A World God Could Admire
Recovering His Pleasure in Creation
Godward Life | Minneapolis
Several months ago, the main drainage line from our house backed up — an unpleasant experience for any homeowner. One of the worst, really. The root of our unpleasant problem was, it turns out, a root — a tree root (likely many of them). So, we called someone with extensive experience with such unpleasantries: Larry.
Larry is everything you might expect from a man who’s spent thirty-plus years dealing with homeowners’ nightmares. He clears drains with an extraordinarily heavy machine that he built himself using spare parts. It looked like something out of a Ghostbusters movie and weighed about as much as our Honda Odyssey. As I helped him carry the minivan down our front stairs, he told me about his farm outside of town. He was especially excited about the poultry barn. “Oh, you have chickens?” I asked. “No, pheasants. I raise pheasants.” Every year, he went on to explain, Larry buys three hundred pheasant eggs and incubates them until they hatch. Once the birds hatch, he cares for the birds for six to eight weeks (with as much watermelon as he can afford). “Oh they love watermelon. That’s a special treat on Sundays. . . . They go crazy for watermelon.”
Larry goes on to tell me that on average half — half — of the three hundred pheasants die by the end of eight weeks. “So, what do you do with the rest? Do you sell them?” “No, no, I let them go in the wild.” “Oh, so do you hunt?” “No, no, I don’t hunt ’em.” “So why do you do it?” [Long pause. . . . He looks like he’s never had to answer that question before, like he’d never really had to have a good reason to incubate hundreds of pheasant eggs each year.] Unsure, he finally mumbled, “I guess it’s just my way of giving back . . .” Then he smiled, “Man, you should see ’em fight over that watermelon.”
As I helped Larry load his machine back into his truck and watched him drive off down our street, I was left with something of a haunting question: Does anything God has made make me feel like he feels about those birds?
Of all the people in the world, lovers of God ought to be the most captivated by what he’s made — shouldn’t we? And yet, too often, simple guys like Larry see and feel far more than we do (more than I do, anyway). And his fresh watermelon and warm smile are just a faint whisper of how God feels about pheasants. The real question before us this morning is, Does anything God has made make us feel like God feels about it all? That’s where I want to go and what I want to try to awaken in our time together in Psalm 104.
Do You Still Marvel?
Do your prayers ever sound like the 35 verses of Psalm 104? I don’t mean the length, or the poetry, or even the mountains, the streams, and the rock badgers, but do you ever stop, slow down, and marvel at something God has made and bless him for it? Does creation still arrest your attention and lead you to worship?
I say still because I have three kids under seven, and you don’t have to convince people under seven to marvel at what God’s made. Every rock is a precious rock, a rock worth keeping, protecting, and displaying. Every animal — bunnies, deer, racoons, turtles — may as well be a unicorn. Every bug is an all-hands-on-deck crisis. Children’s eyes are smaller than our eyes, but almost always wider too. They see things we’ve forgotten how to see.
Well, I want to see more of what they see, more of what God sees, and for that, I think Psalm 104 is a great park to walk through. As we do, I want to stop briefly at four great views along the way: First, God creates. Second, God delights. Third, we delight. And finally, we create. God creates. God delights. We delight. And we create.
So, first, God creates. It’s interesting to compare Psalm 104 with the psalms that come immediately before it and after it. All three psalms set out to do essentially the same thing: awaken Godward awe and joy and worship.
Bless the Lord, O my soul. (Psalm 103:1)
Bless the Lord, O my soul. (Psalm 104:1)
Oh give thanks to the Lord. (Psalm 105:1)
We see the same goal in all three, but they pursue that awe and joy and worship in three noticeably different ways. Psalm 103 focuses on the glories of salvation: He forgives your iniquity. He heals your diseases. He redeems your life from the pit. Forget not all his benefits.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us. (Psalm 103:10–12)
Psalm 103 revels in the rescue, in the pardon, in the “the steadfast love of the Lord . . . from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 103:17).
Psalm 105 pursues that same soul-awakening awe and joy and worship from a different angle. Again, same goal: “Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice!” (Psalm 105:3). But where’s the focus this time? “Remember the wondrous works that he has done. his miracles, and the judgments he uttered” (Psalm 105:5). The choosing of Abraham. The land he gave to Jacob. The freeing of Joseph from prison. The sending of Moses. The humbling of Egypt. The psalmist wants our hearts to seek and rejoice in God, and so he does a history lesson; he relives moments when God’s hand broke in to save and prosper his people. He traces God’s providence.
Psalm 104 pursues the same awe and joy and worship — “Bless the Lord, O my soul!” — but it sits beside yet another window (of the three, maybe a more neglected window in our circles). When the psalmist sees the disconnect between what he believes about God and how he feels about God, when he wants to stir the coals of his love for God into flame, he doesn’t rehearse God’s mercy and forgiveness again, and he doesn’t run back to all the many times God had rescued them. No, this time he lets his mind wander over hills and through valleys. He climbs mountains and wades into oceans. Creation was his chosen weapon against temptation. Creation was his rallying point back to reality.
Nature or Creation?
I say creation with deep conviction and purpose, because it is, all of it everywhere, conceived and performed by a real, divine imagination. As T.M. Moore writes in Consider the Lilies,
One of the central teachings of Scripture is that the natural world is not at all natural. It is the creation of a supernatural God. What we routinely call “nature” is in fact “creation.” (100)
Nothing we encounter is purposeless, or gloryless, or truly “natural.” We may notice the purpose and glory more in the grander aspects of creation, like oceans, lions, or mountains, but as Scripture teaches, even birds and lilies are saying something profound about God. Psalm 104 wants us to see and feel this throughout:
- He stretched out the heavens.
- He stacked the mountains and carved out the valleys.
- He drew the shores of the oceans.
- He taught the moon where to stand in spring and winter.
- He cooks for the birds, badgers, goats, and lions.
The psalmist is pointing in every direction, highlighting as much as he can bring to mind — “Look at that! Look at that! And that and that and that!” — but really he’s saying again and again, “Look at him.” He did that. He did that. Oh and he did that too. Isn’t he stunning? Isn’t he terrifying? Isn’t he lovely? “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24).
This God-centeredness, the glory of this Creator, crescendos in verses 27–29:
These all look to you,
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die
and return to their dust.
When you. . . . When you. . . . When you. . . . And never otherwise. He upholds the universe by the word of his power. They all, great and small, land and sea, sit and wait for him. They exist when and how and where he chooses. No creature is below him; no detail escapes him. Every mouth bows before his cosmic farmers market.
Your Corners of Creation
All things are truly from him, through him, and for him (Romans 11:36). Creation is preaching the meticulous attention, power, creativity, and generosity of God. So do we hear it anymore? Do we regularly stop and look long enough to listen — or are we slumped in the back rows, barely paying attention, slowly nodding off?
And remember, the psalmist didn’t have Netflix or National Geographic. He didn’t have Google or YouTube. He couldn’t plan a trip to the Pacific Ocean or the Rocky Mountains or even the local zoo. No, he could see as far as he could walk (and then only through the stories of others). He had to make the most of whatever was outside his front door. So don’t hear “creation” and first think of some grand adventure somewhere far away or through a screen; think of whatever’s growing in your front yard (the things you want to grow and the things you don’t). Don’t first think of rare and exotic animals; think of the moles or squirrels that are ruining whatever you want to grow in your front yard. Yes, he mentions lions and Leviathan, but he also mentions birds and grass and night skies. By all means, take advantage of all of the ways we can see more today, but don’t miss the ordinary, breathtaking glimpses in your own little corners of creation.
The God we worship is a creative and creating God. We’re literally surrounded with the work of his hands. Nothing anywhere is untouched by his wisdom and creativity, by his brush. Because he wants us to see and savor him, he not only speaks; he also creates — and he speaks through his creating. So, first, God creates. The second stop, now, is God delights.
As we keep walking through the park of Psalm 104, we see the hand of God again and again — building, intervening, producing, feeding, sustaining — creating. Everything there is, everything we see, everything we know, our God has made. Bless the Lord, O my soul.
This isn’t a conference, however, about the power and creativity and wisdom of God. We want to know what makes the happy God happy. And in Psalm 104, we not only see the strong hands of God; we also get a glimpse of his smile.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works. (Psalm 104:31)
Not, “May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may we rejoice in his works.” No, “May he rejoice in his works.” He’s not just putting on a show that a few nature-loving people might enjoy. No, he loves high mountains and winding valleys; he loves full moons and brilliant sunsets; he loves badgers, storks, and wild donkeys. The God of the universe genuinely enjoys the universe he’s made — the one we get to live in every day.
This shouldn’t surprise us. It should be a familiar melody from the very first chapter in the Bible. Genesis 1:3–4: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was . . . good.” We’re so used to hearing that word, we might pass right over it. Right there, though, in the very first verses of the Bible is the first hint — no, the loud, repeated chorus (“good . . . good . . . good . . . good”) — that this world was not made to be a functional place to live and raise a family. No, God meant for the place he made to be beautiful, awe-inspiring, worshipful — in a word, good.
“God made a world that even God could admire.”
Night and day were not just needed, but good. Mountains and oceans were not just enormous, but good. The bushes, flowers, and trees were not just fertile and productive, but good. The birds and fish and beasts of the field were all intentional, unique, and captivating in their own ways. They were good. In other words, God made a world that even God could admire. How strange and tragic, then, that our eyes so often grow dim with it all.
God’s Pleasure in God
God not only makes; he delights in what he makes. He admires his creation. He steps off the stage, as it were, to take in and savor what he’s done — the stories he’s conceived, the lighting he’s staged, the flooring he’s laid, the scenery he’s built, the characters he’s developed, the colors and textures he’s woven together, the melodies he’s written under it all. And why is it all so good in his eyes? Because everywhere he looks, he sees something of himself, his glory. The pleasure of God in creation is the pleasure of God in God.
Derek Kidner sees this in the first verses of the psalm — “covering himself with light, stretching out the heavens, laying his chambers on the waters, making the clouds his chariot.” Kidner writes,
The metaphor of his taking up its parts and powers as his robe, tent, palace, and chariot invites us to see the world as something he delights in, which is charged with his energy and alive with his presence. (Psalms 73–150, 402)
He delights in what he’s made because it’s charged with his energy and alive with his presence. He is creation’s splendor and majesty.
Good and Very Good
And in the midst of everything good — the light was good, the land was good, the lions were good, the honey was really good — in the midst of everything else, God outdid himself. He made creatures in his own image — man and woman, you and me. And only then did he say, “very good.” You can almost taste his pleasure in the words. “Very good.”
Why very good? Why especially delightful? We don’t have time here to explore all the goodness of the image of God in mankind, but one vital difference between humanity and everything else he had made is that, of all the wonders he had conceived and created, only this creature could share in his pleasure over what he made. Only the man and woman had the capacity to experience fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. Only to them could he one day say, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). And only this creature, among all the creatures on earth, would be a creating creature, taking what he had made and making something new. And those are our next two stops in the park: We delight, and we create.
At our third stop, we finally arrive where the psalm begins. Verse 1: “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great!” Notice, the first words of the psalm are not cast into the heavens, but directed inward, at the heart. Bless the Lord, O my soul! Wake up! Stop nodding off before the splendor and majesty all around you.
I mentioned earlier that, in our circles, we do Psalm 103 reflection pretty well (rehearsing the glories of redemption) and Psalm 105 pretty well (recounting the stories of what God has done in Scripture and history). How often, though, when our hearts grow cool or dull or distracted, do we think to immerse ourselves not in more books, but in trees and fields and birds and streams — in fall leaves and maybe even in some snow? How often have you thought of the outdoors as a means of grace?
Prescription for an Anxious Age
As I watch, over and over again in Scripture, how creation deepens faith, and quiets fears, and instills confidence, and inspires courage, and awakens joy, I can’t help but wonder if creation isn’t one of the great prescriptions we’re missing in our modern and anxious age. So much of our technological lives today carry the illusion of control — deciding what we eat, where we eat, when we eat; deciding what we watch, where we watch, when we watch. Our phones tell us we’re in control. Our cars tell us we’re in control. Our heating and air-conditioning tell us we’re in control. Creation disagrees. Creation dispels the mirage of my sovereignty. Creation shouts, “You’re not in control! And this world isn’t about you.”
That’s a sermon we need to hear and rehear and rehear, especially today. You can’t decide the weather. You can’t grow grass in that corner of the yard. You can’t control the squirrels or moles. You can’t tame a thunderstorm. You can’t survive the bitter cold. You can’t outlive an oak tree. But God can, and does, and will.
In the introduction to Pleasures of God, Pastor John says,
Unless we begin with God in this way, when the gospel comes to us, we will inevitably put ourselves at the center of it. We will feel that our value rather than God’s value is the driving force in the gospel. We will trace the gospel back to God’s need for us instead of tracing it back to the sovereign grace that rescues sinners who need God. (22)
Souls centered on self are homes built on sand. If we subtly believe that we’re in control, that our value is driving history, that God really needs us, it’s no wonder we’re so anxious. Watch where our wild safari ends. Verse 34: “May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice” — not in mountains or moons or donkeys, no: “for I rejoice in the Lord.” Those who see the most in creation are never left with just creation; no, they’re drawn into a higher, more intense love — a higher, more intense good: God himself.
Wild Glimpses of God
Everything God has made is preaching, with loudspeakers cranked high and embedded everywhere we turn — and yet we often have our heads down, scrolling on our phones. So put the phone down for a moment (turn it off if you have to) and lift up your eyes.
When the sun rises each morning, God means for that flaming ball of ferocity, a star the size of a hundred earths and heated to ten thousand degrees, to remind us that he is strong, massive, reliable, and radiating with joy. Psalm 19:4–5: “He has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.”
When we see the stars scattered in a clear night sky, an estimated one hundred billion in our galaxy alone, God wants us to see how detailed and personal he is. “He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” (Psalm 147:4). Why would he name stars? Not for their sake (they’re stars!), but for ours — so that we would know that he knows and cares for each and every one of us.
When clouds crawl across the sky and over our heads, they are not meant to be massive, miraculous afterthoughts (or depressing inconveniences, for that matter). No, they should draw our attention into heaven and stretch our imaginations, far beyond them, into the faithfulness of God. “Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds” (Psalm 36:5).
When we make out a mountain in the distance (or drive through them as my family did on vacation earlier this year), we’re meant to see enormous shadows of the majesty of God. “Glorious are you,” we sing, “more majestic than the mountains full of prey” (Psalm 76:4).
When we hear the rush of a river or stream, it can inspire us to drink more deeply from all that God is for us in Christ, the well who quenches every thirst forever. “They feast on the abundance of your house,” David writes, “and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Psalm 36:8).
And that’s to say nothing of all we see and experience of God in the boom of thunder (Psalm 29:3), the ruthlessness of lions (Psalm 7:2), the fragility of sheep (Psalm 78:52), the sweetness of honey (Psalm 19:10), the strength of horses (Psalm 20:7), even the defenselessness of snails (Psalm 58:8). The heavens, the earth, and the seas (and all that fills them) are declaring the glory of God to us. How much richer, sweeter, and more tangible might our theology be if we were willing to stop and look and delight more than we do?
What About Sin?
Before we move away from stop three — our delight in who God is and what he’s made — the psalm ends in a strange but fitting place:
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
We delight. Next verse:
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more! (Psalm 104:34–35)
When I first read that, I thought, Now that’s a strange way to respond to all he’s seen. “Look at the heavens! Look at the mountains! Look at the lions! Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.” Seems strange, right? It’s not how many of us would think to pray after seeing so much of God in what he’s made.
It’s not strange. The psalmist lets his mind wander over wonder after wonder until his heart is set on fire again for God, and then he opens his eyes, and he realizes just how broken this world is, how far it’s strayed from its Creator. He feels, again, that the wondrous creation is enslaved to futility, in bondage to corruption. It’s magnificent as it is, but it’s nowhere near what it could be. Nowhere near what it once was. Because of sin, we live in the ruins of paradise. And the awful, tragic disparity between what was and what is exposes the seriousness of sin — the seriousness of my sin.
Sin vandalized the satisfying glory of God in creation. Sin introduced disease and hostility and death. Enjoying what remains of the beauty of creation should make us hate sin all the more, especially our own sin. And it should make us long for God to make it all new again. Verse 29 again: “When you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” — sin did that. Next verse: “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”
Death doesn’t get the last word here. The light will invade the darkness. God will make all these things, including us, new. All who oppose him will be consumed. The wicked will be evicted. We’re destined to live on a real earth like ours, with real bodies like ours, surrounded by wonders and blessings and experiences like ours, but without the weakness, mortality, and sin that plague all we know and enjoy now. That world will be like ours, but glorious. We will be ourselves, but glorious. The psalmist knows how this will all end, and so he ends not with despair, but hope: “Bless the Lord, O my soul! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 104:35).
God creates. God delights. We delight. And now, finally, we create.
The pleasure of God in creation and human culture: that was my assignment. When I say culture, I mean all the good that humans do and make. I’m thinking of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” We won’t get to spend nearly as much time here, but we don’t have to travel far in our park to see what we need to see.
The young lions roar for their prey,
seeking their food from God.
When the sun rises, they steal away
and lie down in their dens.
Man goes out to his work
and to his labor until the evening. (Psalm 104:21–23)
Man goes out to his work, and works a full day. It feels a little anticlimactic, right? The trees climb into the heavens, the mountains shake with wildlife, the lions roar their hunger for all to hear, the moon ushers in fall and winter and spring, the sun chooses when the sky goes from blue to red to purple to dark — and Larry heads over to Pike Lake Drive to clear another drain (or whatever ordinary work God has given you to do).
“The ordinary work of man is one of the manifold works of God.”
“Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.” Now listen to this in the very next verse: “O Lord, how manifold are your works!” — trees and mountains and lions and the work that man can do. “In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Psalm 104:24). The ordinary work of man is one of the manifold works of God. No other creature can do what you do. What you can do in eight or ten or twelve hours with your mind and hands and gifts says as much or more about God as a sunset or a canyon or a thunderstorm.
Only God could conceive of a creature capable of doing the work you do. Every working human you meet (white collar or blue collar; paid or unpaid; student, employee, manager, or stay-at-home mother) is a living canvas covered in the creativity of God — whether they believe in him or not, whether they see the glory in their work or not. That they can do what they do, whatever they do and however well they do it, reminds us of just how much more God can do.
Human Hands at the Table
We get one more small glimpse in Psalm 104 into the pleasure of God in human culture, in verses 14–15:
You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart.
Wine to gladden the heart of man. Bread to strengthen man’s heart. Grapes transformed through crushing and waiting. Wheat transformed by mixing and baking. Wine and bread. I wanted to end here because tomorrow (or in the next couple of weeks) we’ll each gather in our churches and we’ll hold and enjoy bread and wine together, the Lord’s Supper. This isn’t the point of verses 14 and 15; bread and wine were ordinary fare for Israel in those days. But they’re not ordinary fare any longer, not on the other side of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday.
Is there a more subtle and yet stunning marriage of God’s pleasure in creation and culture than in the feast we eat over and over to remember all he is for us in Jesus? I want this to be a tangible, holdable, edible reminder for you of what we’ve seen here. Jesus chose to serve bread, not wheat. And he chose to serve wine, not water. Both are products of human creativity and effort — of culture. Both quietly dignify all that mankind can do and make.
And then, through Psalm 104, we taste even more meaning in the wine. Bread strengthens man’s heart. Wine gladdens the hearts of men. Peter Leithart writes,
Jesus did not give his disciples grapes, but the blood of the grape, which is the creation transformed by human creativity and labor. Like bread, wine assumes a degree of technological sophistication, as well as a measure of social and political formation. Wine, however, is a drink of celebration and not mere nutrition. If Jesus had wanted to depict man’s relation to creation and to God in purely utilitarian terms, bread and water would have sufficed. This Bridegroom, however, changes water to wine, and in doing so, clarifies man’s purpose in the world. (Blessed Are the Hungry, 169)
And what’s that purpose? In both work and rest, to enjoy what God has made and done. Ultimately, to enjoy God himself. “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4). Cup after cup, the wine reminds us that the Lord’s Supper is not a eulogy, but a toast. It plays an old, beloved chorus: “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
The Beauty in Every Beauty
We don’t, however, need the bread and wine in Psalm 104 to get to the carpenter from Nazareth. We’d be just fine with birds and grass and badgers. Hebrews 1:1–2:
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.
And then, quoting Psalm 104 of all places, he writes, “Of the angels God says, ‘He makes his angels winds, and his ministers a flame of fire.’ But of the Son he says, . . .
You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
they will all wear out like a garment,
like a robe you will roll them up,
like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
and your years will have no end.” (Hebrews 1:7–12)
“When the Father looks out over the goodness of creation, at the center of it all, he sees his Son.”
When the Father looks out over the goodness of creation, at the center of it all, he sees his Son. And he loves what he sees. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Steve Dewitt writes, “Until we see the beauty of Christ, we will never see the true beauty in anything else” (Eyes Wide Open, 116). That means if we really want to hear what God is saying in the blues of bluebirds and waddle of penguins, in the raging of rivers and stillness of lakes, in the opening of lilies and landslides along cliffs, we first and forever fix our eyes on Jesus. All the Scriptures, beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, are about him (Luke 24:27). And all of creation is preaching in that same series.
Who’s the star of the Psalm 104 galaxy — sun and moon, birds and lions, oceans and forests? The one who became flesh and dwelt and worked among us. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2) — and yet he’s the beauty in every beauty, the paradise hiding in our fallen world, the Creator born in the likeness of the creature, the sun dawning on the darkness around us, the crucified, risen, reigning — creating and sustaining — Jesus. And so whenever we enjoy and use creation rightly, it will surely lead us to him.