Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 20, 2018
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b Commentary
Psalm 104 is the perennial choice for Pentecost Sunday in the Lectionary, because of verse 30, which mentions “your Spirit.” Though there is much plausible controversy about whether that should be translated with a capital “S” as a reference to the third Person of the Trinity, the church has taken it that way for centuries now. Yes, the word is ruach in Hebrew, which means literally “breath.” But the breath of God is often spoken of in a personal way, most notably by our Lord in the Johannine Pentecost. “And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:19) That way of talking about the Spirit goes all the way back to the Bible’s opening words, where the Spirit (wind, breath) of God hovered over the waters just waiting to bring life to an unshaped, inanimate world. That is exactly the role assigned to the Spirit here in Psalm 104.
The Spirit’s role in creation is a good reason to select Psalm 104 for your Pentecost sermon, as opposed to the other readings for today. All of them emphasize the Spirit’s role in redemption, in God’s work of recreating a fallen world. Psalm 104 focuses on the Spirit’s work in creating the world and in sustaining it even though it is now fallen. Before redemption was necessary and as redemption is going on, the Spirit of God was active and remains active in creation. When I read all four lections for today, I know why my old Seminary professor said, “We would be as lost without the Spirit as we would be without Christ.”
Certainly, there would be no world to save, because, says verse 30, the Spirit creates and renews, breathes all life into existence and then continues to provide breath each moment of each day. Without the Spirit’s work, death would be instantaneous. So, in effect, the Spirit renews us with every successive breath.
We depend on the Spirit completely for our life as creatures. The previous verses communicate that in a breathtaking duality. “When you give it (food) 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.” “We would be as lost without the Spirit as we would be without Christ.” Indeed, we wouldn’t even need Christ, because we wouldn’t exist.
The point of Psalm 104 is that all life comes from God through his Spirit. In some of the most exquisite poetry ever written, Psalm 104 gives us an exuberant and masterful survey of God’s good earth. It’s a wonderful world. In fact, when I read Psalm 104, I hear Louis Armstrong’s gravelly voice singing, “What a Wonderful World.” But there’s huge difference between that contemporary song and this ancient song. Armstrong stops with the world’s beauty, while the Psalm is designed to sing about God’s role in that beauty. In that sense, it is not a nature hymn. It is a hymn of praise to the God who created nature.
Some scholars insist that God is barely mentioned in Psalm 104, but that misses the importance of the framing words, “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” And it ignores the Psalmist’s explicit statement of his intention in writing about such a beautiful world. “I will sing to the Lord all my life….” Further, his concluding prayer is clearly theological. “May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord.”
Even before that ending, it is very clear that the Psalmist is using the beauty of the creation to point to the greatness of God. After his breathless survey of the multiplicity and diversity of the created order (“how many are your works, O God”), the Psalmist says a mysterious thing. “In wisdom, you made them all (verse 24).” Quite apart from any sophisticated discussion about the relationship between Sophia and Logos, that word “wisdom” at the very least suggests that there is a mind behind this creation.
Is it helpful here to make a distinction between intellectual brilliance and practical wisdom? We’ve all met people who are incredibly smart in a chosen field, but who are hopelessly foolish in their life choices. They know a great deal, but they can’t make their lives work. Can we move this distinction to God and say that God thought about what he would create, using both his brilliance and his wisdom. He used his omniscience to plan a world that would work harmoniously and fruitfully for all his creatures.
Or to put it a bit differently, the fact that God created in his wisdom means that there is a good reason for every aspect of creation. Of course, we can’t ever forget that sin has re-introduced chaos into God’s good creation, so that we can’t make sense of much that happens. But God originally had a good reason for creating, say, the platypus, and the mosquito, and the viruses. There is an answer to our “why’s.” We may not be able to understand God’s reasons, since “his thoughts are not our thoughts,” but the world is not absurd. It was created in wisdom by a personal God. Or to hark back to Pentecost, the Spirit of creation is the Spirit of Jesus, so we can be sure that the wise love of God is still at work in the renewing of the earth.
All of that is a round-about way of saying that this whole Psalm is about God, not God’s creation. It is about his wisdom. Here’s another indication of its God centeredness. After his gorgeous description of the glories of the world, the Psalmist says all this glory is for the glory of God. “May the glory of the Lord endure forever (verse 31a).” How did Calvin say it? “Creation is the theater of his glory.” Even if we can’t explain how, for example, the common slug glorifies God, the Psalmist assures us that it’s all here for God’s glory.
Of course, sin has turned things on their head, so that sinners glorify the creation rather than the Creator, calling creation sacred and worshiping it, rather than the God who made it all in his wisdom, by his Spirit. Indeed, says Paul in Romans 1:8-25, the reversal of fundamental truths about creation and the Creator is at the root of the chaos in our world. “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised.” That last line harks back to Psalm 104:31. This beautiful world will end one day; scientists predict it as does Scripture. But “the glory of the Lord [will] endure forever.”
So, this beautiful world was created in God’s wisdom and it is here for his glory. There is one more theocentric note in Psalm 104 that we must highlight. God created for the sheer joy of it. Even though his perfect creation has been marred by sin, God still takes great joy in his world. Thus, the Psalmist prays/wishes/blesses, “may the Lord rejoice in his works.” What wonderful pictures those words conjure up! God as a parent rejoicing over his children, even when they are naughty. God as a friend rejoicing over his lifelong companions even when they disappoint. God as an artist rejoicing over his handiwork, even when someone else defaces it.
Yes, there are terrifying words about God’s wrath against sin in the Bible and we can’t wish them away. But maybe this idea of God rejoicing in all his works tells us something important about his anger. Maybe he gets angry because he takes such joy in what he has made. Sin brings death to the creation. Death brings sorrow to the Creator, and with sorrow comes anger at the loss of life given by the Spirit.
In the hymnal from which I sang as a child, there’s a bouncy version of this Psalm that concludes with this stanza. “Thy Spirit, O Lord, makes life to abound, The earth is renewed, and fruitful the ground; to God ascribe glory and wisdom and might, Let God in his creatures forever delight.”
That is exactly right, and I think these thoughts about God’s wisdom and glory and delight help us understand the part of Psalm 104 that the Lectionary doesn’t want us to read. Verse 35a says, “But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more.” Ugh! What a terrible way to end a beautiful song! No wonder the Lectionary omits that half verse from our reading. It ruins everything that has gone before.
Unless everything that has gone before explains that concluding curse/wish. When we think of the work of the Spirit in creating and sustaining such a wonderful world, who wouldn’t be just a bit angry at what sin has done to the Spirit’s work? Sin has introduced chaos and absurdity and folly into a world created in wisdom to run harmoniously and fruitfully. Sin has turned the creation on its head by moving people to worship the creation rather than the Creator, which in turn has led to moral confusion. And sin has introduced death into a vibrant world, thus robbing both God and his creatures of the joy God intended when the Spirit breathed life into dust. Who wouldn’t wish that sin were banished from the earth? Who wouldn’t want the wicked despoilers of the world to vanish from the scene? Sounds like a model prayer for a meeting of the Sierra Club!
But it’s not. It is the prayer of someone who loves God and the good world he created by his Spirit. And it doesn’t necessarily mean, “Damn them all.” Given the Pentecost setting of Psalm 104, it might mean, “Save them all. May the same Spirit who renews the ground also renew their hearts so they come to Christ. May the wickedness that ruined the world vanish forever. Come quickly, Lord Jesus, and bring the new heaven and the new earth where only righteousness dwells.” “Praise the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord.”
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