Question: "What does it mean that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills?"
Answer: A popular song by John W. Peterson starts out with the words, “He owns the cattle on a thousand hills, / The wealth in every mine.” The song lyric comes from Psalm 50, which says, “Every animal of the forest is mine, / and the cattle on a thousand hills. / I know every bird in the mountains, / and the insects in the fields are mine” (Psalm 50:10–11). Saying that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills is another way of saying that everything belongs to God.
The context of Psalm 50 sheds some light on the meaning of the statement of God’s ownership of cattle. Beginning in verse 7, God is “testifying” against Israel. He says, “I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices,” which means that the Israelites were carrying out their duties regarding the sacrifices according to the Law; they were doing things right, externally. But then God puts the sacrifices in perspective, saying, “I have no need of a bull from your stall / or of goats from your pens” (verse 9), and He reminds them that “every animal of the forest is mine, / and the cattle on a thousand hills” (verse 10). God can get animals anywhere; they are already His. He doesn’t need to be offered them by man. Why is God telling the people He doesn’t need their animals?
The answer is in the message of this psalm, which includes these points:
1) God requires more than external compliance to commands; He desires internal righteousness. Even though the people were procedurally blameless in regard to the sacrifices, they were lacking in true worship. In Psalm 50:14–15, God says, “Sacrifice thank offerings to God, / fulfill your vows to the Most High, / and call on me in the day of trouble; / I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
2) God does not need sacrifices for “food.” God does not need anything; He is the Self-existent One. He is the Creator and Sustainer; nothing creates or sustains Him. This is in direct contrast to the pagan gods, whose mythologies taught their need to eat. Sacrifices brought to the idols were considered the food of the gods. The One True God of Israel makes a clear distinction between Himself and the false deities (Psalm 50:12–13).
3) God rebukes “worship” based solely on obligation; thanksgiving is an important part of true worship (Psalm 50:14), as is a relationship grounded in salvation: “I will deliver you, and you will honor me” (verse 15).
4) God defies the notion that what people give to Him is “theirs” and that they are being magnanimous in parting with their property for God’s sake. Many people today harbor the false perception that they own stuff and then give some of it to God. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills—is it really generous of us to give God a cow every now and then? If everything we have is the Lord’s, how magnanimous is it to give God ten percent?
God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He owns every animal and every bird and every beast. He owns us. For His greatness and goodness, we “continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name” (Hebrews 13:15).