Ecological Reflections on Psalm 104 by Richard Gunton with input from George Otieno and others

This joyful psalm expresses wonder at the works of God seen throughout the earth. We might call it “ecological” in the original sense of that word: a study of the homes of things.

A home is more than a place of shelter, and the psalmist describes diverse ways in which creatures are serviced in their habitats. The streams in their valleys “give drink to every beast of the field”, and the Lord YHWH “waters the mountains” so that the whole earth is satisfied (v.13). Chains of created things serve purposes for each other – e.g. rain -> plants -> wine, oil & bread -> humanity. We look up to cedars of Lebanon holding birds’ nests, mountains “for the wild goats” and rocks “for the rock badgers” (v.18). Then we gaze out to sea, a habitat given for “creatures innumerable”: viz. the ships and the Leviathan, each of ambiguous moral connotations yet enjoying their appointed place. “All things look to You,” says the psalmist – with dependence so immediate that when “You hide Your face, they are dismayed; when You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust” (v.29).

This psalm, then, is not just about habitats, nor food chains, nor even nutrient cycles. It’s more like the contemporary concept of ecosystem services: all kinds of diverse benefits accrued from natural places. But whereas “ecosystem services” is an anthropocentric conservation paradigm, humans are almost absent from this psalm. Here we see YHWH at the origin of a biosphere filled with activity. The word of God goes forth to accomplish His will; His messengers are winds and tongues of fire (v.4); His Spirit creates new life – and He rejoices in what He sees (vv.30-31). God both serves and is served by His diverse creatures, even as they depend upon Him. His presence is known by His faithful covenant love rather than any kind of local intervention; this is sovereignty by delegation rather than control. We might call it a diverse but ultimately theocentric world picture.

Some kind of anthropocentrism is inevitable, however, in that we humans can only observe through our own eyes. Surveying the ecology of God’s works elicits in the psalmist a faithful, fearful attitude to the Creator, and a longing to continue in lifelong worship, rejoicing in YHWH (v.34). The sense of harmony perhaps reflects the agrarian context in which the psalms were written: a settled rustic community, for the most part safely accommodated in its Promised Land. There is no opposition here between man and “nature” or “creation”: humanity is simply a small part of the whole creation.

But we modern urbanites have a special place. Perhaps only we in the industrialised world can conceive of environmental impoverishment on a global scale. We can also appreciate the culpability of humans, our grasp of environmental science giving earthly explanations what might otherwise appear simply as “acts of God”: droughts, storms, flooding. We have formed grand notions of planetary stewardship and global conservation, but let us not make light of our sin, and our need for God’s help. Even the pre-scientific agrarian psalmist cannot end without shaking a fist at the evil that blights this world: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more!”

Yet the psalm does not end with a description of mortality and detritus. Instead we have a yearning for God’s full rejoicing in the created order, sinners absent. And it is indeed “in” the created order that such salvation must be unveiled, because the hope of God’s people has always been that YHWH would redeem them from sin and dwell with them as a man, walking together on the earth. This is a new, redeemed anthropocentrism. If we need a “centre”, perhaps it’s safest to see the psalm as “geocentric”: exhorting humans to participate in an ecology of service, knowing ourselves fully at home in God’s world.

Note (21/10/2015): This is an abbreviated version of the article originally posted on 20 October 2015

Richard Gunton and George Otieno are members of the Faith-in-Scholarship Working Group on Ecosystem Services (FiSWES) which draws together twelve Christian thinkers to explore new perspectives on conservation ethics. Funded by the Marsh Christian Trust, Yeadon IP and the West Yorkshire School of Christian Studies, it seeks to bring insights to real-world challenges that will be appreciated by non-Christians as well as believers. The piece presented here was the first, and most theological, output from the group’s meetings; subsequent outputs are to include articles in ecological journals, educational workshops and, it is hoped, tools for policy-makers.