A Song for Creation: Reflections on Psalm 104

Lectionary Reflections: Year A
Pentecost Sunday
June 12, 2011
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Psalm 104 is one of the Psalter's great creation poems. Along with the wonderful poems of Isaiah 40:12-17 and the vast speeches of YHWH in Job 38-42, Psalm 104 reminds all readers that the Bible has a deep interest in the wondrous creation of God. It is an especially important reminder in our time of environmental peril and continued cosmic degradation.

When I was first studying the Bible in seminary and in graduate school, very little attention, if any, was given to matters of the environment. I was in seminary during the celebration of the first Earth Day (1970), and for an all too brief time concern for an eroding planet was front and center. All too soon, other concerns crowded it out: Vietnam, Watergate, the "Me-Generation" of the '80s, the rise of non-state terrorism in the '90s, culminating in the monstrous attacks of 9/11/01. I was concerned for and aware of all those crucial events, while the environment got constant, if too muted, attention from an increasing number of religious people.

Unfortunately, the Bible has rarely been a central player in the increasing interest in things environmental. Quite the opposite! It was said that the Bible was far less concerned with issues of earth care; that way lead to idolatry, pagan devotion as found among the Canaanites and Babylonians and Egyptians. They worried about nature, its cycling seasons, its life-giving and life-threatening weather, while Israel worshipped a God of history, one who chose Israel, who saved Israel, who gave Israel a land, and who finally saved all humanity by the gift of Jesus of Nazareth. Nature was only to be viewed as backdrop to the salvation of humanity by the God who created them, and preserved them and offered to them the life of shalom.

It is past time now to shelve this truncated idea about God and the cosmos forever. God is not only the divine creator of human beings, but the creator of all the world, its plants, its hills, its wild and domesticated creatures, a creation that includes human beings but hardly ends there.

John 3:16, that infamous football verse that someone flashes between the goalposts every NFL Sunday, is not only about you and me. In fact, we are told there that God so loved the "cosmos" that God sent God's only son in order that all may be made whole again. And we find the same cosmic concern in Romans 8, Colossians 1, and Revelation 21-22, among many other places. In short, we have been blinded to this universal concern due to our anthropomorphic arrogance. God has made the creation not merely for us; God has made the creation fiercely wild, palpably gritty, wonderously mysterious, because God apparently enjoys such creative play, as Psalm 104 so delightfully makes plain.

Psalm 104:26 may be one of the most telling verses in the scripture. After reading it, any thought that God has made earth for us humans alone or that God is not deeply engaged with that creation, and is madly in love with it, needs forever to be rejected. Listen!

There the ships go—Leviathan, the one you fashioned to play in it!

The poet envisions the great sea, a sea that Israel knew very little about beyond the fact that in its vast depths there lived the terrible sea monster, Leviathan, who was ever ready to rise up—some ancient Kraken—to devour those foolish enough to stir its watery home. Job 3 calls for magicians to arouse the sea monster, Leviathan, in order to curse and swallow the day of Job's birth, thus making Job's terrible life no longer possible. Job's boiling fury against God and God's creation, due to his loss of everything he held dear, employs the usual portrait of Leviathan as monster and beast to aid him in his rejection of his life.

How far we are away from Job here in Psalm 104! Leviathan is no longer the feared denizen of the deep. Now he is seen by God to sport and play in the waters that God has made. One could readily say that Leviathan has become YHWH's rubber ducky, fashioned precisely by its maker to enjoy a watery life of fun and joy. Ships need have no fear of Leviathan, who is too busy enjoying a free life of unlimited delight, given to it by YHWH who likes nothing better than an afternoon in the divine bathtub with God's favorite toy monster!

Psalm 104:10-23 is a catalogue of the wonders of divine creation, from the world's wind and water, to the animals who drink, wild asses, birds, cattle, mountain storks, wild goats, young lions, and, yes, you and I who go out to our work, just as the sun rises, sending the animals back to their dens. But how do all of these survive? "They all look to you to give them their food in due season" (v. 27), that is, at the right time. "When you send forth your spirit (your "breath"—the word means both things), they are created, and you renew the face of the ground" (v. 30).

6/5/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.