Ecology as doxology (Psalm 104)

To understand the structure of the cosmos and expound its workings in a way that acknowledges its creator is to be filled with wonder and overflow with praise.

Psalm 104 begins as our every speech-filled day cannot but begin, with an exclamation that is simultaneously a hymn of praise to God and a reminder to ourselves to sing that hymn: “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great.”

“Bless the Lord, O my soul.” The human spirit has always acknowledged its own insufficiency to originate the flow of praise of either men or gods. If there is to be a song, it must be a divine song, an inspired song: “Sing, goddess” (aiede thea), says line 1 of The Iliad, beginning its canticle of human wrath with a plea to the divine muse. But the author of a biblical psalm begins with self-exhortation (“Bless the Lord, O my soul”) and immediately turns to address God directly with the straightforward word of praise that gives both the reason for singing and a concise summary of the entire content of the whole song: “You are very great.” One might plead with the divine Spirit for inspiration, but in truth the divine Spirit has already done its part by being and by creating. God is, and God is great, and merely to observe that primal and ultimate reality by noting its effects in the world all around is to be primed to sing praise.

The Lord, the psalmist says, is clothed in light. The great lights in human experience of the cosmos around us are sun, moon, and stars—the lights of the heavens—so the psalmist sees these has having been deployed by the God whose clothing is light. Beneath the high heavens, in the atmosphere, winds and clouds and lightning play: these are seen as chariots and ministers of God, carrying the message of divine greatness. Beneath the atmosphere are the solid land and the seas, each in its fixed place. The land is shaped into  mountains and valleys, and streams run in the valleys. Also the land is populated with living creatures, with plants and animals, the former serving as food for the latter—and for people (food, wine, bread). The beasts come out to seek their food by night, while by day people go out to work, to labor.

Having completed this cosmology-cum-ecology—this flash conspectus of the whole cosmos and its workings, including its created inhabitants right down to the psalmist’s own kind, namely, humans and their daily work—the psalmist recaps his opening praise (“You are very great”), now specifying that we know the greatness of God by observing the volume, variety, and intricacy of God’s works in the visible spheres around us (“How manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all!”). But then in case the presence of God in these works is not yet sufficiently clear, the psalmist takes another lap. The recap supplies an omission: not only the land but also the sea is full of God’s creatures, small and great—including the human creatures who go to sea in ships!

And all these creatures, on land and in the sea, “look to you.” They depend on divine provision for their food, and they depend on the divine presence for the sustenance of their souls: “When you hide their face, they are dismayed” and pass out of being. God’s work of creation is constant, perennially renewed, is expressed in the workings of the entire cosmic ecosystem. So ecology—the use of words and concepts (logoi) to understand and describe the complex interdependence of the systems whereby life is sustained in the familial household (oikos) that is the world—becomes doxology—the use of words (logoi) in the praise (doxa) of God.

This is why “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live”: because I am dependent on God’s presence, and because the central and final aim of my existence is that my “meditations”—the thoughts that I constantly murmur—should focus on God, and be pleasing to God, because they express rejoicing in God, and God desires nothing more than my rejoicing.

Is it strange that the psalmist now sounds a darker note? “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.”  But in the thought-world of this psalm, what would a “sinner” or a “wicked” person be? Surely: one who looks at the world around and is not lost in wonder, one who does not see and praise the greatness of God in the cosmos, in the atmosphere, in the land and the sea recognized as biosphere, one who does not accept the human role as coexistent with the plants and the beasts, as diurnal worker operating in balance with the nocturnal animals and with the plants that feed us all and the streams that water the plants. The psalmist exclaims: Let there be no such people! Let there be no such domineering ones who rather than acknowledge God’s greatness seek to magnify their own! Let there be no such ingratitude! Let their be no such blindness, no such obtuseness, no such failure to bless and to praise in me.

And so the conclusion, which was also the beginning: “Bless the Lord, O my soul!”

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