The First Sunday After Christmas
This is one of my favorite psalms. I love its exuberant, over-the-top, unabashed joy in praising the Lord of all creation. In one sense it is very simple to exegete: it is a hymn and a prayer for all creation to join in praising the Lord.
It does so in fairly simple fashion. In parallel structures of Hebrew poetry, it pulls in all parts of the universe by listing the "alphas" and "omegas," the boundaries which define the created world. The reader will note its similarities to the creation story in Genesis 1, the same cosmology of the three-tiered universe, a rough correspondence to the order of creation, the same varieties of living creatures. Everything, everything, is praising God!
This psalm only appears in the lectionary the first Sunday after Christmas every year. It is appropriate here, given the way the church has retrospectively and exuberantly glorified its Messiah’s birth. How natural that all creation sings in praise!
Yet praise does not come easy to everyone. In fact, some of us are natural born critics! But some part of this comes to us honestly. Praise for attributes we do not have or honors we have not earned is deceit or mockery. While praise may be spontaneous, and it may be genuine, it cannot be automatic. Real praise involves an assessment that something is worthy to be praised.
There is a godly model for having this evaluative eye. After many of the creative acts of Genesis 1, we hear that "God saw that it was good." But the Hebrew "ki tov," might be more literally translated as either "How good!", or "How good?" It might be read as God expressing approval – and it might also be an assessment of the divine handiwork.*
Sometimes one may gain the impression (perhaps even from this psalm, or from the throne scene in the book of Revelation), that creation is created to give praise, and that the natural, automatic response of creation is to praise God. Maybe so...
But we misunderstand Biblical creation if we think it is a story about how the universe was made. In the whole scope of Biblical theology, creation is the act of God making the world godly, finding chaos and bringing about a good, productive, life-generating, fruitful order. God is the God of creation because God is also the God of redemption, giving the breath of life and giving the holy breath of new life, righteous, just, peaceful, and loving. Creation and eschaton are more than kissing cousins – they are the seemless garment of God bringing goodness into being.
In this way, the psalmist is pointing the way for creation to follow. It is an invitation. Praise the Lord, because the Lord is worthy of praise! Yes, ALL creation, in all its variety, sings praise because it has asked "ki tov," "How good"?, and found God’s eternal YES. "Praise the LORD from the earth... [for] God has raised up a horn for God’s people" (Ps 148:7,14). God has always been in the incarnation business, taking the humble stuff of the material world, and spinning it into holiness. Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
* Phyllis Trible pointed this out to me in her 1998 seminar on Genesis 1-11. I think that God’s final look at the end of day six ("God saw all that he had made, and it was very good," Gen 1:31) has definitely turned to pure "it's good!" One might consider that this final statement should then be guide the translation of the prior ones. I prefer to think that is the capstone. The prior "how goods" contain the flavor both of a question and its answer, and the final exclamation in 1:31 is the culmination of previous judgments, seen at the end of this mighty work. Even this declaration is not a final statement, but one suited to its moment. Creation is not over on day seven. It is ongoing, and Genesis 1's account lays out the framework in which God's further actions will take place.
"Creation According to Genesis 1", by Judy Racz, 9 oil on canvas panels.
Mandelbrot Set by Peter Alfeld.