Don’t Rest Your Hope on Human Leaders (a sermon on Psalm 146)

In today’s psalm we have my favourite verses for an election year, whether in Canada or the United States:

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’ (Psalm 146:3-4 NRSV).

Eugene Peterson has a lovely paraphrase of these verses in ‘The Message’:

‘Don’t put your life in the hands of experts, who know nothing of life, of salvation life. Mere humans don’t have what it takes; when they die, their projects die with them’.

‘Do not put your trust in princes’. Oh, but we love to put our trust in princes! We’re so tired of the gang that was ruling before, and then along comes a fresh new leader, with a bright vision about how it’s all going to be different this time! ‘Make America great again!’ ‘Change you can believe in!’ ‘Sunny ways!’ The slogans are so predictable, the rhetoric is so exaggerated, and maybe for a brief, bright honeymoon period, we can actually persuade ourselves to believe them. But then the first mistakes are made, and the first evidence of human sinfulness appears, and eventually we sigh and think to ourselves, “I guess he’s just a human being, like the last guy”. He’s not the Messiah, and the kingdom of God is not going to come on earth as a result of his election victory.

Psalm 146 explains to us why this is the case, so let’s take a closer look. The psalm falls pretty clearly into three sections. We have a brief introduction in verses 1-2, and then in verses 3-4 we get the command not to trust in human rulers, and the reasons why that’s not a good idea. Finally, in verses 5-10, we switch our attention to the Lord, the one true God, and the reasons why it’s much, much better to hope in him. The psalm ends as it began, with the Hebrew word ‘Hallelujah!’ – ‘Praise the Lord!’

I want to focus today on the second and third sections of the psalm. So let’s look again at verses 3-4:

‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’

In these verses our poet gives us two reasons why it’s a bad idea to put your trust in princes, or human leaders of any kind. First, because they’re not God. They’d like to think they are, but when push comes to shove, these folks can’t deliver on their exaggerated promises.

Verse 3 says ‘Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help’. The phrase ‘in whom there is no help’ could also be translated ‘in whom there is no deliverance’. When the Bible uses the word ‘deliverance’, it doesn’t just mean ‘giving people a little bit of extra help so that they can get the job done’; it means ‘saving people from something that had them totally in its power’. Think of the Israelite slaves in Egypt, totally under the power of Pharaoh. God didn’t look at them and say, “Well, they’re almost strong enough to set themselves free, and if I just give them a tiny bit of extra help, they’ll be able to finish the job!” No – the situation was desperate, the slaves had absolutely no hope of ever getting free, and when God intervened, it was a complete surprise to everyone involved.

So for a prince or earthly leader to claim to be a ‘deliverer’ was a claim to be God – rather like the Roman Emperor in the time of Jesus, who had as one of his official titles the Greek word ‘soter’ – Saviour. And it did look as if old Caesar Augustus had a good claim to that title – after all, if someone was condemned to die, he could pardon them (although he rarely did!). But while the Roman emperors were sitting on their thrones congratulating themselves on how powerful they were, an unknown village carpenter in Galilee was setting out on a ministry that would touch the lives of millions of people around the world, and would change the course of world history for the next two millennia. And now, two thousand years later, we only have a historical interest in the Roman emperors – but over a billion people around the world call Jesus their ‘Saviour’ – their ‘Deliverer’.

So the human rulers can’t provide ultimate help because they’re not God. A second reason they can’t provide that help is because they won’t be around long enough. Verse 4 says, ‘When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish’ – or, in the lovely translation in ‘The Message’, ‘when they die, their projects die with them’.

The books of 1 and 2 Kings in the Old Testament tell the stories of the people of Israel and Judah from the time of King David’s son Solomon until the time of the Babylonian exile – a period of several hundred years. Have you ever read them? There are some good stories in them, but on the whole they make for pretty depressing reading. The authors have two standard ways of describing the kings of Israel and Judah: ‘He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord’ and ‘He did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord’. Two sad truths make these books depressing reading: First, there are a lot more kings who ‘did what was wrong in the eyes of the Lord’. Second, even in the case of the kings who did what was right, the good they achieved didn’t last; they tended to be followed by a bad king who undid all the good they’d done.

In a modern democracy, leaders have an even shorter time to do the good they want to do: one election cycle, or maybe two or even three if they’re lucky! But even twelve years isn’t long enough to solve some of the most difficult problems we face as modern human beings, never mind eight, or four. And of course when governments are defeated, they tend to be defeated by people who disagree with the key parts of their program – so the chances are that a lot of the things they’ve tried to achieve are going to be reversed by the ones who follow them.

Verse 10 says, ‘The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations’. In ancient times people sometimes said ‘May the king live forever!’ but they probably didn’t actually want him to live forever – and whether they wanted him to live forever or not, he wasn’t going to! No, God is the only one for whom the words ‘for ever’ and ‘for all generations’ can properly be used. No one else is going to be around long enough to get the job done.

So we shouldn’t trust in princes or politicians because they aren’t God, and because they aren’t going to be around long enough. There is, of course, a third reason; it’s not one that’s specifically mentioned in this psalm, but it’s assumed throughout the Bible. It’s the fact that princes and politicians and human leaders are all sinners just like the rest of us. And let’s remember what the word ‘sin’ means in the Bible. It’s a happy coincidence that in English, the word ‘sin’ has an ‘I’ in the centre of it. When I’m at the centre of my own life – when I’m being selfish and self-centred and acting as if I was god of my own world – then, in biblical terms, I’m living like a sinner. We all do it – some of us do it more than others – but there is no one who doesn’t do it at all.

We all know the old saying, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’. In other words, it’s very hard for ordinary human sinners to resist the temptation toward empire-building, feathering their own nests, and ruling for their own benefit. I’m not saying it can’t be done; I’m saying it’s very hard. It certainly shouldn’t surprise us when we discover evidence of corruption; after all, how confident are you that you’d be able to resist the temptation, if you were in their shoes? How many people get angry at politicians for sins that are identical to ones they’ve committed themselves, except that they weren’t in positions of public power and authority when they committed them?

So ‘Do not put your trust in princes’, says our poet. Does that mean we shouldn’t honour our political leaders, or do our best to elect people of character, people who’ve had some success in resisting the temptation toward corruption and feathering their own nests? Of course not; it’s right for us to get involved in the political process and try to get the best possible candidates into office.

But we shouldn’t pin our hopes for making a better country, or a better world, on the shoulders of those people. That’s a burden they can’t bear. They aren’t God, they aren’t going to be around long enough, and they just don’t have the ability to be perfect! So our poet counsels us to look somewhere else – to look for a better and much more capable Deliverer. Look at verses 5-10:

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. The LORD will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the LORD!’

What is it that makes God a worthy object for our hope and our trust? Well, first of all, it’s God’s creative power: God is the one ‘who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them’ (v.6). The presidents of the United States and of Russia probably still have it in their power to use their nuclear launch codes to destroy the earth, or at least to make it completely uninhabitable for thousands of years. Neither of them, however, has the power to create ‘heaven and earth’. With our present technology they’d be dead long before they’d even completed the journey to Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own – never mind trying to create it in the first place. And there are billions of star systems, most of them unimaginable distances from the Earth, all of them completely out of reach of our tin-pot dictators and earthly leaders. But God in his wisdom has created them all, and he knows them all intimately.

But this great creator God is also a God who has a special concern for the poor, the needy, and the oppressed. He ‘executes justice for the oppressed (and) gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down…The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow’ (vv.7-9, excerpts).

This is the story of the God of the Bible. He’s the God who went down to Egypt to deliver the oppressed slaves and bring them home into their own land. He’s the God who used a little shepherd boy to defeat the mighty soldier Goliath and set his people free from the Philistine oppressors. He’s the God who cared for the widow of Zarapheth and sent Elijah down to help her and her son make it through the drought. He’s the God who came among us in Jesus to set people free from the power of evil spirits, to give blind people their sight again, and to reach out to marginalized people – tax collectors, prostitutes, enemy soldiers, and Galilean fishermen with weird northern accents!

The fantastic thing about this story is that not only does God care for the poor and the humble – he tends to use the poor and the humble to help them, too! His way of changing the world isn’t usually to win a general or a president over to his cause! It’s to choose someone completely ordinary – someone who just goes humbly about their daily tasks, doing their best to serve God and love other people – and to use that person to start a movement that has an enormous effect on the world. He chose a little Albanian nun called Anjezë, and sent her to Calcutta to serve the poor and the lepers. Who ever thought that Mother Teresa would become a world figure? Or little Francesco Bernadone, who became St. Francis of Assisi? Or Dr. Paul Brand, who went as a medical missionary to India and ended up making some of the most important discoveries that helped us unravel the secrets of leprosy? Or a shy little Irish boy called Clive, who lost his mum to cancer at an early age, and who loved stories about the gods and goddesses of Asgard, but went on to become one of the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century – C.S. Lewis?

But it goes further than that. We’ve thought about people who became famous; what about the millions who didn’t? Philip Yancey has done thousands of interviews in his career as a writer. He says that in his mind he tends to divide the people he interviews into two groups: the ‘stars’, and the ‘servants’. It’s very clear to him that the ‘servants’ – mostly unknown men and women working faithfully in obscure places to improve the lives of ordinary people – are the ones who’ve discovered the real secret to contentment and happiness. As our poet says, ‘Happy are those whose help is in the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God’ (v.5).

But what does this actually mean? It sounds pious and good and holy, but do we really think that a humble aid worker in South America is having more of an effect on the world than Donald Trump? Or that ordinary Christians like you and me can do more to advance the plan of God than Justin Trudeau or Stephen Harper? Hoe does God actually help and deliver those who put their hope in him?

Well, let me answer that by asking you a question. Let’s suppose that we take the advice of this poet. Let’s suppose that we decide we’re not going to put our hope in Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton; we’re not going to rely on Justin Trudeau or Rachel Notley or Brian Jean or whoever your favourite politician might be at this point in time. No, we’re going to put our hope in the Lord our God; we’re going to trust in the God who come to live among us in Jesus.

If we trust our doctor, what do we do? The answer is obvious – we do what she says. We put her advice into practice in our daily lives. And the same is true with God; if we put our hope and trust in God, we then offer ourselves to God as instruments in his hands. We ask him to fill us with the Holy Spirit and give us strength to do things we could never do by ourselves. And then we take the words and example of Jesus and try to put them into practice in our daily lives – loving our enemies, forgiving those who hurt us, reaching out to the poor and needy and marginalized, spreading the news that there’s a God of love who cares about everyone he has made.

Do you not think that a movement like that will have a tremendous effect on the world? Imagine millions of people following Jesus together, learning to be his disciples, doing the things he told them to do. Would they be fooled by the incentives offered by marketers to buy all kinds of useless luxuries and look to possessions to make them happy? Of course not. Would they obey the instructions of their leaders to kill their fellow human beings who happen to wear the uniform of another country? No. Would they look for opportunities to – as John Wesley put it – ‘Do all the good they can, to all the people they can, in all the ways they can, by all the means they can, as long as ever they can’? Of course they would.

That’s how God changes the world. Not by a larger-than-life politician with fake hair and feet of clay, but by his power at work in hundreds and thousands of ordinary people, people just like you and me. We don’t have to have everything together in our lives. We don’t have to have all the answers. We just need a thankful trust in God, a determination not to allow anyone or anything else to take God’s place, and a desire to hear God’s word and put it into practice in our daily lives. If we do that, God can work through us to execute justice for the oppressed, give food to the hungry, set the prisoners free, open the eyes of the blind, lift up those who are bowed down, watch over the stranger, and uphold the orphan and widow. That’s what he will do through you and me, if we put our hope in him, and in no one else but him.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

‘The Glory of God and the Glory of Humanity’ (a sermon on Psalm 8)

It’s said that the philosopher Immanuel Kant was once attending an astronomy lecture on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The lecturer concluded with these words: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: astronomically speaking, man is the astronomer!”

Humans are the astronomers. Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, for eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

The writer of Psalm 8 felt this longing. I want to explore this psalm with you this morning under two headings: first, the glory of God, and second, the glory of Humanity.

First, then, the Glory of God. In 1952 J.B. Phillips wrote a book called Your God is Too Small. Today I think that many of us still have that problem, a problem we share with our ancient ancestors. In the time of the Bible many people believed in local, territorial gods. The early Hebrew people probably thought of their god in the same way; in fact, he’s often called ‘Yahweh the god of Israel’ in the Old Testament.

We have no right to look down on our ancient ancestors for this; I suspect that many of us have small views of God as well. In Sunday School we were taught about God in simple ways, but often we still speak of God as if he were our personal assistant, dedicated to our well-being and pleasure – a sort of divine butler, who comes to us every morning and says ‘What can I do for you today?’ – or a heavenly pharmacist whose greatest desire is to find the right spiritual aspirin to take our pain away.

The author of Psalm 8 is not content with these puny views of God. Look at verses 1-2 in your pew Bibles.

O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.

Our Book of Alternative Services psalter translates the first line ‘O Lord our governor’; the NRSV has ‘O LORD our Sovereign’, with the word ‘LORD’ written in block capitals, to alert us to the fact that the Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’. Actually, in Hebrew this first line combines two names for God: ‘Yahweh Adonai’.

‘Adonai’ is often used for God in the Old Testament: it’s the Hebrew word for ‘lord’, ‘master’, or ‘owner’. ‘Yahweh’ is the name for God that God gave to Moses in Exodus chapter 3. God had called Moses to go down to Egypt and tell the Hebrew slaves that he was going to set them free. Moses said, “If I tell them, ‘God’s going to set you free’, and they ask me, ‘Which god?’, what shall I say?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am”. He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

‘I am’ in Hebrew is ‘Yahweh’, but it’s a very strange name, one that almost defies definition! “I am who I am! I will be who I will be! So don’t think you can tie me down or figure me out”. In later years the name was often wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’; most modern translations use the word ‘LORD’ in capital letters.

So what does our poet have to say about ‘Yahweh Adonai’? Well, the first thing we see is his appeal to God’s creation as evidence of God’s glory.

‘You have set your glory above the heavens…
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (vv.1b, 3-4).

For many of Israel’s neighbours, and some people in Israel too, ‘the moon and the stars’ were gods themselves. Today, of course, we know what they are, and we also know all about the ‘vast expanse of interstellar space: galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home’ (B.A.S Eucharistic Prayer #4). As people of faith in one Creator God, we don’t see these heavenly bodies as rival gods, but neither do we see them as random bits of rock and gas that just appeared out of nowhere by chance. Our poet says they are ‘the work of God’s fingers’; in Psalm 33 the image shifts: ‘By the word of Yahweh the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth’ (Psalm 33:6). Yahweh’s fingers, Yahweh’s mouth – we’re using images for God, of course, none of which are entirely adequate! But the point is clear: the vast, mighty heavens above our heads are well within God’s creative capacity!

Today, of course, we know far more about the wonders of creation than our poet did. We know about the enormous distances of space, and the enormous stretches of time too – over fourteen billion years since the universe came into being – approximately 4.5 billion years since our Earth was formed. We know about the wonder and mystery of DNA – the intricacies of the human eye – the instincts that guide birds for thousands of miles on their migrations. We know about the incredibly beautiful creatures that live in the depths of the oceans, where no light penetrates – ‘Who are they beautiful for?’ Philip Yancey asks! We see the grandeur of the mountains, the beauty of the forests, the peaceful lakes. For us as believers, all of these things speak to us of our God – of his wisdom, his creative power, his artistic skill, his love of outrageous colour combinations – have you looked at a sunset lately? – and his fondness for extravagant variety.

Glory be to God! God is the creator of all that exists; it was all planned and made by him, and he continues to love and care for it. Our poet sees the stars and planets as praising God, and the little children and infants on earth are joining in as well! We humans can never fully understand him – our minds aren’t big enough to take him in. St. Augustine is reputed to have said, “If you think you understand it, it’s probably not God!” As we try to describe God, we’re a bit like people looking up into the sky at the sun – our eyes are almost completely screwed tight shut against the brilliant light, so we can’t see too well to be absolutely clear about what we’re looking at! But we can worship our glorious God, and we can follow his instruction for our lives – including the particular call he has given to human beings as we seek to live for his glory. And this leads us to the second part: the glory of humanity.

In Donald Coggan’s little book about the psalms he has this to say about Psalm 8:

‘In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

‘We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?’

You’ve probably felt this sometimes too; I know I have. I’ve felt it when I was hiking in the mountains; I’ve felt it when I was out on the barren lands of the Arctic, in the immense silence, looking up at the night sky. “Space is so huge, and I’m so small! O God, does my life really matter?’ Or, as verse 4 says, ‘What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?’

What are human beings? The Book of Genesis has an answer:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth”. So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:26-27).

What does it mean for humans to be created in the image of God? Well, exactly the same language is used in the fifth chapter of Genesis when Adam has a son of his own: ‘When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth’ (Genesis 5:3). So the idea of the ‘image of God’ is a parental metaphor: we’re God’s kids! We parents understand this – for good or for ill, we often see ourselves in our kids. God has made many different kinds of creatures – millions of different species, down through the millennia – but in the fullness of time it was all leading up to the arrival of his children: human beings, made in the image of their Father God.

Now one of the things about kids is this: they don’t just want to be helped or provided for. They want a role! They want to help, to contribute, to be valuable in the household! ‘I want to do it myself!’ And so the Psalm tells us that as a good parent, God doesn’t just care for human beings or provide for them; God also gives them a vital role to play.

What is that role? Part of the answer to that question is found in verses 5-8:

‘Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea’.

This is royal language – to ‘have dominion’. The one who really has dominion over the whole creation is the Creator God, but he chooses to share that dominion with his human children.

So what is it that we’re called to do, exactly? Verses 6-8 talk about us being given ‘dominion over the works of God’s hands’. Older generations tended to see this in terms of taming the earth and subduing it; human life was seen as a life of conflict with the forces of nature. Of course, there are times when we still feel that: when great forest fires rage, for instance, fires so fierce we call them ‘the Beast’! But nowadays we’re also aware of the awesome power of humans over our environment; we’re aware of the possibility that our activity may even be doing something that would have been unthinkable a century ago: changing the climate of the earth. We’re aware that we have created weapons so terrifying in their power that using them might well have lethal consequences, not just for us, but for our planet as well.

And so in our time we’ve begun to notice another strand of this Old Testament teaching. In Genesis 2:15 we read, ‘Yahweh God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it’. ‘To keep it’ has the old sense of ‘to guard it’. The Common English Bible has a wonderful translation: ‘to farm it and to take care of it’. Here is our call as human beings to be good stewards of the earth. And in our time, a time of climate change and of massive extinctions of wildlife species, it has become an urgent matter that we respond to this call.

We Christians don’t always think of this as being part of our call to discipleship; it wasn’t such an urgent issue in Jesus’ day. But let’s not forget that in Romans chapter five St. Paul calls Jesus ‘the Second Adam’. In Paul’s imagery, the first Adam failed in his calling and was unfaithful to God. But now Jesus has come, and where the first Adam failed, he has succeeded. So the call given to the first Adam – ‘to till the earth and keep it’ – has also been given to the second Adam, and as we follow Jesus, it’s given to us as well.

This creation call to humankind has never been revoked; we have been placed on the earth to till it and to guard it. God our Creator took great care when he first made this home of ours, and he continues to take great care as life here continues to evolve and develop. If we are made in his image, sharing his dominion over his creation, can we do any less? I think not.

To sum up, then: what is it that makes our lives significant? We humans are frail, and short-lived in terms of the life of our planet; why are we important? Why is your life important? Why is mine?

We’re important because we’re made in God’s image and created for relationship with God. It’s significant that in this psalm God is addressed throughout in the second person: ‘Yahweh our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ Many psalms speak about God in the third person – ‘Come, let us sing to the Lord – but in this psalm we address God directly, because we’re called into relationship with God, as his beloved children.

This psalm calls us to reflect on the wonder and majesty of God. One of the best ways to do this is to get outside, into God’s natural creation. You’ve heard me say before that if we do all our praying indoors, we’ll end up thinking of God as a being who lives in small rooms. But if we get out into the river valley, or go walking in Elk Island National Park, or hike in the mountains – or even just go out into the country regularly and look up at the night sky, undisturbed by street lights – we’ll learn a different view of God. We’ll walk there with the great Creator, and our hearts will be full of praise for him.

And of course, our lives are important because God has chosen to share his care for creation with us. He’s not going to do it without us! He’s not going to revoke our job description! His rule over creation is not the rule of a despot, a tyrant who exploits the world to feed his own self-centred greed. God rules and cares for his world with love, patience, and skill. And he calls us to learn to do that too.

So maybe, as we think about these things, the question we ought to ask ourselves is this: is God’s natural world a better place because of me, or not? And if the answer is ‘not’, then we’ve got some thinking and praying to do. One day we’re going to be asked to give account for our stewardship. On that day, I don’t think, “I just did what everyone else was doing” will be an acceptable answer.

Let us pray:

O Lord our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth! Today we join in the praise and worship offered to you by all created things. Today we thank you for making us in your image and calling us to be stewards of this wonderful, beautiful earth which you have made. Help us to care for it as you care for it, our God, that we may truly live our lives to your honour and glory. This we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 8: A preliminary study

I plan to preach on Psalm 8 this coming Sunday. What appears below is not a sermon; it is my study notes as I have been digging into the psalm over the past couple of days. Hopefully it might be helpful for any other preachers who may be thinking of preaching on this psalm.

Text (NRSV, slightly amended according to John Goldingay’s translation[i])

To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.

  1. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.
  2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
    you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.
  3. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
  4. what are people that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you pay attention to them?
  5. Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
    and crowned them with glory and honour.
  6. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
  7. all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
  8. the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
  9. Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Exegesis
Donald Coggan introduces his comments on this psalm with these words:

This psalm begins and ends with identical words: ‘Lord our sovereign, how glorious is your name throughout the world!’ It is within this framework of adoration that the rest of the psalm is set. God in his majesty is praised in the vastness of the heavens and even babes and infants (v.2) chip in! The God who elicits the praise of his universe is a God of justice, concerned for his creation, and concerned about those who flout his laws (v.2b).[ii]

This psalm holds in tension two amazing truths. On the one hand, there is the wonder and the glory and majesty of the eternal God, Yahweh, whose glory is even higher than the heavens. On the other hand, there is the care that God takes of human beings, who are so small in comparison, and yet have been given dominion over the works of God’s hands. This creates another tension: what are the limits of that dominion?  When does God stop respecting the free will he has given to humans in order to prevent them doing evil to ‘babes and infants’? Where is the bulwark, the barrier, which he has established ‘because of your foes’?

All ‘God-talk’ runs out into mystery in the end. We little humans are tiny in comparison with God, and so we can’t grasp the full wonder and magnificence of his presence and his glory and his love. Neither can we grasp how he balances his respect for free will with his desire to protect those who are vulnerable. We know that God has given us a high calling, crowned us with glory and honour, and made us to rule over the works of his hands. But we also know that we have fallen from our high position by our own pride and sinfulness, and often dispute Yahweh’s ownership of the things he has set under our feet. We can only praise God for his goodness and also pray that he will restrain us from doing irreparable damage to the world he has created and to precious young lives that he has made.

 

 

  1. O Yahweh, our lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
    You have set your glory above the heavens.

The Hebrew of verse 1 has ‘Yahweh Adonai’, which presents a problem for translators who don’t want to use the name ‘Yahweh’, and prefer to use ‘Lord’ instead, because ‘Adonai’ means ‘lord’! The New Jerusalem Bible has no such scruples and simply translates accurately ‘Yahweh our Lord’.

‘How majestic is your name’; the ‘name’ stands for the person, so ‘how majestic is your name’ is a poetic way of saying ‘how majestic you are in all the earth!’ We’re going to read about Yahweh’s glory being set above the heavens, but this doesn’t mean that he is not present ‘in all the earth’ as well. Indeed, he is above heaven as well as earth; his glory is not ‘in’ the heavens, but ‘above’ it.

We humans sometimes take our pictorial language too seriously. In our minds we may have a renaissance painting of God as an old man with a long beard floating in the sky, and maybe reaching down to us so that his finger touches ours. ‘The heavens’ thus become the home of God; God is one being in the heavens, the Son is another being, the angels are others. In this picture, God is contained by the heavens, in the same way that we humans are contained by the earth.

But the reality is far different, and is well described by the writer of 1 Kings in the words of Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple:

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built” (1 Kings 8:27).

That author knew a thing or two about God! We talk about inviting God into our hearts; the reality is that it is God who holds us in his heart! ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28). God plus a human being doesn’t equal two; God is sometimes called ‘the ground of being’, the one who makes all other beings possible. We cannot possibly adequately imagine him; every picture we create of him, even the picture of Christ, is a partial representation of the reality of God’s greatness and justice and love. 

2. Out of the mouths of babes and infants
     you have founded a bulwark (‘barricade’ – Goldingay) because of your foes,
     to silence the enemy and the avenger.

John Goldingay points out that babes and infants in the Bible are usually on the receiving end of atrocities; they are the ones who are crying out to God for help. So the sense of this verse might be that this mighty God, who is far above anything we can conceive or imagine, is so concerned for us that he even hears the cries of the least significant of people – babes and infants. And he founds a barricade, a bulwark, to protect them from their foes, who are his foes as well, ‘the enemy and the avenger’: ‘Thus far you may come, and no further’, to use a military metaphor.

Of course, this raises questions in our minds, because we know of many instances where it is not true. Prayers for help have sometimes been answered, but often not: children have been abducted as child soldiers, or sold into sex slavery, or simply been bombed or raped or murdered, or treated cruelly in a whole host of ways. Prayers for their protection have apparently not been successful.

The reality of course is that, for a God who has apparently decided to respect the free will of human beings and allowed us to make decisions that have real consequences, it is not a simple thing to both respect that free will and also protect the innocent victims of it. I personally can’t understand how God can possibly do it. That he manages to do it at all is a mystery to me. It’s a little like a Doctor Who episode, where the Doctor goes back in time and is given the opportunity to remove a great evil, like the Daleks, from the time line of history. But he is always slow to do so, because he is afraid that their removal would also remove the good things that have happened as a consequence of their great evil. Changing time to erase all evil would be a very complicated thing, and maybe we humans would not like all the results of it. So where is the ‘bulwark’? Where exactly in the mind of God is ‘Thus far, and no further’? I don’t think we humans can know that.

Not all commentators agree with Goldingay’s interpretation, however. Rolf Jacobson prefers to see this obscure verse as ‘a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation’. He says,

But v.2bc may also reflect the creation motif, as Nahum Sarna has argued. The enemy and avenger in v.2c are best explained  as a reference to the foes that God overcomes in the process of creation. As is well known, the mythic concept of creation as a conflict was commonly held among Israel’s neighbors. Within the Old Testament, vestiges of this mythic idea are found. In Ps. 74:13-14a, 16-17, for example, the psalmist writes,

You split, by your might, the sea;
You broke the heads of the sea monster on the waters.
You shattered the heads of Leviathan;

Yours is the day, also yours is the night;
You fixed the light and the sun.
You set the boundaries of the earth;
summer and winter, you formed them.

It is particularly enlightening that both Psalms 8 and 74 refer to God’s might (‘ōz; cf. Is. 51:9, Ps. 89:11). The term is part of the vocabulary of the creation conflict myth, lending support to the view that the phrase you have established might because of your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger is another reference to the act of creation.[iii]

 

 

3       When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
            the moon and the stars that you have established;
4       what are people that you are mindful of them,
            human beings that you pay attention to them?

Rolf Jacobson comments:

What sort of ecstatic event or experience has caused the psalmist to cry out in praise? The answer is given in the first full stanza of the psalm. As v.3 indicates, the psalmist has wandered outdoors at night, gazed up at the heavenly wonders, and been moved to praise the Creator…[iv]

We have all felt this at one time or another. We’re walking out in the country at night, and we look up at the sky and see the countless numbers of stars spread out across the heavens. We see the vastness of creation, and as 21st century people we are even more aware of just how vast it is, stretching out for millions of light years, millions of galaxies, far vaster than anything we can ever imagine. We also think about the vastness of time: 14 billion years since our universe came into being through the big bang – about 4.5 billion years since our earth was formed. For the great majority of the history of our planet we humans were not even here; we arrived at 3 seconds to midnight. We are tiny in terms of our size, tiny in terms of the length of our existence as a species, and almost infinitely tiny in terms of our individual span of life.

Donald Coggan says,

In my mind I see a man in the desert, sleepless one night. He gives up trying to sleep and emerges from his tent. He sniffs the night air and fills his lungs. He looks up into the sky and gazes at the heavens, the moon and the stars which his God has set in place. He knows nothing of what scientists many years later will discover about the immensity of an expanding universe – telescopes are things of the far distant future. But even so, something of the vastness and mystery of the night sky dawns on him. Its blackness is dotted with points of light, seen with a clarity denied to those who live in cities. What he sees is enough to frighten him – there is a dreadful silence – no answering voice comes from the stars. How frail and transitory is humankind! How frail is his own little life – ‘what is a frail mortal?’ (v.4) – ‘what am I?’

We might expect that his answer to these questions would be ‘a mere nothing, here today and gone tomorrow, a man in transit, with a life liable to be snuffed out at any moment, a breath…’ The great God up there can hardly be expected to notice him. After all, he has a universe to run. How could (God) be expected to be mindful of him, or, for that matter, any of his fellows?[v]

But I’m reminded of a well-known anecdote about the philosopher Immanuel Kant. He was attending a lecture by a materialistic astronomer on the topic of humanity’s place in the universe. The astronomer concluded his lecture with: “So you see that astronomically speaking, man is utterly insignificant”. Kant replied: “Professor, you forgot the most important thing: man is the astronomer”.

Do coyotes look up at the sky and indulge in philosophical speculation about their place in the great big scheme of things? It seems unlikely. Do birds wonder if their life has any significance after their deaths? Probably not. Of course, we can’t know for sure, but it seems very much to us as if we humans are the only beings on the planet who wrestle with things like this. It’s as if we have in our hearts and souls a longing for the infinite, a longing for eternity, and eternal significance – a longing, in fact, for God.

Commenting on the psalmist’s mention of ‘the moon and stars that you have established’, Jacobson adds:

Many in Israel and among her neighbours worshipped the heavenly bodies as divine bodies. In this pagan conception, the heavenly orbs were endowed with sentience, power, and identity. Here, they are merely objects that testify to their Creator’s glory – indeed, the psalmist belittles them by calling them the works of your fingers.[vi]

“What are people that you are mindful of them, human beings that you pay attention to them?” The author of Genesis has the answer, of course: human beings are made in the image of God and are of tremendous significance to God. And the psalmist goes on to reflect on the creation story and what it means in terms of humanity’s place in the world.

 

5       Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
           and crowned them with glory and honour.

The familiar translation of the King James Version has ‘For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour’. The NRSV footnote indicates that the Hebrew word for ‘God’ here is ‘elohim’, a plural word, which could be translated ‘God’, ‘gods’, ‘divine beings’, or ‘angels’. The note in the New Oxford Annotated Bible says, ‘God, better, ‘heavenly beings’ (Heb “elohim” [lit. “gods”]. …As the heavenly world is ruled by heavenly beings, so the earthly world, parallel to it, is ruled by earthly beings’.

So we have here an enormous leap in the writer’s imagination. In the previous verse he was stressing the smallness of human beings; compared to the vastness of God’s heavens, they are tiny creatures indeed. But now we see that God assigns them a very different position; they are still lower than the elohim, to be sure, but only ‘a little lower’, and God who has ‘set (his) glory above the heavens’ (v.1b) has also ‘crowned them (humans) with glory and honour’. The glory of God has been shared with his human creations; we are made in God’s image and we reflect God’s glory to the world around us. Small, yes, but far from insignificant!

Jacobson comments:

Far from being insignificant, human beings are but a little lower than heavenly beings. Indeed, the king of creation has made humanity into royalty who are to govern creation responsibly. What is notable about the start of the second stanza is that even though the topic is the worth of human beings, the poet stresses the actions of God. In each of the four lines that comprise verses 5-6, the subject of the verbs is God: You have made, you have crowned, you have made them to rule, and you have set. What gives human beings dignity and value is not anything that humans have done for themselves, but rather something that God has done for them. Our worth comes to us from outside of ourselves (extra nos). That which God confers upon us is the key to our status, not that which comes from inside of us.[vii]

Perhaps a Shakespeare quote is appropriate:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals![viii]

 

6       You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
            you have put all things under their feet,
7       all sheep and oxen,
            and also the beasts of the field,
8       the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
            whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Here there is a conscious reflection of the language of the first creation account in Genesis chapter 1:

‘Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth”’ (Genesis 1:26).

The one who naturally has dominion over the works of God’s hands is God himself; he has made everything, and everything owes its continued existence to him. Furthermore, as far as we can tell there is absolutely nothing to be gained, in the strict sense, for God to delegate this dominion to his human creations. God is quite capable of looking after everything that he has made; indeed, he could probably do a much better job of it, even if human beings had not fallen into sin! So we can only speculate that it was for our benefit, not for his, that God chose to delegate this job to us. ‘Yahweh God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15 CEB). As we humans developed our skill and ability to take care of God’s good creation, the growth would be ours; we would be growing into maturity as the mature adults God had longed for when he created us. For this reason, it seems, he shared his glory and dominion with us: so that we could grow and become all he dreamed for us to be. Jacobson comments,

Any person who has been around small children may be helped to relate to the message here. Children do not only want to be helped and provided for. Children want to help, to contribute, to be valuable to the household. They want to do things themselves. The powerful message of this psalm is that God does not merely care about human beings, but values them so much that they are given a role in God’s economy.[ix]

‘Whatever passes along the paths of the seas’ (v.8, NRSV) seems a little strange; maybe the meaning is ‘not just the fish, but all the sea creatures that travel through the sea’. It seems unlikely that human commerce on the sea is in view here; that would give the strange meaning that humans have dominion over their own sailors (and why only their sailors?). So I think it’s better to stick to a non-human meaning here: not just fish, but also whales and shellfish and everything that lives and moves in the seas.

Jacobson points out that there is an interesting special movement in the poet’s language here. Through the first six verses of the poem, the poet has included a subtle motif of vertical descent: ‘above the heavens’ (v.1b) > ‘heavens, moon and stars’ (v.3) > ‘but a little lower than heavenly beings’ (v.5a) > ‘crowned them’ (a reference to the head) (v.6a) > ‘hands’ (v.6a) > ‘feet’ (v.6b). Having come down to the earth, the poet now changes direction and moves horizontally outwa4d from human society: ‘Sheep and oxen’ > ‘beasts of the field’ > ‘birds’ > ‘fish’ > ‘whatever passes the paths of the sea’.

The first animals, sheep and oxen, are the domesticated animals that share space in the midst of human society. The trajectory described then proceeds outward until it ends in the sea, which in the ancient near east was conceived as the place of chaos, least hospitable to human society. But that is all the more reason to marvel at the assertion made here in Psalm 8: the fish of the sea and even those mysterious creatures that pass in the depths of the sea are realms of human responsibility! God has placed even these wild and unknown creatures under our care! [x]

 

9       O Yahweh, our lord,
      how majestic is your name in all the earth!

The psalm ends with a repeat. This is the first hymn of praise in the psalter; Psalm 1 is a reflection on the blessedness of the one who meditates on the Torah, and Psalms 2-7 are complaints, both individual and communal, about human injustice, oppression and sinfulness. But this wonderful psalm turns to God in praise, and addresses God directly, in the second person: ‘You’ (other psalms of praise don’t do this; they speak of God in the second person: “O come, let us sing to Yahweh’ (Psalm 95:1). CEB Study Bible says, ‘Psalm 8 is unique among the songs of praise because it addresses God directly; that is, it is actually a prayer of praise’.

Jacobson comments:

Most of the Psalter’s hymns begin with an imperative call to a congregation to praise God. Psalm 8 begins differently – with an exclamation of praise spoken directly to God. The first word out of the psalmist’s mouth is ‘LORD’ (‘Yahweh’). No other hymn begins in this fashion. To begin a psalm with God’s name is a characteristic way for a prayer for help to begin; this connection is appropriate, for as a prayer for help begins with a passionate cry for help, this psalm begins with a similarly passionate cry of praise. The import of this nuance is that Psalm 8 is not just a poem about God. Psalm 8 is a poem about God and us and about our relationship with God.[xi]

It’s also notable that the previous psalm, 7, ends with the words ‘I will give to Yahweh the thanks due to his righteousness, and sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ (7:17). A person praying the psalter all the way through will make this commitment – ‘I will…sing praise to the name of Yahweh, the Most High’ – and then go immediately to ‘O Yahweh our lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ (8:1).

Summary
I think that this psalm is about the glory of God and the glory of humanity. It is a prayer of praise addressed to God, who has set his glory far above earth and heaven; the entire creation, from the moon and the stars in the heavens to the lowliest babies and infants in the earth, joins in praising and worshipping this glorious God. But this glorious King of creation has invited human beings to reign with him; he has given us dominion over all living things. So far from the glory of God diminishing our own glory, it enhances it: this unimaginably great Creator has called created and called us to be his fellow-workers! We are his children, and like a good parent he involves the children in the work of the house!

So what is the psalm calling us to do? It is calling us to worship God as the creator of all, and it is calling us to be faithful in our work as stewards of God’s good creation. Science helps us in both these callings: it gives us a bigger picture of the immensity of the created world (and therefore, by extension, of the greatness of the Creator), and it also gives us a better understanding of the world and how we can care for it, as God has called us to do.

References

[i] John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone Part I, Westminster John Know Press, 2013, p.27.

[ii] Donald Coggan, Psalms 1-72 (The People’s Bible Commentary), Bible Reading Fellowship, 1998, p.38.

[iii] Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Eerdmans, 2014, p.123-4.

[iv] Jacobson, p.123.

[v] Coggan, p.38.

[vi] Jacobson, p.123.

[vii] Jacobson p.124.

[viii] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.

[ix] Jacobson p.126.

[x] Jacobson pp.125-126.

[xi] Jacobson, p.122.

Psalm 47: Preliminary Sermon Explorations

I plan to preach on Psalm 47 this coming Sunday. Here it is in the New Revised Standard Version translation (more or less!):

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
For Yahweh, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
He chose our heritage for us,
the pride of Jacob whom he loves.

God has gone up with a shout,
Yahweh with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.
God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.

For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted.

And here are some preliminary thoughts I’ve written down as I’ve been studying the psalm today.

‘Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy’ (v.1). Come on now – we’re Anglicans! That’s way to demonstrative for us! Seriously, that sort of exuberant worship is not something we Anglicans do very often. It’s a temperamental thing, but it’s important for me to remember that the national temperament of the Jewish people who wrote the psalms was apparently way more open to this sort of communal joy than we are. Years ago I read the story of Michelle Guinness, a young English Jew who became a Christian, and eventually married a Church of England minister. She had been raised in a community that sang that psalms in a very lively fashion, and was very disappointed when she discovered Anglican chant. ‘What have you done to our psalms?’ she complained to her husband!

Nancy deClaissé-Walford comments:

‘Christians brought up in more traditional, rather staid worship environments often find the ideas of ‘clapping hands”, “shouting”, and “singing praises” too boisterous for the context of the formal worship of God. But in situations of utter joy and thankfulness, the raucous “joyful noise” to God is not only appropriate, but the only response that fully expresses the heartfelt gratitude of communities of faith’. (Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Psalms in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament.

The words ‘nations’, ‘peoples’, and ‘all the earth’ are repeated seven times in this psalm. These are the pagan nations, the ones who surround Israel and are worshippers of Baal and Ashtaroth and Marduk and Osiris and all the other ancient gods of the Middle East (Greece and Rome weren’t on Israel’s radar screen yet). The psalmist summons these pagan nations to leave behind the worship of their ancestral gods and worship Yahweh, Israel’s God, because he isn’t just one god among many – he’s ‘the great king over all the earth’ (vv. 2, 7) and ‘God has become king over the nations’ (v.8). Note that the psalm does not yet assume that the gods of the nations are unreal – just that they are inferior to the god of Israel, who is actually the king of them all.

Nancy deClaissé-Walford comments:

‘In verses 2-5, the worshippers are told why they should shout. Because (kî) the LORD Most High is…a great king over all the earth (v.2). The appellation Most High is a term often used to describe the God of Israel when people other than the Israelites alone are being addressed. Thus, from the outset, the psalm celebrates the enthronement of the LORD Most High as a great king over all peoples’. (Nancy deClaissé-Walford, Psalms in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament.

The evidence that Yahweh is the great king over all the earth is found in verse 3: ‘He subdues peoples under us, nations under our feet’. I expect that this is referring originally to the Exodus, where Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt and drowned their armies in the sea. But it may be, if this psalm comes from the time of David, that the writer has some contemporary application in mind as well: God defeated the Philistines through David, and he also defeated the Moabites and Ammonites and made them pay tribute to David.

So this is not an evangelistic triumph we’re celebrating here – as if Jewish missionaries went out and preached to all the pagan nations, and the people abandoned their gods and turned to Yahweh. In the original context it seems to be a military conquest that the writer has in mind. God has been enthroned as king of all the earth because of his triumph over the enemies of Israel, and the people of all the nations must now bring tribute to him.

Verse 5 says, ‘God has gone up with a shout, Yahweh with the sound of a trumpet’. Is this referring to a particular historical event? One candidate might be the story in 2 Samuel 6 of how David brought the Ark up from the house of Abinadab (at first) and (later) the house of Obed-Edom, and brought it into the city of David with joy and dancing. But in fact the enthronement of Yahweh as supreme over all the earth and all gods is common in the psalms, and enthronement psalms are a recognized genre. J. Clinton McCann comments:

‘Mowinckel’s theory of an annual celebration of God’s enthronement at the New Year festival (as part of the Feast of Booths) is questionable; however, it cannot be doubted that the theological heart of the psalter – God reigns! (see Psalms 29, 93, 95-99) – was celebrated liturgically upon some occasion, perhaps in a procession involving the Ark (see 2 Samuel 6, Psalms 24:7-10, 132:8). It is simply impossible to know whether such a liturgical enactment took place as part of a New Year festival, as part of one of the three pilgrimage feasts, or as Gerstenberger has suggested, as a regular part “of early Jewish worship liturgy that jubilantly records the history of Israel’s election by Yahweh (vv.4-5) and glorifies his supreme, as yet unrealized, power over all the earth (vv.3, 8, etc.)”. Given this uncertainty one must conclude that more important than the original setting of Psalm 47 is the actual content of the psalm: God rules the earth!’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

He also says,

‘To borrow Mowinckel’s words, v.5 itself is a “preeminent visible centre”. In contrast to Mowinckel, however, we may conclude that what is celebrated – God’s reign – lay at the heart of all Israelite worship, just as the proclamation of God’s reign lies at the theological heart of the psalter’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

Verse 9 says,

‘The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
He is highly exalted’.

In Genesis 12:3 God says to Abraham: ‘I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed’. So the idea from the beginning was not that Abraham’s call was about his family and his people only, but that he would be a blessing to all nations – that his journey of worship and holiness with Yahweh the God of Israel would be a light he could share with the people around him, and that this would be true for his descendants as well.

So verse 9 says ‘The lords of the peoples have gathered, the people of Abraham’s God’ (Goldingay’s translation) – or (NRSV) ‘the princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham’. This envisions a time when the God of Abraham will be worshipped outside the ethnic and geographical boundaries of Israel, and pagan peoples will be included in ‘the people of Abraham’s God’.

But in what way can God be King of all the earth when so many people ignore and disobey him? Well, God is not king of all the earth in the sense of a tyrant who forces people to obey him. He is king of all the earth because he has created it out of nothing and it belongs to him; he has never given it away or shared it with anyone. Likewise, ‘It is he that made us, and we are his’ (Psalm 100:3), so he is our king in an objective sense, whether we acknowledge the fact or not. We are all accountable to him, and one day we will have to give account to him for our obedience or disobedience to his will – or, more appropriately, for our response or lack of response to his loving invitation to know, worship and obey him.

Still, Christianity also teaches that ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year’. Human beings have free will and our decisions have real consequences, so God is not the cause of all the events that happen on earth – far from it. But nonetheless, in his mysterious way he is at work, bringing good out of evil and making even the evil acts of human beings a part of the mysterious process by which his will is fulfilled (e.g. the acts of Judas, and of the Jewish leaders and Pilate who crucified Jesus).

John Goldingay comments:

‘In church yesterday we made our usual outrageous confessions, such as the declaration that Jesus is Lord. They are outrageous because the day’s news seems to belie them. Dozens of people have died in an attack on a mosque in Pakistan. Car bombs have exploded outside a British cultural relations centre in Kabul. In the United States, many people with cancer cannot get the drugs they need, partly because the drug companies don’t make enough profit out of making them. Radiation has been discovered in rice near Tokyo. Scores of people have been killed in anti-government demonstrations in Syria. Jesus is Lord?

‘When Israel declared that Yahweh is God, that its God is king of all the earth, it made its equivalently outrageous confession, and when it challenged all the peoples of the earth to join that declaration, its confession was the more outrageous. How could it make such a confession?…

‘…Psalm 47 looks back to the events that made Israel Israel – that is, it refers to Yahweh’s original subduing of the country’s inhabitants and his gift to Israel of its mountain country, which Yahweh loves. Israel settled in this mountain country on God’s coat tails as God made his ascent there like a warrior with a shout and with the sound of a horn signalling the moment for advance. So Israel’s outrageous statement is that Yahweh is “the great king over all the earth”. The title is one the king of Assyria claimed (it comes in the story of Isaiah 36-37 about the Assyrian attempt to take Jerusalem…). It would be a plausible claim. But Psalm 47 says with great chutzpah, “You know who is the real king of all the earth? I will tell you”’ (John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone: Part 1).

So this psalm calls on people all over the earth to acknowledge the Yahweh, Israel’s God, is not just one God among many, but the ‘great king over all the earth’, the one supreme God. And in the same way, for us New Testament believers, we are called to see our Lord Jesus Christ as not just one lord among many, but as God’s anointed king, the one to whom ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ has been given by God (Matthew 28:18).

Jesus sent his disciples out into all the world to preach the Gospel, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to follow him. All of those people already had allegiances to other gods, or to the god of Israel. I don’t think this means that everything about their ancestral religions was bad – God was present everywhere, and he had not left himself without light in any corner of the earth. But in Jesus, God himself has come among us, and so he is the clearest and most accurate picture we have of what God is like and of what his will is. Also, his life and death and resurrection have provided the means of deliverance from sin and death. This Gospel need to be proclaimed to all the world, and everyone should be invited to follow Jesus.

Verse 9 of our psalm envisions the kings of all the nations around Israel coming to worship Yahweh. The New Testament has a similar vision when it talks about people from every tribe and language and people and nation coming to serve God.

‘You (the Lamb) are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth’ (Revelation 5:9-10).

There is no hint here of conquest, unless it is God’s conquest of the powers of evil, the devil and his hosts. Just as Yahweh defeated the gods of Egypt and ransomed his people from slavery, so Jesus has ransomed a holy people for God through his death, a people from every nation and language and tribe. They are a kingdom with Jesus as their King; they are priests worshipping God and interceding for the whole world. This is the true fulfilment of Psalm 47:9, but it is an entirely different kind of fulfilment than the one the psalmist envisioned: not conquest, but men and women and children from all over the world freely accepting Jesus’ offer of salvation and through him becoming God’s holy people.

John Goldingay connects the Old and New Testament interpretations of this verse:

‘The description of the nation’s leaders, their lords or shields, gathering to acknowledge Abraham’s God is an act of imagination, but it is a vision whose fulfilment is guaranteed by what this God has done already. At the beginning of Israel’s story people such as the Gibeonites were compelled to make this acknowledgement of Israel’s God; they are a first stage in a process which will eventually come to completion. Once again the psalm shows how Israel knew that Yahweh’s involvement with Israel was not focussed merely on Israel for its own sake. Precisely because Yahweh is the king of all the earth, Israel’s faith involves an interest in the whole world. The lords of the peoples gather as the people of Abraham’s God or with the people of Abraham’s God (the terse sentence doesn’t make clear which is the right translation, but it makes little difference). The point is not merely that they should be ‘saved’ but that they should recognize God as God. Analogously, what God has done with and through Jesus is the guarantee that the world will recognize that Jesus is Lord’ (John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone: Part 1).

I think the Ascension Day application of this psalm is very powerful. Just as God is enthroned as king of all the earth in this psalm, and the nations are gathered as his people, so Jesus, God’s anointed king, has now been enthroned as Lord of all, ‘king of kings and lord of lords’. He has not ‘subdued peoples’; he has subdued the powers of evil and conquered them by his faithful death and his glorious resurrection. And so, on Ascension Day, God lifted him on high and gave him the place of authority, ‘seated at the right hand of God’, from where he was able to pour out the Holy Spirit on his people and send them out into all the world to proclaim that the world has a new King: not Caesar or the corrupt gods of Rome that he represents, but the Lord of love who washed his disciples’ feet, and who gave himself for them and us on the Cross.

So it is appropriate for us to sing and shout and praise the Lord!

J. Clinton McCann says,

‘It was a persistent temptation for the people of Israel, and it has been and is a persistent temptation for the church to make our God too small. We are quick to recall that God “chose our heritage for us” and loves us (v.4), but we are quick to forget that God loves the world and that all the world’s rulers and people “belong to God” (v.9). The Christian practice of speaking about Jesus as a personal Saviour may be symptomatic of our forgetfulness, for often we seem to mean that we own God rather than that God owns us. To worship the God of Abraham and the God revealed in Jesus Christ is to worship a universal sovereign, and it means claiming every other person in the world as a sister or brother…

‘…In accordance with Psalm 47 and in accordance with the proclamation of Jesus (see Mark 1:14-15), we say that God rules over all and thus that the world is the sphere of God’s sovereignty. Our profession is eschatological, because it does not appear that God rules, and the world is full of opposition to God’s sovereignty…But our profession is no less real. In liturgy, we say and act out the reality that our lives and our world have been shaped by God’s loving rule. At the same time, our speaking and acting contribute to the further shaping of ourselves and of our world in conformity to God’s claim. For us, the “real world” exists insofar as God’s sovereignty is acknowledged in word and in deed…

‘Psalm 47 is traditionally used by the church on Ascension Day. The church thereby claims that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent the essential claim of Psalm 47: that God rules over the world and lovingly claims all the world’s peoples’ (J. Clinton McCann, Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible).

 

 

‘Fear no Evil’ (a sermon on Psalm 23)

I wonder if you know what the most commonly repeated command in the Bible is? Clue: it’s nothing to do with sex!

The most commonly repeated command in the Bible is “Fear not”, or “Don’t be afraid”. I must admit that I’ve never actually counted, but I’ve been told that some variation of “Fear not” can be found one hundred and three times in the King James Version. The fact that it’s repeated so often should surely tell us something about the powerful role that fear plays in our lives.

I wonder what your greatest fear is? Is it health related – the fear that you might contract an incurable disease, or be incapacitated by old age, or have to live with chronic debilitating pain? Is it that you might be the victim of a violent act of some kind? Is it a fear about your family – that something might happen to your kids, for instance? Is it a relational thing – that family or friends might reject you? Is it a fear that you might get found out – that someone would somehow find a way to get behind the mask you put on each day and discover the real ‘you’, the one you’ve been trying so hard to hide from people all these years?

What do we do with our fears? It’s probably not a good idea to deny them, to try to pretend they’re not there. At first glance it might seem as if the Bible writers are counselling us to do that, but actually they aren’t. In most cases when the Bible says “Fear not”, it goes on to give us a reason for not being afraid – usually a reason connected with God. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff – they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).

That last quote, of course, is taken from our psalm for today – one of the best known passages in the Bible, Psalm 23. Taken in context, the verse is teaching us another reason for not being afraid. Yes, from time to time we all feel like frightened sheep, but we have a shepherd who will protect us and provide for us and guide us – Yahweh, the Lord God, the shepherd of his people, who has come among us in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.

Sometimes we can get a little too romantic about this shepherd image. Most of us older folks remember pictures from our childhood of a blond haired Jesus surrounded by children, holding a cute baby lamb in his arms, but those aren’t the kind of images we find in Psalm 23. The actual background to that psalm is a little more scary. Let me read you a couple of paragraphs from John Goldingay’s book ‘Psalms for Everyone’; here’s how he begins his chapter on Psalm 23:

In the foothills of the mountains near where we live is a retreat center where we have a faculty gathering each Fall. Two years ago a new director at the center gave us some advice we had not been given before. If we met a bear on the grounds, we were advised not to try running away; bears can run faster than we can. I’ve forgotten what we were supposed to do instead, but in any case I decided I wasn’t going for a walk, especially as the director told us that we would probably not get attacked by a rattlesnake if we stuck to the path and that there had been no cougar sightings lately. From a location like that of the retreat center many canyons lead up into the mountains, and I can imagine shepherds once leading sheep up the canyons. Shepherds would know about bears, cougars, and rattlesnakes and would know the best way to deal with them. In relation to some creatures, a club would be an important part of their security.

The canyons are deep and often have streams running through them, at least in winter and spring, and they are thus densely wooded – they have the water supply lacking in the countryside outside the canyons. They are…dark and a bit sinister, and their deep darkness contrasts sharply with the bright sunshine above them. Maybe the swiftly running water would be a bit scary for the sheep, but the shepherd would know where it flows into quieter pools. He would also know where the presence of moisture makes some grass grow and where the presence of shade stops it withering in the blistering heat. He would know where there are some trees or other bushes whose fruit he can knock down with his cane. So the flock is secure and also provided for. Their shepherd is faithful in his care for it. So it is for a human being who has Yahweh as shepherd.[1]

That makes it all a little more vivid, doesn’t it? That gives us a better sense of what the psalmist might have had in mind when he wrote Psalm 23.

The psalm begins with the well-known words, ‘The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want’. But if you look closely in your bibles, you’ll see that all the letters of the word ‘LORD’ are capitalized. That’s the translators’ way of telling us that they’re not being entirely faithful to the original here. The original doesn’t say ‘Lord’ but ‘Yahweh’, which is the special name of God that he shared with Moses; it’s sometimes wrongly written as ‘Jehovah’. It’s the name God used for himself in connection with his covenant with Israel; he had covenanted to be their God, to be faithful to them and to care for them, and they in turn had covenanted to worship only him and no other gods, and to keep his laws. So the psalmist is describing his relationship with Yahweh, the God of Israel; he is not just the shepherd of the whole nation, but ‘my shepherd’.

So what does the psalm tell us about Yahweh our Good Shepherd?

First, it tells us that God will provide for our needs. In verses 2-3 we read,

‘He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake’ (vv.2-3).

As John Goldingay pointed out in the passage I started off with, ‘green pastures’ are places where there’s a lot of good grass for the sheep to eat, and ‘still waters’ are places where it’s easy for the sheep to drink because the water flows slowly, so there’s no danger of them being carried away by it. ‘He guides me along right pathways’ means that the shepherd leads his flock in the right direction, away from danger and toward safety and good pasture. And when the writer says ‘he restores my soul’ he’s probably thinking of the word ‘soul’ in its colloquial sense of ‘life’: ‘he restores my life’ – in other words, ‘he keeps me alive’!

So in other words, the writer is addressing our fear of not being able to make ends meet – not having food to eat, clothes to wear, water to drink, a safe and warm place to live and so on. The writer is assuring us that God our shepherd will provide all these things for us. He has created the earth in such a way that there are adequate resources for everyone to live a simple and basic life, if we will use them wisely and share them justly. He gives us daily strength to do our work, and families to share with so that we can enjoy all these blessings. And because there are people in the world who don’t yet enjoy the basic necessities of life, he calls us as followers of Jesus to live on less than those around us, and to give generously, so that everyone has enough and no one has too much.

You notice that I’m not talking about those dramatic moments when God responds to an obvious need with an obvious answer. From time to time those moments do happen – a time when we have an urgent need of some kind, and some completely unexpected help comes our way. But I’m not thinking of those moments right now. I’m thinking about the ordinary, mundane daily experiences: buying our food in the grocery store, putting it on the table, saying grace and really meaning it. We don’t tend to think of these as experiences of ‘the Lord our shepherd’, but they are.

So God has provided for our needs and the needs of all people. The second thing is that God will lead us in the right paths. Verse 3 says, ‘He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake’. Obviously, when we’re talking about the shepherd, this means guiding his sheep to the places where they will find the pasture they need, and guiding them away from dangerous cliffs and other places where they could be in harm’s way.

This is addressing our fear of getting lost in life. How do we know what’s right and what’s wrong? Where will we find the wisdom to make good decisions? How are we going to avoid messing things up? How does God guide us, and how do we discover God’s plan for our lives?

I think there are two things we could focus on here. First, there’s God’s general plan of life for all his people, which is given to us in his commandments, and especially in the teaching and example of Jesus our Good Shepherd. And secondly, there are those occasions when he has specific jobs he wants individuals to do. In the Bible he doesn’t usually have any difficulty telling them what those jobs are; he sends them a dream, or a prophetic word, or someone brings them a message from God. For me, the first one is unquestionably the most important. The most relevant way that God guides me into right paths is by the wise instruction he’s given us in the scriptures, and especially in the life and teaching of Jesus the Good Shepherd.

So I might go to God and say, “God, I really want to know what you want me to do with my life?” And I suspect the answer might be something like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength, and love your neighbour as yourself. How’s that to be going along with?” And if I have the chutzpah to say, “No sweat; I got that all down pat last week!” he might say, “Well, how about this one: love your enemies and pray for those who hate you!” “OK, sorry I asked!”

All humour aside: if I want to know what God wants me to do with the rest of my life, the most important answer to that question is that God wants me to learn to follow his commandments, and especially the teaching and example of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. There’s plenty for me to be going along with there! And if there is more, I need to stop fretting and trust that God is well able, in his own time and his own way, to make that plain to me. Meanwhile, I’ll keep busy with the stuff he’s already told me in the scriptures.

So this psalm tells us that God will provide for our legitimate needs, and that he will guide us in right paths. The third thing is protection from danger. The psalm alludes to dangers in verse 4:

‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me, your rod and your staff – they comfort me’.

‘Your rod and your staff’ is a well-loved translation, going all the way back to the King James Version of 1611. John Goldingay, however, translates it as ‘Your club and your cane – they comfort me’. In other words, the sheep might be scared of the bears and cougars, but then they see that the shepherd’s got a great big club to protect them with, and they’re not so scared after all! In fact, the word ‘comfort’ might be a little too therapeutic; in the original language, the word is closer to ‘courage’: ‘Your club and your cane, they give me courage!’

In the same way, we Christians look to God to protect us from danger. For example, whenever Marci and I are apart and I know she’s driving around the busy streets of Edmonton, I pray that God will keep her safe; I know that there are car accidents every day, and sometimes there are fatalities, and I want God to protect her from that.

It’s natural for us to pray like this, and I think God is happy to hear those prayers. But if you’re like me, and if you think this through, you might find it a little troublesome. We’ve all heard of people who somehow survive a car accident, or avoid getting on an aircraft that crashes, and they say ‘Someone must have been looking out for me’. But whenever I hear that, I find myself thinking, ‘What about the poor souls who didn’t survive? Does that mean God wasn’t looking out for them?’

Yes, we know that God does sometimes answer the prayers of his people in a positive way, so that the sick are healed and the hungry are fed and the hostages are rescued and so on. But at other times things don’t seem to work out as well; the fatal disease claims another Christian life, or the Christian in the refugee camp starves like thousands of others, despite their prayers, or the hostages are killed by their captors, despite the thousands who were praying for them.

So what is actually promised to us as Christians? What sort of ultimate protection from danger are we offered?

I think what I can cling to without reservation is the promise that in the end nothing can take us out of God’s hands, not even death. In today’s passage from John’s gospel Jesus says,

“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).

Because we have this promise, we know that we can never view death in quite the same way. The resurrection tells us that even death was not strong enough to defeat Jesus. No, the ‘God of peace…brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, the great shepherd of the sheep’ (Hebrews 13:20), and Jesus has promised us that one day we too will be raised with him. Then it will be seen that his promise is secure: nothing, not even death, can pluck us out of his hand. And so even though we walk through the darkest valley, we fear no evil; God’s rod and staff – or his club and his cane! – give us courage.

Let me finish by saying this. Verse 4 is perhaps the most important line in this psalm. ‘Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me’. You are with me. This prayer is based on one of the most powerful statements God makes to human beings in the Bible. “Surely I will be with you”. “I am with you always, to the end of the age”. God promises that we will not be alone. Whatever we go through – suffering, bereavement, disease, poverty, family breakdown, danger, even death – he will never forsake us. This promise doesn’t depend on our feelings, one way or the other. It’s a statement about the heart of God. We often talk about Christ living in our hearts, but it works the other way around as well: God carries us in his heart. We are all important to God: Yahweh isn’t just the shepherd of Israel, but my shepherd too.

So this psalm invites us to believe this, and to make it the basis for our prayer. “I am with you”, says God, and we reply, “I fear no evil, for you are with me”. Corrie Ten Boom, former inmate of the Ravensbrück concentration camp, used to say “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still” – and surely, she ought to know! So when we go through our own personal ‘valley of the shadow’ – whatever it might be – let us enter into the prayer of the psalmist and make it our own by personal experience: ‘I fear no evil for you are with me, your club and your cane give me courage’. Amen.

[1] John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1: Psalms 1-72 (WJK, 2013), pp.74-75.

‘Therefore we will not fear’

This morning in my devotions I read Psalm 46 and came across these words:

Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble in its tumult (Psalm 46:2-3).

I don’t know what potentially cataclysmic military or political event the writer of Psalm 46 was referring to here, but I’m betting that it wasn’t an earthquake so severe that it caused the mountains to collapse into the heart of the sea. Maybe it was a foreign invasion that threatened Jerusalem; maybe it was the death of a righteous king and his replacement by his useless son. Whatever it was, the writer saw it as what we would call today an ‘earth-shaking’ event (although the earth is not literally shaken).

Some people (of a particular political stripe) would see the election of the NDP as the Government of Alberta, or the Liberals as the Government of Canada, as such an event. Many people would see the potential nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for President of the United States – and even more, his election to that high office – as such an event. In ancient time, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 A.D. was seen in those terms – causing St. Augustine to write his famous book ‘The City of God’ – and so was the Fall of Jerusalem to Roman armies in A.D. 66-70.

The point the writer is making – the point the writer is praying to God in this psalm – is that though elections go badly (as we would say today), though kings and governments fall, though society goes to hell in a hand basket, it’s still true that ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…’ (vv.1-2a).

What is our true fortress? Is it the walls of Jerusalem (built on a mountain that might crumble one day)? Is it our military might or political systems? Is it the election of a government we approve of? Is it our financial security or our excellent health-care system? No – when push comes to shove, none of these can guarantee our safety. Our cities may fall, our governments may do asinine things, and one day (violently or peacefully) all of us will die. And so we cry out with the psalmist,

The LORD of hosts is with us,
the God of Jacob is our refuge (v.7, v,.11).

Lord of hosts, help us today to ‘Be still, and know that you are God’ (v.10). We know that the more we wait on you and seek your face, the more we will be reassured in the face of disaster. So help us to put our trust in you today, and know that you alone are God. Amen.

God of Creation, We Praise You (a sermon on Psalm 104)

A few years ago a survey was done at a junior high school about the religious beliefs of the students. Several of the questions concerned the relationship between religion and science, and I found one of them particularly intriguing. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like this: ‘Do you think that God understands things like nuclear physics, molecular biology and so on?’ A surprising number of the students who believed in God answered that no, they didn’t think God understood those things. God, to them, was obviously a simple old man who lived in Bible times when people thought that snakes talked and you could walk on water. The modern scientific world was too much for God.

Two of our readings for today have exactly the opposite attitude, don’t they? In Job chapter 38, at the end of nearly forty chapters in which Job has been raging against God, God finally makes his appearance and says, in effect, “Job, there’s no point in me trying to explain to you what’s been going on; your brain is too tiny to figure it out. You’d need to be the creator of the world to be able to do that”. And in Psalm 104 the writer of this great hymn of worship looks around in wonder at all that God has made and says, ‘O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all”. So let’s take a closer look at Psalm 104 this morning.

First, a bit of background. Creation stories were all over the place in the ancient middle east; just about every nation or culture or religion had one, and they had a lot of things in common. First, water was a scary thing and it needed to be restrained. A lot of ancient cultures believed that the earth was a flat disk set on pillars in a deep and boundless raging ocean, and that originally that ocean had covered the earth as well. At some point, God or the gods had driven back the waters and set up the sky, which they saw as like a giant dome. There was an ocean above the sky as well, which is why when it flooded in Genesis the writer talked about ‘the windows of the heavens being opened’. So the sea in the ancient world was a scary thing, something the good gods had to defeat in order to establish order over chaos. Often, in fact, the sea was seen as an evil god, or at least the home of an evil god.

There are echoes of this ancient myth in the early verses of Psalm 104, but there are also echoes of the creation story from Genesis as well. In fact, some scholars think that the writer of the psalm has deliberately used the Genesis creation story as an outline for his hymn. Myself, I think that’s stretching it a bit, but I can definitely hear the echoes. So let’s have a closer look at the psalm; you can find it in your pew Bibles on page 554.

The psalm starts with the glory of God before creation; the writer looks back in his imagination and says, ‘O LORD my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honour and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment’ (1-2). But then he jumps right into God’s act of bringing order out of chaos at the beginning; he says, ‘You stretched out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters’ (v.3). The word ‘tent’, when connected with God in ancient Israel, would bring to mind the Tabernacle, the tent that had been used as a place of worship for hundreds of years until Solomon built the first temple. So right away the author is enlarging our vision of God; you think he’s somehow contained by a tent, or a tabernacle, or a temple, or a church, do you? Well, think again; they’re not big enough! The heavens – by which the author meant the literal sky above us – that’s God’s real temple! Indeed, the biblical writers are well aware that even the heavens are not big enough to contain God; as Solomon prayed at the dedication of his new temple in 1 Kings 8:27, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”

The writer underlines this point by stressing God’s power over that scary monster of the ancient world, the sea. At God’s rebuke, he says in verse 7, the sea runs away from the place where it covered the earth, and then it becomes something completely different, something beautiful and life-giving rather than scary and life-threatening. Look at verse 7:

‘At your rebuke (the waters) flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal…
From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. (7-11a, 13).

You get the picture here: instead of the terrifying waters of the flood, we now have the gentle rain falling from the heavens onto the mountains, forming into streams, flowing down to the valleys and making the earth fruitful. God has tamed the monster and made it a life-giver instead!

Then we have this wonderful picture of how God’s gift of water brings life to all living things. In verse 14 we read that God causes grass to grow and plants for people to use for food. Three staples of life are mentioned – wine, oil, and bread – interesting how they are all used in religious ceremonies as well, isn’t it? The water makes the Lord’s trees grow, and the birds of the air can live in them.

The writer of this psalm believes that every creature has its place and time in God’s plan. The wild goats live in the high mountains, the badgers live in the rocks. The sun and moon mark the difference between day and night; when night time comes the lions come out of the forest and roar for their prey, but when morning comes they go back to their dens, and people go out to do their work. It was rather clever of God to arrange it that way, the writer is saying; it wouldn’t be wise to have people and hunting lions out at the same time, would it?

Before the psalm draws to a conclusion the writer can’t resist the temptation to have one more look at that old monster, the sea. In verse 25 he says,

‘Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships,
and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it’.

This sea is not the scary, threatening enemy in the ancient legends; this sea is part of God’s creation just like any other. And who’s living in it? ‘Leviathan’ is probably a Hebrew version of the ancient Babylonian god Tiamat, the great sea monster and the enemy of the good gods. But who is Leviathan here? Who made him? God made him, to sport in the sea – or, as some versions have it, ‘whom you formed for the sport of it’ – a lovely picture of Leviathan as being sort of like God’s bath time toy, his rubber ducky!

So, if we pray this psalm truly, from our hearts, what effect will it have on our lives?

First, the psalm calls us to look around at God’s creation and to worship him for it. As the author says, ‘O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures’ (v.24). We’re to learn to look around at a world full of wonders and to see the glory of the God who made them.

Many of us, I think, did this instinctively when we were little. I’ve heard many stories from people about how, when they were children, they went outdoors and enjoyed the beauty of the natural creation, and had vivid experiences of God there. But when we get older, we somehow forget how to do that. As my good friend Rob Heath says in one of his songs, ‘When you’re young you see a trick and think it’s magic, but when you’re old you see magic and you think that it’s a trick’. So we have to find a way to reawaken that inner childlikeness that causes us to look around in wide-eyed wonder and say, “Wow! My Dad made all this! Isn’t he awesome?”

But of course, when we see things in this way, it causes us to have a different attitude toward the earth itself. There’s an interesting phrase in this psalm in verse 16, where it says, ‘The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted’. It’s intriguing to me that this psalm never once mentions the people of the LORD. Usually, in the Old Testament, people have a very exalted place; in Genesis chapter 1 we’re made in the image of God and we’re the stewards of creation. And the Old Testament is the story of a special people, Israel, who God chose and made his own. But this isn’t mentioned here at all. People are just a part of creation, dependent on God like any other part, and the only time ownership is mentioned here is those trees, ‘The trees of the LORD’.

So if we pray this psalm and mean it, it will give us a new vision of God as the ultimate owner of everything. And that makes sense, if you think about it. We in the modern world have evolved this elaborate scheme of land ownership, but who are we to think we own land? We’re born and live and die in less than a hundred years, and the land has been here for hundreds of thousands of years; it was here before we were born, and long after we’re gone it will still be here. And how did we get to be owners of it? Well, if you trace land ownership back to the first people who thought of themselves as owners, it tended to happen in one of two ways: either they were the first people there and said, “I’ll take it for myself, thank you very much!”, or they fought a battle and took the land from someone else!

No – the Bible calls us to see reality as God sees it. You and I don’t own anything. Our governments here in Alberta like to talk about how Alberta ‘owns’ its natural resources. That’s pride for you, isn’t it? If God were talking to us like he talked to Job in our first reading, he might say, “Where were you when I made the dinosaurs, and the plants they fed upon? Did you see how I made Diplodocus to wade in the warm lakes and lift up its huge snake-like neck to feed off the leaves? Bigger than a battleship, it was, and beautiful, too! And I made the raptors to hunt their prey, and the pterodactyls to fly across the sky – were you there when I did that? Did I consult with you when I planned the natural events that made them extinct? Did I ask you for advice about the process of fossilization that slowly, over millions of years, turned them and the world they lived in into coal and oil and natural gas? No? Really? Then why are you talking about ‘owning’ natural resources?’

This is God’s earth. Every single thing in it belongs to God. And so to worship the God who made the earth means having a new respect as we handle and use the earth that God has made. We’re only the stewards, and one day, God will ask us to give account for how we have treated his creation. This psalm would lead us to believe that he’s rather fond of it.

A third attitude this psalm will help us grow is the sense of our total dependency on God. Again, this is not something that our modern world encourages; we like to think that we’re the masters of our own destiny. But the psalmist knows better; look at verses 27-30:

‘These all look to you
to give them their food in due season;
when you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to the dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground’.

Humans and all living things have this in common: they are totally dependent on God. The psalmist makes the point that not only our food, but also our very breath, comes to us from the hand of God. What a wonderful thing is a breathable atmosphere! How impossible life would be without it! It’s the basic gift of God to the earth, the thing that made it possible for life to grow here in the first place.

So wise humans know that, even though we work hard to earn our living, the one who gives us the ability to do that is God. We are not God; we are God’s human creatures, and it’s good for us to cultivate an attitude of thankful dependency on God.

Finally, the psalm encourages us to take our place in God’s plan for his creation. This is spelled out in two opposite ways in verses 34-35. In verse 34 it’s the positive way: ‘May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the LORD’. In verse 35 we get the negative side: ‘Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more’. This sounds a jarring note, and in fact our lectionary omits this line completely. But the psalmist intended it to be an integral part of his theme from the beginning. “Can you see how carefully God has planned his creation?” he’s asking us. “Can you see how each living thing takes its place in his plan as he has designed it? Can you see how well the whole thing works? And if so, what on earth do you think you’re doing, trying to buck the system? Are you trying to spoil the plan? Do you realize the possible consequences? Get with it, people!”

We as Christians might want to phrase the line a little differently; we might want to say, ‘Let sin be consumed from the earth, and wickedness be no more’. We know that God’s first choice is not to destroy the wicked, but to help them turn from their wickedness and live. And we know that we’ve got more than enough wickedness in ourselves, too – especially in the context of this psalm, when we think of how we as humans abuse and destroy God’s natural creation. So praying the psalm encourages us to turn from that sin, and take our proper place in God’s plan for his world.

A pastor friend of mine used to say that the first statement of his theology was, ‘God is big!’ The God of Psalm 104 is big – creator of all, supreme over his creation, the one who provides air and water and food for all, the one who planned the ecosystems and set them up so that all could live together. So let’s worship God the Creator, let’s respect and care for his creation, let’s acknowledge our total dependence on his daily care, and let’s take the place he designed for us in his plan for all the things he has made. Amen.