The Psalms and Mission Part 2: The Psalms, Creation, and Mission
Posted on: 2nd December 2021
In this second part of a series on the Psalms and mission, CMS missionary Nathan Lovell, lecturer at George Whitfield College in South Africa, reminds us that ultimately, all political power rests with God the King—and this has consequences for mission.
The nobles of the nations assemble
as the people of the God of Abraham,
for the kings of the earth belong to God;
he is greatly exalted.
– Psalm 47:9
This is the second in a series of reflections on the Psalms and Christian mission, where we are looking at some common mission-related themes and issues through the eyes of the Psalms. In the first reflection, we looked at what it means for mission and authority to affirm that God is king. In this reflection, I want to think about creation and culture.
As we touched on last time, some critiques of the concept of mission centre around a claim that it homogenises culture. Doesn’t even the very concept of mission mean that we are attempting to make foreign peoples more like, well, us? In fact, doesn’t even the very idea of God’s universal kingship mean that we would all end up being the same? But what we sometimes overlook in this discussion is that culture is a part of the world God created. Flawed and fallen though every culture may be, it’s a part that he intends to redeem.
Kingship and creation
God’s kingship and creation are related ideas. According to the Psalms, God is king over the entire world because he created it. Modern western cultures aren’t used to thinking about creation and political rule in the same context, but this was very normal in the ancient world. Israel’s neighbours believed that creation arose out of a battle between the gods. As a result of that battle, one god emerged victorious and established dominion. Human kingship, and all of social order and culture along with it, including cities and complex human society, descended as gifts from the gods as part of the primordial creative process. Kings and culture were divinely instituted. The Old Testament, in contrast, affirms that human kingship, along with cities (e.g. Genesis 4:17, Genesis 10:10-12) and culture (e.g. Genesis 4:20-22) emerge from the social nature of people as history unfolds. But not God’s kingship. The Psalms link God’s kingship to creation.
The Lord reigns,
he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed in majesty
and armed with strength;
indeed, the world is established,
firm and secure.
Your throne was established long ago;
you are from all eternity.
– Psalm 93:1–4
Psalm 65 is another fine example. The one who answers the prayers of all peoples, forgives their sins, and receives sworn loyalty in Zion (verses 1-5) is the one who founded the mountains with strength (verse 6) and sustains creation with providential care (verses 9-13).
At times, the Psalms mirror some of the language of other ancient cultures in the way they talk about creation. Psalm 74 pictures God as a warrior-king, fighting the forces of chaos to bring salvation (verses 12-15), and sets this battle in the context of creation (verses 16-17). But it stops short of affirming that God had to win his throne, or that creation results from this battle. The imagery is rather of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, which itself mirrors (a new!) creation of God’s people. When the Psalms ask how God created, they remember Genesis:
By the word of the Lord the heavens were made,
their starry host by the breath of his mouth.
– Psalm 33:6
… who by his understanding made the heavens,
His love endures forever.
– Psalm 136:5
God and the gods
One problem with human culture, then, is our tendency to invent and worship things that are not the God who created the world. Who, what, and how we worship are as integrally tied to culture as our language. But, unlike many aspects of culture, our worship isn’t morally neutral. While the Psalter doesn’t necessarily directly challenge the existence of the “little-g” gods, it does explicitly forbid worshipping anything other than the Creator-King.
For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
– Psalm 96:4–5
Why should this be so? Is God so fragile or needy that he requires everyone’s constant adoration?
Reasons why idolatry fails
Well, no. Apart from the treasonous aspect of serving something that is not your king, there are two other, more human-centred reasons that idolatry is problematic. The first is that idols cannot deliver what they promise.
Ancient Israel’s neighbours (and sometimes Israel themselves!) looked to these idols to provide security, peace, and justice in the world. The storm god brings rain, and the gods of the harvest and wine bring sustenance. There are gods for just about everything: rivers, the sun, moon, and stars. Also, things like law and justice. Missionaries in many parts of the world are familiar with how ancestors can also provide fortune and blessing in this sort of way in many belief systems. But in our modern, western, context perhaps we call idols by other names: ‘superannuation’ and ‘insurance’, or ‘power’, ‘influence’, and ‘comfort’.
The problem is not the existence of these things themselves. Power is as necessary to human life as the sun. The problem is that it is God’s job to establish the order of creation so that it will bring these gifts. (Either directly, as in Psalm 136, or through his king, as in Psalm 72.) No one else, especially the “little-g” gods, is able to do this, no matter how much we might want them to. This is because they are part of creation, and so also part of the cultures that need them in the first place. In the language of the Psalms, they are the work of human hands (Psalm 115:4, 135:15). Take, for example, Psalm 82:
God presides in the great assembly;
he renders judgment among the ‘gods’:
“How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
“The ‘gods’ know nothing, they understand nothing.
They walk about in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
– Psalm 82:1–5
Whereas God created the heavens with wisdom and understanding (Psalm 136:5), worship of idols shakes the foundation of the earth: it de-creates us. Since the idols know nothing, they can’t help us. We all want to build societies of justice and peace, but left to our own, we don’t. Security and peace elude our cultures, because our idols don’t help, and so we fight for security and, ironically, peace as well.
The second reason idols are problematic at a human level is that they change us as well.
The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
nor is there breath in their mouths.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.
– Psalm 135:15–18
This Psalm claims (in ways that remind us of the prophet Isaiah) that by worshipping created things rather than the creator, we shape our lives in their image rather than his. According to the Psalms, the worship of things that are not God is not culture, it is anti-culture. It is destruction rather than creation. And this is as true for our own western “little-g” gods as it is for every other part of creation.
The nations belong to God, who will redeem and transform them
Cultures are not, in the end, torn down when they turn to worship their true creator, God. They are fulfilled. The way the Psalter speaks about this is so remarkable for its historical context that scholars have wondered whether we have actually misunderstood it. Take, for example, Psalm 87 (the name Rahab here is a way of talking about Egypt that occurs elsewhere in the Old Testament):
“I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush —
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’”
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her,
and the Most High himself will establish her.”
The Lord will write in the register of the peoples:
“This one was born in Zion.”
– Psalm 87:4–6
Psalm 47:7-9 is another example of similar themes. In passages like these, the Psalms echo motifs more familiar from Isaiah (e.g. Isaiah 19:23-25) in seeing Israel’s greatest enemies, Egypt and Babylon in this case, become worshippers of Yahweh. But they don’t do this because of Israelite conquest, or because of cultural assimilation. They are adopted so as to be ‘native born’ to the Kingdom of God, just as they are. They keep their languages, and ways of thinking and being. They keep all the things that make them who they are, but find an adopted identity in Zion as God’s people. Along with the coastlands (Tyre and Sidon) and Africa (Cush is Sudan), the nations of the world join Israel in praise of their creator. They do this not by coming to Israel, or becoming Israel, and not by replacing Israel, but by coming to God.
What this means is that when we struggle with issues of identity and Christianity, part of the answer has to be about adoption and redemption. It’s common in Africa to hear people speak about whether they are Christian-Zulus (for example), or Zulu-Christians. What they mean by this is that they are wrestling to relate their faith in Christ to their cultural identity and background. I think we should reply, “My friend, you are a Zulu man (or woman) known and loved by Christ. And through the work of the Spirit, you help us to see what God’s purposes for redeeming Zulu culture are.”
God, the king of all creation, will redeem each one who trusts in him, and with them, redeem and transform culture in his new creation—as those who trust him come to him for redemption and transformation.