The Gospel of Nature
Job 12:8
Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach you: and the fishes of the sea shall declare to you.

And what on Job's lips was irony and taunt stands for something totally different to many of you. You have come from the great cities where you know the world, but not the earth, and you wish that here earth and sea would teach you some secret of mental renewal and physical recuperation. And the more devout among you will wish that you might speak to the earth and it might teach you of the great and eternal God. Such teaching would be in harmony with many of the passages in the Old Testament. It is true that, except in the Song of Songs, with its vineyards a-blossom and a-bud, with its gardens astir with fragrance, and with its streams that flow from Lebanon, the Old Testament reveals little feeling for scenery as scenery. But right through all its books there is an evident appreciation of earth and sea and mountains and stars, as revealing the greatness of the Creator. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth His handiwork." "He gathereth the waters of the sea together as an heap." "The sea is His and He made it." From such sayings as these you can learn how good men stood amazed in the midst of creation, and strained reverent eyes towards the High and Lofty One who inhabiteth eternity. There are those on both sides who speak as though religion and science are set in eternal antagonism, and too often the laboratory is regarded as the natural enemy of the temple. But as a matter of fact, science is really a side chapel in the great cathedral of humanity, upbuilt by the reverence and worship of the world. The most capable man of science is the man who is best endowed with capacity for thinking God's thoughts after Him. And the more we learn of the wonders of creation, the greater the marvel of Him who created and sustains. Hence it comes to pass that whatever the scientist may say, science itself makes for an intensifying of religion. It would seem, then, that if we speak to the earth it can teach us something about religion. The shimmering sea, the bold black rocks, the sun flooding headland and sands with a searching splendour can tell us of the greatness and power of Him who conceived, created, and sustains the marvel of their appearing. Nature is the garment of God. So far, then, the beginnings of a religion. But man is so made that he wants more than the garment of the Divine. The robe is magnificent, but what of the heart that beats beneath? After Solomon was dead there grew up a legend that his regal garments shrouded a heart of fire. Do the fires that glow at the earth centre represent the heart of God, or where may we turn for our revelation? A religion begins when men learn something, anything, about God. But a Gospel only begins when men learn about His heart. And there is no original Gospel of nature. But to begin with, all that the earth shows you is a God of power and wisdom. Now, the important thing in a revelation of God is not simply that you know Him, but the character of the God that you know. It were better, perhaps, for men not to be aware of a God who is less than righteousness and love. And the only God that nature shows you is a personification of energy and wisdom Further, much that might seem informing in nature concerning God would be absolutely misleading. There is one side of the world process that Tennyson speaks of as "Nature red in tooth and claw." By that he means that one part of the animal creation lives on the other. The tiger rends the fawn, and the pike will feed on the smaller fish. Is God, then, callous to cruelty? We cannot believe that He is. Yet it is something beyond nature that teaches us to trust there is some hidden meaning in all this that at present we do not see. But, mind you, we dare to hope this because we know something of the heart of God. We do not learn it from nature. Not all the cold heights of the snow-crowned Alps, and not all the deeps of the big blue sea could have taught us this. They could give us the beginnings of a religion. But heart cries to heart, and your heart wants to know about the heart of the Eternal. It is knowledge of the heart of God that makes a Gospel. And you must turn elsewhere fox that. And to where shall you turn? Where, indeed, save to the Christ? True Christianity is an exposition of a Personality, and the Personality of Christ was an expression of the heart of God. Therefore, it is to Him that you must look when you are in search of a Gospel. And once you have found a Gospel in Christ, then you may find a Gospel in nature. And how? Job says, "Speak to the earth., and it shall teach thee." We have seen that he was right in so far as we ask the earth to teach us of the wisdom and power of God. But it has no original message beyond that. It is echo and not originality that enables it to speak forth a Gospel. In the matter of the higher phases of religion, nature gives to you essentially what you first give her. She intensifies, glorifies, clarifies what you know already of the heart of God, but she cannot originate a Gospel. For proof of the fact that you only get from nature in the spiritual sphere what you first give to her, you have only to think of her varying interpretation in the minds of different men. Take, for example, say Wordsworth and Matthew Arnold. Arnold was a Stoic, born out of due time, and so he found in nature what was first shown him in his shadowed heart. He tells us himself how he looked out on the beach at Dover when the night was calm, and the full, spacious tide was flooded with moonlight. Most of us at such an hour would have gazed, subdued to tranquillity. But Arnold heard the shifting pebbles grating on the shore, and the tremulous cadence of the waves brought for himThe eternal note of sadness in.And where Wordsworth would have felt that the goodness of God was rimming a world with the glory of a heavenly light, he only thought with Sophocles of the turbid ebb and flow of human misery. And to him the outgoing tide represented the receding of the sea of faith, and he only heard —

Its melancholy long-withdrawing roar,

Retreating to the breath

Of the night wind, down the vast edge drear

And naked shingles of the world.

That is to say, he heard bodied forth in the sounding sea the sombre intuitions and dismal forebodings of his own soul. Now, Wordsworth, with all his austerity of demeanour, was an optimist, and his most sombre moods are touched with a quiet gladness. He believed in a gentle God, and he had high hopes for man, and nature yielded him a Gospel that was one with his beliefs. So, when he looked out on the fields, it was his faith

...That every flower

Enjoys the air it breathes.

This meant that he enjoyed the air. And because in his own soul there glowed "the light that never was on sea or land," therefore, when he stood on some headland, and saw the sun rise, he knew a visitation from the living God, and was wrapt into a still communion and ecstasy of thanksgiving. Nature gave back to him, intensified and clarified, the Gospel he first gave to her. And the supreme message of this sermon this morning is a deduction from what I have just said. You are on holiday, and detached from the workaday world, and hence you have leisure for spiritual culture. I would, therefore, have you realise the facts of your religion, and call the sleeping spiritualities of your soul to life. I would bid you recall all you have ever known and hoped of the love of God, all you have ever felt of the imperativeness of the good Life. And with these ideas consciously in your mind look out on nature for that which shall symbolise them, and so make them more clear and more beautiful to your soul. See in the white foam of some spreading wave an emblem of that purity that is so earnestly to be desired. See in the anemone that clings to the rock a suggestion of the tenacity with which you should hold to the bedrock of moral principle that is your spiritual safety; and realise that as each tide leaves the anemone the more developed for its engulfing, so, though faithfulness to principle means a whelming beneath waves of trouble, yet shall you grow the more spiritually strong what time the waters of affliction compass you round about. If you go into the country, and walk through the fields white to harvest, think of Him who walked as you two thousand years ago. And as you realise that their beauty is the sacrifice of the earth that men may Live, remember Him who died in the very summer of His manhood, that Life everlasting might be ours. "O loving God, if Thou art so lovely in Thy creatures, how lovely must Thou be in Thyself." It is to the reverent soul and the devout mind that nature yields a Gospel.

(J. G. Stevenson.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee: and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee.

WEB: Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach you. The fish of the sea shall declare to you.

The Discipline of Life
Top of Page
Top of Page