Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 15, 2016
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b Commentary
This Psalm gives the enterprising preacher a fresh alternative for a Pentecost sermon, because it focuses on the Spirit’s work not in redemption (as do the other readings for Pentecost Sunday), but in creation. Though a number of contemporary scholars think the mention of the Spirit in verse 30 is not a reference to the third Person of the Trinity, all three years in the Lectionary cycle use Psalm 104 for Pentecost. Clearly the tradition sees Pentecostal connections here. Let’s take a careful look. Maybe this Psalm will breathe some new life into our preaching on Pentecost.
Clearly, it is a creation Psalm. It reads like a doxology based on Genesis 1. Indeed, there is a line of interpretation that actually finds the 6 days of creation in the text of Psalm 104. I’ve read one scholar’s attempt to interpret the Psalm that way, and it seems a bit of a stretch, though not entirely implausible. Quite apart from that idea, Psalm 104 is not a story of origins. It is a hymn of praise to the God who created everything in heaven and on earth and in the sea.
In fact, in words that anticipate Romans 1, it claims that God’s glory is revealed in his creation. In other words, the Psalm is not about creation itself, but about the Creator himself. It shows us Yahweh clothed in the splendor of his creation. Before his panegyric to the glories of creation, the Psalmist opens with this: “O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.” That brings to mind John Calvin’s repeated claim that we can only see God in God’s works. God is invisible in himself, but his works display his character. Creation points away from itself to its Creator, even as the Holy Spirit points away from himself to the Christ (John 16:13-15).
Our reading for today is carved rather awkwardly out of the Psalm for liturgical purposes. We’ll get a better sense of our reading if we see the Psalm in its entirety. It is organized in 5 stanzas, composed of 3, 5, 9, 5, 3 lines respectively. The first and fifth stanzas focus on the realms that bracket the earth—the celestial realm in verses 2-4 and the nautical in verses 24-26. The second and the fourth emphasize the solid foundations and secure boundaries of the earth (verses 5-9) and the orderly cycles of life on earth governed by the sun and the moon (verses 19-21). The central third stanza celebrates the rich diversity of life on earth (verses 10-18).
To that main body of the Psalm is added a four verse stanza that recites how God maintains life on earth (verses 27-30), a two verse conclusion emphasizing how completely the creation depends on Yahweh (verses 31-32) and a three verse epilogue that spells out how we should respond this revelation of God’s glory in creation (verses 33-35). (This summary of structure is derived from the textual notes in the NIV.)
The lectionary reading for today begins (probably for brevity’s sake) with that nautical section and includes that all-important section which focuses on creation’s absolute dependence on God’s provision, especially the Spirit’s work. We can be glad that the compilers of the lectionary saw fit to keep those concluding instructions about how we should respond to God’s glory; they will keep us from misapplying this creation hymn. But we may wonder why they arbitrarily left out the harshness of verse 35a (probably out of a sense that those words don’t fit the rest of the Psalm, though they actually do).
Our reading opens with a summary of all that has gone before. “How many are your works, O Lord!” This is a call to celebrate God’s rich creativity. No listing of the wonders of creation can do justice to the inventiveness of God in creating a world full of such incredible diversity. Only an infinite mind could create the abundance of the natural world. The Psalmist uses the word “wisdom” to describe the mind of the Creator. “In wisdom you made them all!” That word made think of John 1, where John talks about the role of the eternal Logos in creation. This probably isn’t the place to speculate about the relationship between Wisdom and Word, Sophia and Logos. At the very least, the Psalmist wants us to appreciate the Mind behind the creation.
That wise mind has filled the earth with creatures. And that includes the sea, even the leviathan. Don’t miss the stunning claim in the nautical section. Often in the Old Testament the sea is seen as a symbol of chaos, as a threat to God’s good creation. And in the depths of the sea is a terrible mythical monster, the leviathan that embodies the threat of chaotic evil. Think of Godzilla or the dragon of Revelation. Leviathan is the ultimate threat to human life and the arch enemy of God.
But here in Psalm 104, the vast and spacious sea is calm, beautiful, and teeming with all manner of creatures. Ships sail to and fro on it. And the terrible leviathan is frolicking in the sea like some happy sea otter. Indeed, the textual note in the NIV claims that verse 26b can be read as God playing with his pet leviathan. As one scholar put it, with these few words the Psalmist demythologizes chaos. The sea and its most fearsome creature are now simply a part of God’s good creation.
In verses 27-30 we move from God’s creation to God’s preservation of his entire creation. “These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up….” The universe is not an independently functioning, self-enclosed ecosystem; it all depends on God’s hand, and face, and breath. “When you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to dust.” Indeed, says verse 32, a mere look from God can set the earth trembling and a touch from his fingertips can make the mountains smoke. The creation is absolutely dependent on its Creator for its continued existence.
It is in this context that Psalm 104 speaks of the Spirit. The Hebrew word is ruach, which can mean breath or wind. It is almost onomatopoeic; listen to your breath when you exhale– ruuaacchh. Is the Psalmist simply talking about God’s breath, as in Genesis 2 where he breathes the breath of life into the human race. Or does he refer to the wind of God that moved over the waters of chaos in Genesis 1? Or are those primitive uses of ruach an early hint of the Triune God, suggesting that the Holy Spirit was present and active in the very beginning of creation? In the light of the rest of Scripture, we cannot say that the Spirit of God is simply the breath of God or the wind of God. The Spirit is spoken of too personally in places like John 14 and Romans 8 to be simply a power.
Perhaps the best way to think of ruach is to note that the Spirit of God gives life (as breath does) and moves things (as wind does). More profoundly, breath enables us to speak. Thus, it is no wonder that the other lectionary readings for this Pentecost Sunday focus on the Breath of God speaking to and through God’s people: John 14 is about the Spirit as Advocate and Teacher; Acts 2 shows the Spirit giving the gift of speaking in tongues; and Romans 8 reveals the Spirit as the One who whispers, “Abba, Father,” with our spirit.
With all of that in mind, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that verse 30 is about the Holy Spirit, even if the original writer wasn’t necessarily thinking of a separate Divine person. Yahweh breathes life into every living creature. From our perspective as recipients of the Pentecostal gift, we know that it is the Spirit of God who gives life. Wherever there is life, the Spirit has been and is working. Creation and providence are as much the work of the Spirit (and the Son) as they are of the Father.
So, on this Pentecost Sunday, how shall we preach on Psalm 104? With its lovely emphasis on the wonders of creation, we could preach a powerful ecological sermon. That’s where many contemporary preachers want to go with this Psalm, especially those who agree with theologian and environmentalist Bill McKibben. He claims that “environmental devastation stands as the single great crisis of our time, surpassing and encompassing all others.” This Psalm gives us opportunity to address that great issue, given its emphasis on the beauty of nature and its alleged de-emphasis on the role of humans in the eco-system.
I want to sound a warning note here. While we can legitimately make an ecological application in a sermon on Psalm 104, we must be careful not to glorify creation. Psalm 104 is about the glory of creation’s God. Not only does this Psalm de-mythologize chaos; it also de-mythologizes all of creation. Nature is not sacred. It is not god. It is the creation of God and it depends completely on God for both preservation and redemption. While we could take this Psalm in an ecological direction, the Psalmist takes it in a doxological direction. Or to put it even more strongly, the single great crisis of our time is not ecological; it is theological. In the words of Romans 1:25, the great problem in the world is that human beings have “worshipped and served created things rather than the creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”
I don’t mean to downplay environmental concerns; they are terribly important. But the way to address our concerns about the earth is to first of all address the heart of the problem. Things have gotten turned on their heads, and we focus on the creation at the expense of the Creator. Psalm 104 calls us to get our priorities straight. “May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works.” That’s central. And we must respond to the glory of the Lord by singing God’s praise all our lives. When we rejoice in God first and foremost, we are ready to live properly in his world and take care of it as God told us to do (Genesis 1 and 2).
The Psalmist’s insistence on putting God first is probably why this lovely hymn ends with these ugly words about sinners. The world is not the way it’s supposed to be, and that’s because of human wickedness. It was human sin that plunged the world into its captivity to decay and futility (Romans 8). It is not a monster from the deep that threatens God’s good world. It is the human monster that brings chaos into the order of nature. No wonder the Psalmist wishes that all sin (maybe a better translation than “sinners”) may vanish from the earth. When there is no more wickedness, the praise of God will be unbroken. “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing: Alleluia!”
It is interesting that the Psalmist does not specify how sinners should vanish from the earth. It might be in a puff of smoke in the great conflagration of II Peter and Revelation. Or it might be by the Spirit of God breathing new life into sinners and moving them to repentance and faith. The Pentecost reading from Acts 2 reminds us that when the Spirit moved the tongues of the apostles to preach the Gospel, three thousand sinners were moved by the Spirit to respond, “What shall we do?” The Spirit teaches sinners about Jesus (John 14) and turns rebels into sons and daughters (Romans 8). The Spirit who breathes life into all creation can breathe a new creation into existence. As the old hymn put it, “Your Spirit, O Lord, makes life to abound.”
The lovely image of God clothed in the glory of his creation, wrapping “himself in light as with a garment,” brought to mind the old fable about the Emperor’s new clothes. Or, more relevant to our younger listeners, it made me think about the invisibility cloak in the Harry Potter books. Hide under it and no one can see you. According to Psalm 104, creation functions in exactly the opposite way; it makes the invisible God visible to the eyes of all who have not been blinded by the god of this world (II Cor. 4:4).
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