For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied Psalm 104. Psalm 104 exalts God as creator, as it describes the natural world and its benefits for animals and for human beings. Psalm 104 closes by saying (and I draw here from the King James Version): "Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the LORD, O my soul. Praise ye the LORD."
I have three items:
One issue that came up in my reading was environmentalism. On the one
hand, some regarded Psalm 104 as a Psalm that supports environmentalist
ideas in that it values, not just human beings, but plants and animals
as well. Richard Whitekettle of Calvin College had an insightful article in the Bulletin for Biblical Research
(21, no. 2, 2011), in which he said that the Israelites believed that
animals had rationality and intelligence, albeit on a "lesser level or
quality" than what human beings possess (an issue that is discussed
today). On the other hand, there were people who used Psalm 104 against
environmentalism, as they maintained that Psalm 104 presents God
sustaining the earth, implying (for them) that it cannot be
significantly damaged by humans.
I've long been struck by how there is an overlap between environmentalism and arguments for Intelligent Design.
Don't get me wrong----you probably won't see the two in the same camp
all that often (though, here, I cannot be overly dogmatic)----but I'm
saying that they sometimes present similar arguments. Proponents for
Intelligent Design often contend that (in a number of areas) the cosmos
had to be created exactly as it was for there to be life----that if
certain factors had varied even slightly, an inhabitable universe would
not exist. Environmentalists, similarly, see an order in the
natural world that preserves a balance that is beneficial to the life
and well-being of the earth's inhabitants----human and non-human----and
they believe that human activity is distorting that balance, with
devastating results. Both think that it's better for the natural world
to be a certain way.
Perhaps the anti-environmentalist
readers of Psalm 104 are correct to say that a biblical view is that the
natural world is not so fragile. Or maybe Psalm 104 actually is
consistent with an environmentalist view that the natural world is
fragile and delicate. Psalm 104:30 says that God will send forth God's
spirit and renew the face of the earth, but that does not preclude the
possibility that humans can cause damage to the earth. Perhaps
Psalm 104:30 is eschatological and says what God will one day intervene
and do, namely, renew the natural world and make it fertile (think
Second Isaiah, and other prophetic books). The Jewish commentator Radak
interpreted Psalm 104:30 in light of the resurrection from the dead.
that doesn't necessarily have to lead to a view that we need not be
concerned about the environment because Christ will come back and clean
everything up, for Psalm 104 is about the beauty of the natural world
and how God cares about all of the earth's creatures. In my mind, if God cares for all of the earth's creatures, then so should we.
The orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary took some swipes at
evolution. It said that Psalm 104 presents God making habitations for
animals rather than animals adapting to those habitations. Appealing to
Rashi and Radak, it states regarding Psalm 104:18: "At first glance,
the remote and barren mountains appear to serve no purpose; but in fact
they were created to provide a habitat for the wild mountain goats".
The Artscroll said that v 24 teaches that God designed everything by
God's wisdom, which means that "No creature evolved by chance..." A
key theme in the Artscroll's interpretation of Psalm 104 is that it
teaches that God made a cosmos in which everything has a purpose: v 19
affirms that the moon is for festivals, and v 24 communicates that "God
did not allow a single inch [of God's creation] to go to waste", for the
earth is full of God's possessions.
A few of the conservative Christian sermons that I heard about Psalm 104 took swipes at evolution. The
Artscroll interested me, however, for I got to see how some Orthodox
Jews approach the evolution question. And I will say that its thoughts
were more profound and beautiful than what I heard in the conservative
Christian sermons (which largely beat up on evolutionists and said that
they didn't want to submit to the preachers, cough, I mean God!).
I think that Psalm 104 is beautiful and contains truth, even if I do
not adopt the cosmology of its author. As many scholars note, Psalm 104
itself was probably influenced by the ancient Egyptian Hymn to Aten
and various ancient Near Eastern motifs, so the author of Psalm 104
himself was drawing on sources----some of which he probably did not
regard as infallible----in seeking to understand and to glorify God.
Psalm 104 is about the order and beauty of the natural world. However
that natural world came to be, I can still agree with Psalm 104 that it
3. Psalm 104 ends with a desire that sinners and
wicked people be consumed from the earth. One view that I read said
that this is because the wicked have no place in the beautiful, orderly
world that Psalm 104 describes. I can see this point of view, for evil
is destructive and disruptive of harmony, whereas Psalm 104 is all about
a harmonious natural world that benefits humans and animals. And yet, I
was drawn to another view that I read in the Midrash on the Psalms and
the Artscroll (which cited Babylonian Talmud Berachot 10a): that one
should read Psalm 104:35 to say that God will eliminate sins (rather
than sinners), and that, once God does that, there will be no more
wicked people. The idea seems to be that God will destroy the wicked by
converting them into something other than wicked: into good people. It
sounds rather universalist! I'm not sure if Psalm 104 is really saying
that. But I still like the concept!