He turns rivers into a desert,
springs of water into thirsty ground,
a fruitful land into a salty waste,
because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
He turns a desert into pools of water,
a parched land into springs of water.
And there he lets the hungry live,
and they establish a town to live in;
they sow fields, and plant vineyards,
and get a fruitful yield.
By his blessing they multiply greatly,
and he does not let their cattle decrease.
When they are diminished and brought low
through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,
he pours contempt on princes
and makes them wander in trackless wastes;
but he raises up the needy out of distress,
and makes their families like flocks.
The upright see it and are glad;
and all wickedness stops its mouth.
Let those who are wise give heed to these things,
and consider the steadfast love of the Lord. — Psalm 107:33-43
There are some Psalms I like better than others and 107 is one of those. I admit being more partial to the preceding verses, especially when it comes to the “They that go down to the sea in ships” (v. 23) part. Being from a place where there was a lot of salt water and also a lot of ships doing business and providing pleasure on those waters, it strikes a chord in me. Yet here is a passage that speaks to the me that is now a desert-dweller by necessity if not totally by choice.
There are deserts and there are deserts. There are the areas of desert where cacti and scrub vegetation are about all there is aside from rocks and dirt so hard it practically takes a jackhammer to get through it. Then there are areas where there is nothing but sand, often blown into shifting dunes. There are deserts where the temperatures can be literally like standing in a blast furnace and then there are some, like those in the Himalayas, where it so cold flesh can freeze almost instantly upon exposure. Usually, though, when someone says “desert” they mean a dry, arid place where not a lot grows and where there isn’t a lot of interest in more than a few moments of “Oh, ok, that’s a desert. Let’s get on to Las Vegas (or LA or anywhere else).” The thing that marks a desert, though, is water, specifically how much and where — and what happens to or is done with that water.
The psalmist puts the onus on the inhabitants of the land; if they are faithful, just and righteous, the land will be fruitful but if they aren’t, they will soon find themselves in the middle of a very inhospitable place. The needy will be cared for while those causing trouble will be made to pay for their iniquities. God will make sure of that.
It’s not too far a stretch to think of this passage in terms of global warming, whether or not one accepts that the actions of humanity can affect the land on which it lives and that what affects the land affects the climate. It’s a chain, one link gets forged, then another. Sin’s like that too. Commit one and it’s really easy to commit another to try to cover the first one. Greed is sin, and greed is at the bottom of a lot of the climactic changes we see happening around us. Yes, nature moves in cycles and we’re probably in one of those cycles right now, but we as humans have directly impacted the cycle by wasting and/or polluting water, pouring emissions into the air, and stripping the land bare and then walking off and leaving it to dry up, blow in the wind and become a wasteland. We are both the needy and the princes of the psalm. God has given us a land to care for and to nourish us, but we don’t always act as good stewards of that gift.
It isn’t just the physical environment that is subject to this kind of situation the Psalmist describes. Financially, emotionally, spiritually – we again are the needy and we are the princes. We want safety, freedom and justice for ourselves but we aren’t always that picky about what happens to other people. Jesus’ words of “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me” seems to get left by the wayside when self-interest is at stake. Programs that benefit the rich are well-endowed and very carefully watched over while those that benefit the poor and needy are often stripped to bare bones if not eliminated entirely. The climate of greed has infected every part of our lives, whether we recognize it or not, and the result is a moral, emotional and often spiritual wasteland that benefits no one and no thing.
It’s not enough to say that suffering in this life brings its own crown in the next. The poor and needy shouldn’t have to wait for the next life to be safe, fed, clothed, housed, educated and cared for. The princes shouldn’t be so busy accumulating and trying to win by being the one who dies with the most toys or money or possessions that they forget that once their own family was very possibly one of those which had to scrimp, save and scrabble for every bit of sustenance they could get. And, as George Santayana put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” How many times do we have to repeat past mistakes, wrongdoings and sins before we learn?
Sometimes the Psalmist hits on things that are repeated elsewhere but which don’t always strike home for me like this reading did. It makes me question what I’m doing to compound the problem and what I’m doing to resolve the problem. I already live in a desert, even though “made over” to make it more habitable. Under the thin layer of grass and concrete, though, it is still a desert, just biding its time and waiting for enough mistakes to pile up before reasserting its authority and its own form of judgment.
And God’s hand is on it.