Who Owns the Earth?—“The Earth Is the Lord’s”

by Aaron Dunlop

One of the great gaps in the theology of the evangelical and Reformed church is with respect to the environment. In the early days of the movement, radical environmentalists accused Christianity and the Bible of causing the perceived ecological crisis. Christianity for the most part gave the environmentalist movement the platform, ignored the accusations, and allowed it to develop without forming counter arguments or a proper “theology of creation” relevant to the debate.

If we are going to develop a Christian perspective on the environment, the first question we need to ask is, who owns the earth? Since ownership implies responsibility, we are really asking,  who is responsible for the earth? It might be assumed that to answer this question one would turn to Genesis chapter one and the “creation story.” But the first passage we need to turn to is Psalm 104 for a number of reasons: first, Psalm 104 “presents a more fully developed picture of the relationship that exists between God and creation” (Michael A. Bullmore. Trinity Journal, Fall 1998, 144); second, Psalm 104 presents a broader picture of ownership through the various stages of the earth’s existence and forms a foundation for a holistic view of the earth. This psalm appears to be a simple recounting of the creation story, and some commentators see the psalmist following the order of the Genesis record:

• Day 1, Gen. 1:3–5; cf., Psa. 104:1–2 (light)
• Day 2, Gen. 1:6–8; cf., Psa. 104:2b–4 (firmament divides the waters)
• Day 3, Gen. 1:9–10; cf., Psa. 104:5–17 (land and water distinct, vegetation) 
• Day 4, Gen. 1:14–19; cf., Psa. 104:19–23 (luminaries as time-keepers)
• Day 5, Gen. 1:20–23; cf., Psa. 104:25–26 (creatures of the sea and air)
• Day 6, Gen. 1:24–31; cf., Psa. 104:21–28 (animals and man)

As you consider the psalm as a whole, however, it is clear that the entire span of God’s creative power is spoken of: the first creation in perfection, the post-fall world of catastrophe, death, and hard labour (vv. 21, 23, 32) sustained by His power, and then the time of the restitution of all things, when God will make the new earth (Acts 3:21; Romans 8:18; cf., v. 30) and remove all that corrupts and defiles (Revelation 21:25; cf., v. 35). No matter what order of the creation you consider, the earth is still the Lord’s. He created it, He sustains it, and He will restore it.

Psalm 104 teaches us a number of things. First, it teaches that the earth and all in it is the possession of the Lord: the earth is “full of [God’s] possessions” (v. 24; KJV “riches”). The reason for this, of course, is in the fact the He created it; “how manifold are thy works, in wisdom thou hast made them all” (v. 24). When the Psalmist said in Psalm 24:1, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” he was speaking specifically of the order of creation as we know it—fallen and cursed (Genesis 3:17). There is not a detail of our environment that God does not possess in power and that He is not interested in. He knows the hairs on our heads and every sparrow that falls (Matthew 10:29–30), and He rejoices in all His works.

Second, Psalm 104 teaches that God finds pleasure in all His creation independently of man. Without denying the fact that the animal kingdom is given for the good of mankind, the psalmist draws a line between the two (vv. 21–23): there is “life unrelated to the needs of man [that] is forever going on” (Michael A. Bullmore, 146). The psalmist shows us that the playful frolicking of the animal kingdom causes God to rejoice in them (v. 26; cf., 31). When we consider the “innumerable” creatures of the sea, both small and great (v. 25), that are of no use to the wellbeing of mankind, and the animals that are now extinct that man is not dependent on for life, we must conclude that they were created simply to glorify God; “the Lord shall rejoice in his works” (v. 31). The Scripture therefore balances the dominion of man (Genesis 1:28) with the teaching that the world does not exist solely for the sake of man and shows us how to behave in the earth, keeping us from either abusing or worshiping the earth.

Third, Psalm 104 teaches that all life is dependent on God. He gives life and takes life (vv. 30, 29). God provides for the sustaining of all creatures and by Him they are satisfied (v. 28). The psalmist tells us that the grass grows for the cattle (v. 14) and that the lion seeks his meat from God (v. 21); that is, they are dependent on Him for their food. On the other hand, when God takes breath away, life ceases whether it is the life of a species or a particular animal (v. 29).

There is a fourth observation implied in this psalm, but explicitly stated in Genesis 8:21–22 and 9:8–17: God regards the earth worthy of covenant protection. In Genesis 9:8–17 God promises Noah that He will never again flood the earth as He just had. To signify this promise and to remind us of it today the Lord put a rainbow in the sky. But the promise of Genesis 9 reaches beyond the destruction by flood. It is an “everlasting covenant” (for all generations; v. 16), a universal covenant (all the earth; v. 11), and particularly an environmental covenant (including the animal kingdom, seasons, crops, etc.; Genesis 8:21–22; 9:10). God’s promise to Noah is one of the most far-reaching environmental statements in all of Scripture.

  1. God’s promise to preserve the earth was for a set time (“while the earth remains”; Genesis 8:22). Previously in Genesis three, immediately after the fall of mankind, God promised to crush the head of Satan, which includes the entire reversal of the curse. Paul speaks of this in terms of the creation being “delivered from the bondage of corruption” (Romans 8:21), and John, in his apocalyptic vision, saw a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1).
  2. God’s promise to preserve the earth is an unconditional promise; it is not at all dependent on man. Neither man’s care for, nor abuse of, the world have any bearing on this promise. God has protected this earth from destruction until his time and nothing man can do will annul that promise.
  3. God’s promise to preserve the earth is a promise not only to man but also to the animal kingdom: “And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you” (Genesis 9:9–10, emphasis added). While the animals do not possess souls as men do, yet the Lord is concerned for them, and promises to protect them. Christ said, “Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them” (Matthew 6:26) and in Matthew 10:29 He tell His disciples that the Father knows when every sparrow falls to the ground. Also, in Jonah 4:11 the Lord says that He preserved the city of Nineveh not only because of the 120,000 children but also because of the “much cattle.”
  4. God’s promise to preserve the earth is set in a broader context than the planet earth itself. The saving of planet earth is beyond us—that’s like asking a man to lift himself by his own boot straps. To “save the planet” is to play God. In Genesis 8:22 God promises uniformity in the seasons, in the cold and heat, in the crops that are dependant on the seasonal changes, and in the rising and setting of the sun. Furthermore, this promise was made after the universal flood. Rain had been seen for the first time in that flood. The promise then of preservation “while the earth remaineth” is a promise related to the hydrologic cycle. The earth depends on the cycle of water: evaporation (from the sea), condensation (in the clouds), precipitation (in the rain), and infiltration when it is absorbed by the earth, runs through the rivers, and returns to the sea again where it is stored and begins to the cycle again. This hydrologic cycle is spoken of throughout scripture (Psalm 33:7; 135:7; Ecclesiastes 1:6–7; Job 26:8; 36:27–28; Isaiah 55:10).

Paul tells us, “Be anxious for nothing,” and with such a full and rich promise as what God has given us in His care for the environment, how can the Christian be concerned? It is our duty to love and care for what God loves and cares for, always looking forward to that time when we will dwell, without corruption and pollution, on a new earth.

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