“Kings shall be your foster fathers, and their queens your nursing mothers.” (Isaiah 49:23)
An image of sacrifice
Since 2012 marks the bicentennial of Louisiana’s statehood, I recently purchased a state flag to fly from my front porch. I am happy to celebrate the heritage of my adopted home state. The central figure on our flag is a pelican feeding her young. She is marked by three drops of blood, one for each chick. Intrigued by the image, I researched its background and found it is rooted in Christian imagery and supports a Biblical notion of civil government.
According to ancient legend, a mother pelican in a time of famine would pierce her breast in order to feed her young with her own blood. As early as the second century, this legendary act of the pelican was seen as an allegory of the work of Christ who shed His blood on the cross to grant spiritual life to His own. In the Middle Ages, Dante referred to Christ as “our Pelican” in the Paradisio, and Thomas Aquinas could address a hymn to “Pelican of mercy, Jesu, Lord and God.” This link to Christ explains why Medieval churches often featured images of the pelican in artwork.
Beyond the connection to Christ, this image of “the pelican in her piety” became symbolic of charity and self-sacrifice generally. This informs Shakespeare’s use of the imagery in these lines from Hamlet:
To his good friends thus wide I’ll ope my arms
And, like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood. (Act 4, Scene 5)
Laertes here employs pelican imagery to express his willingness to give up his life for his late father’s friends.
A biblical view of government
Such background informs the use of the pelican image on the Louisiana state flag. Presumably, the message intended is that our state government is willing to serve the interests of its citizens sacrificially. That is a noble ideal indeed, especially in an age when elected officials are too often known for making politics a pathway to self-aggrandizement.
It is also part of a Biblical view of civil government. When Isaiah spoke of civil leaders as “foster fathers” and “nursing mothers,” he revealed God’s plan that such rulers should have a parental attitude of love, concern, and self-sacrifice toward those whom they serve. The pelican imagery on Louisiana’s flag reminds us of this principle.
Let us pray that the Lord would be pleased to give us civic officials at every level of government that put this principle into practice. In our present political climate, the parties of the elephant and of the donkey could both learn some lessons from the pelican!
Meditate on 1 Timothy 2:1-8. Talk about this passage with some Christian friends. What is the relationship between a “pelican-like” government and the prayers of ordinary believers?
If you want to learn more about the Biblical idea of government, order Chuck Colson’s book, God & Government, from our online store. Or download and study T. M. Moore’s ViewPoint series, “The Government We Seek.”