Psalm 104 is a beautiful poetic recounting of God's marvelous act of creation. In this 3000-year-old poem the author praises Yahweh for his creativity and his sustenance of the cosmos. The psalmist mirrors the Genesis story by recalling God's creation of the heavens and earth, the plant and animal kingdoms and human beings. Yahweh is to be praised as the divine author and sustainer of his magnificent creation.
As I read this inspiring psalm recently, I was struck by the psalmist's testimony of what he perceives God to be doing, not just in the past, but in the present activity of everyday life. He reminds his soul to rejoice in the ongoing work of creation which is evident in the continual blessings and benefits God bestows on his handiwork. God continues to be at work as humans do all the normal things of daily life and activity, as animals hunt for and gather food, as plants spring to life then wither and die and as streams and rivers swell and recede in their normal seasonal patterns.
Verses 29-30 are particularly thought-provoking. Speaking of the living world, the psalmist asserts,
When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth. (NIV)
Essential to understanding these two verses is the use of the Hebrew word ruach. It's an amazing word representing a broad and important concept. Ruach can be translated in several different ways, most commonly as spirit, wind, and breath. Verse 29 literally says, "when you take away their spirit/wind/breath, they die...." In a similar way, verse 30 says, "When you send your spirit/wind/breath, they are created...." God's ruach is his ever-present ongoing spirit-of-life/wind-of-life/breath-of-life which enables the act of creation.
Though ruach is used in Psalm 104, it has a much older history. We find the first use of ruach in the first book of the bible. Genesis 1:1-2 records, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (NIV).
The NRSV translates the last line as “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” The general sense is that God was actively beginning the process of creation through his spirit/wind/breath. Furthermore, ruach is clearly a feminine noun. Ruach hovers and broods over the nest of creation, and as it germinates and begins to take shape she guides and nurtures the process.
As we step into the New Testament we are quickly confronted with “spirit” language. In one of the bible’s most famous stories we find a Pharisee named Nicodemus coming to Jesus with questions about God (John 3:1-21). Jesus responds, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (NIV). Rather than “born again,” a more accurate translation is “born from above.” Either way the emphasis is on new life through a birth other than that of a human nature.
When Nicodemus asks Jesus how this is possible, Jesus responds with,
Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit. (NIV)
Every time the word “spirit” or “wind” is used in Jesus’ response, it is the Greek word pneuma. This word is the equivalent to the Hebrew ruach in the Old Testament. In answering Nicodemus’s question about how to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus draws upon the creation story of Genesis, as well as the long tradition of ruach as a creative motherly process. Eugene Peterson’s translation from John 3:5-6 of The Message is helpful and enlightening:
Jesus said, "You're not listening. Let me say it again. Unless a person submits to this original creation—the 'wind-hovering-over-the-water' creation, the invisible moving the visible, a baptism into a new life—it's not possible to enter God's kingdom. When you look at a baby, it's just that: a body you can look at and touch. But the person who takes shape within is formed by something you can't see and touch—the Spirit—and becomes a living spirit.
The same creative, life-giving spirit/wind/breath of Genesis is present and active in the salvation process. Thus, God continues his ongoing creative work through the very spirit and act of creation.
It’s not by coincidence then that Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection with a similar message. John 20:21-22 records the scene for us: “Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” In a final act with his disciples, Jesus breathes on them and grants them an equal portion, an in-filling, of God’s pneuma. The ruach of the Old Testament now hovers and broods over and in them to continue the powerful process of creation.
Psalm 104 took me on a journey through Old and New Testaments this week. I was reminded again to praise God with my whole being for his ongoing creative work in this world. The spirit continues to blow and breathe a fresh wind of life, restoration and salvation. And I, as a vessel of this nurturing, life-giving, brooding spirit, am called to join in the ongoing work of creation. When God sends his spirit, we should expect improbable and generative acts of creation -- the kinds of acts that most of us wouldn’t dare to imagine or dream about.
But let’s keep imagining and dreaming. To do anything less might mean quenching the spirit and impeding the creative work of the kingdom at hand.
I know a girl who's like a sea
I watch her changing every day for me
One day she's still, the next she swells
You can hear the universe in her sea shells
No line on the horizon