Day of Pentecost (Year B)

It is a blessing to the preacher when the movement of a passage of Scripture offers a ready guide to interpretation and proclamation.

May 31, 2009

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Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

It is a blessing to the preacher when the movement of a passage of Scripture offers a ready guide to interpretation and proclamation.

This reading from Psalm 104 is a case in point.

A quick glance at the text reveals a three-part structure:

  • Verses 24 through 26 describe the wondrous character of God’s creation;
  • Verses 27 through 30 describe God’s providence;
  • Verses 31 through 35 turn to praise.

In tracing the flow from creation to providence to praise, the preacher will find a number of possible points of contact with virtually any congregational context.

The Wonders of Creation (24-26)

In the portion of the Psalm that precedes this reading, the Psalmist has offered an extensive catalogue of the many things that God has created. Accordingly, we have the exclamation of verse 24, “How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” It is, in one sense, a summary of what came before.

Nevertheless, the crowning example of the sea and its most awesome creature (Leviathan) serves perfectly well to illustrate the point without reference to those earlier verses. What God has created is awesome beyond the comprehension of mortals.

No ancient Israelite could even begin to claim full comprehension of the sea, with its vastness, unpredictability, and dangerous power. Indeed, despite all the efforts of science and exploration that lie between the ancients and our own time, the sea remains in many ways mysterious and in all ways uncontrollable.

The claim here is that God created and therefore has dominion over not only the sea but even its most dangerous and terrifying inhabitant, the whale/sea monster Leviathan. If there are such incredible wonders in the creation, the power, wisdom, and skill of the creator must be even more incredible.

Preachers might adapt this argument for the wonder of God from the wonders of creation to the needs of the congregation by considering other wonders of creation that are “closer to home,” more accessible to the people’s experience and context.

Dependence upon Providence (27-30)

A natural question arising from looking at the near-infinite diversity of creatures is, “How do they all find what they need to survive? How can the world provide for so many different needs?”

The Psalmist turns the improbability of the world furnishing a suitable niche for so many different creatures into another theological observation: it all depends on the providence of God. Whatever lives, says the Psalm, is receiving life, breath, and sustenance from the hand of the Creator. And if that providing hand were ever to be closed, no creature could survive.

The existence of life, then, is an argument for the providence of God! Preachers may find here a useful point of contact with congregations in which there is uncertainty and anxiety about the future. God provides for all creatures — and this should give us confidence that God is able to provide for us, come what may.

There is also a potential connection in this portion of the Psalm to the liturgical context of Pentecost. The relationship in verse 30 between God sending out his spirit and the creation and renewal of the world dovetails nicely with the Pentecost story of God sending out his spirit for the creation and renewal of the church.

Praise the Lord! (31-35)

While one might well be tempted to focus on the Pentecost connection mentioned above as the culmination of the treatment of the Psalm, it would be a mistake to disregard the Psalmist’s chosen conclusion. The movement from contemplation of the creation through recognition of God’s providence must, in the logic of the Psalter, lead to praise.

The proper response of the creature to the Creator is always one of reverent celebration, and the recognition of how extensively God has provided and sustained us is cause for the Psalmist to break out in joyful superlatives.

Praise should come forth “as long as I live,” and “while I have being.” The Lord’s glory is so clearly shown in his creation and providence that the creaturely life must be one of thanksgiving and praise. How else could one respond to such a God?

By excluding the first half of verse 35 from the reading, the lectionary leaves this question as a hypothetical, presumably to be answered with an implied “in no other way.”

But verse 35a indicates that the Psalmist knew, as does everyone else, that there are other responses to God’s majesty and generosity than endless praise.

In the typical terminology of the Psalms, those other responses, the ones that reject some aspect or another of the goodness and wonder of creation, the complete sufficiency of providence, are attributed to “sinners” and “the wicked.”

Congregations may (and indeed should) be uncomfortable with this language of obliteration. After all, every congregation is made up of sinners! Still, there is no escaping the fact that the praise of God envisioned and practiced by the Psalmist includes the desire that such wickedness will be decisively and permanently dealt with.

Seeing the wonders of creation and providence doesn’t just encourage us to say, “Wow! God is pretty great.” Instead, they demand that the blight of sin be removed, so that the creation may be entirely what God intends it to be.

Here is the final opportunity for a productive connection to the congregation’s life. As so often happens, God has found a different, better way to answer the Psalmist’s prayer than the Psalmist could have imagined.

In Jesus Christ, God has indeed dealt decisively with the blight of sin, not by slaughtering sinners, but by redeeming them. This good news should set off an even more exuberant round of praise than the Psalmist’s! But no better beginning could be made to such news than that which closes the Psalm, the first “Hallelujah!” or “Praise the Lord!” of the Psalter.