I’ve always wondered what it meant when the Psalmist would call on the mountains or stars to “praise” God. How were they to do that? I figured it was just a figure of speech and didn’t give it any more thought. I recently started J. Richard Middleton’s new book A New Heaven and a New Earth and was fascinated by his discussion of this issue. He begins by observing that “in popular Christian lore it is almost axiomatic that humans were created to worship God.” (p. 39) “It is sometimes shocking therefore, for readers of the Bible to realize that the initial purpose and raison d’être of humanity is never explicitly portrayed in Scripture as the worship of God (or anything that would conform to our notion of the ‘spiritual,’ with its dualistic categories).” (pp. 39-40) Rather, a reading of Genesis 1 shows that the “fundamental human task is conceived in rather mundane terms as the responsible exercise of power on God’s behalf over our earthly environment.” (p. 39) This is not to say worship is not important. “What we need,” he says, “is a redefinition of ‘worship.’” (p. 40)
“First of all, we should not reduce human worship of God to verbal, emotionally charged expressions of praise (which is what we usually mean by the term). Rather, our worship consists in all that we do.” (p. 40) Looking at Psalm 148 he notes that all sorts of things from creation are called on to “praise” God. “In fact, humans are mentioned in only two of the eleven verses (vv. 1-4, 6-12) that call on God’s heavenly and earthly creatures to worship him.” (p. 40) According to this Psalm “mountains and stars worship God just as much as humans do. . . But how do mountains and stars worship God? Certainly not verbally or with emotions. Rather, mountains worship God simply by being mountains, covered with vegetation or with steep crags or glaciers, depending on their elevation. And stars worship God by beings stars, burning with nuclear energy according to their sizes and their life cycles, ranging from those like our own sun to the red giants, white dwarfs, pulsars, and black holes. If mountains worship God by being mountains and stars worship God by being stars, how do humans worship God? By being human, in the full glory of what that means. Humans, the Bible tells us, are cultural beings, defined not by our worship, for worship is what defines creation (all creatures all called to worship). But the human creature is made to worship God in a distinctive way: by interacting with the earth, using our God-given power to transform our earthly environment into a complex of world (a sociocultural world) that glorifies our creator.” (pp. 40-41)
A New Heaven and a New Earth by J. Richard Middleton is from Baker Academic. It is a paperback with 336 pages and sells for $26.99.
Richard Middleton (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam) is professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary and adjunct professor of theology at Roberts Wesleyan College, both in Rochester, New York. He authored The Liberating Image and coauthored the bestsellers Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be and The Transforming Vision.