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Psalms 101-104



Out of these four psalms, 103 is my favorite. However, it hardly needs comment. The Psalm simply invites us to steep ourselves in the steadfast love of the Lord that is from everlasting to everlasting.

Psalm 104 obviously fascinated C. S. Lewis more than most of the other psalms. I say this because he writes more about Psalm 104 than practically any other psalm in his Reflections on the Psalms….

But of course the doctrine of Creation leaves Nature full of manifestations which show the presence of God, and created energies which serve Him. The light is His garment, the thing we partially see Him through (104, 2), the thunder can be His voice (29, 3-5). He dwells in the dark thundercloud (18, 11), the eruption of a volcano comes in answer to His touch (104, 32). The world is full of his emissaries and executors. He makes winds His messengers and flames His servants (104, 4), rides upon cherubim (18, 10), commands the army of angels.

All this is of course in one way very close to Paganism. Thor and Zeus also spoke in the thunder; Hermes or Iris was the messenger of the gods. But the difference, though subtle, is momentous, between hearing in the thunder the voice of God or the voice of a god. As we have seen, even in the creation-myths, gods have beginnings. Most of them have fathers and mothers; often we know their birth-places. There is no question of self-existence or the timeless. Being is imposed upon them, as upon us, by preceding causes. They are, like us, creatures or products; though they are luckier than we in being stronger, more beautiful, and exempt from death. They are, like us, actors in the cosmic drama, not its authors. Plato fully understood this. His God creates the gods and preserves them from death by His own power; they have no inherent immortality. In other words, the difference between believing in God and in my gods is not one of arithmetic. As someone has said “gods” is not really the plural of God; God has no plural. Thus, when you hear in the thunder the voice of a god, you are stopping short, for the voice of a god is not really a voice from beyond the world, from the uncreated. By taking the god’s voice away—or envisaging the god as an angel, a servant of that Other—you go further. The thunder becomes not less divine but more. By emptying Nature of divinity—or, let us say, of divinities—you may fill her with Deity, for she is now the bearer of messages. There is a sense in which Nature-worship silences her—as if a child or a savage were so impressed with the postman’s uniform that he omitted to take in the letters.

Another result of believing in Creation is to see Nature not as a mere datum but as an achievement. Some of the Psalmists are delighted with its mere solidity and permanence. God has given to His works His own character of Emeth; they are water-tight, faithful, reliable, not at all vague or phantasmal. “All His works are faithful—He spoke and it was done, He commanded and it stood fast” (33, 4, 9). By His might (Dr. Moffat’s version) “the mountains are made firm and strongly fixed” (65, 6). God has laid the foundations of the earth with perfect thoroughness (104, 5). He has made everything firm and permanent and imposed boundaries which limit each thing’s operation (148, 6). Notice how in Psalm 136 the poet passes from God’s creation of Nature to the delivering of Israel out of Egypt: both are equally great deeds, great victories.

But the most surprising result of all is still to be mentioned. I said that the Jes, like nearly all the ancients, were agricultural and approached Nature with a gardener’s and a farmer’s interest, concerned with rain, with grass “for the service of man”, wine to cheer man up and olive-oil to make his face shine—to make it look, as Homer says somewhere, like a peeled onion (104, 14, 15). But we find them led on beyond this. Their gusto, or even gratitude, embraces things that no use to man. In the great Psalm especially devoted to Nature, from which I have just quoted (104), we have not only the useful cattle, the cheering vine, and the nourishing corn. We have springs where the wild asses quench their thirst (11), fir trees for the storks (17), hill country for the wild goats and “conies” (perhaps marmots, 18), finally even the lions (21); and even with a glance far out to sea, where no Jew willingly went, the great whales playing, enjoying themselves (26).

Of course this appreciation of, almost this sympathy with, creatures useless or hurtful or wholly irrelevant to man, is not our modern “kindness to animals”. That is a virtue most easily practiced by those who have never, tired and hungry, had to work with animals for a bare living, and who inhabit a country where all dangerous wild beasts have been exterminated. The Jewish felling, however, is vivid, fresh, and impartial. In Norse stories a pestilent creature such as a dragon tends to be conceived as the enemy not only of men but of gods. In classical stories, more disquietingly, it tends to be sent by a god for the destruction of men whom he has a grudge against. The Psalmist’s clear objetive view—noting the lions and whales side by side with men and men’s cattle—is unusual. And I think it is certainly reached through the idea of God as Creator and sustainer of all. In 104, 21, the point about the lions is that they, like us, “do seek their meat from God”. All these creatures, like us, “wait upon” God at feeding-time (27). It is the same in 147, 9; though the raven was an unclean bird to Jews, God “feedeth the young ravens that call upon him”. The thought which gives these creatures a place in the Psalmist’s gusto for Nature is surely obvious. They are our fellow-dependents; we all, lions, storks, ravens, whales—live, as our fathers said, “at God’s charges”, and the mention of all equally redounds to His praise. (Reflections on the Psalms, pp. 81-85)

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