“Rejoicing in the Goodness of God”
November 18, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
On several occasions in past years I have preached a short series of sermons on selected psalms. The Psalter is not only the largest book of the Bible, by far, but also one of the most important. It has exercised immense influence on the Christian faith and life through the ages because in the 150 psalms virtually every conceivable teaching of the Bible is brought to bear on the Christian mind and heart and turned into faith and obedience expressed beautifully and memorably in prayer or praise. That is, in the Psalms we learn what we are to do with the truth we find elsewhere in the Word of God. The 104th is a psalm of 34 verses, so I will make only a few comments on the text as I read it.
The structure of Psalm 104, the theme of which is God’s creation, is modeled on the structure of Genesis and the stages of creation we find there. So, we begin with light, then the heavens and the waters, then separation of land and sea, and so on.
v.15 It is important to notice that God did not and does not make wine or bread directly. What he has made – as any Israelite singing this hymn would have fully understood – is the human being endowed with some of God’s own creative powers to make of this wonderful world and all it contains a host of excellent and valuable things that adorn life still further. As one commentator has put it: “every real triumph of natural science is anticipated in the 104th Psalm.” [Ker, The Psalms in History and Biography, 17]
v.16 John “Rabbi” Duncan recollected a saying of another 19th century Scot who had come across a beautiful little flower that had bloomed before there was any one else to see it: “God has taste!” In other words, there is a great deal of majesty and beauty in the world because God enjoys looking at it!
v.24 In a letter to his childhood friend, Arthur Greeves, C.S. Lewis describes a walk he had recently taken and writes, “What pleasures there are in the world.”
v.26 Leviathan in the ancient world was deified as a god of the underworld, a dreaded symbol of evil power. But here it is simply a large creature, perhaps a whale, cavorting in the sea. Think of the pictures you have seen of whales soaring out of the water and falling back with a great crash. The fearful monster has been transformed by the psalmist’s faith in the goodness of creation into a toy in God’s bathtub!
v.35 The psalm began with “Bless the Lord, O My Soul!” and now it ends with the same expression. The psalm is a psalm of praise to God, the reason for which is the magnificent world that he has made.
The other evening Florence and I attended a concert of the Vienna Boys Choir at Benaroya Hall in Seattle. It was magnificent. The music these boys made – some of them quite little boys – the beautiful clarity of their sound, the complexity of the music they sang so tunefully was genuinely astonishing. That’s what even very young human beings can do, if only given the opportunity and the training. The other day I happened to dip back into Yale Professor of Linguistics. Steven Anderson’s charming and fascinating book, Dr. Doolittle’s Delusion, a study of the uniqueness and the staggering power and inventiveness of human language. The title cleverly makes the point. The fictional Dr. Doolittle may have imagined that he could talk to the animals, but, in fact, animals – though they can communicate regarding a few things in some astounding ways – have no power of language. There is nothing like human language elsewhere in the world of living things.
And remarkable as the capacity for language is – a power we take for granted and rarely appreciate for the breathtaking ability it is – to add to the power of speech the capacity to sing our language, to sing it beautifully and powerfully, is to add wonderful mystery to wonderful mystery. Near the end of the book Prof. Anderson speculates how such powers might have evolved, all the more evolved just some hundred thousand years ago. That section of what is otherwise a marvelous book would be funny if it were not so sad. Anderson is honest enough to admit that no one has the foggiest idea how such powers of language and song could have or did come about. There is certainly no evidence in the history of life that such a power evolved over time. He simply assumes that such powers must be the result of a series of very fortuitous bio-chemical accidents because that is, after all, what educated modern people like himself know to be true. It takes an almost inconceivable credulity – a touching faith – to believe that something so perfect, so breathtaking in its effects, so indescribably complex, so impossible to explain as the final result of a nearly infinite series of random genetic mutations, that such extraordinary powers with which every human being is now endowed and which cannot be found even in rudimentary form elsewhere among living things, could have come into being just a hundred thousand years ago by accident. Such is the challenge of unbelief in the face of the wonder of life.
But there is more. Why did we think the boys’ music so beautiful? Why were we so impressed that little boys from Austria, from Germany, from Hungary, from China, Korea, and Japan could sing unaccented English or German. Why were we so delighted with the accomplishment of these youngsters? That we thought it beautiful is something beautiful in itself, is it not. What is this but rejoicing in the goodness of God? What is this but the glory of God reflected in what he has made?
But then how tragic must be the loss suffered by those who hardly see the true wonder of our world and the beauty we find in it because they will not admit that all of this is the work of God, the God who made us as well as everything else in this world. They may enjoy the beauty, but half is lost to them because they will not appreciate that what they enjoy, what thrills them is God’s goodness on display, the personal artistry of the infinite personal God. There is genius behind the beauty and goodness that we find wherever we look in this world. Genius and immeasurable power! Paul never spoke truer words than when he said that the invisible attributes of God, his power and divine nature, are clearly seen in the things that have been made. This world with all its wonders is a reflection of the wisdom, power, goodness, and beauty of the living and true God who made it.
As one scholar of this psalm remarks, “In the biblical context, the utterance, ‘God is my creator’ is profoundly self-involving.” [D. Evans in Wenham, Psalms as Torah, 73] That is, for anyone who really believes that God is his or her maker and the maker of everything else, it must transform his or her understanding and appreciation of everything! The man who wrote this magnificent hymn saw the goodness, the wisdom, and the power of God in everything. One commentator describes the psalm as a “bright and living picture of God’s creative power, pouring life and gladness throughout the universe.” [Perowne in Ross, III, 246] He saw the world as, in Calvin’s lovely phrase, the “theater of God’s glory.” And what was the result in this man’s heart? He tells us as the psalm comes to its end: “I rejoice in the Lord.”
There are many reasons to be happy. Surely in the Psalms chief among those reasons is the joy of salvation: that we have been loved by God; that he redeemed us from sin and death; that God cares for us and will bring us to glory. There is the love of man and woman, the love of parents and children, the love of friends: all of this is celebrated in the Psalms. But here is another reason, a very important reason. We live in a wonderful world and if only we open our eyes with intention and understanding, we will find beauty wherever we look!
He had already expressed the wish in v. 31 that the Lord would himself rejoice in his works, a happy way of saying that the world God made ought to be the source of unending happiness and pleasure for God himself. But the thought also seems to be that if God is happy, we can certainly be happy as well. If God is pleased with what he has made, our joy, our pleasure must then be a reflection of God’s own. We don’t think as often about God being happy as we do about him being just and holy and merciful, but the Bible speaks in a number of places of God’s joy and pleasure. Joy is as important as it is in human life because we have been made in the image of a God who rejoices in many things and certainly in the beauty and the goodness of what he has made.
Like the satisfaction of an artist who has just completed his masterpiece, like the pure joy of a musician who has played a piece of music exactly as it ought to be played, like the exhilaration of an athlete who has surpassed himself in some event, like the excitement of a researcher who has just made some great discovery, even more, like the delight of a mother and father in their baby, both God and man rejoice in what God has made or what God has made possible for us to make, whether or not any acknowledgement is made of God himself. But the author of Psalm 104 wants credit to be given where credit is due and rejoices all the more because he shares his joy with God himself. To be sure, much of this is of practical use. What delights us can all be thought about in more pedestrian ways. Food, after all, keeps us alive. Great works of art were the artist’s livelihood. But God’s gifts are not only of practical use, they are intended to give us pleasure. Even Ralph Waldo Emerson knew that. “We must never forget that making utility the standard, adopting the test “What is it good for?” would abolish the rose and make the cabbage triumphant!” [Simmons, Climbing Parnassus, 213]
Now, it must be admitted that the psalmist’s mind has not always been shared. Plato tells us that Socrates was of the opinion that we can learn nothing from fields and accordingly he never took a walk. But then we might well expect this of unbelievers, for they do not look at the world as the masterpiece of their heavenly Father’s and their Savior’s hand. They can’t rejoice in the accomplishment of someone they love, as a parent rejoices in the achievements of his or her children or as children are proud of the accomplishment of one of their parents. But this failure to go through life in happy wonderment over the beauty of the world has been a complaint made also about Christians from time to time. They didn’t rejoice in God’s works either, or at least not so that anyone else ever heard them do so.
The Apostle Paul has sometimes been criticized for his lack of any obvious appreciation for either the natural world or the beauties of Greco-Roman architecture, though, of course, we have only a small sampling of his thoughts and words. I suspect Paul had a fine eye for what was beautiful. More likely is the criticism that has been directed at John Calvin, since we have much more from his pen than we have from the pen of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. Why, it has been asked, does it appear that he never once lifted his eyes from his manuscript to give us a description of the shimmering lake or the snow-capped Alps that stood outside his study window? Long before Calvin St. Bernard is supposed to have ridden an entire day along the shores of Lake Geneva with his monk’s cowl pulled so far down over his face that he had to ask his host at night where that famous body of water was that he had heard so many people talking about! [Whyte, The Apostle Paul, 161-162]
So, the challenge of this Psalm, as the challenge of virtually every Psalm, is simply this: do I think and feel like this man? Do I find joy in surveying the world that God has made? Do I see it as a theater of God’s glory? Do I find myself asking God to rejoice with me over the beauty that he has made?
We do, all of us do enjoy so many things that we encounter in our life in this world. We have all felt the pleasure of a beautiful landscape – mountains, or deserts, or waterfalls, or forests – or a gorgeous sunset. We have, at least most of us, thrilled to a powerful storm as did the author of Psalm 104 in his verse 4 and as did the author of Psalm 29. Biblical writers delight in God’s menagerie, the animal kingdom with its fabulous variety and interest, from birds to lions to whales. Here is a man who can’t get enough of calves in the field gamboling or gazelles leaping or whales breaching. The makers of the two Planet Earth series may not have given any glory to God, may not have rejoiced in the beauty and wonder they photographed because it was all part of the theater of God’s glory, but I know many Christians who rejoiced just in the way this psalmist rejoiced as they watched the episodes one by one. It is all so marvelous: how plants get water to sustain their lives in a desert where it never rains, how birds with the most exotic plumage attract their mates with the strangest dances; how butterflies migrate immense distances they have never traveled before to reach the very place where their ancestors were before them; how plants and animals are nourished by the abundance of the earth. It is fabulous!
And what of all that God made man capable of doing. There is that too in the psalm, the reference in v. 15 to the wine that gladdens the heart and makes his face shine and to the bread that strengthens his heart. God doesn’t make wine or bread; he made man who could make wine from the grape and bread from the grain. This is Thanksgiving week. Later this week we are going to enjoy a banquet of wonderful food: appetizers, salads, starches, meats, breads, and desserts of all kinds, all washed down with the tastiest wine or, better, iced tea.
Do you stop to think about this; about how wonderful food and drink are? It is not so for the rest of the animal kingdom; only we have banquets! Animals eat – indeed, many of them are eating machines – but they do not, they cannot enjoy the variety of tastes, the many pleasures of soul that we find in the enjoyment of different foods and drinks, most of which are the product of human invention.
Some of you remember either one or the other or both of the meals that Francis Foucachon, the French chef and PCA minister, fixed for us here at the church as a way of raising funds for the production in French of the video courses of the Third Millennium seminary curriculum. I remember learning that the first course of the first meal was to be lentil soup. Yuk. I was paying $150 for lentil soup? Lentils sit near the bottom of my list of tasty foods. As the evening began, out came the soup. I took my first taste; it was a revelation. I could have eaten nothing but that lentil soup for the rest of the evening. But every course was as wonderful as the first. Really, both the making of the soup and the enjoying of it so much – all of that is a bio-chemical accident? Really? This is not God, his genius, his goodness, his kindness, his power? This is not man made in the creative image of God? Surely it is. But if it is, how much more wonderful it makes all of this pleasure to know our heavenly Father made this wonderful world for us and gave us these extraordinary gifts. That we can be proud of him and rejoice with him in the goodness and loveliness of what he has made. God could have fed us, as he does the animals, on grass or leaves or raw meat. Instead he has given us an almost endless number of wonderful tastes to enjoy.
Some Christians, I fear, worry that they take too much pleasure in the taste of good food. Perhaps they should like it less; after all, the best food tends to be fattening! But God’s Word is not so abstemious. Do you know that word? Abstemious means “marked by restraint, especially in the consumption of food and drink.” Well, we are, of course, to do all things in moderation – eating and drinking included. But we are never to leave off enjoying our food. God has made it tasty and to enjoy it is to share his pleasure in giving us such good gifts. What does the Bible say? In Ecclesiastes 8:15 it says this:
“…I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”
There is a lot of sorrow in this world of sin and death. There must be. We all know that. But that only makes it more important that we find joy in the gifts that God has given to us. The Psalms are full of sorrow. Many are laments; many others are the prayers of despairing or fearful saints. Take a lesson from the fact that the Psalms are also riddled with joy; joy of all kinds, but here, joy in the marvelous world of sight and sense that God has made for us to live in. And we are taught in the Bible to find joy in this way, even in the midst of troubles. In Nehemiah’s day, the people had many reasons to be sad, but Nehemiah told them to lift their hearts by eating a fine meal and drinking sweet drinks. The joy of the Lord, he said, would be their strength, and what better way to find joy than through the pleasure of a fine meal in the company of loved ones and friends. How practical the Bible is; and how human!
I hope most all of you will have the experience of traveling the world and seeing its beauty, of tasting the cuisine of other peoples, of staring in wonder at the things that mankind has made. I want you to have experiences like those I have had: feeling the solemn, sacred beauty walking into the cathedral at Chartres, or admiring the perfection while standing before the Taj Mahal, or seeing at evening elephants crossing the Nile, or tasting that first gelato in the piazza in Sorrento or that first Greek salad in the shade of a sidewalk café in Athens on a hot summer day; or lying in a sleeping bag in the hayloft of an Alpine barn above Zermatt, beneath a window that framed the Matterhorn in all its evening glory, or at sunrise in the Judean desert looking across the Dead Sea to the mountains of Moab, or to huddle under a great tree in the midst of a storm high in the Colorado Rockies, roaring wind, pounding rain, bolts of lightning striking here and there, so much electricity in the air that your hair is standing up; or listening to a magnificent choir of Russian Orthodox singers singing the service in a side chapel of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. You will, of course, have your own experiences of the beauty and goodness and pleasure with which God has filled his world, experiences such as the author of Psalm 104 was recollecting as he wrote the psalm. He had seen the world he was describing; he could remember very well the taste of the wine and of the bread; he could recollect in his imagination the animals doing what they do. But he didn’t stop with those wonderful experiences. He knew that God was behind all of this; that he was beholding the wisdom and the power and the goodness of the Lord.
The Bible is full of the praise of lovely works of art; it is itself a work of literary art, in many places a work of a supreme beauty. How wonderful to lose oneself in a great book! Solomon built the most gorgeous building in the world of his day and the hearts of the people of Israel soared just to see it glistening in the sun. The Bible makes a great deal of the animal kingdom, uses the animals to describe the virtues of both God and man. And don’t forget the music. The Bible is full of music. After all, this psalm was written to be sung; to be sung by a great choir or by the congregation. How music has so wonderfully beautified and glorified human life and Christian praise. The Dutch have a hymn which develops the thought of Isaiah 35:10:
“…the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy will be upon their heads…”
In the hymn David leads the procession as the choirmaster, with the people singing his psalms. Then comes Mary singing her Magnificat. Miriam and Hannah come next leading a ladies’ choir. Then comes Ambrose singing the great early Christian hymn the Te Deum followed by Gregory the Great and his monks singing Gregorian chant. Then Luther, then Bach – the great Bach he is called in the hymn – beating time with the angels and behind them the church triumphant with the children in front singing the great hymns.
Can you see the picture the psalm is painting for us? An exquisitely beautiful world, filled with lovely things to see and hear, fascinating weather, delightful animals to watch, wonderful food and drink, beautiful music, and all of it the gift of God to us, made for our enjoyment.
It is one of the most dramatic evidences of the darkness and hardness of man’s heart that he can actually believe that all of this beauty, this wonder, and all of our capacity to appreciate it and be moved by it and stirred by it and changed by it – and not mere capacity only, but our inability not to be amazed and not to be thrilled but inevitably to find deep pleasure in the beauty of the world – I say, how wrong that he can believe that all of this is some gigantic accident; that it means nothing and reveals nothing to us about God and about ourselves made in the image of God.
Joy ought to be welling up unbidden in our heart when we open our eyes on the transcendent beauty of this world, on the fascinating life of living things; when we find ourselves unable to turn away from a beautiful face or a magnificent work of art; or find ourselves enthralled by some majestic architectural achievement – a great cathedral or palace or pyramid – when we find ourselves captivated by beautiful music beautifully played or sung; or, as we will this Thursday, when we taste food or drink that imparts new pleasure to both body and soul. Rejoice in the Lord; rejoice with your heavenly Father and your Savior and the Holy Spirit. You need more joy; we all do. Here it is for the taking! If God rejoices in what he has made, you should too!