Saturday, October 12, 2019

Psalm 104: Glorious Creator

Psalm 104 has all the exuberance and loving detail of a nature poem, but at every point its praise is for the Creator. We are not left bemused by a meaningless display or invited to worship it. Unlike the ancient sun worshipper or the modern secularist, we relate these marvels to the Lord as “but the outskirts of His ways” (Job 26:14) and our psalmist goes straight to Him, delighting to address Him as “my God” and opening almost every sentence with “You” or “He” as he alternates between explicit and implicit praise—to Him and about Him.

As we read the psalm we become aware of another great passage, Genesis 1, on which the writer meditates and enlarges as he follows in the main the progress of that chapter’s six creative days. So, for instance, the command “Let there be light” comes alive to us as we contemplate not the mere opposite to darkness but a vibrant phenomenon fit to picture to us the glory that surrounds the Lord: blinding as the sun to mortal eyes (1 Timothy 6:16), yet beautiful as the rainbow round the throne (cf. Ezekiel 1:28; Revelation 4:3).

So too, that “expanse,” or atmosphere, of the second day (Genesis 1:6–7), now speaks to us not only literally of its role in separating cloud from ocean to reveal the heavens but poetically (as in Isaiah 40:22) as God’s spreading of His palatial tent—since His ethereal abode needs no terrestrial foundations, and His chariot-throne and angelic messengers are untrammeled as the clouds, swift as the wind, potent as lightning.

Then the third day (Psalm 104:5–18) brings before us the fruitful interplay of land and sea: first dramatically, in the primeval flight of the waters from the emerging land masses “to the place you assigned for them” (v. 8); and then in quieter vein, in the genial flow of springs and rains to create a fertile and hospitable world. Here we can pause to reflect on both of these aspects, the panoramic and the intimate. The more the global proportions between land and sea are studied, the more remarkably they are seen to work together to produce this planet’s brilliantly contrasted yet tempered and integrated pattern of climates and habitats. Then verses 10–18 glory in the freedom and variety in which the living world abounds. No two of the creatures which we glimpse here in swift succession are tamely alike or make identical use of God’s provision. Significantly, too, as in the Lord’s reply to Job (Job 38–41), we are made conscious of those animals and birds that live in blithe disregard of us or in the wildest places, as well as of the cattle we can tame, and the growth that we can cultivate not only for subsistence but for delight. It is a far cry from our human way of handling large and complex matters: our itch to standardize and regiment; to create bureaucracies and barracks for ourselves, and batteries and factory-farms for our creatures. In refreshing contrast, the words already quoted in the comments on Psalm 84 come to mind again (bear with me!) from Dora Greenwell’s hymn:
… with Thee Is light, is space, is breadth, and room, For each thing fair, belov’d, and free To have its hour of life and bloom.
Already the psalm has leapt ahead of the “third day’s” mere preparation for a habitable earth, to sample its diversified fulfillment. But now in verses 19–23, we contemplate the “fourth day’s” heavenly bodies, noting as in Genesis the times they mark out for us, but dwelling on the fascinating effects of these rhythms on man and beast. (Is there perhaps a poetic “conceit,” or thought-play, in verse 21, whereby we hear the lion’s roar as its uncouth prayer? Compare the poetic play in Psalms 68:16 and 114:3–4 of hills that are “hopping mad” with envy or jittery with fright!)

So we pause for breath in verse 24, to exclaim “How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all.…” We continue on in verses 25–26 to take in the wonders of the ocean (Day 5) and the dependence of all life on God’s providing hand and quickening Spirit (vv. 27–30), the closing theme of Day 6.

But what of the creation of man? And what of the last verse of Genesis 1, where God rejoiced in His works? These, I believe, are the unspoken background and motivation of verses 31 to the end, since it is man that has marred this earthly glory and joy. The psalmist takes up the challenge in his fervent prayer: “May the LORD rejoice in His works; … May my meditation be pleasing to Him; … But may sinners vanish from the earth.” The quaking earth and smoke-shrouded mountains (v. 32) recall Mount Sinai and the realities of sin and judgment, indeed the shaking of “not only the earth but also the heavens” (Hebrews 12:26), for this is no escapist psalm, and no exalting of the natural world above the spiritual. For that very reason it can end in doxology, since while the inanimate and the animal creation can only praise the Creator by what they are, it is given to us to praise Him for what He is.

Praise the Lord, O my soul.