The Trees Clap their Hands: What does it mean to say that creation praises the Creator?

trees dolomites birch crop
© Ruth Bancewicz

Are the Bible passages about trees and rivers that clap their hands, and mountains that burst into song simply metaphors about how creation inspires people to praise God, or does the non-human creation actually worship God in some unconscious way? This is the question that Mark Harris, lecturer in Science and Religion at Edinburgh University, asked in his seminar at the Faraday Institute earlier this year. This is particularly relevant to the current series of posts on how a scientist’s faith is enhanced through their own work, and links to Jeff Hardin’s own thoughts on how learning more about the world through science can help us to worship God more fully.

Verse 12 of Isaiah 55 is a good example of these natural praise texts. “You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” The writer of Psalm 19 was more cautious, saying that although “there is no speech”, the heavens still “declare the glory of God”.

Many of these passages are either songs or invitations to praise God. They might also be pointing to some great work God will do in the future or a testimony of what he has done in the past. No explanation of these metaphors is given in the Bible itself, so those us who are of a more analytical mindset are left to wonder what they actually mean.

© Ruth Bancewicz
© Ruth Bancewicz

Harris has found four main ways in which ‘natural praise’ can be interpreted. First, is as a metaphor for human praise, because the texts use human actions such as clapping or singing.

Second, these verses might reflect a prescientific belief that the world is permeated with spirits. Harris quickly dismissed this as an unrealistic interpretation of the worldview of the biblical writers, but highlighted the more nuanced view that there is some hidden relationship between creation and God that is revealed when God speaks through a storm or a burning bush.

The next interpretation has been put forward by Richard Bauckham: that creation praises God by simply being itself. This view seems to resonate best with most ordinary Christians, but what does it mean? Are we included in the equation too? Does everything we do count as praise, whether our actions are ethical or not?

Finally, there is the idea that nature will praise God in the end. There is suffering in the world, but it will not last forever. The praise of both the human and non-human creation is looking forward to that day.

© Ruth Bancewicz
© Ruth Bancewicz

Harris himself is undecided about what exactly creation is doing when it praises God. His scientific side (he has a PhD in earth sciences) leads him to ask questions that are unanswerable by theology alone. He is aware of the need to think about whether praise is something creation does in God or something God does in creation.

Harris is certain, however, that there is a relationship between creature and creator. We need to acknowledge creation’s groaning as well as praise, and avoid behaving as if everything revolves around ourselves. God clearly has a relationship with the natural world that is independent of humans. The great theologian Karl Barth summed this up beautifully when he wrote, “when man accepts again his destiny in Jesus Christ…he is only like a late-comer slipping shamefacedly into creation’s choir in heaven and earth, which has never ceased its praise”.

To find out more about how science can lead to worship, see God in the Lab: How Science Enhances Faith (Monarch, 2015).

5 thoughts on “The Trees Clap their Hands: What does it mean to say that creation praises the Creator?

  1. michala February 10, 2015 / 3:46 pm

    Isiaha 55 reads metaphorically but it depends on the context & how you interpret the text.
    Its not clear whether the creation story in Genesis is meant to be taken literally or not.
    If you believe in creation & the creator then I would say you should take it literally to a point.( too simplistic, maybe?)
    There is an element of truth in each book of the Bible & science can help to explain the vague/ ambiguous passages which were written for people of that particular era.
    Archeology/ biblical history does support the historical validity of the Bible.
    The Bible is a testament to Gods Creation .

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    • michala February 11, 2015 / 11:34 am

      Further to my comment, I would say Genesis was either not meant to be taken literally or its a mixture of myth/fact.

      But it seems very unusual to have an allegory in the beginning then have what seems verifiable content starting with Noah and the flood.( accounts of local/ global flood in other texts)
      Why should Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel seth etc be viewed as mythical ?
      Surely, if these characters did not exist then neither did Noah and his children.
      It seems the most important Book in the Bible is shrouded in mystery, uncertainty& content which could be challenged.

      Bearing in mind the Bible is supernatural in nature & allowances should be made when considering when it was written, the author( s) & how they perceived the world.

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  2. Diane June 12, 2017 / 3:54 am

    I believe God’s creation worships him fount this arrival when researchinh to confirm that belief. Mathew 19:40 Jesus said if his desiples did not praise him the stones would. Check out NASA’s recordings of planet sounds. Remember God does not require beautiful songs but a joyful noise. I am amazed that science could progress so humans can hear the sound the planets make in praise to their cereator.

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