Marvel about the greatness of God as reflected in nature by Michael Malessa, PhD
What would be the best thing to do with Psalm 104? The best thing to do would be to simply read the psalm, enjoy its poetic features and marvel about the greatness of God as reflected in nature. Such a meditation could be accompanied by pictures of beautiful nature. At the end, we would feel good and praise God.
However, this is not possible for one particular reason. The format of a chapel service requires more talking. So, let us follow tradition and spend some words on Psalm 104. I am not going to do it verse by verse. I want to highlight a number of topics that I find important.
Of course, the first topic is creation. The first nine verses talk about God taming, containing and managing the primordial ocean. In the Ancient Near Eastern and Israelite worldview, the primordial ocean is a force of chaos that threatened life on earth. In the process of creation God tamed and contained it. There is now a space for living beings as explained in verses 7-9.
In fact, the water of the primordial ocean is not just contained. God turns the potentially destructive waters into a source of blessing. They will never cover the earth again, but instead will water it and by doing so will make life possible. As verse 10 says, God makes springs gush forth in the valleys so that there is water for plants to grow, for animals and humans.
And a couple of verses later in verse 26 the psalmist talks about ships on the sea. It is odd that in a psalm about creation and nature ships are mentioned, human artifacts. This does not make this psalm a praise of global trade. The sea that is full of living creatures is a testimony of God’s greatness as explained in verse 25. Leviathan, the primordial sea monster and manifestation of the chaos powers is in it, too, but tamed and controlled. Leviathan is merely a creature that plays and performs its tricks in the sea or – according to a different interpretation – just a creature God plays with. It is not a threat anymore. Although it is there in the sea, humans can safely navigate the seas. Thus, the ships become evidence of the power of God who makes life in general and human life in particular possible on earth.
That God is the creator is something important to uphold. It is not without reason that both the Creed of Nicaea and the Apostles’ Creed confess God as the creator in the first sentence. It is an essential belief for the Christian church. Yet, there is an entire generation out there educated and shaped by science without God. People do not need God to explain life on earth. In fact, the idea of God is often discarded explicitly when science explains the world we live in.
This psalm speaks with a clear and beautiful voice about the divine creator. With this psalm in your ear you have a great start into a discussion between science and the biblical concept of creation. We need this discussion if we do not want to lose the generation that is shaped by science without God. With this discussion, we can bring back God into the picture for those people.
Something Worth Protecting
In verses 10-30, the psalm goes on with presenting God’s continuous engagement in sustaining this world and providing for it and for us humans. The way the world is designed works very well for all the creatures on earth. Humans and animals are mentioned in verses 14-15. The psalmist even singles out the cedars of the Lebanon mountains as representatives of the great things God created in verse 16. In verses 17-18, specific animals are mentioned such as birds, storks, wild goats, rock badgers.
There are more things mentioned in the psalm, but all is summarized by this one statement in verse 24:
“O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.”
When we see the world that God has made we should be in awe. What God made and does is really awesome.
If the world around us as God made it leads the psalmist into praising God, we should praise God for this, too.
But we should also be concerned about how we treat this planet. With every new street that is paved, nature disappears. This statement may be an oversimplification, but in essence it is true. We humans are very much into literally consuming nature. With a growing population, there is a need for economic development, for infrastructure and buildings. Nature is on the recess.
Of course, we all know of the difficult traffic situation in the Greater Manila Area and that there is a need for improvement. But with every forest that is cut and with every new street that makes a rice paddy disappear, we have less reasons to praise God. We may be thankful that our government provides us with roads and even more roads, but we have less reason to praise God as the creator and sustainer of everything.
Nature has value as pointer to God’s majesty as Psalm 104 makes clear. As it has value we should value it. Of course, I do not mean that we should all become full-time environmental activists right now. But Psalm 104 can help us change our attitude toward nature. It encourages us to protect it as much as we can. And with the words “us” and “we” I mean ourselves in the first place. But then I mean our churches. And if as Christians have clear values concerning nature, our communities and countries may follow us hopefully even if they do not join in praising God.
Dependency on God
The psalm speaks about God’s ongoing involvement even after creation in a number of verses, such as 13 and 14 and later in 27 to 30.
These verses speak about how God establishes the conditions so that humans and animals have food. God is even presented as the one who gives life and takes it. (The fact that in verses 28-30 only the animals are in focus does not mean that humans are excluded from God’s reign even over life.)
It is easy for us living in the 21st century to forget this. Many people nowadays especially in the west would read the following letters without spaces GODISNOWHERE as “God is nowhere.” However, knowing that we owe our existence to God, the mere fact that we are alive and the fact that we survive and often more than that enjoy life should make us read those letters as “God is now here.”
God is here and because of this we are alive and have a place to live, clothes to wear and food on the table. In our very existence as human beings, we are dependent on God. Knowing God as the one he is, the powerful creator and sustainer, we know that we can trust him.
Order in the community
Through creating and sustaining the world God brings order into it. The order we see around us reflects God’s majesty. God displays his rule as the creator and sustainer of the earth. However, according to the last verse, verse 35, sinners and wicked people have no place on earth. Sinners and wicked people are those who oppose God and his rule. As said before, they have no place in God’s creation. Everything in nature points to God’s majesty; therefore, everybody on earth should acknowledge God’s majesty. This is the ideal behind the prayer in this verse. With verse 35 the psalmist expresses his agreement with this ideal.
We need to make a big leap now: The apostle Paul expresses the eschatological hope in Philippians 2 that one day every knee will bow to Jesus Christ. Everything will be subject to his rule except the father. As the psalmist of Ps 104 wrote about the current order on earth, Paul talks about a future universal order. Thus, the prayer in Ps 104:35 is an encouragement to us to align ourselves with the expectation of the future order under the rule of Jesus Christ.
But above all, let us join the generations before us praising God as the great creator and sustainer of everything.