Some folks have requested the manuscript for this sermon, so I’ve posted a slightly edited version below. You can hear it as it was preached, when I was rather under the weather, by scrolling to the bottom of this page and looking for the ‘LISTEN’ link. I have omitted the scripture text below, as it is rather long. You can read it here.
Don’t Let Us Lose Our Wonder – Psalm 104
In the last week, a three-minute video on Youtube garnered over seven million views. Perhaps you were a part of that crowd. A clever songwriter and guitarist for a chart-topping British pop band recorded himself playing a song he had written in anticipation of the birth of his first child. The clever bit was his overlay in the video of daily photographs of his wife throughout her pregnancy, as though she were standing opposite him as he plays. As you watch, listening to his song, you see her change as the baby grows until, at the end of the song, the still photos fade away and his wife walks in, holding their newborn son. Having seen it a few times now, I can understand why so many people have watched it (and shared it with others). But the reason I needed to see it again was because I was bugged at a deep level by his song in a way I couldn’t put my finger on at first.
The song is called ‘Something New’, and it is a sweet and simple ballad contrasting the newness of a newborn child with the comparative ‘sameness’ or predictability of everything else in creation. While it is, as I have already said, sweet, clever, and well-done, and there is some truth in the contrast he makes use of – well, I was bugged. Here are a few of the lyrics:
I predict a summer, it isn’t very long
Then before you know it, we’re singing Christmas songs
And then we get another April, May and June
I guess I’m ready for something new
You want to touch a mountain, taste a waterfall
You only need to see one, then you’ve seen them all
Gonna bet tomorrow that the sky is blue
I think I’m ready for something new
I want to state clearly that my intention is not to bash the guy’s tender heart in his songwriting, nor to be overly critical of a simple song that celebrates new human life. I think that the song bothered me because I recognized something of my own tendency (in the lines I just quoted) to lose my sense of awe and wonder before the astonishing breadth of God’s creation. ‘If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.’ ‘Gonna bet tomorrow that the sky is blue.’ A very good friend of mine frequently reminds me – and I think this is an insight he got from reading Chesterton – that one of the ways we are unlike God (and where we might learn something from our own children) is the rapidity with which we grow tired of things. Once we are grown, especially in the present age, we seem to inhabit a world from which the wonder has leaked out. Seemingly everything – from photos of deep space to pornography to early tv sitcoms to eagles’ nests in real-time to international sports to instructional cooking videos and far more – everything is available thanks to the internet, and is only seconds away from us. Nothing shocks; nothing overwhelms; nothing fazes us; and the pace of real life, away from the screen, seems unendurably slow.
But when we read the psalms, we get the sense that our God, the man Christ Jesus, is the sort of person who, after thousands of years have come and gone, says to the sun, almost trembling with excitement in the early morning hours, ‘Do it again! Rise!’ Or that he says each day to the millions of birds who dot the circumference of the globe, no less than to the angels from the realms of glory, ‘Wing your flight o’er all the earth!’ My prayer is that, as we consider the text before us this morning, we will be brought again to participate in the joy which God has in all that He has made, and that He will renew our sense of wonder in the presence of what He has placed before our senses; that we would again be moved from a posture of indifference to one of reverence toward His works.
I should also say before we open these verses that there are many, many implications of these verses, and of the doctrine of Creation, that I will be unable to address in the time allotted. If I pass over something which you see clearly in the text, you may feel free to congratulate yourself; and know that I would love to discuss other matters later today or at the next opportunity we may have.
1 – 4: Glorious Creator dwelling in splendor
The psalmist begins by blessing the Lord his God, who dwells in unapproachable light, and offering to us a description of His majesty intended to bring us to our knees. How would you describe God in a song? How would you attempt to inspire awe depicting Him who transcends even our categories of understanding? The poetry of scripture uses imagery and metaphor to bring the ineffable down to earth (if I may say so) through the imagination. God is here pictured as a great and almighty king who has built a palace of immense proportions.
Notice, in verses 1 and 2, His clothes: even though we know God is Spirit, we gain some understanding of what He is like in His glory by seeing Him as clothed, perhaps robed, in splendor and majesty, and in light ‘like a garment’. The closest approximation we can make of His appearance is that pure, clean, blinding light is wrapped around Him in the way a cloak would be wrapped around us.
At the end of verse 2 and continuing on, notice the size of the comparisons to which the psalmist resorts in order to grasp at the underlying reality he knows: if Yahweh had a tent, it would stretch to the outer extremities of the heavens above! The foundations – the joists, if you will – of His palatial dwelling are set on the waters, referring (many think) to the waters said to be ‘above the firmament’ in the first chapter of Genesis. Just try for a moment to imagine the dimensions of the floor plan! Not only that, but consider what is implied in the idea that he lays the beams over the waters: most of us build on land. Indeed, on rock, if possible. But the strength and stability of this king’s court is such that the joists and bandboards can be spread across waters that span thousands of miles.
Continuing on, we see a picture of His transport and his entourage. The clouds themselves are his chariot, and he rides the wings of the wind. He is not locally limited in the ways common to men, nor in the ways common to pagan gods and goddesses. Those accompanying Him, his touring companions and heralds, his ambassadors, are as winds and a flame of fire. His word goes out swiftly, accompanied by the brilliant glory of His presence. Truly, Yahweh is a great king above all gods, and they are not worthy to be compared with Him!
But what are the decrees of this great king? In what does He involve Himself?
5 – 15: Powerful Creator nourishing His creatures
In the first place, we observe that our Creator establishes the earth, the place of our dwelling, with the same bedrock stability that characterizes His heavenly throne. In this Yahweh shows Himself to be full of grace: He places the earth on a solid foundation from which it cannot be moved, and then orders the cosmos and the surface of the earth with a regularity that shapes the lives of His creatures through reliable patterns. Have you ever considered that earth, and life upon it, didn’t have to be the way it is?
Notice the parallel used by the psalmist in picturing earth after its Maker. Our great God is clothed with light as with a garment, and His creation is clothed with the sea as with a garment. There is an implication in verses 6 and 7 that early in the creation week the ocean ‘stood’ above the land (which seems to be indicated in the first verses of Genesis), and that the terror of the voice of God made the oceans flee to their set boundaries, even as He caused the noble mountain ranges to thrust upward out of the earth and pressed valleys down into it, shaping the landscape that would shape our lives, and not only ours, but His own – which we will come to after a little while. Among other things, Christian, you ought to be thankful this morning that the land is only clothed with the sea, and not completely veiled by it; and that the oceans, on the whole, though they toss and turn violently in the deep, creating swells taller than many mountains, keep to their set boundaries. The comparatively few occasions when those boundaries are overrun should serve as a reminder of the chaos which might reign on earth (and should, by all rights, since the Fall), but is checked by the sovereign hand of a powerful Creator.
In the next passage, beginning with verse 10, we hear that, having soundly established the earth and the harmony of all its systems, our Creator nourishes everything upon its surface from the smallest to the greatest. When I have the opportunity to walk the trails in the mountains surrounding our own community, as I did this week, I observe everywhere these springs that ‘gush forth in the valleys’ and ‘flow between the hills’. And why does the psalmist say that these fountains are compelled to gush forth? For wild beasts! It is no accident that he chooses ‘wild donkeys’ as a representative, for these creatures, being more or less impossible to domesticate, are of practically no use to man.
I once heard a pastor, referring to this verse, offer the following comment: Have you ever been sitting with your wife as a November evening sets in, looking out a window as the sun begins to dip over the horizon; and sensing the oncoming chill of an early winter night, said to her, ‘I wonder how the wild donkeys are faring tonight?’ I would be willing to wager that you have never said (or even thought) such a thing in your life, because, frankly (as this pastor said), you don’t give a rip about wild donkeys! But do you know something? God does. He made these creatures and He delights in them and cares for them. Very few places on earth are completely bereft of some little springs or streams, and they are all there on purpose, part of the great wildlife reserve being managed by Yahweh Himself – and if such care is taken to quench the thirst of wild donkeys, as Jesus would later say, will He not take care of you, ‘O you of little faith?’
And that is precisely the point of the next little section, verses 14 and 15: God not only cares enough to feed and water the livestock of mankind, and to give men and women what is necessary for life, but He gives abundantly more than what is necessary. In this passage, notice that God has indeed given us grain and grapes and olives, but He has also gone far beyond this in giving us bread – strengthening our hearts; oil – beautifying our faces; and wine – making our hearts merry. Try to keep in mind that none of these things was necessary! How easily we take things for granted! We require none of them for the sustaining of life, but what even these relatively simple pleasures add to our lives on earth is marvelous and difficult to quantify. We will return to this idea later this morning, but for the time being remember the grace our Creator God has lavished upon all that He has made.
But will the creatures He made be able to navigate and survive the complex environment He established for them?
16 – 23: Ordering Creator protecting His works
In verses 16 to 18, we are reminded of Yahweh’s ordering of the kingdoms of plants and beasts. How is it possible, we might ask, that a tree with a top suspended at a height above the ground at which we have difficulty building structures to sustain the battering of wind and weather, can stand tall and grow for decades, or even centuries? How, in light of what we know about gravity, can it feed itself, and flower, and produce fruit? The great trees of the earth – those that Yahweh planted – He waters abundantly, and provides mechanisms to bring the nutrition from deep in the earth many stories into the sky.
And it is these trees that provide a refuge for birds like the stork, which fly in flocks great in number in the Near East and help to clear wilderness of what we would consider vermin and snakes. And just as He has provided refuge for the birds, He provides for every seemingly helpless creature He made – rocky mountains, difficult for people to negotiate, are also (more importantly) difficult to negotiate for would-be predators of wild goats. God cares for the goats! What’s more, He cares for the rock badgers, or rabbits, or hedgehogs, as the end of verse 18 is variously translated, giving them a home and a means of defense.
In verses 19 to 23, the psalmist draws our attention to the providential ordering of the cosmos and its relationship to human life. The sun is ever at our service, marking the days and nights that make up the rhythm of our lives, and the moon in a similar way marked the seasons and festivals that governed the lives of most communities of people in the ancient world. The prevalence of calendars based on the earth’s relationship to the sun (rather than to the moon) is a comparatively recent development. Even now, many Christian traditions date Easter and other festivals on the church calendar according to the phases of the moon (which causes some discrepancies about when these things ought to actually occur).
But beyond the basic rhythms of day-to-day life and seasonal change, days and nights marked off by the sun and moon make human life possible in a world filled with dangerous animals! Do you see where he’s heading in the last couple of verses in this section? Have you ever thought about how convenient it is that most predatory animals fear daylight (and mankind – Gen 9) and prefer to hunt their prey at night, when we are (for the most part) safely asleep behind closed doors? It was profoundly good of Yahweh to make this distinction between day and night, allowing us to work in the daylight with relative fearlessness, and stretching out His hand to feed the beasts in the hours of darkness. And here is another way our view of the created order might need reshaping; do we tend to think of what predatory animals do in the night as ‘seeking their food from God’? The writer of Psalm 104 doesn’t seem to share the weakness of our modern stomachs concerning these matters.
Notice also that the psalmist points out that it is God who makes darkness – as he writes in Psalm 139, ‘even the darkness is not dark’ to our Lord, the one before whom all is laid open. In the presence of Him who has so ordered creation for our benefit, we have no need to fear.
But are we safe putting our trust in Him not only for today, but for the course of our lives? And what is Yahweh’s purpose in the manifold wonders He has created?
24 – 30: Sovereign Creator providing in abundance
In verse 24 the writer begins to be overwhelmed with the sheer magnitude of the works of Yahweh. ‘The whole earth is full of Your creatures!’ contains the faint echo of a related text; a familiar one, in which the mysterious and indescribable beings who serve continually before the throne of God are repeatedly saying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, the whole earth is full of Your glory!’ Are we guilty of over-spiritualizing the things of God? Are we reluctant to see the glory of God in the things He has made, looking instead for a vague and intangible impression of something to which we are unable to relate? The earth is full of His glory, and we see it now in the seas as we have observed it on land. Where the ships of men sail, the waters beneath teem with life, much of which we have never looked upon. One of the things we have observed is Leviathan, which most commentators will say refers to a large whale. What does the psalmist write about Leviathan? That he was formed ‘to play in [the sea].’ Now consider: the whale has nothing to do – no work to speak of, as mankind has; and he has nothing to fear, being among the largest creatures on earth. He was formed to play in the ocean – at the risk of irreverence, formed (in a sense) as Yahweh’s enormous pet.
Dwell with me for a minute here on God’s glory in what He has made, and His enjoyment of it. If you have difficulty putting your imagination in tune with the way Yahweh is described in this psalm, listen and ruminate: the vast majority of the unusual, the ghastly, the luminescent and strangely beautiful life that is carrying on across thousands of square miles in the depths of the ocean goes unobserved by man. Every spring and summer, a symphony of wildflowers (which we have only begun to catalog) is struck up into harmonious bloom on a million hilltops across the globe, and nearly all of them fade back into a soil that no human footstep has come near, a music never to be heard by a living man or woman. For millenia, season after season, year after year, the trees have been dropping a thick carpet of rustling leaves, the animals have been leaving their leftovers and dying amid the leaves’ whispering, and as the rain and snow alternate with the sun a more sophisticated farming than any art which we possess has been practiced, for the most part, on acre after acre that our tools have never touched. The backdrop to Yahweh’s story of redemption, being written even now, is a panoply of galaxies too expansive for our minds to properly conceive and full of untold marvels only hinted at by the stunning photography coming back from the Hubble telescope. We might well ask, ‘Why all this?’ And part of the answer is that God has a God-centered view of His creation. He watches Leviathan play in the ocean when no man can see! He feeds birds nesting in the remote parts of the earth simply for the joy of hearing them sing! He brings forth grass from the earth so that funny-looking things like cows can eat it, and in turn be of service to men and women.
And the psalmist wants to be sure that you understand that all of these creatures and ecosystems exist at the sovereign pleasure of Yahweh – He breathes life into them and they live; He takes away that breath and they expire. We all depend upon Him for ‘life, breath and everything’ (Acts 17); for ‘everything pertaining to life and godliness’ (1 Tim). Is it not good news that Yahweh’s heart toward all that He has created is not that we merely survive, but that we enjoy an almost scandalous undeserved abundance?
And even as we say that, we recognize that something seems to be missing. Isn’t it all too good to be true? Is the writer of Psalm 104 imagining that he lives in a Genesis 2 world? Doesn’t he know about the Fall of Man and its disastrous effects?
31 – 35: Holy Creator redeeming His creation
The Spirit-inspired scripture is certainly not ignorant of the Fall, as we shall see in coming through this last section of the song. In these verses, the psalmist’s praise to God for His awe-inspiring works is couched between two parallel ‘Let’ statements. On the one hand, ‘Let Yahweh rejoice in His works!’ And as we have been reading in the Psalm, without a doubt, He does! But how is that possible in a fallen world? The psalmist cannot forget, even amid his effusive praise, about the fallen condition of man. Ultimately, Yahweh cannot rejoice in His works without the parallel ‘Let’ statement in verse 35: ‘Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.’ But when we hear those words, we have to step back for a moment. How can that be good news? Why can the psalmist, who knows he is a sinner, follow those words with a ‘Hallelujah’? It is because he knows that Yahweh is not only Creator, but also Redeemer, and that these two themes – creation and redemption – ought to be tied closely together.
We hear the writer drawing the psalm to a close in the way that we sometimes can tell that an extended piece of music is concluding – the return of the theme we heard at the beginning. Yahweh’s majestic splendor – indeed, His holiness – comes back into view in verse 32; He it is who ‘looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke!’ We are accustomed to thinking of earthquakes and volcanic activity as almost random natural disasters; notice here that God’s fingers are at work in them. In view of His majesty and glory, His ultimate purpose of glorifying Himself, and His enjoyment of all He has made, how ought we to respond?
We may obviously conclude from the next verses that an appropriate response includes singing with our whole hearts, for as long as we draw breath; rejoicing in Him (and by extension, in His works); and by bringing the deepest thoughts and contents of our hearts into conformity with His character and being. We are able to join the psalmist in his ‘Hallelujah’ because we, too, understand, with much greater clarity, that our sustaining Creator has become our reconciling Redeemer; as the psalmist looked forward to his coming Messiah, we look back to that same man, our crucified and risen Savior, Jesus Christ. His blood, poured out freely upon the cross, purchased redemption for a people whose history stretched out thousands of years before His advent and continues to the present day, when we await His return and our final redemption. So those of us in Christ this morning heartily join in the ‘Hallelujah’ as we gaze, awestruck, at all that God has wrought.
But are there other applications we might learn from all that has been said?
In truth, there are many more than we have time to pursue at length. As I close, allow me to offer these few reflections. (Keep your Bibles open!)
(1) The Gift of the Carefully Crafted
I cannot help but briefly notice that the implication of verses 14 and 15 is that the carefully crafted is superior to the raw materials in creation from which it is derived. Grain is good, but freshly baked bread – a craft, an artifice – is better! The comparison is the same with regard to olives and oil or grapes and wine. In some areas of our experience (such as what we eat) we readily recognize such gifts, but in others we of the present age are more stubborn. In the arts in general and music in particular, we moderns have a tendency to imagine that the simpler and more raw works that come from the untrained are more ‘authentic’ and often to be preferred to works that are the result of discipline within a tradition, carefully crafted, and thus require more time and effort to understand and receive. In the same way, we tend to think of public events (such as worship services) that are casual and, to some degree, improvised or spontaneous as more ‘authentic’ or sincere than events with a formal structure, rooted in a tradition and carefully crafted over time. We tend to see very deliberate forms of communication merely as someone’s attempt to manipulate us, rather than as gifts that might reveal something about the nature of creation. In all of these ways and many more, we are tempted to prefer the grapes over the wine. I exhort you today, Christian: it is biblical to prefer the wine in creation; that is, to look for the gift of God in the carefully crafted.
(2) The Nature of Biblical Wisdom
‘How manifold are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you have made them all.’ We often think of wisdom as consisting of the right application of a multitude of very abstract principles. But biblical wisdom, which comes from God, is rightly derived from the order of the things He has made. If you will turn for a moment to 1 Kings 4, we can find there a succinct description of the wisdom of Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. If you haven’t read this passage in a while, try to remember what it says before we turn there. [Read 1 Kings 4:29 and following.] Solomon would more likely be featured in National Geographic today than in The Modern Schoolman. This is because biblical wisdom is rooted in the imaginative understanding of what God has made and the order in which all the diverse elements of creation relate to each other. This wisdom teaches that a righteous man is like a tree planted by streams of water in Psalm 1; in other words, we learn something about righteousness through imaginative attentiveness to trees. I exhort you today, Christian: labor to receive from God wisdom embedded in the stuff of creation and its arrangement; you were given a body on purpose!
(3) The Cosmic Scope of Redemption
And this leads naturally to my final application, and a return to the ‘Hallelujah!’ of the psalm. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:19-20) we read, ‘In [Christ] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.’ In 2 Corinthians 5:18-19, we read that ‘All this [new creation] is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.’ And in Romans 8:20-21 we read that ‘The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.’ In these passages, creation (and ‘new creation’) is inextricably linked with redemption, and we learn that more is going on in the work of Jesus on earth and in glory than an invisible, inward change in the souls of believers. Don’t get me wrong – we praise God that we are converted, and that an inward change has been wrought and continues – but we often neglect to remember that a redemption is in progress that will involve all of creation!
Christian, what does it mean to be a created being, to be part of the miraculous order we have been describing? Among other things, it means we were made for physicality. If Christ is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, then the world was created by God with direct reference to Him who was to become incarnate in that world. And in this world, among cultures, among things, Jesus lived, illustrating the fact that a spiritual life is not a life in which we finally learn how to detach from things, from cultures, and from the limitations of our bodies; it is a life lived to the glory of God in and through the experiences made possible by the body and mind together. What is more, the life we look forward to at the consummation of Christ’s redemptive work is not a disembodied, ethereal existence, but a resurrection as solid and tangible as His own, and a life without the pervasive corruption of sin in a renewed earth under a renewed heaven.
I exhort you today, Christian: what you do today matters for eternity. What we do as a church with the stuff of creation – our culture, what we make of creation – matters not only for today, but for eternity. Our identity as the people of God is not merely a collection of invisible and intangible realities; it can be observed; it is deeply tied to all the ways we are involved with creation (especially our relationships with all the people living around us).
If you are a Christian this morning – a new creation in Christ Jesus – join the psalmist in his Hallelujah; revere your glorious God and Savior and wonder again at the cosmic scope of His redemptive plan.