The Things of God
O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
God didn’t have to create a material world. He could have made an entirely spiritual universe, with no matter or physical laws. He could have made the angels and quit while he was ahead. He could have decided to make nothing at all and carry on rejoicing in the fellowship of the Trinity for all eternity.
But instead he made a universe filled with things. Objects. Stuff. Planets, weather, colors, animals, vegetables, minerals. People, complete with noses and kidneys and bodily fluids. It is curious: an immaterial and entirely spiritual God created a thoroughly material and physical world. Perhaps it should surprise us more than it does.
So why did God make things? Have you ever wondered that? You’re reading Scripture and enjoying its spirituality when suddenly there’s an extended section on hair or locusts or water. It jolts. You are struck by the strange physicality of the text. Somehow it feels as though material like this ought not to be in the Bible. So why is it?
We could answer that question a number of ways. One is to picture God like a fountain, bubbling up with so much joy that it overflows into the creation of the world. God does not create because he has to or because he lacks anything. He creates because his delight in being God is so abundant and bountiful that it spills out into a universe of wonders.
Another is to see the physical world as a display case of God’s multicolored wisdom. This is the explanation in Psalm 104, one of Scripture’s most beautiful songs. God’s marvellous intelligence and creativity become visible to us in the things he has made. The psalmist, without access to encyclopedias or the internet, already had a whole bunch of examples in mind: valleys, lions, storks, wine, rock badgers, oil. The more of creation we discover—tropical fish, triceratops, Iguazu Falls, wallabies, coffee—the more our amazement as God’s wisdom increases. “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures” (Ps. 104:24).
Created things teach us practical wisdom as well. Ants show us the power of diligence, even if we feel small or insignificant: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Prov. 6:6). We can learn about sexual fidelity from hot coals, about making money from the flight of eagles, about handling anger from churning butter (Prov. 6:27–29; 23:4–5; 30:33). The growth of a tiny mustard seed into a huge bush is an illustration of the power of faith (Matt. 17:20). Jesus’ teaching is full of things—sheep, birds, flowers, coins, seeds, trees, fields, salt, light, feet, rain, the sunrise—which instruct us how to live, simply by being there. Watch and learn.
For Paul in Romans 1, creation reveals God’s invisible power and divine nature. Few of us can stand in front of the Grand Canyon or see a high-definition picture of the Horsehead Nebula without wanting to praise somebody or something for the majesty of what is before us. Some of us will suppress that urge. But those of us who don’t and allow the song of gratitude to swell within us like a storm will find ourselves concluding all sorts of things about our Maker. The God of the Sahara must be vast, boundless, and expansive. The God of quarks must have an unimaginable eye for detail. The God of wombats must have a sense of humour. Everything in creation has theological implications, and one of the joys of being human is figuring out what they are.
What all of these answers have in common is the fact that creation points beyond itself. Things exist not for their own sakes but to draw us back to God. In Augustine’s image, the gifts of God in creation are like a boat which takes us back to our homeland: a means of transport which we can (and should) celebrate but never mistake for the destination itself. C. S. Lewis talks about following the sunbeams back to the sun so that we enjoy not just the object of goodness but the source of good. Creation preaches to us. The things of God reveal the God of things.
Sometimes we look at things upside down on this point. Theologians point out (rightly) that the language used for God in Scripture is often anthropomorphic, and we should not take it literally. (God does not literally have a mighty arm, the nations are not literally under his feet, sacrifices do not literally reach his nostrils, and so on.) But this is only half the story, and in some ways the less important half.
It might be more helpful to say that the world is theomorphic: things take the form they do because they are created to reveal God. We describe God as “the Rock” not just because rocks exist and they provide a good picture of safety and stability. Rocks exist because God is the Rock: the Rock of our salvation, the Rock who provides water in the desert, the Rock whose work is perfect and all his ways are just. When we flip things around like this, we get a very different picture of the purpose of creation, of physical stuff, of things. Ever since the beginning, the surface of this planet has been covered with rocks, and every one of them has been preaching a message of the faithfulness, security, and steadfastness of God. “For their rock is not as our Rock; our enemies are by themselves” (Deut. 32:31).
This book is an attempt to listen to messages like that. Some chapters offer an exposition of creation, a meditation on who God is, as revealed through specific things. Others consider what a particular thing represents in Scripture and ask what we can learn from it. Others do a bit of both. As you read them, my hope is that you will get a deeper understanding not just of Scripture but of the world you live in, and ultimately of the God who made it all. (I love the idea that you might be walking down the street one day, see one of the things that we consider in this book, and get jolted out of your daydream into wonder and worship.) The book asks questions like, What does the existence of honey tell us about God or about what he has done in Jesus Christ? What are we supposed to learn from the fact that he created pigs, flowers, donkeys, fruit, and earthquakes? Might there even be significance in things that human beings have made: pots, trumpets, tools, cities? After all, “the earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it” (Ps. 24:1 NIV).
Come and see.