Psalm 148 is a majestic overview of the praises of creation. In this reflection, I have been influenced by Richard Bauckham’s comments in his excellent book, Bible And Ecology
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“The world is charged with the grandeur of God” – Gerard Manley Hopkins
It’s probably not controversial to say that nature can inspire feelings of wonder and awe, even in the most unspiritual atheist. It could be the view from a mountain-top or down a microscope. It could be a dawn chorus in a forest or the sunset over the sea. The world can be beautiful and sometimes that beauty takes your breath away. For some people, that might lead to them wanting to praise God. Psalm 8 expresses this sense of awe:
When I look at the 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?
We might, today, want to take the idea of the night sky being the work of God’s fingers and unpack it in a different way to the psalmist of three thousand years ago, but still, the natural world can inspire us to praise God.
Psalm 148 goes a lot further than this and paints a picture of the universe not only inspiring human praise, but of every created being giving praise to God. Over thirty categories of creature are addressed and the word “all” is used eight times: it is a psalm of the universe calling the whole creation to praise God. Human voices are one instrument in a great symphony of praise.
There are important themes in this psalm relating to our world today. Firstly, how should we understand our place in God’s creation: as lords and masters and extractors and consumers, or as participants alongside other creatures in community with them? A second issue is whether the other-than-human creation (or, as I will refer to it, majority-creation) has intrinsic value or whether its value is only in relation to its usefulness to humans. Then, thirdly, how do we make sense of the world as it is, and ourselves as we are, and God as God is – where is it all heading?
The psalm divides its catalogue of creatures into two, which we might crudely call the heavens (vv. 1-6) and the earth (vv. 7-14), with the exclamation “Praise the Lord!” at beginning and end wrapping the whole psalm (and thus the whole creation) in praise. To start with, the angels are called upon to praise God. We are familiar with that imagery, but perhaps less familiar with the imagery of v.3, of the sun, moon and stars praising God. There may be an element here of the ‘heavenly bodies’ being put in their place. In the ancient world, as in some present-day spiritual paths, as well as the horoscope in your newspaper, the heavenly bodies were thought to govern our fate, perhaps being thought of as gods. In Hebrew thought, however, they are very definitely created things, as subordinate to God as a pebble on a beach. In Genesis 1, the sun and moon are not even needed for light on earth. Their main purpose is as clocks to mark time and the seasons. The same idea is present in Psalm 148. In v.5, God created them with a command and, in v.6, fixed boundaries for them. However, there may be another angle to the praises of these objects which we might term ‘inanimate’. As the psalm moves its focus to the earth, fire, hail, snow, frost, the wind, mountains and trees are all called on to praise God. It is easy to imagine a blackbird praising God (even if, in reality, like most birdsong, it is simply defending territory or looking for sex). It’s harder to imagine slugs and other creeping things praising God, but how does a mountain or a tree praise God? Richard Bauckham, writing on this psalm, suggests that it is simply by being themselves, within the boundaries set by God. He says, “A tree does not need to do anything specific in order to praise God; still less need it be conscious of anything. Simply by being and growing it praises God.” If this is so, then perhaps we are beginning to answer some of the questions raised earlier about the nature of human praise and action. What boundaries has God fixed for us? Who are we and what is our place in the universe?
In the psalm, humans are placed towards the end of the list. But we should be careful about assuming this means we are the climax. The psalm’s list of creatures is not otherwise in order of increasing greatness. If it were, we would have to say that a slug, amongst the creeping things of v.10, is greater than the mountains of v.9 or the angels of v.2. I don’t think there’s any hierarchy within the psalm’s list of creatures. Verse 13 calls on all earthly creatures to praise the name of the Lord, whose name alone is exalted and whose glory is above earth and heaven. The universe exists for God and in God. It does not exist for the benefit of humans. The world is not intended to be at our disposal. There is a wildness to nature as depicted in this psalm. The wild animals of v.10 (as in Job chapter 39) live beyond the awareness of humans, but in the psalm they praise God. Even the sea monsters, feared in ancient myths and legends as bringers of chaos and destruction, are called on to praise God. Even the stormy wind does God’s will and praises God who is wild and free and greater than the universe itself: God, whose glory is above earth and heaven. Bearing in mind biblical passages like Job 39-41 or Psalm 104.17-26, it seems that God delights in the praises of these wild and dangerous beings, who praise God by being who they were created to be.
Perhaps humans, the most dangerous of all God’s creatures, are different and dangerous because we can choose not to praise God. We have the power and the capability to break the boundaries of who we are and seek mastery over each other, mastery over creation and mastery even over God. As in the stories of Eden and Babel, or even in the response in Psalm 8 to the question, “What are human beings?” we have a tendency to exalt ourselves beyond our proper place:
You made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honour.
You have given them mastery
over the works of your hands,
you have put all things under their feet. (Psalm 8.5-6)
We are able to choose hubris rather than humility, and our praise and our relationship with God and our relationship with the majority-creation is turned in on ourselves and made to serve our own wants and our own convenience at any cost, with that cost being paid by the creatures under our dominion, including human creatures. The works of God’s hands are trampled into the earth under the feet of powerful consumers intent only on their own glory and honour and pleasure. This is not Psalm 148’s peaceful picture of praises, with humans participating alongside all other creatures in giving glory and honour to God. This is a broken world.
Human intelligence and technological skill have done a lot of good, for example advances in medicine. But you don’t have to look very hard to see how, when we combine our power with pride and ambition and cross the boundaries fixed by God, other people suffer and other creatures suffer. In a broken world, broken over thousands of years of ungodly human action, the stormy wind doesn’t always do God’s will. Coming back to a place of praise and glory to God and finding our rightful place in the praises of creation may be part of the answer to the healing of the world. Maybe a place to start is that question – Who are we?
If you drove your hand (or a spade if you prefer) into the surface of this planet we call Earth, you might dig out some … earth. In Genesis 2, God takes some of the earth of Earth and makes a man. In the Hebrew in which it was written, God takes some adamah and makes adam. It works in English, too: God takes some humus and makes a human.
We are of the earth. We are earth creatures. We are part of this earth planet, this living planet with its hot, red beating heart, mother to billions of living creatures. We are mud people. It’s important to keep that connection with the mud, with the earth, with the humus, if we are to have the humility to be truly human, like Jesus. Bishop James Jones has said that the only title Jesus claimed for himself was Son of Man, which in Hebrew or the Aramaic Jesus spoke, would have been Son of Earth. Perhaps our humanity can be measured by the humus under our nails; in other words by how connected we are to the earth and the creatures with whom we share the earth. We are people of earth, living amongst creatures of earth, on earth, where we pray for God’s will to be done as in heaven. We are mud creatures alongside other mud creatures … although the mud was made from star dust, and all is held within the love of God whose glory is above earth and heaven.
Paying attention to who we are and paying attention to the creatures around us is an important step in the healing of the world. In the same way that you feel valued when someone remembers your name, the study of animals and plants, cloud formations, stars – whatever appeals to you – even at the basic level of learning to spot the difference, helps develop an appreciation of them and the feeling that they have a value in their own right and it leads us in praising the Creator. Richard Bauckham says that, “Sharing something of God’s primal delight in creation enables us also to delight in God himself.” (Or as Alice Walker puts it, more earthily, “It pisses God off when you walk past the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.”) When our praise is true, it will be because we are taking our place alongside fellow-creatures rather than dominating them, and we will find joy and peace and our own healing there.
At the end of the psalm, in v.14, mention of Israel is either a hubristic addition to the psalm, or it could be a way of delivering the psalm from simply being about praising a God who is exalted and great. The reasons for praise given in the psalm so far, in vv. 5-6 and 13, have been about God’s greatness. In vv.5-6, the heavenly beings are told to praise God because God created them and fixed their boundaries. In v.13, the earthly beings (perhaps especially the humans in vv.11-12) are put in their place as they are reminded that God alone is exalted. Mention of Israel enriches the text by evoking the story of a covenant people, from God calling Abram through to the visions of the prophets of what salvation will look like on the day of the Lord. It’s a story of God’s call to be in relationship with God, a call that comes without condition or coercion: an invitation to become a people who are close to God, living faithfully within God’s faithful love. In fact, Psalm 148 reflects this grace of God throughout: although the language is mostly in the imperative voice (“Praise God…”), those imperatives are summed up in two invitations: “Let them praise …” God’s glory may be above earth and heaven, but praise is not a duty and it is not a device to manipulate God. God invites all creation into a relationship of grace, of gratitude and love. If the world is broken by humans overstepping our boundaries and refusing to praise God, all the more so does salvation come when we do choose to respond in humility and grace and participate in that web of God’s love.
Relevant New Testament passages might be Philippians 2.5-11 or Colossians 1.15-20: how Jesus, the firstborn of creation, in his choice to humble himself to the point of death, became the firstborn from the dead and the one in whom all things are reconciled to God.
From a primrose to an oak, from a robin’s song to a fox’s yowl, from the sun’s embrace to the rain’s gentle kiss, the universe is charged with the grandeur of God and praises God in an infinite variety of voices. I can choose – or not – for my voice to be part of that great chorus and to honour God with my whole being. It’s a choice of humility over hubris, of learning to value other creatures for being themselves, of taking time to pay attention, and of participating in the life of the love of God, and for me, Jesus is how that salvation becomes reality.