The Psalms contain, to my mind, some of the most beautiful nature poetry that exists. One line I particular enjoyed on this reading, from Psalm 65, was this one: “you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.”
In Reflections on the Psalms, C. S. Lewis explains the unique position of the psalmists in writing such nature poetry….
Two factors determine the Psalmists’ approach to Nature. The first they share with the vast majority of ancient writers; the second was in their time, if not absolutely unique, extremely rare.
i. They belong to a nation chiefly of peasants. For us the very name Jew is associated with finance, shopkeeping, money-lending and the like. This however, dates from the Middle Ages when the Jews were not allowed to own land and were driven into occupations remote from the soil. Whatever characteristics the modern Jew has acquired from millennia of such occupations, they cannot have been those of his ancient ancestors. Those were peasants or farmers. When even a king covets a piece of his neighbour’s property, the piece is a vineyard; he is more like a wicked squire than a wicked king. Everyone was close to the land; everyone vividly aware of our dependence on soils and weather. So, till a late age, was every Greek and Roman. Thus part of what we should now, perhaps, call “appreciation of Nature” could not then exist—all that part which is really delight in “the country” as a contrast to the town. Where towns are few and very small and where nearly everyone is on the land, one is not aware of any special thing called “the country”. Hence a certain sort of “nature poetry” never existed in the ancient world till really vast cities like Alexandria arose; and, after the fall of ancient civilization, it never existed again until the eighteenth century. At other periods what we call “the country” is simply the world, what water is to a fish. Nevertheless appreciation of Nature can exist; a delight which is both utilitarian and poetic. Homer can enjoy a landscape, but what he means by a beautiful landscape is one that is useful—good deep soil, plenty of fresh water, pasture that will make the cows really fat, and some nice timber. Being one of a seafaring race he adds, as a Jew would not, a good harbour. The Psalmists, who are writing lyrics not romances, naturally give us little landscape. What they do give us, far more sensuously and delightedly than anything I have seen in Greek, is the very feel of weather—weather seen with a real countryman’s eyes, enjoyed almost as a vegetable might be supposed to enjoy it. “Thou art good to the earth…thou waterest her furrows…thou makest it soft with the drops of rain…the little hills shall rejoice on every side…the valleys shall stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing” (65, 9-14). In 104, 16 (better in Dr. Moffatt than in the Prayer Book, “the great trees drink their fill”.
ii. The Jews, as we all know, believed in one God, maker of heaven and earth. Nature and God were distinct; the One had made the other; the One ruled and the other obeyed. This, I say, we all know. But for various reasons its real significance can easily escape a modern reader if his studies happen not to have led him in certain directions.
In the first place it is for us a platitude. We take it for granted. Indeed I suspect that many people assume that some clear doctrine of creation underlies all religions: that in Paganism the gods, or one of the gods, usually created the world; even that religions normally begin by answering the question, “Who made the world?” In reality, creation, in any unambiguous sense, seems to be a surprisingly rare doctrine.
Thus, Jewish nature poetry in the psalms is unique for these two reasons: (1) it is written by people who had to work the soil, not by people who could merely sit back and enjoy the look of it all, day in and day out. (2) Jewish nature poetry in the Psalms was written by people who believed that God and nature were separate, that one created the other. Therefore, in the Psalms we do not have God or the gods inhabiting nature in the same sense in which we do in various forms of pagan poetry.
Another thing that is brought out in the way that the Psalmists write about nature is the duality of it. Christians sometimes act as though nature was a sufficient proof, in and of itself, of the existence of a good god. In Mere Christianity, Lewis points out:
We have two bits of evidence about the Somebody [God]. One is the universe He has made. If we used that as our only clue, then I think we should have to conclude that He was a great artist (for the universe is a very beautiful place), but also that He is quite merciless and no friend to man (for the universe is a very dangerous and terrifying place). (We Have Cause to Be Uneasy, paragraph 3)
Thus, before we arrive at the idea of a good god, as conceived in Judaism and Christianity, we must have something beyond the evidence of nature. In fact, we must have special revelation. For the Jews, this revelation of God’s redeeming nature came, primarily, through the Exodus. For Christians, it has come, primarily, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.