Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 104 is a lovely, lyrical hymn of praise to God the Creator and Sustainer. It offers what William P. Brown calls “a grand tour of God’s creation and maintenance of the cosmos.” It glides from verses 2b-9’s description of God’s first acts of creation to verses’ 10-30’s description of God’s care for God’s world and everything in it.
Yet as Brown also notes, Psalm 104’s “tour” actually begins with Psalm 103. After all, the psalmist’s call to herself to “Praise the Lord, O my soul” brackets each psalm. The psalms are also, in one sense, complementary. 103 focuses on God’s gracious work in people’s lives. 104 focuses on God’s loving work in God’s creation. Taken together, they remind us that the God of salvation and the God of creation are one and the same.
Citizens of the 21st century tend to think about and analyze the world in terms of disciplines like science, economics and aesthetics. Psalm 104 invites us to think about that world as “the work of God’s hands.” Those many “works” fill both the earth and the sea. In fact, Psalm 104 seems to want to draw our eyes, ears and attention to the abundance of God’s creatures. After all, verse 24 notes that the earth is “full of” God’s creatures. Verse 25 adds that the “vast and spacious” sea teems “with creatures beyond number.” Yet as many creatures as there are, Psalm 104 reminds us that, in the words of the beautiful hymn, “The Lord God made them all.” In fact, it reminds us that God even creates creatures that seem strange and terrible to us.
This assertion offers those who preach and teach Psalm 104 an opportunity to invite hearers to reflect on how much more we know about God’s “works” than the psalmist did. After all, he didn’t have microscopes with which to peer into the minutest corners of God’s creation. The psalmist didn’t have a Hubble Telescope with which to stare into the farthest corners of God’s creation. He didn’t even have undersea apparatus with which to peek into the ocean’s deepest depths. So it may be fair to suggest that we have even more reason than the psalmist did to “Praise the Lord, O my soul.”
God created this abundance, says the psalmist, “in wisdom.” (24) While biblical scholars aren’t sure just what that means, it would seem to at least suggest that God creates with such skill that God equips creatures to do precisely what they need to do. Those plentiful “creatures,” notes the psalmist, include those that fill the earth. So verse 24 is a bit reminiscent of Genesis 1’s account of creation’s sixth day: “And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures, according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind’.”
In verse 25 the psalmist adds with an almost breathless hint of awe and admiration that God’s work includes the countless creatures that fill the great seas. That makes it reminiscent of Genesis 1’s account of creation’s fifth day: “And God said, ‘Let the water teem with living creatures’ … So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the sea teems … God blessed them and said, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the water in the seas’.”
Those who read verse 26 may be surprised by its inclusion in the list of abundant sea creatures the “leviathan.” After all, it was a mythological creature that terrified mariners. The psalmist’s contemporaries thought of the leviathan as an enemy of both God and people. Yet in verse 26 the psalmist compares it to what the NIV Study Bible calls “God’s pet playing in the ocean.” So he invites worshipers to think of God and the leviathan as what Brown calls “playmates.”
Those who preach and teach Psalm 104 may want to reflect with hearers on the contrast between its theology and some views of our world. After all, if our contemporaries think of God at all, they tend to think of God as perhaps creating the world, but then having nothing to do with it afterwards. By contrast, Psalm 104 views God as vigorously and intimately involved in caring for what God so lovingly and wisely created. Even when worshipers take into account the specifics of the psalmist’s pre-scientific understanding of the world, we can’t help but marvel at the truths it communicates about God’s deep ongoing involvement in the world God so loves.
Psalm 104 vigorously asserts that God provides for what God makes, including wild animals, trees and even mountains. So the psalmist insists that creation completely depends on God for its sustenance. In fact, her imagery brings to mind a kind of servile or childlike dependence. Psalm 104 invites hearers to think of creation as a baby hungrily straining toward his mother’s breast.
So when God generously provides, the psalmist adds, creatures eagerly scoop up the provision. He uses language that’s reminiscent of Exodus 16’s description of Israel’s act of eagerly gathering manna. It’s vivid language of timely provision, inviting worshipers to think of God’s “hand” as open rather clenched as in a fist of anger or miserliness. Psalm 104 reminds us that God is very generous, an attribute of God that worshipers sometimes neglect.
Yet when God is not generous with God’s creatures, those creatures suffer. When God looks away, when God withdraws the breath of life, dependent creatures are terrified. They so rely on God’s timely provision that when God turns away, they, in fact, die and return to dust, the very stuff of which Genesis 2 reports God created Adam. However, when God sends God’s creatures God’s life-giving spirit that hovered over the primordial waters at creation, creatures are made and renewed.
Psalm 104’s hymn of adoration concludes with a prayer to the Creator and Sustainer of creation. The psalmist prays that God’s glory will “endure forever.” God’s creation and creatures may be fragile and short-lived, depending completely on God’s generous provision. However, the psalmist prays that God’s glory won’t be fragile, that it will outlast even the creation as we know it.
However, in a lovely, poetic but perhaps surprising turn, the psalmist also prays that God will rejoice in God’s works. This offers those who preach and teach Psalm 104 a chance to reflect with hearers on how often they think of God as rejoicing. God’s children sometimes think of God as punishing and forgiving, as being angry and loving. However, they may not often think of God as rejoicing or delighting in things. Yet the psalmist invites worshipers to think of God’s care for what God makes not as drudgery, but as something God enjoys. So perhaps, as Brown notes, God’s children’s own care for creation is something not to be just endured, but enjoyed as we celebrate the abundance with which God fills God’s works.
The Revised Common Lectionary offers Psalm 104’s preachers and teachers the opportunity to skip verse 35a’s troubling words. Yet that verse offers an opportunity for those who teach about the psalm to explore just how it fits into the rest of the psalm. The psalmist prays, apparently harshly, that sinners will vanish from the earth and that the wicked will no longer exist.
It may seem difficult to reconcile this prayer with the majestic and lyric hymn that is Psalm 104. It may be helpful, however, to remember that the wicked and sinners mar that for which God cares so deeply, God’s creation and creatures. After all, Psalm 104’s creational chaos comes not from mythical beasts like the leviathan, but from “human” monsters. What’s more, one might interpret verse 35a’s plea not as a prayer for sinners’ obliteration, but for their repentance and regeneration. After all, were the wicked and sinners to join God’s creation and creatures in recognizing their complete dependence on their Creator and Sustainer, God’s whole creation would join together to sing to the Lord as long as it lasts.
Few activities are more pleasant than feeding birds. The late Jane Kenyon wrote a lovely poem describing that activity that she entitled, “At the Feeder.” It delightfully captures birds’ dependence for their provision and hints at the delight God takes in generously feeding God’s creatures.
“First the Chickadees take/ their share, then fly/ to the bittersweet vine, / where they crack open their seeds, / excited, like poets/opening the day’s mail.
And the evening Grosbeaks — / those large and prosperous/ finches – resemble skiers/, with the latest equipment, bright/ yellow goggles on their faces.
Now the Bluejay comes in/ for a landing like a SAC bomber/ returning to Plattsburgh/ after a day of patrolling the ozone. / Every teacup in the pantry rattles.
The solid and graceful bodies/ of Nuthatches, perpetually/ upside down, like Yogis … / and Slate-Colored Juncoes, feeding/ on the ground, taking only/ what falls to them.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b Commentary