A few years ago a survey was done at a junior high school about the religious beliefs of the students. Several of the questions concerned the relationship between religion and science, and I found one of them particularly intriguing. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like this: ‘Do you think that God understands things like nuclear physics, molecular biology and so on?’ A surprising number of the students who believed in God answered that no, they didn’t think God understood those things. God, to them, was obviously a simple old man who lived in Bible times when people thought that snakes talked and you could walk on water. The modern scientific world was too much for God.
Two of our readings for today have exactly the opposite attitude, don’t they? In Job chapter 38, at the end of nearly forty chapters in which Job has been raging against God, God finally makes his appearance and says, in effect, “Job, there’s no point in me trying to explain to you what’s been going on; your brain is too tiny to figure it out. You’d need to be the creator of the world to be able to do that”. And in Psalm 104 the writer of this great hymn of worship looks around in wonder at all that God has made and says, ‘O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all”. So let’s take a closer look at Psalm 104 this morning.
First, a bit of background. Creation stories were all over the place in the ancient middle east; just about every nation or culture or religion had one, and they had a lot of things in common. First, water was a scary thing and it needed to be restrained. A lot of ancient cultures believed that the earth was a flat disk set on pillars in a deep and boundless raging ocean, and that originally that ocean had covered the earth as well. At some point, God or the gods had driven back the waters and set up the sky, which they saw as like a giant dome. There was an ocean above the sky as well, which is why when it flooded in Genesis the writer talked about ‘the windows of the heavens being opened’. So the sea in the ancient world was a scary thing, something the good gods had to defeat in order to establish order over chaos. Often, in fact, the sea was seen as an evil god, or at least the home of an evil god.
There are echoes of this ancient myth in the early verses of Psalm 104, but there are also echoes of the creation story from Genesis as well. In fact, some scholars think that the writer of the psalm has deliberately used the Genesis creation story as an outline for his hymn. Myself, I think that’s stretching it a bit, but I can definitely hear the echoes. So let’s have a closer look at the psalm; you can find it in your pew Bibles on page 554.
The psalm starts with the glory of God before creation; the writer looks back in his imagination and says, ‘O LORD my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honour and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment’ (1-2). But then he jumps right into God’s act of bringing order out of chaos at the beginning; he says, ‘You stretched out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters’ (v.3). The word ‘tent’, when connected with God in ancient Israel, would bring to mind the Tabernacle, the tent that had been used as a place of worship for hundreds of years until Solomon built the first temple. So right away the author is enlarging our vision of God; you think he’s somehow contained by a tent, or a tabernacle, or a temple, or a church, do you? Well, think again; they’re not big enough! The heavens – by which the author meant the literal sky above us – that’s God’s real temple! Indeed, the biblical writers are well aware that even the heavens are not big enough to contain God; as Solomon prayed at the dedication of his new temple in 1 Kings 8:27, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”
The writer underlines this point by stressing God’s power over that scary monster of the ancient world, the sea. At God’s rebuke, he says in verse 7, the sea runs away from the place where it covered the earth, and then it becomes something completely different, something beautiful and life-giving rather than scary and life-threatening. Look at verse 7:
‘At your rebuke (the waters) flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal…
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. (7-11a, 13).
You get the picture here: instead of the terrifying waters of the flood, we now have the gentle rain falling from the heavens onto the mountains, forming into streams, flowing down to the valleys and making the earth fruitful. God has tamed the monster and made it a life-giver instead!
Then we have this wonderful picture of how God’s gift of water brings life to all living things. In verse 14 we read that God causes grass to grow and plants for people to use for food. Three staples of life are mentioned – wine, oil, and bread – interesting how they are all used in religious ceremonies as well, isn’t it? The water makes the Lord’s trees grow, and the birds of the air can live in them.
The writer of this psalm believes that every creature has its place and time in God’s plan. The wild goats live in the high mountains, the badgers live in the rocks. The sun and moon mark the difference between day and night; when night time comes the lions come out of the forest and roar for their prey, but when morning comes they go back to their dens, and people go out to do their work. It was rather clever of God to arrange it that way, the writer is saying; it wouldn’t be wise to have people and hunting lions out at the same time, would it?
Before the psalm draws to a conclusion the writer can’t resist the temptation to have one more look at that old monster, the sea. In verse 25 he says,
‘Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it’.
This sea is not the scary, threatening enemy in the ancient legends; this sea is part of God’s creation just like any other. And who’s living in it? ‘Leviathan’ is probably a Hebrew version of the ancient Babylonian god Tiamat, the great sea monster and the enemy of the good gods. But who is Leviathan here? Who made him? God made him, to sport in the sea – or, as some versions have it, ‘whom you formed for the sport of it’ – a lovely picture of Leviathan as being sort of like God’s bath time toy, his rubber ducky!
So, if we pray this psalm truly, from our hearts, what effect will it have on our lives?
First, the psalm calls us to look around at God’s creation and to worship him for it. As the author says, ‘O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures’ (v.24). We’re to learn to look around at a world full of wonders and to see the glory of the God who made them.
Many of us, I think, did this instinctively when we were little. I’ve heard many stories from people about how, when they were children, they went outdoors and enjoyed the beauty of the natural creation, and had vivid experiences of God there. But when we get older, we somehow forget how to do that. As my good friend Rob Heath says in one of his songs, ‘When you’re young you see a trick and think it’s magic, but when you’re old you see magic and you think that it’s a trick’. So we have to find a way to reawaken that inner childlikeness that causes us to look around in wide-eyed wonder and say, “Wow! My Dad made all this! Isn’t he awesome?”
But of course, when we see things in this way, it causes us to have a different attitude toward the earth itself. There’s an interesting phrase in this psalm in verse 16, where it says, ‘The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted’. It’s intriguing to me that this psalm never once mentions the people of the LORD. Usually, in the Old Testament, people have a very exalted place; in Genesis chapter 1 we’re made in the image of God and we’re the stewards of creation. And the Old Testament is the story of a special people, Israel, who God chose and made his own. But this isn’t mentioned here at all. People are just a part of creation, dependent on God like any other part, and the only time ownership is mentioned here is those trees, ‘The trees of the LORD’.
So if we pray this psalm and mean it, it will give us a new vision of God as the ultimate owner of everything. And that makes sense, if you think about it. We in the modern world have evolved this elaborate scheme of land ownership, but who are we to think we own land? We’re born and live and die in less than a hundred years, and the land has been here for hundreds of thousands of years; it was here before we were born, and long after we’re gone it will still be here. And how did we get to be owners of it? Well, if you trace land ownership back to the first people who thought of themselves as owners, it tended to happen in one of two ways: either they were the first people there and said, “I’ll take it for myself, thank you very much!”, or they fought a battle and took the land from someone else!
No – the Bible calls us to see reality as God sees it. You and I don’t own anything. Our governments here in Alberta like to talk about how Alberta ‘owns’ its natural resources. That’s pride for you, isn’t it? If God were talking to us like he talked to Job in our first reading, he might say, “Where were you when I made the dinosaurs, and the plants they fed upon? Did you see how I made Diplodocus to wade in the warm lakes and lift up its huge snake-like neck to feed off the leaves? Bigger than a battleship, it was, and beautiful, too! And I made the raptors to hunt their prey, and the pterodactyls to fly across the sky – were you there when I did that? Did I consult with you when I planned the natural events that made them extinct? Did I ask you for advice about the process of fossilization that slowly, over millions of years, turned them and the world they lived in into coal and oil and natural gas? No? Really? Then why are you talking about ‘owning’ natural resources?’
This is God’s earth. Every single thing in it belongs to God. And so to worship the God who made the earth means having a new respect as we handle and use the earth that God has made. We’re only the stewards, and one day, God will ask us to give account for how we have treated his creation. This psalm would lead us to believe that he’s rather fond of it.
A third attitude this psalm will help us grow is the sense of our total dependency on God. Again, this is not something that our modern world encourages; we like to think that we’re the masters of our own destiny. But the psalmist knows better; look at verses 27-30:
‘These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give it 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 the dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground’.
Humans and all living things have this in common: they are totally dependent on God. The psalmist makes the point that not only our food, but also our very breath, comes to us from the hand of God. What a wonderful thing is a breathable atmosphere! How impossible life would be without it! It’s the basic gift of God to the earth, the thing that made it possible for life to grow here in the first place.
So wise humans know that, even though we work hard to earn our living, the one who gives us the ability to do that is God. We are not God; we are God’s human creatures, and it’s good for us to cultivate an attitude of thankful dependency on God.
Finally, the psalm encourages us to take our place in God’s plan for his creation. This is spelled out in two opposite ways in verses 34-35. In verse 34 it’s the positive way: ‘May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD’. In verse 35 we get the negative side: ‘Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more’. This sounds a jarring note, and in fact our lectionary omits this line completely. But the psalmist intended it to be an integral part of his theme from the beginning. “Can you see how carefully God has planned his creation?” he’s asking us. “Can you see how each living thing takes its place in his plan as he has designed it? Can you see how well the whole thing works? And if so, what on earth do you think you’re doing, trying to buck the system? Are you trying to spoil the plan? Do you realize the possible consequences? Get with it, people!”
We as Christians might want to phrase the line a little differently; we might want to say, ‘Let sin be consumed from the earth, and wickedness be no more’. We know that God’s first choice is not to destroy the wicked, but to help them turn from their wickedness and live. And we know that we’ve got more than enough wickedness in ourselves, too – especially in the context of this psalm, when we think of how we as humans abuse and destroy God’s natural creation. So praying the psalm encourages us to turn from that sin, and take our proper place in God’s plan for his world.
A pastor friend of mine used to say that the first statement of his theology was, ‘God is big!’ The God of Psalm 104 is big – creator of all, supreme over his creation, the one who provides air and water and food for all, the one who planned the ecosystems and set them up so that all could live together. So let’s worship God the Creator, let’s respect and care for his creation, let’s acknowledge our total dependence on his daily care, and let’s take the place he designed for us in his plan for all the things he has made. Amen.