:7-15

7 “Hear, O my people, and I will speak;
O Israel, I will testify against you.
I am God, your God.
8 Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
your burnt offerings are continually before me.
9 I will not accept a bull from your house
or goats from your folds.
10 For every beast of the forest is mine,
the cattle on a thousand hills.
11 I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
12 “If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
13 Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of goats?
14 Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
and perform your vows to the Most High,
15 and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

In this psalm, a song intended to teach the people of Israel as they worship the Lord, God points out to the nation that he is rebuking them. They clearly have not been as obedient to him and his commands as they should have been. And God wants to make it clear that his reproof of the nation has nothing to do with their participation in the sacrificial system. After all, they have given their sacrificial offerings faithfully. They just have not been faithful in obedience to the rest of God’s law.

From verses 9-13 of this psalm, including the “cattle on a thousand hills” line, God is telling Israel that he will not be satisfied with their offerings. His point is that they do not help him when they give those offerings. He does not eat the animals. HE is not physically nourished by the offerings as food. And if he wanted an animal for himself, he surely would not need to rely on these people to offer it to him. After all, he owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He owns the entire world. He has no need of mankind to provide for him.

Then, in verses 14-15, God calls the people not to stop offering to him. But they should understand that their offerings should be acts of thanksgiving and obedience. They should grasp that their offerings should be tied closely to lives of faithfulness. They should be calling on the Lord for grace and mercy. They should be offering out of joy. But they should not think they are going to impress God with their giving.

So, what then is the meaning of the “cattle on a thousand hills” line? It is God reminding us that he does not need us. It is God reminding us that he can provide for his own glory and his own will being accomplished. None of us should assume that a little faithfulness in one area of life allows us to be unfaithful to the Lord in other places. He does not need any part of our faithfulness. So our faithfulness should be out of a desire to please and honor him, not to buy us the opportunity to sin somewhere else.

Does God own all things? Can he provide? Absolutely he does and absolutely he can. But the point of the phrase is not to be presumptuous with the Lord. Just because you obey him in one area, just because you see fruit in work you do, just because you see growth in one area, these do not mean that you have bought the right to dishonor God in another. Christians, God owns all things. He owns your life. And you should be thrilled whenever he gives you any opportunity to obey him. Let us obey out of joy and faithfulness. Let us understand that it is a gracious thing that God allows us to serve him. But let us never be so foolish as to think he needs us or he will not be able to accomplish his will. Instead, let us thank him for letting us be a part of the glorious plan he is accomplishing.