Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 104:24-30) transports me to sixth grade English class at Oakley Elementary, where skinny old Ms. Woods sat behind her desk reading Moby Dick to us in between bites of potato chips, as she had some kind of health problem that required her to be nibbling on something constantly. It would take years, if not decades, for me to comprehend the book’s beauty and complexity and metaphysical poetry and allegorical nature. I can still hear the voice and can picture Ms. Woods in that classroom, smacking her lips and flicking potato chip dust off her fingers as she read: It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea. . . When, after spending his uniform interval there for several successive nights without uttering a single sound; when, after all this silence, his unearthly voice was heard announcing that silvery, moon-lit jet, every reclining mariner started to his feet as if some winged spirit had lighted in the rigging, and hailed the mortal crew. “There she blows!” Had the trump of judgment blown, they could not have quivered more; yet still they felt no terror; rather pleasure. For though it was a most unwonted hour, yet so impressive was the cry, and so deliriously exciting, that almost every soul on board instinctively desired a lowering.
The fascination with dangerous and alluring sea creatures did not start with Herman Melville. Job and the Psalmist and the prophet Isaiah all wrote eloquently and poetically about Leviathan. Job hears the voice of God describing this beautiful but terrifying sea creature that is in some ways superior to humanity: Any hope of subduing it is false; the mere sight of it is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse it. Here in today’s Psalm, we see that this most feared symbol of destructive power was created in God’s wisdom. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. God gives breath to these breath-taking creatures, and foreshadowing Jesus’ words about being born again, born of the Spirit, the Psalmist says this of the creatures’ relationship with God: When You take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. What an awesome theology! As Eugene Peterson translated the 24th verse of the passage today in The Message Bible: What a wildly wonderful world, God! You made it all. Even our most feared symbols of destruction, whatever they are, they exist at God’s pleasure; they breathe by the Spirit of God.
Melville’s book is captivating because it has so many levels of interpretation. On a psychological level it speaks to individual obsession and hubris, and the inevitable defeat that comes when one is bent on destroying a feared enemy. This lesson, and this instinctive desire for a lowering, gets repeated over and over. On a larger scale, Melville was writing an allegory of America in the mid 19th century, stubbornly headed toward a chaotic cataclysm of war. It seems to me that the cultural lesson gets repeated over and over as well, that when nationalistic pride makes our culture obsessive and compulsive, when we stubbornly think we can chase down and subdue the forces that threaten us, there are subterranean and submarine creatures able to pop up and bite our legs off, if not drag us down into the deep. Perhaps behind all of our blowhard bravado is an instinctive desire for a lowering as well. And, according to the Psalmist, all of it, including our feared enemies, is part and parcel of the wild and wonderful creation, sustained and renewed by the breath of God. Try wrapping your mind around that while eating a bag of Ruffles.
How about you? Where does this Poetry Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.