Psalms that Reflect on Human Life

Psalm 71. Image by Carson Coots via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Three truths about humans living within a wider created world stand out frequently in the Psalms and elsewhere in the Bible. Each of these calls humans to grateful humility. First, humans are not the only creatures praising God. Second, we can look to nature to teach us about ourselves and our health. And third, like other creatures we are absolutely dependent on the structures and processes built into the natural world.

These truths, known to us from ancient scripture as well as from contemporary observation, are illustrated by the first three psalms in the lectionary readings for May. What a marvelous time of year for celebrating our ties with the created world, which are more intertwined than many understand.

Psalm 98 (May 6; see also Psalm 29 on May 27) proclaims, “Sing to the LORD a new song, for God has done marvelous things!” (verse 1). In response to God’s salvific marvels, all the earth is called to “break forth into joyous songs and sing praises” (verse 4). The phrase “all the earth” is ambiguous — does it mean the earth’s people or all the living creatures, or both? At first it pictures human joy, aided by lyre, trumpets, and horns. But suddenly the meaning expands: The sea itself is called to roar, along with all that fills it; the whole world and all who dwell in it — in other words, all of creation here on earth joins in praise. The floods are anthropomorphized as having hands to clap; the hills as having throats to sing, celebrating the coming of God as restorer of earthly justice.

We can take this extravagant song as hyperbole. Yet it leaves us with open questions about nature’s awareness, as does Genesis 1 when creation’s elements respond directly to God’s original commands, and Romans 8:19-22, in which creation waits longingly, groaning in labor. If we could hear the earth itself, what would it voice? Celebration of the divine will that planned the world’s intricate processes; yearning for all that upsets nature to be set aright?

Psalm 1 (May 13; see likewise Psalm 92, the complementary psalm for June 17) displays a mirror image of Psalm 98. Here, it is not the elements of the world that are described in human terms, but humans that resemble other creatures: trees, in fact. Those who delight in the law and remain steady in their attention, those who thrive within the limits of their God-given nature, living out their purpose as members of the created community, are like trees planted by rivers, their roots well watered. They remain steadfast and fruitful because they draw sustenance from the place where they belong. If it is true that trees thrive in habitats for which they were fashioned, certainly humans likewise thrive by living where we are meant to be, doing what God meant us to do, within the limits of our environment.

Finally, Psalm 104 (May 20; see also Psalm 107, complementary psalm for June 24) places humans in a world filled with God’s fascinating creatures, each one thriving in its niche, depending on the structures the psalm’s opening lines describe as designed by God. Gloriously, the psalm does not magnify humans, but puts us in our place: in a timeshare with the lions, who roam the same places by night that people do by day. Deep contentment with God and with God’s world shine through this psalm.

Although humans seem to be habitually restless, these psalms remind us that we are most at home in our creaturely humility. Our place within the web of creation offers us wholesome joy, steady purpose, and plenty to be and do.

May 6

  • Psalm 98 calls all the earth to break into a new song, joyful praise for God’s victorious deeds: the sea and its inhabitants will roar, the earth and its creatures too; floods and hills rejoice.
  • John 15:9-17 claims that Jesus chose us to bear good fruit.

May 13

  • Psalm 1 describes those following God’s ways as well-watered, fruitful trees, overseen by God and prospering in all actions.
  • 1 John 5:9-13 proclaims the most fundamental Christian truth: life itself.

May 20

  • Ezekiel 37:1-14 describes an army of human bones, people who had lost hope and given up, standing up ready for action when the prophet spoke.
  • Psalm 104:24-34, 35b claims, “how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures,” and describes every creature’s dependence for food, life, and being itself. The psalmist too proclaims, “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live.”
  • Romans 8:22-27 reminds us of several important ecological truths: all creation is groaning in labor pains; hope consists in things not yet seen; and the Spirit intercedes, helping us when we know not how to pray.

May 27

  • Isaiah 6:1-8 describes Isaiah’s eagerness to witness to an earth that was filled with God’s glory, and a people of “unclean lips,” blind to this very glory.
  • Psalm 29 describes God’s voice over the waters: powerful, majestic, wilderness-shaking, changing even creation’s most powerful forces, and blessing God’s people with strength.

June 3

  • Deuteronomy 5:12-15 enjoins a Sabbath rest that extends to family, employees, and farm animals alike.
  • Mark 2:23-3:6 proclaims a renewed relationship among humans, the Sabbath, and the natural processes of human healing.

June 10

  • Genesis 3:8-15 describes the consequences of transgressing the environmental limits set by God in the Garden of Eden.
  • Psalm 130 expresses deep hope for restoration, forgiveness, and redemption.

June 17

  • Ezekiel 17:22-24 tells a parable of God’s planting a sprig that becomes a noble cedar, providing shelter and fruit for every kind of bird.
  • Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15 compare the righteous to a flourishing palm or cedar tree, producing fruit even in old age.
  • Mark 4:26-34 compares God’s realm to the growth of a seed into grain, and to a mustard seed that, like Ezekiel’s cedar, grows to offer hospitality to many different birds.

June 24

  • Job 38:1-11 recounts God’s questioning Job from the whirlwind, emphasizing human inability to comprehend the natural world’s intricate wonders.
  • Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32 celebrates God’s command of a chaotic storm at sea that overwhelms human travelers.
  • Mark 4:35-41 reinforces our own lack of control over nature by recounting the disciples’ incredulity when even the storm obeyed Jesus.

Patricia Tull’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “The Great Community,” focuses on ecological themes for preaching.