by Natalia Doran

The superscription of psalm 103 reads, “A Psalm of David, on the Creation of the World”, or, literally, on the “genesis” of the world, referring the reader to the first book of Scripture. The superscription gives the key to the interpretation of the psalm: it essentially covers the same ground as the Book of Genesis, but in the form of praise.

The place that psalm 103 occupies in the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church can hardly be exaggerated. It is known as the Introductory Psalm, opening, as it does, the service of Vespers, which itself begins the liturgical day. (The Orthodox liturgical day begins in the evening, with reference to the Book of Genesis, e.g. “There was evening and there was morning, the first day”, etc.). It is not a mere reading of Scripture in a church service, but rather part of a solid structure of public worship that leads from Creation, via the Fall, to the Incarnation and ultimate redemption and participation in divine reality through the Eucharist.

There are two texts in psalm 103 that were directly quoted and commented on by authoritative patristic source, and that are relevant for animal theology.

St Maximos the Confessor, whose cosmology is now more influential than ever, comments on verse 31 (“The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever: the Lord shall rejoice in his works.”). In his Chapters on Love St Maximos writes: “God, full beyond all fullness, brought creatures into being not because He had need of anything, but so that they might participate in Him in proportion to their capacity and that He Himself might rejoice in His works, through seeing them joyful and ever filled to overflowing with His inexhaustible gifts”. It is noteworthy that all creatures, not just humans and angels, participate in God, according to their capacity.

The other direct commentary relates to verses 29-31 of psalm 103:  Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust. Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth. The glory of the Lord shall endure for ever: the Lord shall rejoice in his works.” St Gregory of Nyssa, one of the extremely influential Cappadocian Fathers, draws our attention to the sequence of these actions – death, then creation, and renewal. In his book On the Soul and the Resurrection, St Gregory writes, “He (the prophet David) says that a power of the Spirit which works in all, vivifies the beings into whom it enters, and deprives those whom He abandons of their life. Seeing, then, that the dying is declared to occur at the Spirit’s departure, and the renewal of these dead ones at His appearance, and seeing moreover that in the order of the statement the death of those who are to be thus renewed comes first, we hold that in these words that mystery of the Resurrection is proclaimed to the Church.”

It is significant that this text on the Resurrection appears to refer to all God’s creatures, not just humans. It is clear, first of all, from the immediate context; up to verse 29 the psalmist writes about various birds, land animals, humans, and finally sea animals, praising God for giving all these creatures their sustenance. Then they die, and are created, and renewed. The wider context also confirms the reading of verses 29-31 as referring to all creatures: psalm 103 is very much about the whole of creation, whereas the psalm that deals specifically with humans comes immediately before it, it is psalm 102, which starts in exactly the same way as psalm 103 (“Bless the Lord, oh my soul”), but praises God for his goodness specifically to humans.

The idea that death is going to be overcome not only for humans, but for all creatures that are born, is confirmed in modern theology in the writings of Bishop John (Zizioulas), of blessed memory. He writes: “When death is abolished at the end of time it is thought that people’s souls will live on, and though the bodies of these souls might live on too, the rest of the world would die. But this view is mistaken too. Death is a biological phenomenon, which, if it is to be transcended at all, must be transcended by creation as a whole.”