A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 31, 2011
Job 38 selected verses; Psalm 104:1-6, 24, 33
I would like to read again a few verses from Job, but as translated by the contemporary translation, The Message, as it gives a different, and delightful, slant to the text:
“And God said:
Who took charge of the ocean
When it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?
That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds,
And tucked it in safely at night.
Then I made a playpen for it,
A strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose,
And said, ‘Stay here, this is your place.
Your wild tantrums are confined to this place!’” (Job 38:8-11, The Message)
What marvelous imagery!—the image of God being a midwife who helped birth the oceans.
Other images we see in Job 38 are just as marvelous: the pillars that support the earth. The cornerstone of the world. The stars singing together. The gates that guard the world of the dead. The storerooms where God keeps the snow and the hail. The clouds tilting over to pour out the rain.
But some of those we see in Psalm 104 are just as beautiful. God is wrapped in light as with a garment. God has spread out the heavens like a tent. God uses the clouds as a chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. God has set the earth firmly on its foundations, from which it will never be moved.
May I say it again—what marvelous imagery! What beautiful poetry! Indeed, some of the most beautiful poetic images to be found in the Bible are right here in these two readings in Job 38 and Psalm 104. But what does it all mean? And how are we to interpret such passages?
We know that these images—beautiful as they might be—are not to be taken literally. God was not literally a midwife who helped birth the oceans. And the earth does not rest on pillars or a foundation. The stars didn’t literally sing at the dawn of creation. There is not really a physical gate that guards the world of the dead. And there is no big Wal-Mart type distribution center somewhere up in space that houses snow and hail.
So much of the Bible is written in the language of poetic imagery and it was never intended to be taken literally. This is true for the New Testament as well as the Old. And so, problems can arise when we set out to interpret the poetry and imagery of the Bible. There is often disagreement among religious folk about what should be interpreted literally—as absolute fact—and what should be interpreted symbolically or metaphorically.
For instance (as I have talked about previously), while many interpret the creation accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis in a symbolic or metaphorical fashion, others interpret them literally. They insist that yes, indeed, Adam and Eve were actual historical figures; the earth was indeed created in six, twenty-four hour days; and the man and woman were actually driven out of a beautiful garden after eating a piece of fruit, erroneously an apple.
Another example is the story of Jonah being swallowed by the great fish. While many look beyond that delightful story for a deeper meaning, others insist it must be interpreted literally, or else the Bible is false. But at some point we have to draw the line as we realize that all such biblical images cannot be understood as being literally true.
Indeed, we come to understand that the real truth of the Bible often is beyond the literal words on the page. Stories like the creation stories (and there are two differing creation stories, as we have noted before) and the story of Jonah were never intended to be taken as historical fact. The Bible in many respects is not a history book. And the Bible certainly is not a science book. So when people get all up in arms, insisting that the book of Genesis be used as a science book to teach our children about the creation of the world, it is a scary thing. The person who penned the opening chapters of Genesis never dreamed of such a thing. He had a totally different purpose in mind.
And likewise the person who told the story of Jonah. To focus only on the miracle of Jonah being swallowed by the fish and being spat out three days later would have greatly offended the author of that story. Because that was not the primary message the writer wanted to convey.
And likewise with whomever wrote the book of Job and whomever wrote the 104th Psalm. The message behind poetic imagery is so much more powerful than that of the literal word. And the message the biblical writers wanted to get across goes much deeper than interpreting their poetry and images literally.
What, then, we ask, are the purposes of biblical poetry and imagery if they are not to be read as facts, history or science? Well, poetic images at their best are intended to move us, to draw us into a spiritual experience, to transform us. That’s what good poetry, like the poetry of Mary Oliver, does for me. Reading Mary Oliver’s poetry can prove to be a spiritual experience for me. Good poetry and imagery draw us into another world, yet it is a world with which we can readily identify. The beauty of poetry is that the images it presents strike a common chord in the human heart. The beautiful poetry in the book of Job that explores the wonder and complexity of the universe in which we live serves to invite us into the mind of God. Biblical poetry is intended to elicit from us wonder and praise to the God of creation. Job, by being taken through poetic images on a tour of the universe, is awestruck by the majesty and power of creation and the Creator. He who thought he knew so much realizes he knows so little when compared to the Creator of the universe.
But Job’s problem is also the problem of our own day, I am afraid. The holiness and the awesomeness of the God of creation has been largely lost in our culture, as too many have learned to think of God only as a good buddy or pal who desires to bring prosperity to those who know how to secure his favor. Think only of the 20, 30 and 40,000-member megachurches that preach a prosperity gospel. Some may look upon God as a loving, compassionate Friend, and that is okay. But that is only one facet of the biblical God who put the stars in place and created—through whatever means you choose to believe—the vast universe about which we know so little.
We haven’t yet figured out much about our world and we probably never will. Try as we might to control and understand our environment, we cannot hope to discover, explain or engage all the mystery and wonder of creation. In spite of all our advances and acquired power—cloning, stem cell research, Doppler radar and so on—we are still minute in the larger scheme of things. One of the purposes of the book of Job is to call into question humanity’s knowledge in comparison to the complexity of creation and the wisdom and power of the God of creation. In other words, sometimes we need to be reminded of our little place in this vast universe. Compared to all the millennia since the dawn of creation, we are but a fraction of second. We, like Job and his all-too-smart friends, need every now and then a lesson in humility. And when we remember just how small we are in the vast scheme of creation, it gives us a while new perspective on how we are part of a complex, interdependent web of being. It makes us realize that we cannot go it alone.
In a word, we need to take time to stop and consider the universe in which we live and the Sacredness at the heart of it all. Which leads me to the story of a worried mother who wondered where her daughter was on a rainy, school day afternoon. The daughter should have been home long before now. The rain was heavy, the thunder was loud, and the lightning was flashing fast and furious. Finally, after some anxious minutes, the mother decided to put on her coat and go look for her tardy child. As she turned the corner of their street, the mother spotted her daughter, walking slowly and smiling largely, sauntering toward home. The daughter spotted her mom and ran to her grinning from ear to ear. “Where have you been?” the mother drilled her. “Don’t you know that it is lightning and you could have been killed?” the anxious mother exclaimed. “But Mom,” replied the wide-eyed girl, “isn’t this neat? The puddles, the rain, the boom-booms, and besides, God is taking my picture!”1 That, you see, is the type of wonder and amazement that the writers of Job and the 104th Psalm are trying to elicit from us.
Ancient religious poetry invites us to live with that same sense of adventure and wonderment. The good news is every new day is a new opportunity for us to be surprised with new discoveries and new lessons, as we are invited into the wonder and complexity of the universe around us. With the psalmist, we are moved to proclaim, “As long as I live, I will sing praises!” (104:33). Indeed, how can we not be caught up in joy and praise as we consider the wonder of it all!
1 Homiletics, Oct. 06, p. 60.