The Common Good
May 2012

God the Farmer

by Ellen F. Davis | May 2012

Psalm 65 gives us a unique portrait of a deity who tends the soil, waters its furrows, and crowns the year with a rich harvest.

Food-related coverage in this issue was supported by ELCA World Hunger (www.elca.org/hunger)
 

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The Psalms are the icons of the Bible. Icons are paintings of Christ or another holy figure used in worship and devotions in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. They are, like the Bible itself, understood to be inspired by the Holy Spirit. The psalms resemble icons in that they are the most visual part of the Bible: They speak to our religious imaginations in memorable verbal images; they create pictures in our minds. Icons are considered to be “windows into heaven.” They are an opening from our world into the world to come. But of course one can look through a window in both directions: Icons open out from this world into the kingdom of God, and at the same time they let us see our world from the perspective of that one.

And that is exactly what the psalms do: They reveal to us our world, our own lives, from a God’s-eye point of view. When you ponder a psalm deeply, you find your ordinary perspective on the world challenged and gradually changed.

I want to focus on Psalm 65, which speaks to us powerfully about God and creation and our own place in the created order. As you read it, think of yourself as encountering an icon, a holy image given us so the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened, as the Apostle Paul says (Ephesians 1:18), so that we may see our world and ourselves as God might see us.

In this verbal icon, I see four things that might surprise us, enlightening the eyes of our heart.

The first challenge. The first surprise to our ordinary way of thinking comes in the very first line: “To You [God], silence is praise.” That statement might well stop us in our tracks in our noise-saturated world. I did my own translation of Psalm 65 because other renderings often just walk around that statement, leaving out the silence altogether, so the first line reads: “You are to be praised ...” But the Hebrew is quite clear: “To You, silence is praise, O God in Zion.”

Honoring God begins when we stop talking or shouting or rushing around in our normal clamorous way—when we just stop. The person who taught me to ride a bicycle taught me first how to stop. “Then,” he said, “you won’t have to be afraid to ride, because you will know how to stop whenever you need to.” There is deep wisdom in that, and it is the same wisdom we encounter in this first line of the psalm, which is teaching us something about prayer. When we pray, we should first stop and listen. This psalm names God as “the One who hears prayer.” So we praise the God who truly listens by doing the same thing ourselves.   

The second challenge. A second surprise is that the first thing to come out of the silence is an honest acknowledgment of sin, of being overwhelmed by all we have done wrong and are still doing wrong: “Wrong acts—they are stronger than I am” (3). Probably all of us who think seriously about the ecological crisis feel exactly that: We are part of a society that has been whistling past the graveyard for a long time. We have a long history of wrongdoing, more than two centuries, and the problems we face—which we have largely created—are now a lot stronger than we are.

That is an honest statement, but the psalmist is not offering it as an excuse to give up. When we recognize that we are weak with respect to all that is wrong, then we are in the posture for prayer and repentance. Then we are ready to stop and offer praise for God’s power rather than our own, as we slowly begin to turn our lives around—no heroic gestures here, just a feeble bending away from what we have been doing wrong. Choosing God over our habitual misdeeds—that is daily, painstaking work. It proceeds by first one small choice and the follow-through, and then the next. Many of us know this in our personal lives, and now we must discover it in our common life, our social behavior. One decision at a time—that is how, by the grace of God, each of us, our families, our communities, our nation, and industrial society as a whole may gradually get out of the vise-like grip of our culturally induced misdeeds and walk a new path.

Last week I saw a friend whom I had not seen for a year or so, and she told me that her family had given up the car and is now using public transportation, or renting a car when they need it: “We don’t go to see our friends as often or as easily, but we want to simplify.” My friend and her husband are successful professionals whose kids are now grown. Many at their stage of life would go ahead and buy the fancy car they had always wanted, do some luxury travel, and live it up a little, rather than making things harder on themselves. But they see it differently. Their desire is to simplify, to have less and do less. I think our psalmist would understand: “Let us be satisfied with the goodness of Your house,” she prays to God, “the holiness of Your house” (4).

“Let us be satisfied”—that’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? It’s all about satisfaction, or the lack of it. The perpetual desire for satisfaction is what drives our consumerism and ultimately puts our planet at risk, and at the same time impoverishes so many in this country and around the world. What the psalmist and my friends see is that we will never get out from underneath our powerful wrongs until we can be satisfied, not with getting more (as we have all been trained to want), but rather with the steady flow of goodness that comes from God.

The third challenge. What would it mean to feel that satisfaction deeply and live out of it? This brings us to the third point at which the psalmist both guides and challenges us, as any good spiritual teacher does. The psalmist shows us what sincere praise looks like, praising God at both the macro level—God as Creator of heaven and earth—and also at the micro level: God who makes life possible every single day. Here God is praised as the One who “sets down the mountains in his strength” (6) and in the next breath as the One who “sets the grain” in the seed heads (9). “Setting” the mountains and “setting” the grain—it’s the same verb, and the point is that God, the Creator of everything, is the same One who sustains the life of every single plant, every ecosystem, day by day, with exquisite care. We might also imagine that the God who holds our souls in life grieves daily, as our recklessness reaches to place after place, jeopardizing and destroying life to a degree that is unprecedented in human history.

Many biblical passages portray God as the sustainer of life, but this psalm is wholly unique in giving us a detailed picture, an icon, of God the Farmer, who tends the soil, waters its furrows, blesses its growth with gentle rain, and crowns the year with a rich harvest. Now think about this for a moment. Almost all Israelites were farmers. So as they sang this song, they were honoring “God in Zion” as the One who shared their daily work of tending the fertile yet fragile farmland of the region, the thin-soiled, easily eroded hills around Jerusalem. Praising God the Good Farmer, they were taking on themselves the obligation to imitate the divine work of caring for the earth, perpetuating its fertility year after year.

Fewer and fewer of us are farmers today. So does this icon of God the Farmer mean anything at all to us? It should—it is one of the psalms commonly appointed for Thanksgiving Day and harvest time, when we give thanks for the fact that we can still eat day by day. This psalm reminds us that we cannot honor God at the macro level, as Creator, if we are not also honoring God at the micro level, in the ways that we live and work and eat from the good earth that God has made. The myriad small actions that make up daily life are our most essential acts of worship—which literally means “acknowledging God as worthy.” We all, individually and corporately, need to ask how we may praise God more fully and sincerely as we drive, or eat, or invest our retirement funds, or shop for food and clothing, or heat and cool the house and the sanctuary.

The fourth challenge. Our psalm begins with silence, with stilling our noisy selves, and it ends with jubilant song. This is the fourth and final challenge and surprise I find in the psalm: God’s praise does not come from human lips but rather from the fruitful earth itself. You might see this psalm as giving an update on the picture of creation that appears in the very first chapter of the Bible. You remember: In the first week of the world, God furnished the dry land with “plants seeding seed across the face of the earth” (Genesis 1:29), making enough food for every creature, and God viewed the whole setup and judged it to be tov me’od, very good indeed. Now Psalm 65 shows us what that divinely nurtured goodness looks like eons later in one place, in and around Jerusalem, the psalmist’s home. This farmer-poet, as I imagine her or him, writes a verbal icon of God the maker of heaven and earth, driving home at the end of a long hot day in the fields, the wagon so loaded that the grain is falling over the sides and God’s wagon tracks “drip richness,” as the psalmist says.

Now enter into this icon. Just sit here beside God in the wagon for a few moments and look around you. With your eyes closed but the eyes of your heart enlightened, experience the world as God does:

The meadows are clothed with the flocks,
and the valleys robed with grain.
They shout out; they even sing (13).

Can you see what God and the psalmist see? The grain-decked fields shouting and singing aloud, carrying on like worshippers (at least, like worshippers in traditions where they still know how to party in God’s presence); the fertile fields are a source of praise for God. So we’ve come full circle, back to where the psalm began, to that silence that is praise for God. Humans fall silent while the fields perform their wordless “Hallelujah Chorus.” Thus from first to last the psalmist is challenging us to hear what we cannot normally hear, deafened as we are by our own constant noise, whether it is piped into our ears or coming out of our mouths or racing through our unsettled minds and hearts. Calling for an end to all that noise, this verbal icon reveals to us the great harmonious hymn of all the creatures, the silent praise they give to God.

This is a psalm for reordering our hearts and minds and lives, so that our ears may be opened to what we have not been able to hear. We must pray that our eyes may be enlightened, so that we can look at the world with the kind of steady absorption that, sadly, we often squander on mere screens, so that we might catch just a glimpse of what God sees, and hear a note or two of the song that gives pleasure to God. I wonder if we can do it. Let us pray that we can, that it might mark for us the beginning of our willing participation in the created order, the choir of all the creatures, whose harmony gives praise and glory to the Maker and Monarch and Savior of all. Amen.

Ellen F. Davis is Amos Ragan Kearns Distinguished Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke University Divinity School and is the author of eight books, including Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.

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