The breath of life

Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s the most natural thing in the world, an automatic behavior regulated by the “non-thinking” part of our brain. When we’re afraid, our breathing may get rapid and shallow; learning to intentionally slow it down can help calm us. But most of the time, we simply take our breathing for granted. It’s like…well, breathing.

Then came COVID. We don’t take our breath for granted anymore.

And neither does the psalmist.

. . .

As suggested in previous posts, if we want to see the world as the psalmist does, we need to join in the psalmist’s celebration of creation and its Creator. Psalm 104 gives us a cosmically powerful God who also cares for what he creates, including his human creatures.

The psalmist marvels at the vast diversity of creation. A cosmic God doesn’t go small. The earth and sea are populated with creatures of every shape and size:

Lord, you have done so many things!
    You made them all so wisely!
The earth is full of your creations!
And then there’s the sea, wide and deep,
    with its countless creatures—
    living things both small and large.
There go the ships on it,
    and Leviathan, which you made, plays in it!
All your creations wait for you
    to give them their food on time.
When you give it to them, they gather it up;
    when you open your hand, they are filled completely full!
(vss. 24-28, CEB)

Here, the psalmist makes special note of “Leviathan.” Ask a dozen scholars what the name refers to, and you’ll get a dozen answers. The truth is that no one knows for sure. Read Job 41, however, and you will get a mythic description of a gigantic, fearsome beast which today we would call a “sea monster.” It’s as if the psalmist wants to say, “How great is God? Even Leviathan, the most terrifying of all creatures, is merely his plaything.” And again, we’re immediately pointed to the providential care of this powerful God. Every one of the multitude of creatures God made waits upon him for their food, and God is not stingy in the giving of it.

God’s providence, however, is not simply about food, but the very sustenance of life itself:

But when you hide your face, they are terrified;
    when you take away their breath,
    they die and return to dust.
When you let loose your breath, they are created,
    and you make the surface of the ground brand-new agai
n. (vss. 29-30)

The New Revised Standard and New International Versions of the text translate the second “breath” as “spirit” — but the Hebrew word (ruach) is the same in both cases. The breath of God and the Spirit of God cannot be neatly separated in Scripture, even in the New Testament (the Greek word pneuma, like the Hebrew ruach, can be translated either way). In the psalmist’s view, God breathes life into his creatures; should he withdraw it, they would return to the dust from which they were created.

. . .

Psalms like this one remind us just how different the poet’s worldview is from our own. Whether we realize it or not, even as believers, we often see the world through a perspective from which God is mostly absent — except for the occasional divine interventions for which we fervently pray.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we return to a premodern understanding of life in which what we know of physics, biology, and medicine did not exist. Modernity itself was founded on the idea that God created an orderly universe, and that studying and naming that order was itself an act of worship. But we’ve come a long way since then, and divine providence has been pushed to the margins of intellectual respectability.

If we want to understand how the psalmist thinks, we have to recover a robust sense of providence. As much (or as little!) as we know about COVID, none of that knowledge is intrinsically incompatible with the belief that life itself belongs to God, that our breath depends on the breath of God. And as we’ll see, all of this points to the glory of God, in which the psalmist rejoices.

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