If you look at the sixth verse of the sixth chapter of Proverbs, you will read, "Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise." A sluggard, you know, is a man, or woman, or child, who does not love to read or to do any kind of work, but likes to sleep or be idle all the day long. Do you think you were ever acquainted with one?
Now see what the Bible tells the sluggard to do. It bids him go to the little ant, and "consider her ways," that is, look on and see what she does. Have you ever watched the ants when they were busy at work? It will give you very pleasant employment for half an hour on a summer's day. In some places you may see small ant-hills scattered about, so close together that you can hardly step without treading on them; and you may find other places where there are not so many, but where the hills are much larger. I have seen them so large that you could hardly step over one of them without touching it with your foot and breaking some part of it. And then how busy the little creatures are! Just kneel down on the grass beside them, and notice how they work! You will see one little fellow creeping along as fast as he can go, with a grain of sand in his mouth, perhaps as large as his head. He does not stop to rest, but when he has carried his grain to help build the hill, away he goes for another. You may watch them all day and never see them idle at all.
You see why God tells the sluggard to go and look at the little ants: it is that when he sees them so busy, he may be ashamed of himself for being idle, and learn to be "wise," or diligent in whatever he undertakes. I should not think he could help going to work, after he had looked at them a little while. The ants seem to be very happy, and I think it is because they are so busy. God has put nobody in this world to be idle: even children have something to do. The inside of an ant-hill is very curious, but it is not easy to examine it without destroying all the work that the little insects have taken so much pains to finish. There is a kind of ant in warm climates that builds for itself hills as high as a man. They are not made of sand, but of a kind of clay; and have a great many cells or apartments, and many winding passages leading from one part to another. All this is done, as the Bible says, without "guide, overseer or ruler;" that is, they have no one to direct them how to do it. God gives them skill just as he does to the honey-bees in building the beautiful cells which you have so often admired; all His works are wonderful.
Perhaps you may have seen the ass, though it is not very common in this country. It has some resemblance to a horse, but is not as large, and generally seems rather sleepy and dull. In some countries, such as those where the Bible was written, it is a fine large animal, and the people use it for riding. Some persons mentioned in the Bible owned a great many asses. Abraham had sheep, and oxen, and asses and camels; and Job had at one time five hundred asses, and afterwards he had a thousand. A great many years ago, long before Christ came into the world, the rich men and the judges used to ride upon asses: so we read in the 10th verse of the 5th chapter of Judges, "Speak, ye that ride upon white asses, ye that sit in judgment." After this time many fine horses were brought into those countries, and the kings and great men liked them for riding: so the ass was used by the poorer people who could not buy a horse. You remember that when our blessed Savior was entering Jerusalem a few days before his death, he rode upon an ass; thus showing his meekness and humility, even while the multitude were shouting his praises, and spreading their garments in the way to do him honor. How shall we be like our Savior, if we let pride stay in our hearts?
The ass is very gentle and patient, and does not seem angry even when he has a very heavy load to carry. I should be very sorry to have him treated unkindly. Though he seems so dull, he loves his master, and will sometimes find him out and run to him even when he is in a crowd of men. God says, in the Bible, "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider." Is it not a sad thing that the dull ass should be more grateful than we are?
Would it not seem to you very wonderful to hear a dog or a horse speak, so that you could understand what he said? It would be a strange thing indeed—a miracle; but you will find in Numbers 22; that an ass once spoke to his master. The master's name was Balaam. He was a wicked man, and he was riding on an ass to a place where he knew God did not wish him to go. As they were journeying an angel with a drawn sword in his hand stood in the way, but Balaam did not see him. The ass saw him, and was so afraid that she turned aside out of the road, and went into a field; then Balaam was angry and tried to drive her back into the way. They had now come to a path of the vineyards, having a wall on each side, and there the ass saw the bright angel again. In trying to avoid the angel, the ass crushed Balaam's foot against the wall; and he was more angry and struck her again. Then the angel went forward a little distance, and stood where the path was so narrow that it was impossible to pass him. The ass was now so much frightened that she would go no farther, and fell down in the road; and Balaam beat her in a great passion. Then the ass spoke to Balaam and said, "What have I done to thee that thou hast smitten me these three times?" And when Balaam exclaimed, "I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now would I kill thee," she only replied, "Am I not thine ass upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? Was I ever wont to do so unto thee?" Can we not learn, even from the ass, a lesson of meekness and patience?
The wild ass is often mentioned in the Bible, as in Psalm 104:11. "They (the springs) give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst." They live in desert places, and go about in great companies with one for their leader. You will find these words about them in the 39th chapter of Job: "Who hath sent out the wild ass free? or who hath loosed the bands of the wild ass? Whose house I have made the wilderness, and the barren land his dwellings. He scorneth the multitude of the city, neither regardeth he the crying of the driver. The range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searcheth after every green thing." Travellers who have seen great herds of wild asses say that the beautiful animal agrees exactly with this fine description, written so many years ago.
Did you ever hear children say, "He is as cross as a bear? I hope it will never be said of you, for nobody loves a child who is selfish and unkind, or who speaks cross and angry words. The bear is certainly a very cross animal; the name that was given to it in Bible times means a grumbler or growler. It does not even like other bears, excepting its own young ones, but chooses to live by itself in the gloomiest woods—often in a dark cave, or in the hollow part of some great old tree. When winter begins, it lies down to sleep, and does not wake up till warm weather comes again; then it creeps out of its retreat, lean and hungry enough-and cross enough, too. It is not a handsome animal; its hair is rough and almost as close as wool, and its limbs are thick and clumsy. It eats nuts, juicy leaves, and such fruits and berries as grow in the woods; it is fond of honey, and will climb the highest trees to reach it; and when it is very hungry, it will kill any animal that comes in its way and is not too strong for it to conquer.
The bear loves its young ones more than almost any other animal does, as this little story will show you. A bear with two cubs or young ones once came over the ice near to a ship where the sailors had just killed a large animal. The bears were very hungry, and the sailors threw over some pieces of flesh for them; the old bear would tear them up, giving most of the meat to the cubs, and keeping but little for herself. Presently some one in the ship cruelly shot both the young ones-then their mother was full of sorrow. She had been hurt herself by the guns, but she crawled along to her cubs, put her paw upon them, and tried to have them get up; and when she found that they did not move, she went a few steps off, and then looked back with a sad, moaning noise, as though she expected them to get up and follow her. When she saw that all her efforts were useless, she walked around them several times, turned towards the vessel with a terrible growl-for she was angry enough to tear in pieces the men who had killed her young-and then lay down between her cubs and died. Does not his help you to understand this verse in the 2 Samuel 17? "For thou knowest thy father and his men, that they are mighty men, and they are chafed in their minds, as a bear robbed of her whelps (or cubs) in the field;"—and this also, Hosea 13:8, "I will meet them as a bear bereaved of her whelps." Such verses as these show that the writers of the Bible were acquainted with the habits of different animals: we never find any mistakes in what they say about them. Solomon says in his Proverbs, "As a roaring lion and a ranging bear, so is a wicked ruler over the poor people."
You have often read or heard the sad story in the 2 Kings, how forty-two children were killed at one time by two bears out of the wood. Do you understand why God allowed this? Elijah, a holy servant of God, had just been taken up to heaven in a bright chariot with horses of fire; and these rude and wicked children called out to Elisha, "Go up, thou bald head!"—that is, "Go up, as Elijah did, to heaven." This mockery would have been very wrong, even if Elisha had not been a holy prophet, for God has said, "Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man;" but the children were really dishonoring God in their treatment of his servant, and it was for this reason that He was so displeased with them.
Do you remember what David said when he was trying to persuade king Saul to let him go and fight with the great giant Goliath? Saul thought he was too young, and by no means strong enough; but David said, "Thy servant was keeping his father's sheep, and there came a lion and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock, and thy servant slew both the lion and the bear." He said also, "The Lord that delivered me out of the paw of the lion and out of the paw of the bear, he will deliver me out of the hand of this Philistine." You see why David was not afraid to meet the giant. It was not because he felt strong of himself, but he believed that God would be near to help him; and it was the same feeling that led him to say afterwards, "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me." Happy will it be for you, dear child, if you can say the same words, with peace in your heart, when you lie down to die.
Although the bee is so small an animal, it is very well known; and many learned men have spent a great deal of time in observing it, and have written many very curious things about it. They tell us that there is in every hive a queen, larger than the rest, whom they all follow and obey; and that if she dies or is carried away, they all leave their work and unless the queen is restored or another one provided, they refuse to eat, and soon die. Only one queen is allowed in a hive at a time. She does not go out to gather honey, but those who attend upon her bring to her cell as much as she wants.
It is very pleasant to watch the bees at their work, for they are quite as busy as the ants, and as they are so much larger, it is more easy to see what they are doing. Every thing about them seems curious and beautiful; their waxen cells, their manner of gathering honey and storing it up, their neatness and order, all are admirable. They are perfectly harmless when left to themselves; but if they are attacked, they fly around the person who disturbs them, in great numbers, and sometimes sting him very severely. David once said of his enemies, "They compassed me about like bees."
Honey is often spoken of in the Bible. When Jacob wished his sons to go down into Egypt a second time to buy food, he said to them, "Take of the best fruits of the land in your vessels, and carry down the man (Joseph) a present; a little balm and a little honey, spices and myrrh, nuts and almonds." God told the children of Israel that he would give them "a land flowing with milk and honey," meaning one that was beautiful and fertile, producing abundantly every thing that would be needed for their comfort. When David had been obliged to flee from Jerusalem to escape his wicked son Absalom, he was in great want of provisions for himself and his followers. After a long and fatiguing march he reached a certain city; and there three rich men who were friendly to him, sent "wheat, and barley, and flour, and parched corn, and beans, and honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese," besides beds for them to rest on; "for they said, The people is hungry, and wary, and thirsty in the wilderness."
Perhaps no man ever loved the commandments of God more truly than king David. He says in the Psalms, "How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" and again he says of God's judgments, "More are they to be desired than gold, yea, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the honey-comb."
Besides the bees that live in hives, there are many called wild bees, which live in the woods, and put their honey in the clefts of rocks, or in old trees and other similar places. In the fourteenth chapter of Judges you will find this story: There was a very strong man named Samson, and once when he was travelling by himself in a lonely place, a young lion came roaring along in the very path where he was going. Would you not have been afraid? I suppose Samson was, at first, for the lion was very strong and very hungry, and Samson had nothing in his hand to kill him with. But God gave him strength, and when the lion came up, Samson caught hold of him and tore him in pieces, as you would tear a piece of cloth. Then he left him dead on the ground. Sometime after he came back the same way, and thought he would look after the lion that he had killed. He soon found the skeleton, that is, the dry bones without any flesh on them; and when he looked at the parts of the dead lion he found that a swarm of bees had been there, and laid up a great plenty of honey. So he took some of it in his hands to eat as he went along.
You can learn of the little bee to try to be useful, and to resolve in the words of the hymn which I dare say you have learned:
"In works of labor or of skill
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do."
"In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be past;
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last."