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Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

Psalm 104 is a sung theology of worship. It performs what it bears witness to. And as Wesleyans, we are no strangers to seeing prayer and worship as happening “in the Spirit,” who is referenced in verse 30. This is a pneumatological performative theology of worship—all the more fitting for Pentecost!

 

This psalm is not only a “theology of worship”—which I’ll explore shortly—but it is also referred to as an “ecological psalm.”[1] If you read through the whole psalm, it is a sustained meditation on God’s care and delight for all created things. It focuses almost exclusively on non-human creation, delighting in God’s intimacy and specialized care for each and every thing. How might this ecological psalm invite us to worship God this Pentecost? What does this performance of worship teach us about what it means to receive the Spirit?

 

The psalmist celebrates God’s intimacy with creation. Verse 28 imagines God holding out a handful of food and sustenance, as if to feed a wild bird or deer directly from the hand. This is to imagine potentially wild and dangerous creatures as good, worthy of intimate care and as objects of God’s unhindered love. Even the seas, so often a symbol of chaos, and the wildest creature of the sea, Leviathan, are displays of the excessive generosity of God. This fearful, terrifying Leviathan is imagined as a creature of play, a creature who “frolics” (v 26 NIV) in the vast, uncontrollable sea.

 

This song exceeds the typical boundaries of what we imagine as “good.” We tend to imagine the universe is divided into good and bad, safe and unsafe, friendly and malevolent. We imagine some creatures—especially domesticated animals—are good or friendly—cats, dogs, birds. While others are evil, or at least sometimes “meaningless;” so we often ask, couldn’t God have done without the mosquito? Without worms? Without predators? A typical attempt to resolve this seeming shadow-side of the natural world is to appeal to ecosystems: the environment wouldn’t have the ingredients necessary to our human existence without the delicate balance of the ecosystem. But then we could just push the question back another level: why didn’t God create an ecosystem that didn’t require the existence of such unlikeable creatures?

 

Psalm 104 teaches us, through its theology of worship, that this is the wrong approach altogether. Splitting creation up into lovely and unlovely creatures is to buy into the myth that the goodness of a created thing lies in its utility and function, as if the only possible justification for the existence of a mosquito is that it somehow contributes to my existence and flourishing. The problem here is misguided worship: this assumption places “me”—my human self—at the center of the universe’s meaning and purpose. Worship doesn’t exactly invert that as to completely explode it: not only am “I” not the center, but my egotistical drive to rank my existence in relation to other creatures is a completely wrongheaded project.

 

This psalm teaches us how to overcome this failure: true worship. At the center of the universe there is a love and beauty so generous and abundant that all creatures finally find their purpose and meaning there alone. At the extremes of existence—the infinitesimal and insignificant all the way to the dreadful and dangerous—there is a playful excess, a God of joy and delight who gives space and time for creatures diverse beyond imaginings. And even at the level of the mundane, the ordinary drudgery of our everyday, there is a God who is sheer delight at the splendor of creaturely goodness that he says like a blissful child: “do it again!” As GK Chesterton playfully conceived:

 

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. … It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.[2]

 

Why are there obnoxious mosquitos? Because God delights in them and God sees their life as worthwhile. Why are there billions of them? Because God is “abounding vitality” and is “in spirit fierce and free.”

 

Psalm 104 teaches us that understanding the goodness of creation is not about an agenda or an ideal of progress, but is about proper worship. All of creation exists in the fluttering, hovering, vibrating vitality of the Holy Spirit, the one who hovers over the waters of creation (Gen 1:1) and the one by whose sending all things are created and who renews the face of the earth (Psalm 104:30).

 

And this is the power of Pentecost. In the Spirit, we learn to hear God rightly, and to worship God truly. Receiving the Holy Spirit decenters our striving for self-importance, the Spirit overwhelms our inward focus, our grasping for grandeur. The Spirit frees us from the drudging monotony of self-interest for the excessive vitality of God’s continual “encore.” Finally, receiving the Holy Spirit recreates us into genuine witnesses of God—and what is a witness but one who has actually heard God’s voice? So the Spirit opens us to hear the intimate strangeness of God’s voice in each diverse creature. When we are created anew in the Spirit, we are made to truly see the Spirit’s renewal of the face of the whole earth.

 

And that’s something to sing about!


[1] See, for example Richard Bauckham, Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2010), 64-72.

[2] GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy (CreateSpace Independent, 2015 [originally 1908]) 52.

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