31 May 2013

Psalm 104: For God So Loves the World

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Bible, Contemporary Ethics, Environment, Hebrew Bible, Preaching, Psalms, Worship
The universe is, itself, the offspring of God’s love. It was not created simply because he had the wisdom and power to do it. The element of love entered into the intention, characterized the execution, and approved the completion of his labors. – Alexander Campbell
The Psalter has always been viewed as the Spirit inspired temple of the Bible, a literary “holy of holies.”  For three thousand years, and then some, the Psalms have been at the heart of worship, corporate and private, in Israel, the synagogue, and the church.[1] Entering this literary sanctuary is a full sensory experience for the worshiper. Like all the Hebrew Bible it is laced with the grittiness of life and the grandeur of God.  Stepping into the pages of this holy place we are confronted with the smell of incense, hands raised in boisterous praise from the congregation, and the cry of lament from the suffering. In the Psalms the same Spirit that brought forth life from the mud of the earth inspires holistic worship that embodies the great commandment to love the Lord with our minds, souls, and bodies (Deut 6.4f; Mt 22.34f). Among the truths in God’s literary sanctuary is that humanity’s worship is truly cosmic encompassing all creation. All creation sings praise to the Lord of Creation. This vision is awe-inspiring.
The Psalms pull God’s people into a fuller, truer, vision of reality. Entering into the literary sanctuary to worship through praise and prayer, individually and corporately, the world in which God reigns is invoked.[2] In the Psalms, through worship, God enabled Israel to have eyes to see and ears to hear to embrace a new “construal of the God-world relationship.”[3] Through imbibing the worldview constructed in God-centered worship we are invited to embrace God’s purpose for creation, to embrace the beauty of creation as reflecting his own glory, and to find our own place within creation to lead all in heaven and earth to worship the Creator.
Creation the Realm of God’s Steadfast Love
The world envisioned in worship enables God’s people to interpret the world encountered “outside” in light of God’s claims, purpose, and mission. It re-frames pain and injustice and draws attention to love, beauty, and ultimate justice. If you should ask an Israelite fresh from pilgrimage to the temple “how do you know God loves you?” She would probably respond using the language shaped in worship: “I know he loves me because he created the world and redeemed Israel.”  Lifting her hands to heaven, the Israelite would burst into song,
O give thanks the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever
What evidence for this radical claim by Israel?
[W]ho alone does great wonders,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
who by understanding made the heavens,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
who spread out the earth on the waters,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
who made the great lights,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the sun to rule over the day,
for his steadfast love endures forever;
the moon and the stars to rule over the night,
for his steadfast love endures forever …
(Psalm 136. 4-9)
The first act of love by God according to the Bible is not the cross of Jesus, nor even the grace of the Exodus from Egypt.  The first act of love by God toward the world is that he became its Creator.  Inhabiting the sanctuary of worship Israel sees “nature” around her not through the eyes of utilitarianism but the eyes of wonder. Nature is in fact transformed into creation.  The physical universe reflects the warmth and love of the Father of Jesus.
Psalm 33 elaborates on the character and work of the Lord of Israel while singing a new song. God is described in vivid attributes
For the word of the LORD is upright,
and all his work is done in faithfulness.
He loves righteousness and justice;
the earth is full of the steadfast love
of the LORD. (33.4-5)
Trees of the Lord

Trees of the Lord

What is this word and work that is faithful, righteous, just and loving? Perhaps we might expect such a word and work to be saving people from sin or delivering the poor. But that is not the word and work in Psalm 33.[4]The word and work of the Lord here is the creation of the universe itself.

By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and all their host by the breath of his mouth. (33.6)
The beginning of the steadfast love of the Lord, according to this radical psalm is not an act of deliverance from sin or oppression but the creation of cosmos. Indeed it is an act of “justice.”  No wonder the psalm will declare “the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord” (33.5; cf Ps 119.64).
The Bible claims more than creation displays God’s amazing love.  Rather the Scriptures proclaim that God is like an artist who actively cares for, tends to, protects and actually loves his world.  Psalm 104 reveals the chasm between Marcionism, deism and biblical faith.[5]Not only is the wonder of creation celebrated but the deep involvement of the Creator God with the object of his love. God did not simply create “in the beginning” to see how it all turns out.  Rather, as Jesus said, the Father continues to work in creation (Jn. 5.17).  Psalm 104 is formally linked to 103 with its breathtaking vistas of God’s steadfast love which is said to be higher than the heavens for his people (103.11).[6]This love, manifested in God’s “works” (103.22), ushers us into the magnificent meditation upon God’s continuing shower of love toward all he has made.
Revealing in the diversity of creation, Psalm 104[7]helps place a check on the arrogant human assumption that the world exists primarily for our use and purposes.[8] Rather this psalm reminds us that God has “other concerns”[9]besides human and places us as one among the many inhabitants of the Earth receiving the gift of life from the Creator. The psalm opens in 1-4 picturing Yahweh clothed in majesty, building his cosmic temple to dwell (cf. Ps 78.69; Isa. 40.22).[10] The psalm moves into a very egalitarian geocentric view of earth which is mentioned seven times (vv 5, 9, 13, 14, 24, 32, 35) centering on rich diversity of life filling it. The psalmist revels in the loving, even tender, care of God for his world.
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills (v.10)
Who is this water for? The “drink is to every wild animal” (v. 11).  Those who benefit from are also the birds who “sing among the branches” and finally the earth itself is “satisfied with the fruit of your work” (v.13).  Humans are not even listed among the beneficiaries of divine hydration.
The Lord’s hands on approach to tending his creation means he also feeds the life he has created. Humans finally enter the picture as God has previously satisfied the earth with water he now gives grass for animals to eat and viniculture for humans to have wine.  As water blesses the animals, and wine refreshed humans, so now the “trees of the Lord” are abundantly cared for by the Creator (vv.14-16).
The psalmist again confesses the marvelous manner of divine provision for the non-human world. The “trees of the Lord” are not simply for human use.  Rather the trees were created literally for the birds (vv. 16-17).[11]  The majestic mountains are actually “for the wild goats” (v.18).
One of the most startling claims, for moderns, of the inspired poet is that humans are not the only ones who have work hours and punch the clock. In this section (vv 19-23) both animals and humans share the world but are separated by temporal domains. The sun and moon are creation’s clock (Gen 1.14-18). The animals in the forests and on the mountains work for a living under the cover of the darkness while humans seek the same livelihood under the sun. Lions carry on the midnight shift but, like their fellow human creature, they get their earnings from God (v.21; cf. Job 38.39-41).  After binding all creatures together the congregation in worship bursts in awe
O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
God made some creatures for the sole purpose to "play" in the deep

God made some creatures for the sole purpose to “play” in the deep

Humans, lions, birds, goats and trees are all objects of the Creators steadfast love. But some of the most amazing creatures have never been seen by the human eye at all. One creature, called Leviathan, lives in God’s aquarium, the vast sea.  Leviathan was created by God for no other reason than to frolic and play in the deep! It has no purpose but to be alive and be carefree (v.26).[12]

The psalmist concludes his cosmic panorama with all creation, small and great, non-human and human, brought together as contingent creatures utterly dependent upon the grace of God (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 dust.
When you send for the your Spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
Here is the death nail to deism in the Bible.  God’s hands on approach to creation is described in these verses using the Hebrew imperfect indicating continuous action on the part of deity.[13] It is from a text like this the Hebrew Preacher can say that universe is “sustained” by divine grace (Heb 1.3). Here, as in the initial creation itself (Gen 2.7), it is God’s Spirit who is the giver of all life.[14]When life appears, human, animal or trees, a profound miracle has taken place.[15]No wonder the psalmist was in awe.
But the last five verses of Psalm 104 show that Israel did not imagine that humans alone would delight in creation.  As the psalmist sees the world bathed in gracious “glory” the Lord himself is called to rejoice, to take pleasure, in his works (v.31).   “May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works.” The purpose of this call is that God continue to his unbounded “labor of love.”  Genesis has the Creator seeing the goodness of his creation, Psalm 104’s vision is that he actually rejoice when he sees it.[16]  The image of God finding delight in what he has created in this universe is, perhaps, an image we need to ruminate on more frequently.
Concluding thought
Psalm 104 is gentle, but firm, check on human arrogance.  Through a misreading of other texts, we sometimes assume that whole world was placed here for us. But Genesis reminds us the world was “good” even when inhabited only by fish, birds and trees before a single human appeared.  God himself is the caretaker in his lush garden and humans are just one of his creatures in this Psalm. Animals, who have the same life as humans, are not simply food for humans.  Indeed both animals and humans get sustenance from the same divine source. Psalm 104 also shows that God made things simply to be beautiful and not just to be useful.  The creation of Leviathan is perhaps a reminder to humans that life is such a gift of grace that we should just “let loose” from time to time. Above all Psalm 104 reveals the truth that creation itself, animate and inanimate, is the object of divine love. If God, like an artist, dotes so tenderly over his works then should not those created in his image reflect that same divine delight, divine love and divine care for creation. As we shall see this is part of what biblical dominion means.

[1] William L. Holladay, The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,  1996); James H. Houston and Bruce K. Waltke, The Psalms as Christian Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009).
[2] Walter Brueggemann, Israel’s Praise: Doxology Against Idolatry and Ideology, (Philadelphia, Fortress, 1988), 1-28; John Mark Hicks, Johnny Melton & Bobby Valentine, A Gathered People: Revisioning The Assembly as Transforming Encounter(Abilene, TX: Leafwood, 2007), 50-59.
[3] James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 193.
[4] See John Goldingay Old Testament Theology, vol 2 (Downers Grove, IVP, 200?), ??-??; Patrick D. Miller, Jr, Interpreting the Psalms(Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986), 75-76.
[5] John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, Vol 2: Israel’s Faith, p. 655.
[6] James Limburg argues for the formal linkage of Psalm 103 and 104 in “Down-To-Earth Theology: Psalm 104 and the Environment,” Currents in Theology and Mission 21 (1994), 341.
[7] Psalm 104 is frequently classified as a wisdom psalm largely borrowed from the Egyptian “Hymn to Aton.”  See Bernard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, Revised and Expanded Edition (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 156f. For our purposes it this claim does not effect our argument because if the psalm is borrowed it has been placed within the canonical faith.  However it is important to note that many critical scholars do not see a genetic connection between Psalm 104 and the Hymn to Aton.  Peter C. Craigie reviews the history of scholarship on the psalm, looks at the Egyptian evidence and produces Ugaritic evidence suggesting the best that can be argued is general agreement in limited verses.  He suggests the original function of the psalm was probably a dedication ceremony for the temple. “The Comparison of Hebrew Poetry: Psalm 104 in the Light of Egyptian and Ugaritic Poetry,” Semitics4 (1974): 10-21.
[8]Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 399-400.
[9] John Goldingay, Old Testament Theology, Vol 2: Israel’s Faith, p. 681
[10] See the discussion on temples and cosmic geography in John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 113-134, 165-178 and Othmar Keel, The Symbolism of the Biblical World: Ancient Near Eastern Iconography and the Book of Psalms (New York: Crossroad, 1985), 113-176
[11] William P. Brown, Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of Metaphor (Louisville: WJK, 2002), 160.  See Bernhard W. Anderson, From Creation to New Creation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock ??), 217-219.
[12] James Limburg, “Down-To-Earth Theology: Psalm 104 and the Environment,” Currents in Theology and Mission21 (1994), 343.
[13] Bernhard W. Anderson, From Creation to New Creation, pp. 116-118.
[14] Wilf Hildebrandt, An Old Testament Theology of the Spirit of God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 55-56.
[15] John Goldingay, Psalms, Volume 3: Psalms 90-150 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 194.
[16] William P. Brown, “The Lion, the Wicked, and the Wonder of It All: Palm 104 and the Playful God,” Journal for Preachers29 (2006): 14-19.

3 Responses to “Psalm 104: For God So Loves the World”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Bobby,

    I really enjoy seeing your comments through the Psalms. I have been writing what I hope will be a devotional journey through the Psalms for the average reader. Here is a sample on the Psalm that is the centerpiece of this blogpost:

    Psalm 104
    An Ode To The Great Creator

    How do you express delight in the God of creation? In Psalm 104 the psalmist praises the God who created nature in several ways. Here is a brief outline:

    V.1 Opening praise – Bless our Great Creator
    Vv.2-4 the Function of Nature
    Vv.5-9 the Origin of Nature
    Vv.10-18 God’s Provision for Nature – ground level
    Vv.19-23 Nature’s Provision – heavenly body’s level
    Vv.24-26 Nature’s Provision – ocean level
    Vv.27-30 Summary: God and Nature
    Vv.31-35 The Great Creator will be praised!

    I am reminded of the old children’s song – “the toe bone’s connected to the foot bone; the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone” … and so on. The psalmist here is building a case for delighting in the way God created the world – covered in water (like the waters in the womb surrounding a baby until it is time to be born) … until the water is commanded to recede and leave dry land exposed for plants and animals and mankind … and the Sun and Moon provide light and seasons for growing and harvesting and resting … and the oceans fill with life that feeds the shore and begins the cycle over again. Each level of creation builds on the previous level(s) until there is a complete cycle of life that began when God created.

    So I ask you again, how do YOU express delight in the God of creation?

    PRAYER: O God, Creator, Lord, and Father of the faithful, we praise You for the wonders of creation and the provisions You make to sustain it. Bless us with wisdom to manage it well and so glorify You. May our lives be a living testimony to the Greatness of Your creation. And thank You, Lord, for crowning Your creation with the incarnation of Your Son Jesus – in whose name we live and serve You … amen.

    As I read this Psalm I found myself humming and then singing How Great Is Our God … by Chris Tomlin.

    – Glenn ‘Grizz’ Ziegler

  2. Michelle (Isabelle) Says:

    Wow! Truly awe-inspiring your words and insights here today. Just what I needed to hear: Thank You and May God continue to Bless and inspire you.

  3. Randall Says:

    Ain’t it the truth! Amen three times.
    Thanks and hesed,
    Randall

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