Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 23, 2021
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b Commentary
You have to look pretty close to figure out what brings the latter portion of Psalm 104 to the fore on Pentecost Sunday. But then you read verse 30 and perhaps you are reading a translation that capitalizes the word “Spirit” there, and then you connect the Lectionary dots. That capital “S” signals that the translators want us to think of the Holy Spirit.
It goes without saying, though, that the psalmists did not have a Doctrine of the Trinity in mind in what they wrote nor any sense that there is a Person within God distinct from a Father or a Son with a formal name of Holy Spirit (capital “S”). Every translation is also something of an interpretation. It is almost unavoidable in the translation process. But one could wonder whether it is a bit of an interpretive overreach to capitalize “Spirit” in this psalm to direct one to think in Trinitarian terms.
It may be correct, theologically, to see Old Testament references to God’s spirit—including in the creation account in Genesis 1—as in retrospect an early hint of the fullness of the three Persons in God that would crystalize only after the incarnation. But it does run the risk of making us miss what this would have meant to the original authors of those passages, including the poet who composed the wonderful ode to the creation that is Psalm 104.
Literally, of course, “spirit” in these passages is the Hebrew ruach and also literally this word can mean “wind” or “vapor” or even more vitally for Psalm 104 “breath.” And that is the key to understanding the ending of Psalm 104. The psalmist is not saying God sends some personal agent in the form of the Third Person of the Trinity to every creature on earth but that God is somehow the vital life force—the very breath in the lungs—of all creatures who live. If God breathes onto a creature, it lives and has life. If God stops breathing on that creature, it dies.
We have, of course, been thinking a lot about our breath for the last 15 months of COVID. Suddenly just over a year ago we were reminded that the breath of others could kill us, and we’re definitely not talking halitosis here! Seeing all those masks on people’s faces the last year reminds us of the ubiquity of air inhaled and exhaled.
Breathing is something we all do on average 16 times per minute and unlike most of our movements, respiration is autonomic—we do not need to think about it or will ourselves to do it (good thing, too, or we’d get very little else done, never mind how sleeping might go . . .). In fact, the only time we pay attention to our breathing is when something is going wrong. In a panic we begin to hyperventilate. Or when sick our lungs don’t work right—fluid replaces at least some of the empty space in our pulmonary air sacs such that each breath nets us less results than usual. When the air sacs totally fill up with fluid, we die (of pneumonia usually—the very word containing the Greek pneuma or “spirit”, the Hebrew equivalent of ruach).
Psalm 104 claims that each breath is given by God. It makes it sound like this is a conscious action on God’s part, which of course is a little hard to take literally. The average adult takes 23,000 breaths per day and nearly 8.4 million breaths per year. In a country like the U.S. of roughly 300 million people, that might be a total of 2.5 quadrillion breaths per year to keep everyone going. One cannot quite see God breathing in and out of each person’s mouth and nostrils every single time. And let’s not even factor in what Psalm 104 includes: birds, beasts, dogs, cats, gophers. Everybody. We are talking about a lot of breaths!
Similarly with the Psalm’s claims that God personally feeds and waters every creature. That would be a lot of meals per day! Surely the Almighty God of the universe has other things to do.
But, of course, we are reminded that the psalms are poetry and so traffic in the language of hyperbole and symbolism. God no more literally breathes into each person’s nostrils 16 times a minute than another poet’s lover really looks like a red, red rose or than a given person in some literal way resembles the summer’s day to which the poet compared her. We know how to handle things like poetry and metaphor.
But that does not for a moment diminish the truth that is behind such sentiments. Nor should we miss the fact that poetry, metaphor, and simile are what we reach for when what we want to articulate or convey goes beyond the conventions of literal, mundane speech. What lies behind such poetics is often something profound.
And so also in Psalm 104: the entire poem celebrates God’s sovereignty over all creation. God made everything that exists—every creature, every species, every wild and wonderful variation of color and sound and smell and taste and texture. And God is somehow the glue that holds it all together even now and it is God—now through Christ Jesus as the New Testament reveals in places like Colossians 1—who imbues the whole creation with a hope that goes beyond whatever suffering decay, or diminishment we see now due to our fallenness.
Somehow the very spirit of God—and yes, maybe this is part of the work of the Holy Spirit as we would recognize that Spirit post-Pentecost—really does allow the whole kit-n-kaboodle to live and thrive. No, perhaps not in the most literal sense of every one of the 23,000 breaths we each take each day. But God does overarch and undergird the whole thing. For God the lyric written by the singer Sting for the group The Police is actually true: “Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you.”
That sense of God’s providing us with our very ruach may or may not connect as directly to the Person of the Holy Spirit as translations with a capital “S” might have us think. But God’s attending to us by the gentle (now indwelling) presence of that Spirit is right. It’s a right reason to give God all the praise Psalm 104 tries to muster for the whole glorious panoply of the entire creation. And it’s more than a good Pentecostal reason to give God the glory for our salvation in Jesus. Because through Jesus and now by his Holy Spirit we do see the truth of that well-known line from John 1: “In him was light and that light was the life of all people.”
And so we say with Psalm 104: “I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God for as long as I live.” But going beyond Psalm 104 we know that “as long as I live” will be forever. Because Someone once said “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will never die but live.” Thanks be to God for giving breath to all God’s creatures, now and into eternity!
[As a brief aside before turning to my Illustration Idea, I do have to engage in a wee bit of eye-rolling to see the Lectionary try to leap frog over verse 35a by asking us to read only 35b. The reason is obvious: they don’t like the sudden appearance of a request to banish the wicked and the evil from the creation. And after 34 rhapsodic verses on the majesty of God’s Creation and the splendor of the spectacle of God’s tender care for all creatures, this screed against the wicked seems to pop up like a bad burp from out of nowhere. But the psalmist obviously saw some sense in it. To this poet’s mind, wicked people who neither acknowledge God nor give praise for the glory of God’s works are a blight on the otherwise beautiful world the rest of the psalm described. We may not like this attack on the wicked and would prefer a prayer for their salvation instead but to pretend like this is not even there as the Lectionary seems to want to do does not make sense nor is it a good practice of biblical reading. Just my two cents!]
One of the greatest innovations in emergency medicine and first aid over the last century was the development of CPR, Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation. Although many heart attacks prove to be too catastrophic to recover from, in a decent percentage of cases people who suffer a cardiac arrest for whatever the reason can be saved with the swift administration of CPR—it works to save a life about 45% of the time it is administered according to the American Red Cross.
Not too terribly long ago someone figured out that we can take the breath from our lungs and transfer it to another person’s lungs to save their life (along with chest compressions that keep blood pumping and the brain profused with oxygen until something might be done to jumpstart the heart). I suppose that since Genesis pictures God breathing God’s ruach / breath into Adam’s nostrils at the dawn of creation, we might have tumbled to the idea behind CPR way earlier than we actually did. In any event, CPR may turn out to be a small part of the Image of God in us: taking our own ruach and letting it bring life to another.
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