When was the last time you gave a second thought (much less a first) to a donkey slaking its thirst in a muddy stream? I doubt if you've spent much time pondering the fir trees that provide a home for the stork, or the rocks that serve as a refuge for the badger.
Many Christians picture God as distant and uninvolved in the routine, trivial, uneventful affairs of life. This especially holds true when it comes to the phenomena of nature. Surely the God of heaven and earth, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, would not bother himself with such things as grass, rain, cattle, lifeless rocks, and odd animals in remote regions of the world that nobody knows of or cares about.
But Scripture, and particularly the psalms, tell a different story. God is very much present, not in some passive sense as merely a concerned spectator, but actively upholding, preserving, and guiding all things to their ultimate goal of triumph in and through Christ for the praise of his glory (see Col. 1:16-17; Heb. 1:3).
Nowhere is this better seen than in Psalm 104. There are two ways of looking at the psalm. One is to see a prologue in v. 1, an epilogue in v. 35b, in between which is sandwiched, as it were, a picturesque portrayal of God's providential care of his creation. It is a portrayal designed to arouse in us wondering awe and devoted love. Thus there are three divisions: first, vv. 2-23, a description of the beauty of God's creation; second, vv. 24-32, a portrayal of the utter dependence of the creation upon the Creator; and third, vv. 33-35, praise for all God's marvelous works.
One may also look at the psalm in terms of its correspondence to the initial creation as found in Genesis 1. Thus, vv. 2-4 = the creation of the 1st and 2nd days in Gen. 1:3-8; vv. 5-9 = the creation of the first part of the 3rd day in Gen. 1:9-10 when the earth and waters were separated; vv. 10-18 = the second part of the 3rd day in Gen. 1:10-13; vv. 19-23 = the creation of the 4th day of the heavenly bodies in Gen. 1:14-18; vv. 24-26 = the creation of the 5th day; v. 31 = an allusion to the Sabbath rest of the 7th day.
But rather than try to track with either of these approaches to the psalm, I want to simply make several observations relating to God's providential love for and control over all he has made.
Before I do, you may ask: "Why should I care?" The answer is: "Because God does!" More than care about the creation, God rejoices in all that he has made. He takes profound delight in beholding the work of his hands. The marvel and majesty of nature bring joy to his heart as he reflects on the wonder of what he has shaped and all that he sustains.
I say this because of what we read in v. 31. There the psalmist prays: "May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works." These "works" in which God takes such profound pleasure are the many manifestations of his activity in creation: "things like water and clouds and wind and mountains and thunder and springs and wild asses and birds and grass and cattle and wine and bread and cedars and wild goats and badgers and rocks and young lions and sea monsters. God delights in all the work of his hands" (Piper, The Pleasures of God, 83).
If it is essential to Christian holiness that we love what God loves, I pray that we may learn to "rejoice in his works" throughout creation even as he does. So let's begin.
First, let's start with vv. 1-2 and the focus on the creation of the heavens and the light and their utter subservience to God. Note especially v. 2, where God is portrayed as "covering" himself "with light as with a garment." Says Calvin,
"In comparing the light to a robe he signifies that though God is invisible, yet His glory is manifest. If we speak of His essential being, it is true that He dwelleth in light inaccessible; but inasmuch as He irradiates the whole world with His glory, this is a robe wherein He in some measure appears to us as visible, who in Himself had been hidden. . . . It is folly to seek God in his own naked Majesty. . . . Let us turn our eyes to that most beautiful frame of the world in which He would be seen by us, that we may not pry with idle curiosity into the mystery of His nature" (quoted in Perowne, The Book of Psalms, 235).
Second, according to v. 4 "he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire." This verse has been variously interpreted, but there are only two ways which make sense. Either God makes his angels or ministering spirits swift as the wind and quick as lightning in his service, or the idea is that God makes the wind his messengers and the lightning his servant. In other words, it is figurative language designed to tell us that the wind and lightning, no less than the clouds and the light itself, are in his control, fulfilling his command.
Third, as noted above, vv. 6-8 may be a poetic expansion of Gen. 1:9 ("Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear"). The earth as originally formed was enveloped in water. God spoke a word of rebuke that the waters might give way to land. The verb translated "fled" (v. 7) means to be panic stricken. As someone said, the waters "were terrified by the despotic command of God." But the important point to note is that "none of this movement was left to blind chance: both mountains and valleys sought out the place that God had founded for them. Everything was continually under perfect divine control" (Leupold, 726).
Others have suggested that vv.5-9 do not describe the original creation but rather the work of God in restoring the earth after the flood of Noah. Verse 9 certainly seems to support this view. In any case, Spurgeon rightly notes that "not so much as a solitary particle of spray ever breaks rank, or violates the command of the Lord of sea and land, neither do the awful cataracts and terrific floods revolt from his sway" (2:304).
Fourth, in vv. 10-18 we move away from the original creation and catch a glimpse of divine providence. I can do no better than quote Spurgeon yet again:
"We see here, also, that nothing is made in vain; though no human lip is moistened by the brooklet in the lone valley, yet are there other creatures which need refreshment, and these slake their thirst at the stream. Is this nothing? Must everything exist for man, or else be wasted? What but our pride and selfishness could have suggested such a notion? It is not true that flowers which blush unseen by human eye are wasting their sweetness, for the bee finds them out, and other winged wanderers live on their luscious juices. Man is but one creature of the many whom the heavenly Father feedeth and watereth" (2:305).
Fifth, in vv. 14-18 the psalmist includes a reference to God's care for mankind in addition to what he does for the animal world. In v. 14 we see that "divine power is as truly and as worthily put forth in the feeding of beasts as in the nurturing of man; watch but a blade of grass with a devout eye and you may see God at work within it!" (Spurgeon, 2:305). Indeed, even the wildest and most inaccessible regions of the creation exist for a purpose, to shelter some form of God-given life.
There is no such thing, therefore, as a "God-forsaken land." Even the rocks and cliffs never seen by human eyes are monuments to divine wisdom. If nothing else, the lifeless stone exists to serve as shelter for the scorpion and spider!
Sixth, God also governs the heavenly luminaries (vv. 19-23). Even darkness exists by divine design. It serves his purposes for us by limiting the time of our labor.
Seventh, note especially in vv. 29-30 that all living things, from the most ferocious of lions to the smallest field mouse, exist by the favor of his countenance. If God hides his face, they are terrified, their breath is taken away, and they die. God suspends and withdraws his life-supporting benefits no less than he supplies them. All existence is his to sustain or destroy as he wills.
Eighth, we also see in vv. 31-32 that both earthquakes and volcanoes are his doing! "These are again not merely the operation of certain natural potencies that are imbedded in nature and are bound to appear by way of automatic reactions" (Leupold, 731). God glances at the earth and it trembles. He lays his finger on a volcano and it erupts.
In view of what has been said, the conclusion of the psalmist is eminently reasonable: "I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being" (v. 33). "If the Lord be such a God to all his creatures, then I can do no better than expend the remainder of my life in praising him" (Alexander, 428).
Finally, let us never forget that all the works of creation point us beyond themselves and to the Creator himself. Yes, God wants us to be stunned and in awe of his handiwork. "But not for its own sake," says Piper. "He means for us to look at his creation and say: ‘If the mere work of his fingers (just his fingers! Psalm 8:3) is so full of wisdom and power and grandeur and majesty and beauty, what must this God be like in himself!" (94). In the end, "it will not be the seas or the mountains or the canyons or the water spiders or the clouds or the great galaxies that fill our hearts to breaking with wonder and fill our mouths with eternal praise. It will be God himself" (94-95).
That is why the psalm ends appropriately with this exclamation of praise: "May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord. . . . Bless the Lord, O my soul! Praise the Lord" (vv. 34-35).