Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 4, 2017
Psalm 104:24-34; 35b Commentary
Many scholars suggest that we could use Psalm 104 to put environmentalist spin on Pentecost, because of verse 30. “When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.” Imagine a Pentecost version of the secular Christmas carol. “Have yourself a merry little environmental Pentecost!”
I agree with that suggestion, with two provisos. First, we have to admit that the reference to “Spirit” in verse 30 is a bit ambiguous. It is the word ruach in Hebrew, which could mean nothing more than breath or wind. So it might not be an explicit reference to the third Person of the Holy Trinity.
In response to that proviso, it must be said that since the earliest days of the church, this Psalm has been the reading for Pentecost Sunday. The connection between ruach and pneuma and Spirit is as old as Genesis 1 and as authoritative as Christ breathing on his disciples and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit (John 20:22).” Thus, most scholars, up to the present day, have said that Psalm 104 shows us the Holy Spirit’s role in creation, even as the New Testament focuses on his role in redemption (as in the other Lectionary readings for today). The involvement of the Spirit in creating and sustaining nature does have powerful implications for environmental concerns.
However, in the second place, it does seem that Psalm 104 sends a message about the environment that is directly counter to the purely secular emphasis of many contemporary environmentalists. One eminent Old Testament scholar says that Psalm 104 is a hymn about the creation, not about the Creator, claiming that the name of God is nearly absent. As I read the Psalm, he could not be more wrong. It is precisely about God. Indeed, that is what distinguishes it from other hymns about the glory of nature. You cannot find a more glorious description of the glories of nature than Psalm 104, but according to this Psalm the purpose of nature’s glory is to give glory to God.
This is the corrective that Psalm 104 offers to much of today’s environmental movement, which worships nature as sacred and largely leaves God out of the picture. So, let us by all means preach an environmental sermon on this Pentecost Sunday, but let’s be sure that it glorifies the God who created and sustains such a beautifully complex cosmos.
That is precisely how the Psalm opens and closes. “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” Verse 1 gives us the theme of this nature hymn with unmistakable clarity. “O Yahweh, my God, you are very great….” Why is Yahweh so great according to Psalm 104? Because of the way he created (“when you send out your Spirit they are created”) and now recreates (“you renew the face of the earth”) every single thing in the universe. Verses 1-9 focuses on the macro-cosmos of outer space and earth’s foundations, while verses 10-23 shine a light on the details of life on this earth. From the far reaches of the universe to the depths of the sea, from elemental forces to individual creatures, from terrifying Leviathan to sailing man, “the Lord God made them all.”
Indeed, our reading for Pentecost begins with exactly that thought. “How many are your works, O Yahweh! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” Any preacher who knows about the mysterious biblical connection between wisdom and Word (Sophia and Logos) may wonder if verse 24 is a subtle reference to the role of Second Person of the Trinity in the creation of the cosmos (ala John 1 and Colossians 1). But don’t get lost in speculation about that. The point here is in the pronouns that resound throughout the Psalm. When the Psalmist is not addressing Yahweh as “you,” he is referring to the Author of creation as “he.” The Psalm is not first of all about “it,” but about “you” and “he;” not about nature, but about Nature’s God.
The Psalmist is amazed at the sheer abundance, incomprehensible complexity, and stunning beauty of the world, but his main point about the wonder of it all is its complete dependence on Yahweh. “These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; 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 the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth.” From beginning to end, from Big Bang to final breath and everything in between, the world depends completely and absolutely on Yahweh, the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ.
Psalm 104 calls us not first of all to our ecological duty, but to our doxological duty. I don’t mean to be the Grinch that stole an ecological Pentecost. There is plenty in Psalm 104 that urges us to take care of God’s wonderful world. Indeed, if we properly understand Psalm 104, our environmental responsibilities become even more serious, because they are rooted in God’s creative and sustaining love for his world. Psalm 104 is not anti-environmental. It simply re-orients our environmental focus, but turning things right side up. Rather than worshiping nature and calling it sacred, as many do today, it reminds us to worship the Holy God who made nature (cf. Romans 1:18-25).
That is the message of verses 31-35, where the Psalmist outlines the human response to the glory of God revealed in nature. In keeping with the emphasis of Psalms 8 and 19, our Psalm’s first response to the wonders of creation is, “May the glory of the Lord endure forever.” If God’s glory is tied up with nature, we have an obligation to keep nature as glorious as God made it. But don’t substitute nature for God.
Further, cries the Psalmist, “may the Lord rejoice in his works….” What a stunning insight into God’s motive in creating and recreating the cosmos. It gives him joy. This note of joy runs throughout the Psalm, joy and wonder at what God has made—the joy of the Psalmist and the joy of God. If God rejoices in his creation, so should we. Every Christian should be a nature lover, because God is. Every Christian should rejoice in the beauty of what God has made, because God does. What stronger motive could there be to take care of that which gives God such joy. Just don’t substitute nature for God.
In verse 32 the Psalmist deals a death blow to the crypto-pantheism that has crept into some of the environmental movement, the notion that nature is somehow sacred, that everything participates in the divine. It is separate from God, though it was created by God. Indeed, the God who made it all can unmake it all with a look or a touch. As vast and complex as the cosmos is, it is a simple little thing compared to the majesty of God who “looks at the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke.” So let us take care of God’s world, but never turn it into an idol that we worship.
Our worship must be directed to God, says the Psalmist. “I will sing to Yahweh all of my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.” This is a dimension of earth care that is ignored by many secular environmentalists. Indeed, this is the deepest tragedy of the environment—not that it is being abused (though that is a tragedy that grieves the God who delights in his good little universe), but that we don’t praise God when we look at his glory in creation. The old hymn says it best. “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed. Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art!”
In verse 34, the Psalmist offers up the entire Psalm (“my meditation”) to God, in the hope that it is pleasing to God. What a good reminder for all of us with all of our work, whether it’s nature poetry or technological prose, mental or physical, environmental or industrial. We all have different perspectives as we live in God’s world—scientific, economic, aesthetic, recreational, or whatever occupies us day by day. All of those pursuits are real and important (even God likes to play, as one interpretation of “frolic” in verse 26 says). But at the end of the day and at the end of our lives, we must finally face our creator. Will we be able to present our life work to God as something pleasing to him? Our work in preserving and conserving the environment is part of our service to God. Just don’t substitute nature for God.
Finally, we come to the uncomfortable words of verse 35a. We can skip over them as the Lectionary does, probably because they seem to mar an otherwise joyful paean of praise to nature and nature’s God. But the Psalmist must have thought those hard words fit into this Psalm. It may be that he was thinking of the way human sin and evil can ruin the beauty of God’s work on earth. Then this is a fierce environmentalist prayer. Get rid of those who corrupt and pollute the earth. One can hear this prayed at a Sierra Club meeting.
Or the Psalmist might have been thinking about the revelation of God in creation the way Paul did in Romans 1:18-25. God has clearly revealed himself in nature, but sinners have distorted that revelation. “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things, rather than the Creator….” If that’s what the Psalmist was thinking about at the end of his “nature poem,” then he is wishing away those who worship the creation rather than the Creator.
We don’t know which of those interpretations is correct. And we don’t know how God might make “the sinner vanish from the earth.” It might be that they will be blown away from God eternally by the cosmic winds. Or perhaps the ruach of God, the Holy Spirit, will blow into their hearts as at Pentecost, so that they cry, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And they will repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and cease being sinners in the eyes of God. Perhaps the God who created all things will recreate even those who turned nature on its head. “When you send your Spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth.”
Modern moviegoers are appropriately awed by science fiction movies that portray invasions of earth by alien species or inter-galactic wars in a time long ago and far, far away. Death stars, X-wing fighters, laser cannons, beings with powers unimagined on earth—all of this brings in millions of adoring fans. The power of the Alien, the Cosmic Other, awes us and frightens us and, strangely, gives us delight. How much more should that be the case with the God who “spoke and it was so,” who “opens [his] hand… and they are satisfied with good things” and “hides [his] face… and they die and return to the dust.”
Perhaps inspired by this Psalm, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins saw the sun’s daily rising as a sign that “the Holy Ghost over the bent/World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wing.” The Holy Spirit is not only breath that gives life, but also bird that hatches the world? Words cannot capture the wonder of the Spirit whose coming we celebrate at Pentecost.
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