Recently, in the context of what could generally be described as "the Genesis debate," an issue was made over whether the word "earth" in the following verse was a physical local reference, or a physical global reference:
Nehemiah 9:6 Thou, even thou, art LORD alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee.
While the issue was being made of the word "earth" and whether it was local or global, the presumption without any substantiation was that the reference was physical. In other words, if it was global it was referring to the entire physical planet, and if it was local it was referring to a physical portion of land, or "tribal land." The possibility that it was a metaphor using physical terms to describe something spiritual and far greater was not even considered in the effort to argue for ‘globalness’. But what immediately caught my eye was the statement at the end of the verse:
"...and the host of heaven worshippeth thee."
The heavens which God made, and which God preserves, worship Him. What are the heavens which worship God? Or shouldn't we ask instead, who are the heavens which worship God?
Compare Nehemiah’s reference to heavens worshipping to this:
Psalm 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork. 2 Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. 3 There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. 4 Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
We know of course, and have it confirmed for us by the apostle Paul in Romans 10, that "the heavens" declaring the glory of God in Psalm 19 are God's people. It is only reasonable then that the reference to heavens worshipping God in Nehemiah 9 is also a reference to God's people. People worship God. Planets, moons and stars do not. These "heavens" of the glorious physical creation however, are used metaphorically over and over again in Scripture to refer to the purified consciences or minds of God's people in the far more glorious New Creation. We do not diminish the beauty and glory of the physical creation when we recognize it for its spiritual significance. On the contrary: all that God has made which can be sensually experienced becomes of far greater significance when we see the spiritual substance to which it points--from the sight of a sunset, to the smell of a pine forest, to the sound of a child's first cry. (For more on the spiritual significance of creation, Ward has an excellent article here.)
If we would agree that the heavens worshipping God in Nehemiah 9 is a metaphorical reference to God's people worshipping Him, would it make any sense that the references in the same verse to "earth" and "seas" should be taken primarily and only literally? This actually seems absurd.
It is also interesting to look at the immediate context of Nehemiah 9:6 and notice it is speaking of God's covenant relationship with His people (I am going to quote just a small portion here):
Nehemiah 9:4 Then stood up upon the stairs, of the Levites, Jeshua, and Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani, and cried with a loud voice unto the LORD their God. 5 Then the Levites, Jeshua, and Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabniah, Sherebiah, Hodijah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, Stand up and bless the LORD your God for ever and ever: and blessed be thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise. 6 Thou, even thou, art LORD alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth, and all things that are therein, the seas, and all that is therein, and thou preservest them all; and the host of heaven worshippeth thee. 7 Thou art the LORD the God, who didst choose Abram, and broughtest him forth out of Ur of the Chaldees, and gavest him the name of Abraham; 8 And foundest his heart faithful before thee, and madest a covenant with him to give the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Jebusites, and the Girgashites, to give it, I say, to his seed, and hast performed thy words; for thou art righteous:
We know of course that the land of Canaan given to Abraham and his seed by covenant represents the heavenly country he looked for, and the city without foundations whose builder and maker is God (cf. Hebrews 11). The fact that the Israelites were given physical land to possess does not detract from the spiritual nature of the covenant. It in fact emphasizes it by illustration and a tangible expression; but the physical was merely the shadow, it was not the real substance of the promise.
It is very interesting to me that the reference to the "earth" God created in Nehemiah 9:6 is not only in the immediate context of a clearly metaphorical use of the word "heavens," which really demands it be read metaphorically as well; but it is also in the broader context of a passage that is all about covenant, and even more specifically, points to the everlasting covenant God made with Abraham, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
The argument then (which was made in the context of trying to refute a metaphorical, covenantal reading of the creation account in Genesis), about whether "earth" in Nehemiah 9:6 is physically local or physically global is really moot. It's not a primarily physical reference. It is clearly a preeminently metaphorical reference to a spiritual land. And we know that the land God's people inherit belongs specifically and particularly to them by covenant. (A local, rather than a global "land", if you will.) But when we insist on a mere physical interpretation of references to creation in Scripture, we essentially turn the Bible into a book of cosmological history rather than a book which is, from beginning to end, the history of God's redemption of His chosen people.
Creation and Its Eternal Purpose
The Havens Declare the Glory of God
I have been married to my loving husband Keith for 26 years. We have three beautiful and brilliant children, ages 24, 22 and 20. Nothing cheers my heart more than having them all at home, yet nothing is more satisfying to my mind than watching them grow from afar. My personal passion is theology: the knowledge and experience of the Truth and Mercy found only in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and displayed in the lives and communion of His people. My husband and I love to travel, and because our children are often out and about in the world, we get lots of opportunities to see it! And we also love to fill our home with friends who love us, and love our wine collection.