Saturday, November 24, 2012

Psalm 104

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:

1.  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.

But 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.

2.  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!).

Personally, 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 is wondrous.

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!

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