The Nature-Poetry of the Psalms.

Part I Introduction

Rev. W. T. Allison

University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada


 The worship of Nature was perhaps the earliest form in which man expressed his yearning after God. All ancient mythologies are founded on this wonder and bloom of the world as it appealed to primitive man. The sun and moon, the stars of the midnight sky, the green earth, the lonely mountain, the unquiet sea, all natural phenomena exciting the joy or the fear of mankind, have drawn forth his soul in adoration or in awe, and have inspired the earliest attempts in the arts and the sciences. The dragon myth of the Chaldeans, the sun and dawn drama of the Aryans, the Dionysian festival of the Greeks, are so many phases of early religions, whose very existence depended upon that love of the sensible universe to which they owed their inspiration. But while the ancient men had a firm belief in the majesty of the sun-god, or found a spirit in every tree or stream, their contemplation of Nature in her many moods was vastly different from the refined and exquisite appreciation of Nature which prevails among modern peoples. In those far days there was none of what Ruskin bluntly calls "the sickly dreaming of Shelley over clouds and waves." The ancient poet cared only for the grand features of sky or sea or land. In primitive nature-poetry everything is done in the grand style; there is no care for the detail; the ancient poet would not have understood Wordsworth; to him it would have been sheer folly and waste of time to linger over a mountain daisy studying its beauties one by one. A hasty glance was sufficient for the early poet. He was impressed by the general picturesque effect of a scene by land or sea, but it did not hold him long, nor did it arouse in him any emotion of itself.

The subjective treatment of Nature, so highly developed by the great poets of the nineteenth century, is the result of the introspective habit of the modern mind. This has given rise to the pathetic fallacy. Nature is made to share in our happiness and to comfort us in our sorrow. In beholding Nature we carry to her our own feelings, and, according to the dictum of Coleridge, "we receive but as we give." The gloom of the forest, the melancholy of the mountain, the sob of the sea, the moan of the wind— the ancients would have been perplexed with this translation of poetic moodiness to Nature. They personified natural objects, it is true; the Greeks especially, for their poets regarded every tree as the abode of a dryad, every fountain as containing the naiad of the spring, and every grotto as occupied by its own unseen divinity; but they did not carry over their own emotions to the natural object itself, nor did they invest it with a sympathizing power; in their eyes it remained forever the same; they could not call it kind or smiling one day, and cruel and drear the next, with modern fickleness and unrest. The early poets witnessed the changes that come over the face of Nature, the march of the seasons, the brightness or darksomeness of the sky; they thanked the gods for the bright, clear weather, for the corn shining yellow in the sun and the grapes gleaming purple on the vine; they trembled when the storm rattled among the mountain crags, as though a god were angry; but while they recognized a power behind the outward manifestation that was beneficent or wroth, to them the natural object was lifeless; they saw a supernatural power behind Nature, but to them Nature herself possessed no personality.

In Chaldean and Greek mythology each god exercises a control over some natural phenomenon or force. Passing over to Hebrew poetry, the contrast is very marked. There is one God behind all things, and heaven and earth are full of his glory. "Thou, Lord, hast made me glad through thy works,1 is the exclamation of a Psalmist poet, and it is a thoroughly representative saying. The great diversity of cosmogonic elements in the nature-poetry of other ancient peoples is reduced to extreme simplicity by this regnant idea in Hebrew literature, that " the Lord, our God, is one God.' The life of the Hebrew people was bound up in this conception of a God all-powerful and peculiarly their own. Even the theophanies of the Psalter, with their limited conception of God, are entirely monotheistic. All natural processes are ascribed directly to God by the Hebrew poets. The word "nature, ' or its equivalent, does not appear in Hebrew. It has been said that the Jews spell Nature with a small letter, and this is really the chief difference between the Hebrew and the Babylonian or Greek points of view. By the Hebrew poet "Nature is never viewed for her own sake except as an outer garment of the Almighty." Without an exception, the psalmists are true to this idea in their treatment of Nature.

The earlier and ruder nature-pieces in the Psalter are theophanies. The Israelites emerging from Egyptian bondage halted in the region round about Mount Sinai. It was in this mountain that they believed the strong God who had led them forth from Egypt had his earthly seat, and displayed his presence in the sudden and appalling thunderstorms which reverberated among the basalt cliffs.

The oldest piece of nature-description is the theophany in Psalm 18. In a passage of sublime imagery, Jehovah is described as the God of the storm and the earthquake. He descends from his heavenly abode to rescue his persecuted saint; he rends the earth in a mighty convulsion which lays bare the foundations of the sea. The earthquake is the smoke of the nostrils of God, and the flame proceeds out of his mouth. The quick flashes of lightning on the blue-clouded darkness seem to be the fiery cherubim upon which the king of heaven rides. No passage in ancient literature has bestowed upon an anthropomorphic conception a grander array of sensuous epithets than this picture of God as he appears in the storm.

Then the earth was moved and did quake,
And the foundations of the mountains began to tremble,
And were moved to and fro because he was wroth.
Then went up a smoke in his nostrils,
And a fire out of his mouth devoured,
Coals were kindled by it.
And he bowed the heavens and came down,
And thick darkness was under his feet.
And he rode upon a cherub and did fly,
And came lying upon the wings of the wind.
He made darkness his secret place, his pavilion round about him,
Dark gloom of waters, thick clouds of the skies.
At the brightness that was before him his thick clouds passed—
Hailstones and coals of fire.
Jehovah also thundered in the heavens,
And the highest gave his voice—
Hailstones and coals of fire.
And he sent forth his arrows and scattered them,
And lightnings innumerable, and discomfited them.
Then the channels of water were seen,
And the foundations of the world were discovered,
At thy rebuke, O Jehovah,
At the blasting of the breath of thy nostrils.2

A theophany in Psalm 68 owes its imagery to Psalm 18, and in its national application has a direct reference to the storm-phenomena of Mount Sinai. It forms a strophe in a processional hymn:

O God, when thou wentest forth before thy people,
When thou didst march through the wilderness;
The earth trembled, the heavens also dripped at the presence of God,
Yon Sinai at the presence of God, the God of Israe1.3

And near the close of this poem we have this brief but sublime theophany:

Make music for him who drives over the heaven of primeval heavens;
He thunders with a voice that is mighty.
Give glory to God!
His majesty extends over Israel,
And his might is in heaven.4

There is a further reminiscence of the figures used by the early Psalmist in Psalm 144:

Bow the heavens, O Jehovah, and come down!
Touch the mountains that they smoke!
Hurl lightnings and scatter them!
Shoot thine arrows and affright them!
Stretch out thine hand from heaven,
Pluck me forth and deliver me from the great waters.5

Quite in the same manner is the splendid theophany of Psalm 77:

The waters saw thee, O God
Saw thee, and trembled,
And the deep floods reared themselves aloft,
The clouds poured down water,
The heavens thundered,
Thine arrows darted,
In the whirlwind resounded thy menace,
Lightnings lightened the world,
The earth quivered and quaked.
On the sea was thy way, and thy path on the great waters,
And thy footsteps were not to be traced.
Thou leddest thy people like a flock,
By the hand of Moses and Aaron.6

This passage describes the crossing of the Red Sea and is thus interpreted by Stanley, who translates the tumultuous imagery into modern prose:

In the depth of midnight [this occurrence took place], amidst the roar of the hurricane, which caused the sea to go back, amidst a darkness lit up only by the broad glare of the lightning, as the Lord looked out of the thick darkness of the cloud. All that we see distinctly is that through this dark and terrible night with the enemy pressing close behind and the driving sea on either side, he led his people like sheep by the hand of Moses and Aaron.7

Psalm 105 contains another vivid description of the power of the storm-god over Nature, the God who expressed his wrath in the thunder, the lightning, the hurricane, and the plague. "He sent darkness and made it dark," begins the awful recitative in this psalm; "he turned their waters into blood, and made their fish to die."

Their land swarmed with frogs,
Even in the chambers of their kings;
He spoke, and there came flies,
Gnats throughout their dominion.
He turned their showers of rain into hail;
Blazing fire fell on their land.
He trampled their vines and fig trees,
He broke in pieces the trees in their dominion.
He spoke, and there came locusts
And grasshoppers without number,
Which ate up every herb in their land,
And ate up the fruit in their field.
He smote all the first-born in their land,
The firstlings of all their strength.

In this poem the power of the God of Sinai embraces all the visitations of Nature, whether the evil came from the land, the water, or the air; according to his will storms and earthquakes rage; at his command the waters are turned into blood; the trees and herbage are destroyed because he wishes it; and finally man himself falls before the wrath of an avenging deity.

We have seen that the theophany in the Psalter centers in the conception of God as the power in the tempest. Every storm suggested religious thoughts to the Hebrew, just as the majority of children today hear in the thunder God's voice. Although the religious belief is the foundation and motive for the description, the only instance of a storm being definitely described in the Psalter is the nature-piece known to us as Psalm 29. It is a picture of God's glory in the thunderstorm. The storm sweeps from north to south, and its triumphant progress is described step by step with a beautiful symmetry and climactic effect. The prelude is an ascription of praise to the Almighty and calls upon heavenly ones to praise him:

Ascribe to Jehovah, ye sons of God,
Ascribe to Jehovah honor and praise!
Ascribe to Jehovah all honor due to his name!
Kneel ye before him in holy adornment.

The whole storm is the voice of Jehovah, this expression occurring seven times in the three principal divisions of the poem; " reminding us," says Perowne, "of the ἑπτὰ βροντάι, the seven thunders of the Apocalypse." The first faint rumbling of the thunder is heard in the north:

The voice of Jehovah resounds over waters,
The God of glory thunders,
Jehovah thunders over great waters.

Now the storm approaches; it gathers force as the dark, blue clouds roll down across the sky; there is a moment of suspense, of impending danger, the dreadful quiet that precedes a great thunderstorm; and the Psalmist exclaims in awe-struck tones:

The voice of Jehovah is mighty,
The voice of Jehovah is glorious.

The storm breaks. It swoops down upon the mountains to the north. Falling upon Lebanon, the lightning tears the mighty cedars in pieces:

The voice of Jehovah breaks cedars,
Yea, Jehovah breaks in splinters the cedars of Lebanon.

Fiercer grows the storm, until the mountains seem to tremble to their foundations:

He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
And Sirion like a young unicorn.

The storm sweeps on with awful speed over the land; the lightning becomes more vivid and blinding, until God himself seems to part the blaze and give it the forked appearance as it darts and flares over the wilderness of Kadesh:

The voice of Jehovah cleaves rocks;
The voice of Jehovah shoots forth flames.
The voice of Jehovah makes the wilderness tremble;
Jehovah makes the wilderness of Kadesh tremble.

Finally the storm passes to the south and centers above the fruitful groves of Petra, rich in acacias and palm trees. Here the hurricane drives through the forests and strips the trees of their leaves; then with one mighty crash, which seems to be a shout of adoration from angels in the heavenly palace, the storm dies away:

The voice of Jehovah makes hinds cast their fawns,
Yea, strips the leaves from the forests,
And, in his palace, all things say: Glory!

In the last strophe the clouds have passed away and the sun shines in the clear heaven. The storm has been the opening of the assize in which the Eternal Judge will bless his people with justice and peace. After the diapason of the storm these quiet, sure words sink deep into the soul.

Jehovah has taken his judgment-seat above the flood,
And as king he is throned to all eternity.
Jehovah imparts strength to his people,
Jehovah blesses his people with peace.


1) PS. 92:4.

2) Ps. 18: 7-15

3) Ps. 68:7, 8

4) Ps. 68:32b, 33, 34. 

5) Ps. 144:5, 6, 7

6) Ps. 77: I620.

7) Dean Stanley, Jewish Church, p. 128.

8) PS. 105:28-36.