Sunday, May 12, 2024
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“Playing with Whales”
By Dr. Stefan Paas
Sunday, May 12, 2024
Reading: Psalm 104

In a few months I’ll turn 55. That’s the age when you start to look back: what have I made of my life? If I could start over again, what would I do? Now, I don’t feel sorry for how my life went, but I can tell you: when I was 18, I did not want to be a theologian. Absolutely not! Actually, back then I knew three things for certain: I would never study theology, I would never be a teacher, and I would never live in a city. That was way before I became a theology professor in Amsterdam. Well, so much for prophecy.

You know what I wanted to be when I was young (and sometimes I still do)? A forest ranger. That’s because my grandfather was a great nature lover, and he often took us to the woods. He taught me how to really look to creation. That’s how love begins, right? With learning how to look very carefully. The story goes that people in Amsterdam know two kinds of birds: birds that float and birds that fly. But my granddad knew all the birds, and their sounds. When he heard just a little squeak, he knew what it was, just like somebody who is good with cars can tell one car from another just by the sound of the engine.

My grandfather knew where at night the deer came out of the forest to feed. He told us that there was a herd of deer, and that one of them was black. And he knew where they would show themselves; he even knew the time: 6 PM, sunset. And then we waited, sometimes for an hour or more, and then the herd came – exactly on the right time (they were Dutch deer, of course). He knew the places where hedgehogs were hibernating, and how to find them. If you walked through the woods with him, you saw and heard so much more than when you were on your own.

That’s how I learned to love nature. By learning to look, look very carefully, paying close attention. I mean: loving is a way of looking, right? If you love something, you usually know a lot about it. Also, the other way around: the more you know about it, the more there is to love.

This Psalm is written by somebody who loved nature. Someone who saw more than most people around him/her. This Psalm is one long, loving look at creation.

But this poet did not just look. He has also thought about it, very profoundly. Let’s try to trace his thoughts for a while. I want to look with you at two important things. First, let’s look at what he says about animals and about us. And second, we’ll look at what he says about God. I think we’ll be surprised!

First, what does he say about humans and animals?

He is saying spectacular things, things that most people don’t link at all with the Bible, or with Christianity. But if you want to understand why this is so spectacular, you should know something about the one who wrote this. This writer was someone who lived 2000 or 3000 years ago, in an agricultural society. Probably he was a farmer himself. Everybody was. People lived from the land in those days. If you read the Bible, you’ll see that even kings like Saul and Ahab were farmers.

So, what is this with those farmer-societies. How did people deal with nature? If you read ancient poems, for example Homer (from Greece): he writes about a ‘beautiful land’. But what does he mean by ‘beautiful’? What was beautiful to him? I suppose that we think about snow-capped mountains, lakes, and forests, etcetera. But in agricultural societies people thought about different things. A beautiful landscape was a useful landscape. It was land that you could use as a farmer, land from which you could feed your family. Homer writes about rich, dark earth, a lot of water, hills and vineyards, that sort of thing. And that is what you see in this Psalm as well. Look at verses 13-15: water, fertility, grass, bread, wine.  What a wonderful world. A beautiful world is a world that is good for us, for humans.

The same goes for animals. Beautiful animals are useful animals. I come from a family of farmers, and I can’t remember anybody talking romantically about cute little animals. Bambi was not popular in my family. A cat was okay, but only if he lived in the barn and only if he would catch mice. Otherwise: don’t let the door hit you on your way out.

I remember as I child I was deeply upset by what we read in the newspapers about seal hunting in Canada. Young seals were hunted for their fur. Not sure if this happens today, but what I read was: these young seals are not shot, quick and clean, because that would damage the fur. No, they are clubbed, beaten to death – so cruel. I told this to my uncle – don’t you find it piteous, these poor little seals? I remember what he said. He shrugged and said: ‘Well, you can’t put them to the plow, can you?’ And that was it.

In those days, thousands of years ago, everyone thought like that. I mean, we can go to the woods at night to look at those cute little deer, or we can take a boat and go whale watching in the bay. But all that was unthinkable, it was vanity for the people back then. They had to struggle for their bare existence. It’s difficult for us to imagine how these people were always on the brink of starvation. One failed harvest, and you could bury your children next year – that’s what we’re talking about. In a situation like that (pure survival) you look differently at animals. If you go out looking for deer, you’ll do it through the scope of your bow and arrow. You look at which animals are useful (animals that you can eat or that can work for you), which animals are harmful (animals that can eat you or that destroy your land just after you have planted the new crops). Horses and cows are useful, wild pigs and rabbits are harmful, lions and bears are dangerous. Nothing beautiful about it.

Now, look at this Psalm, what it says about animals. And then it strikes you. He doesn’t make any distinction between useful and harmful animals. No! On the contrary, see verses 16-21: There’s all sorts of animals that are useless. Storks, wild goats, coneys. He says: God plants the trees for the storks, and he gives the storks to the trees. He makes the mountains for the wild goats, and he gives the wild goats to the mountains.

It's even worse! Wild goats and storks are useless, but they don’t do us any harm. But look: ‘The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God’ (v. 21). That is extreme! Remember: this man lived long ago. Those weren’t the days that you watched cute little lions on Animal Planet. No, those lions came to your cabin or your tent at night to eat your cattle, and with some bad luck, to eat you as well. This poet heard the lions roar when he was in his bed. He may have worried about his sheep, about his children. If you’ve ever heard a lion roar, you’ll never forget the sound. I heard it once in South Africa, when I was in a tent, and I can assure you: my first thought was not ‘how wonderful that they roar to God for prey’…

Speaking of Animal Planet… I love that channel. My wife Dorret hates it, but because of her back problems she needs surgery once in a while, and when she’s recovering, she gets so bored after a while that she is prepared to watch anything. So, that’s when I grab my opportunity to watch it together.

Anyway, years ago there was this show about an Australian lunatic, Steve Irwin. You may remember him. His hobby was to look for poisonous snakes and huge crocodiles, and all that. He didn’t end well, I believe. But anyway, I remember one of these shows where he has a huge snake in his arms, and he looks at the camera and he says: ‘Look at the fangs on this girl. You know, one drop of its venom is enough to kill a herd of elephants. Ain’t she sweet?’ And he looked so lovingly at this monster. Or at some point he is lying in the mud, next to a four-meter crocodile that was made ready for transport. He has one arm around its maw and then he gives it a little kiss on its snout. What a cutie! I mean, he was as mad as a hatter, but so infectiously in love with the scariest animals. And that is what I like about it so much. He didn’t care whether the animals were dangerous or harmful or scary. He thought they were valuable, just because they exist. They have a right to be here. Every snake, every crocodile is unique.

That’s what I see in this Psalm. Young lions. But also, Leviathan. That was the name the Israelites gave to a monster from the deep sea. The ancient Israelites didn’t care much for the sea. That was the domain of chaos, of evil, death. It’s not for nothing that this Psalm opens with the waters that must be limited for the earth to become a dwelling place. ‘You set a boundary for the waters that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth’ (v. 9). There are scary creatures in the waters, monsters, and also Leviathan, a monster that represents chaos and death. Worse than the scariest crocodile.

And what does he say? God has made Leviathan, ‘to sport in it’ (v. 26). Our Dutch translation says: ‘to play with it’. Ain’t she sweet? You know what the poet says? God is a bit like that Australian fool, Steve Irwin. He cares deeply about the ugliest and scariest creatures. I think this Psalm tells us something about a God who abandoned his glory to come down to us, to go ever further, to descend into hell, and to love and redeem his creation. Some people find it difficult to make sense of the cross, of Christ’s suffering for creation. Well, if I may give you a hint: this is one way to make sense of it. There is nothing that escapes God’s love, not even Leviathan. If we look to the world through the lens of the cross, our view of creation will change, it has to.

You know why? It’s basically this. Psalm 104 shows us that we are not the ones who decide what is good and bad, useful or useless. We are not the centre of the universe. This Psalm doesn’t speak much about humans anyway. Christians have often been accused that they see humanity as the crown of creation, so that we can do anything with creation what we want. And see where it has brought us. But I think this Psalm gives us a good antidote against that line of thinking. Yes, we belong to God’s creation. Yes, we are deeply loved. Yes, we do have a calling and a future. But… alongside our fellow creatures, not above them. Look what it says: the young lions go to seek their food from God, and we human beings go to work (vs. 21, 23). Our work is important, but the lions have a job to do as well. The sea is full of our ships, but Leviathan is there too, and it is his home just as much as it is ours (v. 26). Lots of animals aren’t even in a relationship with us, but God cares for them as well. Coneys, mountain goats – animals who live high up in the mountains or deep in the jungles. God has built this house of the world not just for humans, but also for lions and storks. We are mentioned too, but in passing, we are fellow creatures – nothing more and nothing less.

So, what is our calling then? Well, I hope that you see how this is a marvelous inspiration for creation care. One thing that concerns me is that so many pleas for nature conservation are focused on us – they are ‘anthropocentric’. Our kind must survive and therefore we must stop climate change, and all that. But actually, then we are using the same selfish arguments that have caused the problems in the first place. We shouldn’t protect animals because they are useful to us, or because they are so much like us (chimpanzees and dolphins). If I understand this Psalm correctly, we should protect the earth and all its life because it is valuable in itself – because it is good that there are dolphins and gorillas and mice and snakes. Not good for us maybe, but just good. Period. It’s God’s world, not ours. ‘O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures’ (v. 24). Why are animals and plants precious? Psalm 104 says: God made them, he cares for them, he plays with them, he delights in them. ‘Let everything that breathes praise the Lord’, says Psalm 150: it’s the last line in the Book of Psalms. Just by being themselves, the animals praise God. We don’t have to do it for them. We do it with them. Our job is it to be humans and to praise God as humans, together with all his creation. ‘These all look to you’ (v. 27).

In Genesis 1 we can read what God says about his creation: it is ‘good’. Clearly, he doesn’t mean that there are no predators or that nothing ever dies. What does it mean? Look in this Psalm. Some exegetes have called it a meditation on the goodness of creation. ‘Good’ means that each and every one lives according to their nature, just by being what you are meant to be. Regardless of whether you are a lion, a human, or a mountain goat. This is a huge inspiration to care for creation. If the Bible says that we are called to love God and our neighbour (that is what finding our true nature means), then we might say that loving God means to love what He loves. I loved my grandfather and therefore I began to love what he loved: the forest where he was so much at home. How much more is this true about God, who delights in creation. How can we say that we love God when we destroy creation?

We are not the centre of the universe. That is an enormously liberating message. It liberates us to truly love God and our fellow creatures, as human beings. This Psalm invites us to take our place as the priests of creation, as people who worship the Lord together with all our fellow creatures.

‘May the glory of the Lord endure forever. May the Lord rejoice in his works’ (v. 31). Amen.