James Mays, no not the top gear presenter, says ‘Contemporary people have a variety of ways of viewing and speaking of the world and the forms of life it sustains-scientific, economic, aesthetic, re-creational. This Psalm (Psalm 104) offers the view and language that is appropriate for faith.” It’s insistence that creation calls forth awe and wonder transcends the barrier of time and is as relevant to moderns and post moderns today as it was for those who heard it so long ago. Our understanding of how it all fits together and works may be fuller and more mechanical, but I don’t know about you but it simply increases the wow factor.
More than any other, Psalm 104, stimulates ecological awareness, it paints the picture of our interdependence and how it all works. That the world with all its bio- diversity, its life giving elements, all its habitats and food is a gift of God’s creative power and a sign of his prevenient grace: that he cares and provides for the whole of creation. Leslie Allen says “Divine activity systematically integrates every aspect of life on this planet, including trudging to work in the morning.’ In the psalm humans are not above creation, but like all creation dependant on God for our life and sustenance, Allen continues “human preoccupations are framed with an enormous landscape and seascape designed by God”… and can I add for which he cares and in which he delights.
Historically the psalm was seen as a solo song of praise, the worship leader would sing it, Which is why It starts with the personal ‘Praise the Lord O my Soul’ and the congregation would add the hallelujah or Praise the Lord! that seems to sit out of place at the end of the psalm.
It is seen as an enthronement Psalm, possibly used at New Year festivals, to acknowledge and reaffirm YHWH’s sovereignty over all the earth, over all he had made. The opening verses are full of royal imagery, God clothed in light, establishing his dwelling pitching his royal tent above the heavens and that the elements are simply his household staff. Like a conquering King he has vanquished his enemies and bought peace and order. For the people of the ancient near east water was a sign of chaos, and in ancient near eastern religions it was the battle between forces of chaos that resulted in the world being created but the Psalmist acknowledges that this was not the case it was God who created everything, who bought order. The psalm tells the story of how God changed water from being a force of chaos to be a life giving source, fulfilling his purposes for it. That like a benevolent ruler, God has provided for all his subjects.
The psalm speaks of God’s provision shown in habitats being created for different creatures. There was Land that can be used for human purposes, crops and grazing, wine and oil. But also land that was for other creatures to live in: The birds have trees in which to roost. The Hebrews were essentially desert people and for them trees planted by reliable sources of water were seen as a real blessing from God. The high mountains were set aside for the mountain goats.
Even this wonderful furry little creature (see right) gets a mention. The Hyrax, had crags in which to hide. The rock hyrax is a major source of food for leopards in Africa and the black eagle, so for the ancient Hebrew’s it was a sign of God’s care that they had shelter from the air.
The hyrax may look like a Guinea pig and you’d be forgiven to think of it as member of the rodent family, however it is its own genus, and its closest living relative is the… elephant. Maybe it’s the dim dark secret of the elephant family, the cousin they never acknowledge, unless it’s to scrape them off their hooves. The psalmist probably didn’t know the biological stuff about the hyrax, but it is both a sign of the wonder of the diversity of creation and God’ providence to see that this insignificant animal is acknowledged as being gifted a place to live on God’s earth.
Our modern understanding of evolution would want to talk about mutation and adaptation as to how the hyrax can flourish where it does. I’m happy to see that as the mechanism by which God has provided for this creature. This Psalm does not see God as an absentee landlord, or a designer who simply started it all and walked away but actively involved in the care of his creation.
Even time says the psalmist is a sign of God’s provision and grace. In Hebrew thought the day started at dusk, and in verses 19-23 you get, like time-lapse photography in words and phrases, a portrait of an average twenty four hours: The sun setting at the time that has been appointed to it…The forest and countryside becoming alive with creatures that roam and stalk the night… In the darkness the lion roars, and in the psalmist understanding this is not something to be feared but rather it is a prayer to God for its food, its saying grace… giving thanks for its place in God’s created order and that its an object of Gods care… The psalmist says the night is thei
r time… In our house we have a saying, “that black cats (our cat is black) rule the night, except if they sit in the shadows outside the toilet door.” … The sun rises, again at its appointed times with the seasons, and those animal give way to the day animals and the trudging labour of humans. Primarily the Hebrew’s were rural folk, attuned to the rhythm of creation, in that they saw God’s order and room for all.
The sea, whose depth was impenetrable till last century, is also viewed as God’s provision, and under God’s control. WE are still are discovering new life forms in the waters but unlike the psalm are becoming aware of the limits of life in the sea. It’s not beyond number. But again there is a sense that there is a balance between human use, those who go out in ships, and its enjoyment as a habitat for sea creatures. The word leviathan is used to denote some sort of sea monster, in canaanite thought they were to be feared, be it whales or crocodiles or something else, But in this psalm you get the idea of animals playing and delighting in what God has made for them.
Then the Psalmist turns to talk of Gods provision of food and that the rise and fall of generations is also part of God’s provision, of refreshing the earth. If you’re a fan of Disney’s Lion King you may be familiar with the song’ the circle of life and Mufasa trying to explain to the young Kimba, that the antelope eat the grass and the lions eat the antelope, but when the lions die they feed the grass. Again the Psalmist acknowledges this is part of God’s providence and care.
The psalmist then gives praise to God for all his works. Even the earthquake and volcano are seen as a manifestation of God’s power. The wonder of what God has created, the abundance and balance of God’s provision inspire the psalmist to praise and to give thanks. To lift up his voice and join creation in singing Gods praise. Bio diversity and the habitat’s for different animals and interdependence and the splendour of it all are to fill us with awe and wonder. The secularist will say isn’t nature great, where as we turn and acknowledge that God is good. In the genesis creation story when God says that ‘it was good’ you get the idea of the creation showing the mastery of its creator.
The palmist also responses by desiring that his meditation, the way that he thinks and acts would be pleasing to God. Worship is not just song and standing with one’s mouth open in gob smacked amazement, it calls us to right thought and right action, it is life’s work. Ethics how we live is an essential part of our worship. It is like that in terms of creation. The psalmist may be way ahead of his time, he sees that human sin can impact and unset that balance. That’s the call for all sinners to be removed from the earth.
How does this psalm speak to us today…
Firstly, It calls us to live thankfully, to see it all as gift. To see everything we have and use and consume as God’s providence; God’s provision. To be treasured and used sparingly. Modern western society is built on consuming and on a particular standard of living that is not sustainable anymore. That has a negative impact on the balance in nature that was a reflection of God’s creativity and goodness. To see it as gift, to live knowing that God provides calls us to simplify our lives. It’s interesting that people often point to the population explosion as to the main cause of pollution and animals habitats disappearing into housing and food production. But when you have a look at food consumption and consuming of energy resources, you see that it is a few nations that consumer more than their population should. We live in one of those nations.
It calls us to be part of an alternative vision for life. I think it’s a vision that the church has often found its self on the wrong side of. It’s a vision that calls us to see our fellow creatures as objects of God’s grace and love, that their part in creation is a gift from God. I know a few Christians who see their Sunday worship as going and being involved in replanting some of our Hauraki Gulf Islands for example. It calls us to be at the forefront of movements like the community garden movement. In Europe monasteries, faith communities were the centre for learning about local food production, reconnecting us with soil and place..
Secondly, I want to make one comment about how I feel this psalm speaks to us. Because of the reference to the spirit giving life in verse 30 in the Christian church this psalm is often used at Pentecost. As I was reflecting on this passage I had a conversation with Forbes Worn who works here at the presbytery Office. Forbes told me to speak about spring. He’d been up to Helensville and come down through the kumeu area and seen people whose fields had been planted. Maybe strawberries, and other wonderful summer fruit. he said That this, St Peter’s is a spring church, the winter is going and spring is coming. I wanted to pass that on to you as encouragement, because I know many of you have been toiling through what must feel like a long winter, and you have been faithful and planted seeds, and the sovereign God who orders the seasons is able to bring new life. We are a Spring Church AMEN.
LASTLY, I went to Pukematekeo, on Thursday evening, which is the northern summit in the Waitakere rangers. I stood there for about forty minutes. It put things into perspective. My soul again rejoiced, I caught a glimpse of how awesome and big God is in his creation. The skyscraper canyons look so small from up there. The sound of traffic was drowned out by wind sweeping across the bush and the sound of birds, there was the smell of native clematis (I think) in the air. It was afternoon so the green carpet of the rangers was lined by the silver gleam of the Tasman Sea. And I caught something of the awe and wonder of what the psalm 104 says. It invoked a hallelujah. But also I became aware of just how much impact humans have had. While the bush is tall and full, I know that the big trees are not there, they’ve been felled. The streams that flow to the coast are in places choked with the remains of logs that had been flooded out to the beach as the first step on their journey to the mills. The calm blue jewel like lake in the bush was behind a damn, and the water fall was the run off down its face. I got home and a friend had posted on facebook an article about floating masses of litter in the pacific and that sullied my view of the pristine nature of the ocean. Along with Psalm 104 I couldn’t help but think of Paul in Romans talking of creation groaning as if in pain. I realised that we live in the tension between the wonder and awe of psalm 104 and the challenge of Romans. And there we need the grace, provision and renewal of God’ spirit in Christ.