The word most often translated eagle occurs in both the Old and New Testaments. And while it may not appeal to our more obvious notions of the regal appearance of eagles, the word used for these soaring, majestic creatures can also refer to vultures. In truth, particularly when observed from a distance, the flight patterns and other behaviors of eagles and vultures are fairly similar. The traits of these birds, which are used for symbolic purpose, have little to do with appearance. God certainly gave to both eagles and vultures certain abilities that provoke us to envy as we watch these feathered marvels sense the thermal lifts and ride the air currents- often without moving their wings but simply allowing the winds to take them to dizzying heights while they observe the world far below.
The Hebrew term for eagle or vulture is used almost exclusively for figurative purpose except in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 where various unclean birds are listed: “You may eat any clean bird. But here are the birds that you should never eat: eagles, bearded vultures, black vultures, buzzards, all types of kites, all types of crows, ostriches, nighthawks, seagulls, all types of falcons, little owls, great owls, barn owls, pelicans, ospreys, cormorants, storks, all types of herons, hoopoes, and bats” (Deut 14:11-18). The Israelites didn’t eat eagles, but they certainly saw their value as signs in the sky.
THE MAJESTIC EAGLE
The book of Proverbs includes a glimpse of the awe eagles inspire as they soar: “Three things are too amazing to me, even four that I cannot understand: an eagle making its way through the sky. . . ” (Prov 30:18-19). Isaiah includes what is probably the best known use of eagles as a symbol for power and spiritual vitality: “Yet, the strength of those who wait with hope in the LORD will be renewed. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and won’t become weary. They will walk and won’t grow tired” (Isa 40:31). The soaring bird becomes a sign of the way God responds to those who persist in counting on or waiting on him. The eagle isn’t “working” but waiting for thermals and winds to lift him. Waiting in hope isn’t work; it’s depending on God to do his work in us. Only by his power can we soar like eagles.
The eagle is a symbol for God’s speedy and powerful deliverance. Exodus describes God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt this way: “You have seen for yourselves what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to my mountain” (19:4). Similar descriptions are found in Deuteronomy 32:11 and Revelation 12:14.
The strength and majesty of eagles can also be fearsome-particularly when they are hunting prey-which makes them a fitting symbol for judgment. Ezekiel included an amazing riddle about eagles among his prophecies (see Ezek 17:1-21), in which the birds represent the kingdoms that will execute God’s judgments on his people. In Daniel’s vision of the four creatures that represent the kingdom of Babylon and those to follow (chap. 7), the first looks like a lion but has the wings of an eagle, which are plucked off when that kingdom begins to stand and act like a human.
EAGLES AT THE END OF DAYS
Eagles don’t appear often in the New Testament. Jesus used this term, though possibly referring to vultures, in his prophecies about the end times recorded in Matthew 24 and Luke 17.” ‘I can guarantee that on that night if two people are in one bed, one will be taken and the other one will be left. Two women will be grinding grain together. One will be taken, and the other one will be left.’ They asked him, ‘When, Lord? Jesus told them, ‘Vultures will gather wherever there is a dead body’ ” (Luke 17:34-37). Jesus was giving an ominous glimpse into the terrors that await those who are left behind when the Messiah returns.
In Revelation 4, the apostle John is shown a view of God’s throne in heaven. “In front of the throne, there was something like a sea of glass as clear as crystal. In the center near the throne and around the throne were four living creatures covered with eyes in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like a young bull, the third had a face like a human, and the fourth was like a flying eagle” (vv. 6-7). These remarkable creatures can speak, and they repeatedly sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was who is, and who is coming” (v. 8).
Later, a woman is mentioned who receives the wings of a large eagle, which allows her to escape Satan (“the snake”) and survive in a wilderness hideout for three and a half years (Rev 12:14). Here the eagle’s wings symbolize the swift getaway from danger that God provides for his people. Since John was describing what he saw, we can speculate that he was watching the woman airlifted out of danger. The woman, who may represent believing Israel or all believers on earth during the time of Satan’s final rebellion, will receive God’s protection until the struggle is complete.