How high does the God of heaven want us to climb in our view of the tree and the forest? It’s clear that we are not to worship trees, but how much respect does the Bible teach us to show for non-human expressions of God’s creation?
Since the birth of the age of science, Western civilization has more or less thought of the elements of the material creation as little more than resources for human consumption. This attitude has helped create many crises within the natural environment. Deforestation and disregard for the forest ecosystem are just a couple of the many problems created by a purely utilitarian view of nature.
Certainly God made trees for our enjoyment and our use. The Bible clearly puts the life of man above the life of the creation itself. But have we lost sight of God’s affection for field and forest by exalting our human needs? Listen to the heart of the psalmist:
[God] sends the springs into the valleys; they flow among the hills. They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. By them the birds of the heavens have their home; they sing among the branches. He waters the hills from His upper chambers; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of Your works. He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and vegetation for the service of man, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine that makes glad the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread which strengthens man’s heart. The trees of the Lord are full of sap, the cedars of Lebanon which He planted, where the birds make their nests; the stork has her home in the fir trees. The high hills are for the wild goats; the cliffs are a refuge for the rock badgers. . . . O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions (Ps. 104:10-18,24).
The psalmist went on to exclaim, “May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in His works” (Ps. 104:31).
David told us even more about God’s attitude toward His creation when he wrote:
The Lord is good to all; He has compassion on all He has made. . . . The Lord is faithful to all His promises and loving toward all He has made (Ps. 145:9,13 NIV).
The book of Psalms ends with five songs that form a great musical crescendo of praise. We could assume that only people can give praise, but the Bible speaks of all nature giving praise to the Creator of the universe. Psalm 148 exults:
Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all the depths; fire and hail, snow and clouds; stormy wind, fulfilling His word; mountains and all hills; fruitful trees and all cedars; beasts and all cattle; creeping things and flying fowl; kings of the earth and all peoples; princes and all judges of the earth; both young men and maidens; old men and children (vv.7-12).
From this we understand that God cares for, rejoices over, is good to, has compassion on, and loves what He has created. When we enter the woods or merely rest in the shade of a tree, do we sense God’s pleasure? Do we have the same experience our forefathers had when they were surrounded by God’s material creation? Martin Luther wrote:
In the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver. . . . God writes the gospel, not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.
Jonathan Edwards is considered to be America’s first true intellectual. While Edwards studied the Word of God with great fervency, he also studied almost as intensely the works of God in the creation. As a scientist and servant of God, Edwards explained the meaning of the creation:
When we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we see only the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ. When we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see His love and purity. So the green trees and fields, and singing of birds are the emanations of His infinite joy and benignity [kindness, graciousness]. The easiness and naturalness of trees and vines are shadows of His beauty and loveliness. The crystal rivers and murmuring streams are the footsteps of His favor, grace, and beauty (Observations, p.94).
In commenting on Psalm 148:9, the great English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote:
Fruit trees and forest trees, trees deciduous or evergreen, are equally full of benevolent design, and alike subserve some purpose of love; therefore, for all and by all, let the great Designer be praised. There are many species of cedar, but they all reveal the wisdom of their Maker. When kings fell them, that they may make beams for their palaces, they do but confess their obligation to the King of trees, and to the King of kings, whose trees they are. Varieties in the landscape are produced by the rising and falling of the soil, and by the many kinds of trees which adorn the land. Let all, and all alike, glorify their one Lord. When the trees clap their hands in the wind, or their leaves rustle in the gentle breath of Zephyr, they do to their best ability sing out unto the Lord (The Treasury Of David).
Would it be unthinkable to imagine these great men of God dropping to their knees if they had had the privilege of entering the awe-inspiring redwood forest? Although they didn’t share the theology of Julia Hill, they might have joined her in recognizing that some of the greatest cathedrals in the world can be found in the moonlight of an aweinspiring natural world.
As in ancient times, many today fail to distinguish between the tree and the tree’s Creator. Towering redwoods are not part of God—that’s pantheism. The redwoods were not made to be worshiped, but they do help us in our worship. When we walk into a forest, we are properly awed to besurrounded by all the other creatures God loves, cares for, and rejoices in. And they in turn praise Him merely by doing what He made them to do. Wherever His work is being faithfully carried out, wherever His will is honored and respected, wherever praise is flowing forth in honor of the Creator, there is indeed a cathedral.