O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
• Psalm 104: 24, NRSV
• • •
It has been awhile since we’ve returned to our series from William P. Brown’s fascinating book on the many ways the Bible teaches about creation: The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder. But Thanksgiving Day here in the U.S. seems like a perfect day to look at the most extensive creation psalm in Scripture, Psalm 104, for as Brown says, in this psalm “creation is seen not from the creator’s perspective but from the creature’s, specifically from the standpoint of Homo laudans, ‘the praising human.'”
As with many psalms, Psalm 104 does not readily divulge its historical context. It is pure poetry, setting its focus on the world of nature, not on Israel’s history, and in a strikingly novel way. It offers an unabashedly positive view of the natural world that includes the wilderness, traditionally considered dangerous and chaotic. Instead of “Lions and tigers and bears, O my!” we have “Lions and tigers and bears, Amen!” (along with the coneys, onagers, and mountain goats). The psalmist celebrates the world of the wild and the God who sustains it all. (p. 144).
This psalm is an extended meditation about God’s repeated pronouncements in Genesis 1: “And God saw that it was good.” The psalmist agrees.
- Verses 1-4 — the transcendent glory of the heavens: good
- Verse 5 — the eternal stability of the earth: good
- Verses 6-9 — the seas that fill the places God appointed for them: good
- Verses 10-13 — the fresh waters that satisfy the thirst of God’s wild creatures: good
- Verses 14-15 — the abundant food that God brings from the earth to feed his creatures: good
- Verses 16-23 — the many and varied earthscapes in which God’s creatures find a home: good
The world so conceived by the psalmist is not so much a free range as a spacious home, and its inhabitants all share the earth as their common habitat. Psalm 104, in short, is a fanfare for the common creature. (p. 147).
. . . Place and provision, according to Psalm 104, are the fundamental features of creation that ensure the continuance of life. (p. 151).
As the psalmist praises God and relishes the vastness, complexity, and beneficence of God’s creation and the astonishing creatures who find a home there, he even mentions Leviathan. Leviathan was the mythic sea creature who represented the forces of chaos. But rather than portraying this sea monster in terms of cosmic warfare and opposition to God, he says, “There [in the sea] go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it“ (v. 26). So good is God’s creation deemed to be in Psalm 104 that even its most feared creature is described as frolicking amid the waves by God’s design!
Furthermore, and most significantly for our understanding of the world, even the death of God’s creatures is depicted, not as a curse, but as part of the natural life cycle of rebirth and renewal in the earth (vv. 27-30):
These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
This reinforces the perspective I shared last week: that creation did not change in its nature, properties, or “laws” as a result of a “fall” or “curse” in Genesis 3. It was deemed “very good” by God in the beginning, and in this poem, the psalmist affirms that it remains “very good.” This does not change the fact that God acts in both judgment and salvation in the world. But God does that because of what we read at the very end of Psalm 104, not because creation itself has been placed under a curse that transformed it from “good” to “not good.”
So let’s look at the way this psalm ends. The one decidedly minor note in this symphony of praise proclaims that a single part of God’s creation threatens its goodness. Verse 35, an imprecation on the wicked, at first glance seems profoundly out of place: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” To this point, there has been barely any mention of human beings, much less talk of sin and wickedness. Why does the psalmist include this appeal for judgment at the end of Psalm 104?
For many readers, this imprecation is a “damned spot” on an otherwise perfect poem. But for the ancient listener, calling God to exterminate the wicked made sense in a less than perfect world. By cursing the wicked, the psalmist transfers the evil chaos traditionally assigned to mythically monstrous figures such as Leviathan and places it squarely on human shoulders. Conflict in creation, the psalmist acknowledges, is most savage among the distinctly human beasts. (p. 144f)
The danger this good world faces continually is that human beings will corrupt it by “corrupting their way upon the earth” (Genesis 6:12). Humankind, given stewardship over the world, is called to represent the God of Psalm 104 in all the earth. This is the God who sustains creation by his wisdom (v. 24) and by the joy he takes in it (v. 31). Likewise, through humanity’s wise care and use of this amazing planet, and by taking delight in its wonders and never forgetting from Whom they came, we take our rightful place here among the manifold splendors of the cosmos and fulfilling God’s will on earth as in heaven.
So . . .
As we give thanks today, let us confess our sin of bringing corruption into this good world, posing an ongoing threat to its marvelous ecosystems, ourselves, and other creatures by our predatory behaviors.
Let us thank the Creator that though the corruption we bring is profound, God continues to rejoice in the work of his hands and the goodness of creation still shines through, prompting meditation and praise every day.
Let us pray that, like our Creator, we will be wise in tending to the creation, delighting in its wonders and being good stewards of its resources.
And let us anticipate that day when sin and wickedness shall be banished from the earth, and all things will be gathered together and made new in Christ (Ephesians 1:10).