Creation and the Christian
The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it (Ps 24:1).
One of the absolute highlights of the past few years for me was the time when I opened the back door, walked outside and leaned on the back fence… watching the blazing sun go down below the headland while looking over my panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean.
Needless to say, this is not the usual evening view in Newtown where I live; there the night-times are most often punctuated by the thud of doof-doof music from college parties, and the only thing you can watch go down at night might get you killed if the dealers spot you.
But that evening we were on holidays down the coast and the scenery was spectacular. The house we were staying in was on the headland, with a 270-degree water view overlooking a beautiful beach, carved deep into the rocky coastline. On a calm and sunny day, the ocean is this brilliant deep, deep blue, the air is warm and clear and you can t do anything but feel totally relaxed. Even when the weather turns, it is no less spectacular. To see the clouds roll in and watch the weather change from sunny to storming in a matter of seconds, to see the swell suddenly pick up and feel the intimidating power of the waves crashing up against the rocks, sending spray up high into the air with so much power you felt the echo of the impact go through you from hundreds of metres away, was simply awesome.
Yet the absolute highlight moment came early the next morning. I was determined to go fishing while we were down there. I thought, With this much water around, I m going to catch a fish if it kills me . So I braved the weather, put on about four layers of clothes and took my gear down to the headland. The air was that cold that it felt like a knife through my chest with every breath, and my faithful running shoes were saturated in the wet grass before I had gone 10 metres.
As I got near to the honey hole spot down there that I knew of, there was the deafening thud of a wave and I saw a solid wall of water rise up and smash down on the little rock seat where I was going to sit. So I thought, Okay, that would kill me and I m not really that determined to catch a fish .
I thought I d try somewhere else. So I picked my way along the rocks until I found a spot that was high enough and set back far enough that I thought I would be safe. But, you guessed it, about five mins into it I watched a wave come towards me in slow motion, hit the rocks below, jack-knife up about five metres above me, come down and drench me to the core. That was my cue to pack up and head back to the house for a shower, some clean, dry clothes, and bacon and eggs for breakfast. But even as I trudged back up the hill, through more wet grass, soaked through and freezing cold, I felt alive and great at having been out there to experience all that.
The point of all this is to say that real life is physical. It has to do with touch and smell and sight and sound and taste. It has to do with rocks and waves and fish and bacon and eggs. It has to do with stuff, sensations, adrenalin, experiences. That’s what life is. And that is because – and I find this pretty amazing – God, who is not physical, who can t be seen or touched, has made a physical universe of creatures and sensations, and made us to take part in, experience and, what’s more, to enjoy and delight in that physical creation.
The doctrine of creation has very important things to say to Christians about the nature of created life, how God wants us to live in his world and how we are to understand our salvation in Jesus Christ. In fact, the two doctrines – creation and salvation – are two sides of the same coin. As Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck wrote of the doctrine of creation presented in the pages of the Bible: Creation is the initial act and foundation of all divine revelation […] No right relation to God is conceivable apart from this basis .
One of the most sustained reflections on the nature of created life is Psalm 104. In this article I d like to offer some thoughts drawn from this psalm on what it means for us to be made by God. These are not the only things that can be said about our created nature but they are very helpful in our approach to life in this world.
God delights in ruling his creation (v1-9)
The first thing to note from this psalm is that to be made by God is to be made for God. The psalm is an extended exposition on God’s providence: his rule and care over all aspects of creation – time and space, light and dark, the weather, provision of food, drink and shelter for all animals. But the psalm is far more than a dry list of what God does. It is a beautiful celebration of the wonders and pleasures God has stitched into the fabric of his world. But the main message and theme of the psalm is expressed in v31: May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works . It is a psalm about God’s delight: it is about his joy in filling his creation with joy.
The psalm opens with a focus on God’s rule over the creation and sustenance of the world. The secular biblical scholar Robert Alter comments that it is a poetic free improvisation on the creation story . But where Genesis 1 emphasises God’s transcendent authority (speaking his word from on high with creation leaping to respond in obedience), Psalm 104 complements that image by presenting God this time as a labourer, doing that hard, satisfying work of fashioning a home with his own hands. Perhaps here in Psalm 104 we may liken God to the ultimate contestant on The Block – fashioning decor (v2, 6), laying beams (v3a), creating water features (v3b), pouring foundations (v5), designing floor plans (v8-9), even doing his own plumbing (v6-9)! Bringing the two passages together also helps us to better feel the sense of satisfaction and joy in the repeated refrain after each stage of the Genesis creation narrative, And God saw that it was good .
It’s also worth noting that this view of creation stands in stark contrast to just about every other ancient view of both the world and of God. In Mesopotamian religion, the world wasn t good but rather full of chaos and disorder, dark forces and bad luck, created as a side product of the warring of the gods. Gnosticism, which arose in the 2nd century AD, taught that the physical creation was evil or illusory, to be escaped from in order to join the realm of the purely spiritual. Likewise God (or the gods) in ancient religions were mostly fickle, capricious and self-serving, creating humanity primarily to be their slaves and bring them food.
But the God of the Bible is the God who is faithful, generous and self-giving – the God who works and whose work reflects his character of goodness. Who creates for his own glory and pleasure, but whose glory and pleasure is not narcissistic self-aggrandisement at the expense of others; instead, it his faithful, serving love for what he has made. It is rather fitting, then, that when God became flesh in the Lord Jesus Christ, he did so as a carpenter’s son – a humble worker. Creation, in Psalm 104, is envisioned as the magnificent, strong, secure house, solidly and beautifully built by God himself, to become his home, filled with his glorious love and faithfulness, for all his family to experience and revel in – for God to delight in, in bringing delight to others. And this is what we see in the central section of the psalm.
God delights in caring for his creation (v10-32)
The main section of the psalm moves through different aspects of creation, exploring the length, width, height and depth of God’s faithful, loving provision for each part. No animal is despised or neglected – even wild donkeys and rock badgers receive focused attention. Resources are deployed with careful planning. Ecological systems are woven together in profound interdependence (v10-23), even to the extent of apportioning time-sharing of common resources (v20-23)! One cannot read this psalm and help but think that the nature documentaries on our TV screens confirm the truth of God’s world, as we are presented with amazing discoveries and insights that boggle the mind in how varied, intricate and delicately balanced the system of our world is.
As I have mentioned already, however, the psalm moves us beyond a call simply to observe, or even conserve, the creation. It calls us to revel in it and take joy in it. The wild donkeys in v11, for example, quench their thirst. A more literal translation would be: they break their thirst in pieces . More than simply not needing to drink anymore, the cold mountain air and riverbeds through which water flows into the springs provides wild donkeys the equivalent of a thirst crusher : like the pleasure an ice cold can from the fridge after a long, hot day working in the sun with a dry, dusty throat.
The birds (v12) are given the branches of the trees to shelter in, so that they can spend their time filling the air with song – the noise of beauty and celebration. Or, perhaps most strikingly, in v26 leviathan is mentioned: which you formed to frolic [or play ] there . Leviathan was the Jaws of the ancient world; the semi-mythical, terrifying sea monster whose main occupation was killing. Here it is pictured like a bath toy for God. Like a rubber ducky, God made the leviathan to play, splashing in the waters. Enjoyment, fun, play, are all celebrated as an integral part of God’s purposes for all his creation.
When it comes to human life, it is no different. We are also made to delight and revel in the physical, mental and emotional experience of being God’s creation. The food that God provides is more than just what it takes to survive: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, bread that sustains [lit. strengthens ] his heart . A glad, strong heart and a shining face. Food, drink and more that not only keeps us alive but allows us to thrive, enjoy and express the physicality of our bodies in all their God-given glory.
Again, this is a perspective on life and bodies that may be familiar to us but it needs reinforcing for two key, related reasons. First, Christians are so often portrayed and caricatured as those who miss out on the pleasures of life, because God doesn t want us to enjoy ourselves too much. It can often seem like those who reject God have the most pleasurable, fulfilling existence. And Christians may fall into the trap of thinking that if we enjoy ourselves too much that this must somehow be sinful. But this is a total lie. The God of the Bible is not mean-handed or stingy in his blessings and following him does not automatically reduce our freedom to enjoy the pleasures of creation. In fact, just the opposite – it’s only those who follow God who can properly enjoy creation.
Second, moreover, this enjoyment of creation is not an optional extra in the Christian life. It is something that we need. In God’s goodness, we have been made as finite beings. We have bodies and minds that grow tired. We need food and rest, to relax and be refreshed, to stop thinking produce , achieve and do , and simply receive, be content in and enjoy God’s goodness to us.
That is how we have been made, and when these are lost from our lives the effect over time can be very marked and sadly observable. The impatience and irritability of the overworked, overtired parent, whose main engagement with their children is to bark them into line between replying to emails or posting on Facebook on their handheld device. The insatiable need to climb the corporate or social ladder, which turns colleagues and friends into rungs to be stepped on. The draining away of excitement and joy in a congregation because they have forgotten whose work it is to save, and have started to think they are an indispensible asset to God’s kingdom and he cannot do his work without their initiatives.
The rest and enjoyment Psalm 104 expresses as part of created life reminds us there is only one Sovereign Lord of the universe, only one being in whose power it is to create, sustain and change the world and it isn t me. But this also brings us back to the ultimate goal of the psalm. It is not simply a celebration of creation, and a call to enjoy ourselves. Rather, it is a call to celebrate and enjoy creation in a way that points to the joy of the Creator himself.
The psalm gives us three tracks or parameters to understand what creation is all about and how it testifies to the God who made it. First, it testifies to his sovereign power: All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time (v27). At every moment of every day, we are entirely dependent on our creator for each beat of our heart and each breath that fills our lungs. He made us, he sustains us and he provides for us. It is a notion that should fill us with both fear (knowing our lives hang utterly on nothing but his word) and thankfulness (knowing the God on whose word our lives hang is good, faithful and generous beyond our understanding).
Second, it testifies to his wisdom: How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all! (v24). God, not us, is the one who knows everything and whose imagination the world revolves around. Thus, if we are to understand the world – and our place in it – properly, we do so only by listening to his word and bringing our created lives and use of creation into alignment with his ways.
Third and ultimately, it testifies to the fact that the joy at the centre of the universe – by which all other joys are relativised and find their right place – is God’s joy, and not primarily ours. Or, to put it another way, our human delight can only be properly fulfilled when God’s delight is realised. As the theme verse of the psalm puts it: May the Lord rejoice in his works (v31). It is only when God’s own purposes for his creation are brought to pass – when he is able to delight at his goodness flowing through to his creation without interruption – that creation’s own joy can be complete.
Obstacles to delight will be removed (v33-35)
This leads us to the conclusion of the psalm. One of the somewhat puzzling things about many of the psalms meditating on creation (e.g. Ps 8 ; 139) is that they all have what is known as an imprecatory section in them – a section that refers to the judgement and destruction of the wicked. In Psalm 104 it comes right at the end: May sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more (v35).
While this may seem a somewhat rude and out of place insertion in a psalm meditating on the beauty and delight of creation – as if some dour editor has decided to put wet towel on the whole thing at the end – in fact, this is the very point of it being there. There is a rude interruption to the flow of joy between God and his creation, a direct opposition to the delightful plans and purposes of God for his world, a rejection of the creator and his sovereignty and wisdom: sin.
Because we are so used to living in a world full of sin, this has trivialised the word into meaning something like fun but a bit naughty . We can forget the exceeding sinfulness of sin . But sin, as the Bible defines it – rejecting the Creator and attempting to rule our lives in his place – is the problem in the world. Psalm 104 makes this stand out even starker in relief – each part of the world lies in an interconnected web of total dependence on the wisdom of its Creator. When the world turns away from God, then, the result cannot be anything but darkness, death and decay, an inability to fulfil the glorious purposes for which it was made.
We will look further next month at the difference between the world’s sin and the joys of Psalm 104, and its implication for our lives.
Dan is lectures in Old Testament and biblical languages at Moore Theological College.