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All Nature Sings

The Ecological Witness of the Psalms

Winnie-the-Pooh said, “The only reason for being a bee is to make honey. And the only reason for making honey is so I can eat it.” Far be it from me to pick a fight with A. A. Milne’s fictional bear, but, in fact, the book of Psalms begs to differ with this principle. Each element of creation, the psalms insist, exists not primarily for our consumption, but to praise its creator. Let’s listen for what the psalms have to say about creation’s unique capacity for praise, as well as the psalms’ implicit critique of any attempt to stifle creation’s song.

A Call to Praise

Before delving into creation’s unique capacity for praise, let’s begin with nature’s unique capacity for calling us to praise. This, after all, is familiar territory for any of us who have stepped out under the night sky and been star-struck (Psalm 8).

Psalm 65 is another example of a psalm that luxuriates in nature’s bounty—which may account for its popularity at Thanksgiving services. After praising God for answered prayer, gracious forgiveness, and saving deeds, the psalmist launches into a litany of the mighty acts of God in creation. Verses 6-7 recall God’s work “in the beginning”:
By your strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.

Verses 9-11 are a veritable cornucopia of natural images, giving credit where credit is due for the rich soil and cooling showers that make possible an abundant harvest. Finally, in verses 12-13, these images take on a life of their own as pastures, hills, meadows, and valleys “dress” for the day’s celebration:
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.

The wonders of God’s creation call us—as a part of that creation and recipients of its bounty—to praise the One responsible. But did you notice something else happening at the end of Psalm 65? The moment those meadows are personified as “cloth[ing] themselves with flocks,” they begin to take on a life of their own. And by the end of the verse, we’re not even surprised to find them shouting and singing with their friends the valleys and the hills.

The psalmist has hit upon something of immense theological and ecological significance: that “all creatures of our God and king” have a God-given voice to “lift up and sing.”

All Nature Sings

The classic expression of creation “finding its voice” is Psalm 19. In contrast to Psalm 8, in which the moon and stars inspire humans to praise, Psalm 19 depicts the heavens themselves as singing their own praise chorus. With no intermediary,
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
—Psalm 19:1-2

Then, as if to forestall human incredulity, the psalm explains—and here I paraphrase verses 3-4: “OK, OK . . . I know we can’t technically hear them, but their voice still goes out—through all the earth and to the very end of the world.”

So often we humans assume that we are singing a solo rather than playing in a symphony. But the fact that we are created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27) doesn’t mean that we are the only ones who get to express our gratitude to God for giving us life and being. We simply express it in different ways. The hymn writer Maltbie Davenport Babcock had it right in this 1901 hymn text:
This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears
all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; his hand the wonders wrought.

Francis of Assisi scooped Babcock by almost a millennium when he wrote this beloved text churches still sing today:
All creatures of our God and King,
lift up your voice and with us sing: Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
thou silver moon with softer gleam,
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Perhaps we miss some of the insistent power of those repeated “Alleluias” because we have forgotten that when translated from the Hebrew they mean, “Praise God!” The breadth of this call to praise is a faithful reflection of Psalm 19; it reminds us creatures to make room for other musicians.

Joy to the World

Why are we, as twenty-first-century humans, so slow to recognize creation’s capacity to praise God directly? And what are the theological and ecological consequences of our blindness?

Sixteen centuries ago, St. Basil talked about the “ruthless cruelty” of humans that prevented “the voice of the earth” from rising to God in song (Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture). Basil’s words remind us that when humans pollute or otherwise fail to be good stewards of the environment, we are—among other things—inhibiting or even silencing creation’s capacity to praise God.

This observation should heighten our sense of both the sin and its consequences. What account will we give, after all, to a Creator who asks why forty-two species of birds have disappeared in the last 280 years? It is as if the entire woodwind section were to be expelled from the orchestra—permanently. It forces us to contemplate the day when the sound may thin out to such an extent that we will be singing a solo after all. Poet, novelist, and agrarian writer Wendell Berry muses mournfully, “It is as if a whole population has been genetically deprived of the ability to subtract.”

In addition to our seeming inability to “do the math,” there is also the problem of our inflated sense of our own centrality. Like a toddler who perceives herself as Queen of the Universe, or Winnie-the-Pooh who thinks that honey exists only so he can eat it, we assume that nature exists solely for our own enjoyment.

There are at least two problems with this assumption. First, it reflects our tendency to see ourselves as somehow separate from creation. (How often do we refer to “nature” as if it existed as something separate from ourselves?) Second, it is surely a perversion of God’s gracious gift of food (Gen. 1:29), not to mention a shirking of our God-given vocation to till and keep the garden (Gen. 2:15). “Having reduced creation to a collection of objects without meaning and purpose of their own,” writes Norman Wirzba, we regard creation as insignificant, “thus freeing us to do with it whatever we want” (The Paradise of God).

That this kind of stupidity is sin should be obvious. That it will have calamitous ecological consequences should be equally clear. My favorite bumper sticker puts it succinctly: “Insatiable is not sustainable.”

Most of us are not thinking about the last judgment when we sing “Joy to the World.” But maybe we should be. Based on Psalm 98 (or the very similar Psalm 96), Isaac Watts’s faithful paraphrase testifies to creation’s celebration of the coming King:
Joy to the world! The Lord is come: Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the world! The Savior reigns: Let us our songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness, and wonders of his love.

Because we sing Watts’s paraphrase at Christmas, we lose some of the psalm’s original longing. But because Christmas is not only a celebration of Christ’s first coming but an anticipation of his second coming, we’d do well to retain some of that sense of “already, but not yet,” to wonder why those “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains” are so excited.

Looking back at Psalm 98, we see that the floods are clapping their hands and the hills are singing for joy because the Lord is “coming to judge the earth” with “righteousness” and with “equity” (vv. 8-9).

Could it be that the rest of creation may have a case against us—the ones whom God has entrusted with special responsibility for creation’s care? If, as Revelation 11:18 suggests, the last judgment will be a time “for destroying those who destroy the earth,” we had better start asking ourselves, “Whose side are we on?”

Fortunately for us, God “rules the world with truth and grace,” and that grace is “greater than all our sin.” But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to repent for all the ways we have stifled creation’s song. With God’s help, we can not only vow to “go and sin no more,” but do everything in our power to restore God’s symphony.