First Sunday of Christmas (Year B)

Isaac Watts got it right: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” — which means, he writes, that every heart will “prepare him room” and that “heaven and nature” will sing.

January 1, 2012

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Commentary on Psalm 148

Isaac Watts got it right: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” — which means, he writes, that every heart will “prepare him room” and that “heaven and nature” will sing.

Or, better, Psalm 98 got it right, the text that Watts paraphrases in his famous hymn. There, too, all creatures clap their hands and sing together because God is coming to judge the earth with righteousness and equity.

Almost no one — believer or nonbeliever — has a soul so dead that he or she cannot hear “heaven and nature sing.” The awe, the beauty, the power, and the grace of nature give rise to poetry by both children and literary giants in every generation.

The surprising thing about creation’s praise in the Psalter, however, is its particularity. True, we can hear “nature” sing, just because it does, but “creation” does more: it, too, sings because birds sing, but creation sings more loudly and more perfectly on key because it knows and responds to its Creator. This is why there is always a “because” in the Psalter’s call to praise: “Praise the Lord, because….”

That kind of theo-logic marks the clear structure of Psalm 148. The entire psalm is enclosed in a “Praise the Lord!” inclusio, and then the two main parts of the psalm call all things to praise the Lord. The call to praise comes first to those things above: heavens, heights, angels, sun, moon, stars — “Let them praise the name of the Lord” (verses 1-5).

Then in part two, all things below hear the call: sea monsters, fire, hail, snow, wind, mountains, trees, animals and birds, rulers and all people — “Let them praise the name of the Lord” (verses 9-13). Note here how, in this psalm, humans are not above nature, they are of nature, so they join in a praise of God that already resounds before they arrive.

But in both cases, the “let them praise” is followed by a “for,” a “because,” a “ki” in Hebrew. And that’s where this song of nature becomes Bible, word of God, and — as so often the case with the word of God — where it gets both its oomph and its offense.

Praise the Lord, all you heavenly bodies, sings part one, because the Lord has created you and fixed your bounds. Why would the heavenly bodies praise being bound? In most of the Psalter’s world, the heavenly bodies were themselves deities (or at least deified). They should be capitalized: the Sun, the Moon, the Waters — those amazing primeval forces that control our lives.

Should we not rightly sing to them and fear them for their power — as nature worshipers have done since the beginning of time even unto today? Why should sun and moon praise anyone or anything else, much less the God of insignificant Israel? Yet, Psalm 148, like Genesis 1, uncapitalizes these heavenly forces, turns them into creatures, and lets them sing the praise of the God that made them and all things.

The Bible understands this as good news, because the alternative to setting cosmic bounds is chaos. Water out of bounds brings floods and tsunamis. Sun and moon out of bounds would destroy all life — including the “life” of the sun and moon themselves. Here, even these heavenly bodies recognize there is life to be found in “driving on the right side of the sky” and thus avoiding collision and death. Creation gives life, chaos kills. The heavenly bodies have become creatures of God, so now that “lucky ol’ sun got nothin’ to do but roll around heaven all day” (in the lyrics of Haven Gillespie’s song) — no more of the worries and terrible responsibilities than come with being a god. Praise the Lord!

And then the psalm turns to the things below — all of them. Let them, too, praise the Lord, “because….” Now the particularity and offense are more direct. All creatures, all kings, all peoples — Israel and everybody else — should praise God because God “has raised up a horn for his people” (verse 14). Why should rulers in Egypt, for heaven’s sake, sing praises because God has chosen to be active in Israel? Or the rulers of any other country? Or the cedars of Lebanon, or the emus of Australia? What has Israel to do with them?

The Christmas story proclaims, however, that it is precisely those foreign kings, those sheep and stars, those angels and shepherds who show up at the stable of Bethlehem to worship this God-baby. Why such odd particularity? The Old Testament argued, as far back as the call to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 that God had to begin in a particular place like Israel (offense!), in order to get back to blessing for all (promise!).

God raises up a “horn” for his people, sings the psalm (verse 14) — the horn of the ox or the ram that is the symbol of power throughout the Old Testament. Hannah had praised the strength of that horn, raised up for her in her distress (1 Samuel 2:1 King James Version), but then saw that same strength given to God’s anointed king (1 Samuel 2:10 King James Version) — the “horn” becomes the inclusio around her song.

Later, Mary, of course, sang Hannah’s song (Luke 1:46-55), wondering at that same strength that is now to be brought into the world through her. Hannah and Mary, lowly nobodies, both recognize that through them, God is doing something amazing for Israel and all people, for sun and stars, dandelions and dogwoods, larkspurs and locusts, for snips and snails and puppy dog tails, for the earth and all its creatures. The psalm includes both the offense of particularity and the promise of particularity. Let God’s strength be found here, sings the Psalm — here in the God of Israel, the God of Bethlehem, who is also the God of the moon and stars. Let God’s salvation be found here, sings Mary.

And Watts is right: “Let heaven and nature sing!” And we join in. What else is there to do once we get it, once we hear that creation’s God is Israel’s God is Jesus’ God is our God? I am brought back into the unity of all things, and God is out for us all.