The Nature-Poetry of the Psalms.

Part II The Cosmos

Rev. W. T. Allison

University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada


The theophanyn as we have seen, was a nature-poem cultivated at an early age in Israel's progress. If Ps. 18 is not the oldest piece of writing in the Psalter, it is most certainly the product of a rude age. The theophanies of the Psalter can scarcely be said to set forth the idea of God as creator of the universe. The conception of God as creator and sustainer of all things was a later product of Hebrew thought. Centuries of patient meditation and of serene faith were required to perfect this idea in the mind of Israel, and we may be sure that countless nature-poems of a ruder and simpler sort were sung before the sublime cosmogony of Ps. 104 could be possible to Hebrew thought. David himself, father of Hebrew psalmody, believed that banishment from his native land would involve a change of religion on his part; David believed that Jehovah reigned as supreme God over Palestine alone.1 Neither David nor any other Hebrew poet for many succeeding generations could have written such a poem as Ps. I39 with its grasp of the belief in the immanence of God. Nature is viewed in a different light in the later stages of Jewish thought. As God is attributed with omnipresence, he becomes closer and more personal after the Exile. There is a gladness and kindliness, a large and ordered beauty of thought in the post-exilic psalms almost entirely lacking in the earlier and more awesome nature-pieces, the theophanies of the more child-like age. After the Exile the ripe reflection of Israel's sacred poets leads them to look upon mankind more kindly, upon Nature more pantheistically. Often to them Nature becomes instinct with emotion and sympathizes with the triumphs of righteousness; the hills break into singing and the trees of the forest clap their hands.2 It is to this late period, therefore, that the majority of the nature-pieces of the Psalter must be ascribed, most surely all those poems which teach the transcendence, the omnipresence and the sustaining grace of the God of the universe. It is our purpose to examine this body of nature-poetry, and, first, those poems which relate to the cosmos.

The most complete and most beautiful poetic rendition of the creation story in the Psalter is Ps. 104. By the order of thought it is apparent that the poet is familiar with the account given in the first chapter of Genesis. In the beginning God caused the light to shine and created the firmament:

Thou coverest thyself with light as with a mantle,
Thou stretchest out the heavens like a tent.

God divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament:

Thou framest out of waters thine upper stories,3
Thou makest clouds thy chariot,
Thou ridest on the wings of the wind.
Thou makest winds thy messengers,
And flames of fire thy servants.

Then was the dry land created:

Thou hast founded the earth on its pillars,
So that it may not be shaken forever and ever.

The process of the earth emerging from the chaos of waters is described as an explanation of the phrase in Genesis, " the gathering together of the waters:"

Thou hast covered it with the deep as with a garment,
The waters stood above the mountains,
But at thy menace they fled,
At thy thunder they shrank together,
To the place thou hadst made ready for them
A bound hast thou set for them, which they dare not pass over,
Nor henceforth cover the earth.

At this point in the progress of the poem there is a diversion. The poet allows his thoughts to wander from the great flood of primeval chaos to the stream which waters the valley where he dwells,4 the scene near at hand catches his eye and he bids the heavenly muse indulge him while he sings a tender little home-song in the pause between two great strophes of his grand song of creation. And now he sings not of the roaring sea, that stood above the highest mountains in the far-gone ages, but of the sparkling springs between the mountains, where beast and bird quench their thirst:

Thou causest springs to flow in the valleys,
Between mountains they glide away;
They give drink to every beast of the field,
Wild asses thereat quench their thirst;
Birds of the air build their nests on the banks,
And warble forth songs from the branches.

And now as an afterthought, maybe, he traces the spring to its source, to the mountains, to the clouds, yea, to God himself in his high heaven:

From thine upper stories of clouds, thou givest drink to the mountains,
And the earth is sated with the fruit of thy works.

Returning once more to his stately theme he takes up the work of the third day of creation, when, according to the Genesis narrative, the earth brought forth grass and fruit. Here, however, be it noticed, the poet swings in to the present tense; God is still clothing the fields with plenty:

Thou causest grass to grow for cattle,
And herb for the service of man,
So that bread may come forth from the earth,
And wine to cheer man's heart,
Oil to make his skin to shine,
And bread to strengthen man's heart.

But God has not only made grass and pleasant places for men and cattle; the wise and beneficent Creator has also remembered the birds and beasts of the mountainous districts; Genesis is supplemented again with poetic amplitude:

The trees of Jehovah are sated with moisture,
The cedars of Lebanon which he has planted,
Wherein birds build their nests,
The stork with his home in the cypress.
High mountains are for the wild goats,
And rocks are a hiding-place for marmots5

On the fourth day God made the sun, the moon and the stars. The psalmist has already alluded to the seven planets in vs. 3. Here he speaks of the creation of the sun and moon only and his reference is brief. His imagination is brought down to earth from the spacious starry places by his thought of day and night, those age-worn themes of poetic inspiration. He thinks of the life that lives by night and by day, the lions which roar in the darkness which God has provided for their covert, and man who toils through the cheerful day:

Thou hast made the moon for appointed seasons;
The sun knows his journey home.
Thou makest darkness and it becomes night,
When all beasts of the wilderness rouse;
The lions roar after their prey,
And claim their food from God.
The sun rises, they retreat,
and stretch themselves out in their lairs;
Man goes forth to his work,
And to his labor until the evening.

Here the order of the prose narrative on which he has been depending thus far fails to hold the impetuous song of the poet longer He has already sung of man, the last and supreme product of creative work; so he anticipates the climax of the creation week and describes all created life in one grand sweep of jubilant praise:

How many are thy works, O Jehovah!
Thou hast in wisdom created them all.
The earth is full of thy creatures;
Yonder sea, far and wide so vast,
Wherein is a countess swarm,
Creatures small and great.
There ride the ships,
And that leviathan which thou hast formed to play with him.
They all wait upon thee
To give them their food in due season.
What thou givest to them they gather;
Thou openest thy hand, they feast;
Thou hidest thy face, they are frightened;
Thou withdrawest their breath, they die,
And turn again into dust.
Thou sendest forth thy breath, they spring into being,
And thou renewest the face of the earth.

In this ode the psalmist's conception of creation is distinguished by several characteristics held in common by his brother poets of the Psalter. The creation of the heavens and the earth was accomplished by divine fiat. Creation of life in the outset has been followed by continuous creative acts; God is above Nature and is renewing the face of the earth from day to day, giving nourishment to all animate life, which lays down or takes up life at the will of the Most High. The psalmist is also entirely optimistic; God is good, and all that God has made and is making is good; even the wild beasts fill a necessary place in the scale of being and are furnished with their prey by God. Nature may be " red in tooth and claw "—the psalmist shows that he is aware of this by his reference to the wild beasts that seek their prey by night but God has established this order of things and, therefore, it must be good. Other animals may not be useful; the poet tacitly confesses that the leviathan6 seems to him a useless sort of a creature, but there must be some raison d'être for its existence, and he advances the ingenious guess that it was made to be a plaything for the Creator. So the whole world is good, and the whole world is dependent upon God, and the whole world should rejoice in the works of its God, its Creator and Sustainer.

The tendency of the Hebrew poet to draw broadly is nowhere better illustrated than in this poem. Although the song is loaded with color, and is of great tenderness and beauty, it has a certain grandeur of conception which carries it in the large even when small objects are imaged. Much is left to the reader's imagination; the general effect is given, but the details must be supplied. This is the secret of the poem; by no other method could such sublimity and such a series of pictures be gathered in so brief a compass. Like Milton the poet ascends from the depths to the heights; he sweeps air and earth and sea; he loses none of the grand effects of the panorama of life; the ordered outlines of the universe are all held in his far-seeing eye, and the jubilant note of his song never falters. All is clear, concrete, beautiful. How swiftly, how easily, how naively he travels from the abyss to simple scenes and to the life of man.

Having now examined the order and scope of the poem let us study the childlike ideas of the cosmos which it shares with the writer of Genesis and the cosmogonies of other peoples. The light in which God covered himself as with a garment was the supernal light which flashed forth as the divine radiance before the sun existed and which gave rise to the title, "Father of Lights," and to the expression, "In Thy light shall we see light." The statement that God stretches out the heavens as a tent reflects the early idea that God spreads out the blue tent of sky every morning and fastens it to the mountains, the pillars of the world standing at the extremities of the horizon. The conception of God in the beginning stretching out the heavens above the earth is common to various primitive cosmogonies. The Babylonian account relates how Tiamat, the dragon-mother of the abyss, rebelled against the gods, and Marduk, god of light, went against her and after an arduous struggle defeated her, as the sun vanquishes the wintry flood. "He cleft her like a fish into two parts; one-half he took, made it heaven's arch, pushed bars before it, stationed watchmen, not to let out its waters he gave them as a charge." This separation of the upper from the lower waters corresponds to similar features in other mythologies showing the idea to have been very widespread in primitive times. The common Egyptian belief, which varied somewhat in different localities, was that all life lay in germ in a world-egg which slept on the bosom of the primeval flood. Life was developed from this egg by the god of light. The Phoenician myth enlarging on the Egyptian story finds that Χονσωρ split the egg in two, upon which one of the pieces became heaven and the other earth. Another Egyptian story is seemingly a refinement on the world-egg idea. It relates that earth and sky were originally two lovers lost in the primeval waters, the god lying under the goddess. " On the day of creation," so the story runs, "a new god, Shu, slipped between the two, and seizing Nuit, the goddess, with both hands he lifted her above his head with outstretched arms." So the sky has remained since then far removed above the earth. The dream of the world-egg has been very persistent in mythology. As far east as Polynesia the story is current, having been handed down from remote times.7 There Tangaloa, the god of heaven, is represented as a bird which hovered over the ocean-water till he laid an egg. The Bible account makes reference to the spirit of God brooding over the primeval waters, and the Talmudists compared this divine spirit to a dove, leading modern critics to believe that the late author rewriting the first chapter of Genesis substituted spirit of God for " Bird of God."8 We can, at least, be certain that there was a widespread early belief that the universe originated from water and that a division of something took place, symbolized by an egg or a fish, into two parts, the sky and the earth.

Our poet also follows early fancies respecting the composition and secrets of the blue sky, when he says: "Thou framest out of water thine upper stories." Light is thrown upon this passage by the Babylonian story of the creation where it says: "The sacred house of the gods had not been erected in the Holy Place, no reed had yet budded, no tree had been formed.9 The Babylonians placed Anu and the other gods in mansions above the firmament. The Greeks likened the vault of heaven to burnished metal. The Hebrew poets conceived the sky as a blue vault or arched dome with the mountains as its pillars or supports. Both Babylonians and Hebrews fancied that above this vault of sapphire rolled the upper sea, which was let down through the holes in the sky roof as rain to water the earth. The luminaries were supposed to be attached to this solid vault of blue and ordained by a higher power to travel in their appointed way along its inner side v3sible to mankind. In vs. 19 of this poem the planets are said to be sentinels who keep the earth from being flooded by a too great volume of water pouring through the holes in the sky disc "He drew a barrier, placed sentinels, and commanded them not to let the waters through." According to a Chaldean myth the sun himself, before he can flood the world with light, has to draw back the bolts of the blue sky and enter through the aperture in the cast. The beautiful line in this poem, "The sun knows his journey home," probably alluded to a similar or the same story.

The cosmogonic references in the Psalter outside Ps. 104 are few. There is an echo of the early belief that the dry land, and first of all the mountain peaks, rose out of the primeval flood, in Ps. 90:

Before mountains were born,
Before earth and world were brought forth,
From everlasting to everlasting thou art God.

The conception of the earth as a disc resting on the world-stream is found in Ps. 24:

The world is Jehovah's and the fulness thereof,
The earth and its inhabitants.
He has founded it on seas,
And established it on floods. (Vss. 1, 2.)

The author of Ps. 33 reverts to the creation story in the following graphic sketch:

By the word of Jehovah were the heavens made,
And all their host by the breath of his mouth.
He holds the water of the sea as in a wine-skin,
The ocean he stores up
Let all the world fear Jehovah,
Let every dweller on earth stand before him in awe,
For he spoke and it was! (Vss 6-9b.)

This passage is dependent on the creation story as related in the first chapter of Genesis, and it stands alone in the Psalter in its distinct reference to the spoken word of God at creation, the expression "And God said, Let there be light, etc.," which occurs so frequently in Genesis. "He spoke, and it was, "is the rendition by this poet. A mystic power was attributed by the Hebrews to the spoken word. The conception of Philo and other late Jewish writers that the thought of God resulted in the creation of the world bears a close relation to the cosmogony in Manu. In this Sanskrit story the Creator is the self-existent Lord, who "with a thought created the waters, and deposited in them a seed," which later on became " a golden egg, in which egg he himself is born as Brahma, the progenitor of all the worlds. " But at the time when this psalm was written, the Hebrew poets had not arrived at this highly speculative stage where thought itself was believed to be sufficient to effect the making of all things. Here the spoken word was necessary: "He spoke and it was!" In Ps. 136, however, we arrive at a more refined conception:

Give thanks to the Lord of Lords;
     For his goodness is ever-enduring.
Who alone does great wonders;
     For his goodness is ever-enduring.
Who made the heavens by knowledge;
     For his goodness is ever-enduring.
Who founded the earth upon waters;
     For his goodness is ever-enduring.
Who has made great lights;
     For his goodness is ever-enduring.
The sun to rule the day;
     For his goodness is ever enduring.
Moon and stars to rule the night;
     For his goodness is ever-enduring.

The statement that God made the heavens " by knowledge," denotes the late development in Jewish thought already referred to, "the third cosmogony," as Cheyne calls it. A belief arose in later Jewish theology, founded on the phrase in Gen. 1:6, "Let us make men," that subordinate agents, sons of God, aided the Highest in his work of creation. The intermediate agency came at last to be called "Wisdom" and a firm belief arose, which established itself in Alexandrian philosophy, that this Logos or Wisdom was pre-existent with God, and acted as a mediating cause between the absolute and transcendent deity and passive, formless matter in the generation of the world.10 This verse, then, in a late psalm, one of the very latest psalms in the Psalter, represents the last word of the Jewish nature-poets on the creation story.

The poets who composed Pss. 8 and 19 were acquainted with the ancient mythical stories of the creation. Ps. 8 is of late authorship owing to its dependence on the first chapter of Genesis, not only in its emphasis of man's close relation to the divine nature (Gen. 1:27), but in its reference to the dominion granted to man over the animal world (Gen. 1:26, 28).11 Ps. 19 has often been called a day-piece in contrast to Ps. 8, which celebrates the glory of the midnight sky, but Ps. I9 speaks eloquently of the night as well as the day, for day and night divide the honors equally of heralding God's glory throughout all the earth. Wellhausen asserts that a stanza has been lost from this poem, which probably had place between the stanza referring to day and night jointly and the stanza referring to the sun. If this supposition can be reasonably entertained, and there seems to be no reason why it should not, it is not improbable that the missing strophe was in praise of the moon. The strophe in honor of the sun is one of the few relics remaining to us of the very numerous solar myths which must have been current among the Hebrews in early times. Our poet sings of the sun as a young bridegroom who leaves the eastern alcove12 of the tent of heaven every morning, and holding on his appointed way completes the circuit of the sky and sinks into the arms of night in the west when day is done. In all early solar myths the sun was described as meeting with many adventures on the heavenly path, fighting with the clouds and storms and mists. A suggestion of these fanciful wars of light against miasmas and the powers of darkness is to be found in this poem embodied in the single epithet of "warrior," which the psalmist applies to the stout-hearted bridegroom. This old fragment of a solar myth is unique in the Psalter. It may be that many nature-pieces of the same sort were omitted when the books of the Psalter were made up, on the ground that the mythic element was out of place in a collection of religious songs. As it is, this fragment seems to have been subjected to careful revision; the poem in which it is set is from two and possibly three different hands. The last half of the psalm with its praise of the moral law is generally regarded as being of later authorship than the first strophes, and the sun stanza may be a very ancient fragment adopted by the writer of the first strophe of the poem, and put to religious use. At any rate, the few lines constitute a gem of the purest ray, and the simple grandeur of its imagery has lifted the most un-poetic of readers into a new vision of the daily drama of the sun and sky that is enacted between the hours of sunrise and sunset. As we read these glowing lines with their perennial freshness and pulsation of joy, we cannot wonder that so many races of men have worshiped the sun, the symbol of life and light to all the world.

It is there he has prepared a tent for the sun,
And thence he comes forth, as from the bridal chamber the bridegroom,
And rejoices like a warrior, to run his course.
From one end of heaven he sets out,
And to the other holds his winding way,
And nothing from his fervor can be hid.

A nature-piece containing a very splendid description of the creative work of God, and allied to Ps. 8 in its statement thatthe heavens are the work of God's hands, is the final strophe of Ps. 102. In Ps. 8 the starry sky, however infinite or magnificent it may be, is inferior to man, the child of God, but in Ps. I02 the only poem in the Psalter which speaks of nature as being changeable,13 man feels his incompleteness. He looks up through the mutable skies to the power that is enthroned over all, that shines through all, to the King of the changing, perishable heavens and Ruler of men. In a noble song the poet cries to his God who remaineth the same throughout all generations. In the fever and the fret of life, in the calamities that have come upon him, the psalmist finds solace in the contemplation of the eternity of God. For classic dignity of phrase and sublimity of conception this brief lyric is not excelled in any literature:

O, my God, I cry, take me not away in the midst of ms days!
Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth.
The heavens are the work of thy hands.
They vanish but thou endurest;
They all fade away like a garment;
Like a vesture thou changest them and they change.
But thou remainest the same;
Thy years have no end.
The sons of thy servants shall abide,
And their descendants be established before thy face.

Ps. 102 is supposed to have been written a short time previous to the Maccabean rising in I67 B. C.14 The Holy City lies in waste and ruin, the moans of the prisoners are heard, and the free are doomed to death at the hands of the Syrian persecutors; the fortunes of the people of God are at their lonvest point, and the poet and saint, an exile from his beloved city, a fugitive afar in the desert, may well think in the excess of his grief that the very heavens are fading away like a garment, that all below heaven changes and is insecure. Yet in the depths of despair hope springs eternal in this poor man's heart, and with a sublime faith he looks above the swooning stars and the mutable skies and sees the Everlasting whose fingers framed the heavens and who will remember his suffering servants through all generations.

The Hebrew of old who passed so many of his days and nights under the open sky and who breathed the spirit of the desert in its freedom and immensity could scarcely fail to be impressed with the vastness of the material world. A modern Hebrew, or gentile, cooped up in the narrow streets of our great cities, seldom catches a glimpse of the sky beyond the smoke and dust of the town, nor does the modern man in more spacious places live near to Nature's heart. Poetry, that high seriousness of spirit, that contemplation which finds its inspiration in elevated thoughts, finds few devotees in the hurry and bustle of today; the thoughts of the average man fail to struggle above the fringes of lamplight and thousand-fold exhalations of the crowded city to live like the meditative Teufelsdroeckh "alone with the stars." Today we seldom lift our eyes to the sky except it be to discover whether we shall have rain or fine weather. But the ancient men, whose nameless songs are inclosed in the Hebrew Book of Praises, saw in the infinite skies Him who was " the fountain-light of all their seeing." " For with thee," says the psalmist poet, anticipating Wordsworth by full two thousand years, "is the fountain of life, in thy light shall we see light." The greatest thoughts of the religious poets of the Psalter in their treatment of nature find expression in terms of vastness in analogies truly sublime but easily comprehended by those who swept the lustrous eastern skies from the housetop or from the sheep-fold or from the bivouac of the caravan in the desert. They were fond of making analogies such as these:

Thy loving-kindness, O Lord, is as the heavens
Thy faithfulness reacheth unto the skies.
Thy righteousness is like the mountains of God,
Thy judgments like the great deep. (Ps. 36:5, 6.)

Or take that comforting message of grandest and sweetest song, which has fallen like dew into millions of weary, sin-sick souls:

For as high as heaven is above the earth,
So great is his goodness to them that fear him.
As far as the East is from the West,
So far has he removed our transgressions from us. (Ps. 103: 11, 12.)

Numerous citations could be made to show that the psalmist poets were deep students of Nature on her infinite side, but it will perhaps be sufficient to close this section of our subject bearing on the cosmos poems by touching on the masterpiece of the Psalter in its developed conception of God.

Ps. 139 might well be entitled "Vastness." Ibn Ezra has pronounced this poem to be "the crown of all the Psalms." Erskine of Linlathen said: " That is the Psalm, which I should wish to have before me on my deathbed." The vindictive close of the poem, expressing the Jew's power of passionate hatred, sets off all the more the wonderful serenity and majesty of this adoration of the God who is immanent though unseen, and who fills not only the whole universe, but the soul of man. This is the highest conception of God as the Omniscient One which Hebrew thought achieved, and it is astonishing in its concrete presentment of a speculative theme.

Whither can I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither can I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, lo, thou art there!
If I should take the wings of the dawn,
And alight in the uppermost parts of the sea,
Even there would thy hand lead me,
And thy right hand would hold me.
Should I say, "Darkness, cover me:
And at night be it light about me!"—
Even darkness darkens not with thee,
But night shines as the day—
Gloom is as light, and light is as gloom.


1) 1 Sam. 21:19.

2) Ps, 98:7, 8. Ps. 96; 11, 12.

3) Wellhausen's translation in Polychrome edition of the Psalms.

4) Dean Stanley has pointed out that all the natural features of this passage are within view from the cedar-groves of Lebanon. See Sermons in the East, p. 217.

5) Marmots are rock-rabbits.

6) The crocodile according to Job 41. So Cheyne, Book of Psalms, p. 84. According to Hastings, Bible Dictionary, p. 503, the leviathan is the dragon of the Tehom Rabbah.

7) See article on "Cosmogony" in Encyclopedia Biblica, Vol. I, p. 943.

8) See article on "Cosmogony" in Encyclopedia Britannica. Gunkel. Schöpfung und Chaos, p. 8.

9) See Journal Royal Assyriological Society, Vol. XXIII (1897), pp. 393 ff.

10) See article "Cosmogony" in Hastings' Bible Dictionary, p. 506.

11) Wellhausen, The Book of Psalms, p. 166.

12) Cheyne explains the kuppah or alcove as being part of the nuptial chamber curtained off for the bride, probably a survival of the wife 's separate tent. See Cheyne the Book of Psalms, p. 54.

13) Compare Ps. 89: 36, 37. Oaths are taken by the sun and moon.

14) See Wellhausen, The Psalms, p. 203.