Is God’s creation sentient?

Lest some of my reader's become concerned, I’m not talking about metaphysics, pantheism or any other mysticism. Rather, how does the LORD describe His own creation? What do we find in the Scriptures regarding the nature of the creation?

Below, I present Bible evidence that the LORD’s creation is “alive” because the LORD, its Creator, has endowed it with sentience—which is life! Moreover, the abundant testimony of the Bible is that the LORD does not create “dead” things because to do so would be contrary to His nature.

Within the context of this article, what is His nature? LIFE! He is the self-existent One, and everything He does reflects His nature.

Remember what the LORD told Moses when He assigned him to take His people the Jews out of Egypt:

Exo 3.13-14
Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I will say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’

The LORD is the One eternally alive, the One without beginning or end. The LORD alone possesses the property of life; mankind merely reproduces the life which was gifted to it, beginning with Adam and Eve.

The LORD alone is LIFE; we, mere mortals, have life. The former is the Source, the latter are the recipients; there is a huge difference.

The reason for drawing attention to this Bible fact is simple: the characteristic of “life” appears everywhere in the LORD’s creation, even within those elements which we typically deem “non-sentient”.

[The Bible makes it very clear, as you’ll see below, that the creation is sentient, but the details of exactly what that means and how it is manifest is not naturally obvious to humans. It does appear that during the Millennial rule of the Lord Christ creation’s sentience will become evident as seen particularly in the Psalms referenced below.]

The purpose of this article is to examine those texts of Scripture which teach that the LORD’s creation, in all its parts, is alive and therefore has sentience.


The genesis of this article is that many years ago my Dad pointed out to me this text from Luke. The context is the Lord’s triumphal entry (as it is typically called) into Jerusalem several days before that last Passover, culminated with His crucifixion. Out of jealousy, the Pharisees have the temerity to tell the Lord to restrain His disciples, to which He answers:

Luk 19.40
But Jesus answered, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!”

The Lord Christ was not given to over-statement; moreover, there is no indication that the Lord was speaking metaphorically, hypothetically or poetically. The context demands our simple obedience to the thought that if men, created in the image of God, refused (in this instance) to give glory to the Messiah, then the rocks would indeed do so. The creation knows its Creator even when men refuse to acknowledge that grand truth.

[At that point the Jews thought that the Lord Christ would usher in the new, earthly Kingdom of Israel and thereby eject the hated Romans. While the reason for their praise was misplaced (it was not the time for that kingdom), the recipient of their praise—the Lord Christ—deserved all this and much more. The religious elite attempted to deny the right of the Lord Christ to receive the praise of the Jews; this extraordinary response is the result.]

 


Establishing the Premise for the Sentience of Creation.

The word sentience is defined as:
“having the power of perception by the senses; conscious”

We frequently use the term to indicate “self-awareness”. This thought was expressed in the well-known phrase by René Descartes, a French philosopher and mathematician in the early 1600s: “I think, therefore I am.”

The Bible frequently uses the beauty of poetry to express truth. There is a small but common hazard, though, that we may miss both subtle and significant truths if we automatically assume “poetic license” in these expressions. That is, all too often we tend to dismiss a literal understanding of the text simply because it is (or appears to be) poetry rather than prose. Consider this expression from Isaiah:

Isa 55.12
For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.

The context of Isaiah 55 is first of all the Divine invitation to come and freely receive the grace of life. In the immediate context it is an invitation to the Jews during that time when national Israel will be restored (“glorified”) during that time typically known as the Millennium.

Earlier, in vv. 8-11, the LORD clearly stated that as He sends His word, it will accomplish His purposes in ways that we, as mere humans, could not possibly imagine. His understanding transcends our limited minds in the same way as the heavens are higher than (transcend) the earth.

When we see the phrases at the end of Isa 55, “the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands”, we too easily assume it is a poetical expression indicating only that when Israel is restored, there will be great joy on earth. But consider in greater detail the construction of the last two verses of Isaiah 55:

Isa 55.12-13
For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up, and instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up, and it will be a memorial to the LORD, for an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.

There are 8 statements in these two verses:

  1. You will go out with joy.
  2. You will be led forth with peace.
  3. The mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you.
  4. All the trees of the field will clap their hands.
  5. Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up.
  6. Instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up.
  7. It will be a memorial to the LORD.
  8. It will be an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.

Statements 1, 2, and 5-8 are naturally considered prose, being easily understood literally in our “typical” view of reality and consciousness. But, without really thinking about it, we dismiss statements 3 and 4 as poetic, that they are merely general statements of the joy that will be experienced on the earth during that time when Israel is restored.

So, do we even bother to ask the question:

“Why are a pair of apparently poetic expressions placed in a list of prose expressions?”

The simple answer is: they are not poetry! 

They are a pair of prose statements of the conditions of the earth at that point in time. It is not merely the joy that will be experienced by people (specifically the Jews) that is in view here: it is the joy of the earth itself as it heralds the return of its Creator!

 


Making the Formal Biblical Case for the Sentience of the Creation

Given the very brief introduction above, let us first consider the four clearest expressions of the sentience of creation in the Bible, and then from them establish a proper Biblical understanding of the doctrine.

Note the several “verbs of sentience” used by the Apostle Paul in this well-known passage:

Rom 8.20-22
For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

It is impossible to understand these phrases in any manner other than literally (again, there is no indication of poetry!) The creation was forced–“not of its own will”–into a position of futility because of the corruption of Adam's fall. 

[It should be obvious even to the casual reader that since the creation was forced to do something it did not want to do, that it must have a will in the first place. It should likewise be true that if an entity has a will, it must, by definition, be sentient.]

To continue with the Apostle’s description, just as the pregnant woman agonizes with birth pangs as the birth of her child approaches, so the creation experiences the approach of the glory of God to be revealed in the return of Christ and the resurrection of all true believers.

Early in Christ's ministry, during one of the several trips across the Sea of Galilee, a great storm arose while Christ was asleep; the disciples were terrified and therefore awoke the Lord Christ. This is His response:

Mat 8.26
He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm.

Mar 4.39
And He got up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Hush, be still.” And the wind died down and it became perfectly calm.

Luk 8.24
They came to Jesus and woke Him up, saying, “Master, Master, we are perishing!” And He got up and rebuked the wind and the surging waves, and they stopped, and it became calm.

Christ didn't “merely” calm the sea, He “rebuked” it! The word used here for “rebuke” [G2008 epitimaō ἐπιτιμάω] is used 30 times in the NT. In all instances except the three above, the rebuke is:

  1. directed by the Lord, a person or an angel,
  2. directed to a person or demon,
  3. for the purpose of correcting disobedient, destructive, or generally evil behavior.

During the episode above, the air and sea were apparently “misbehaving” (lacking a better term), and so the Lord rebuked them. Moreover, at His rebuke, their obedience to the command to “be still” was instantaneous, just as was the obedience of numerous demons likewise rebuked! The local environment of the Sea of Galilee responded obediently just as an obedient person would.

The use of the verb ἐπιτιμάω makes sense only when considered in the context of a sentient creation.

In a similar way, note how “naturally” the Lord speaks to a fig tree in this well-known event:

Mat 21.18-19
Now in the morning, when He was returning to the city, He became hungry. Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He came to it and found nothing on it except leaves only; and He said to it, “No longer shall there ever be any fruit from you.” And at once the fig tree withered.

Mar 11.12-14
On the next day, when they had left Bethany, He became hungry. Seeing at a distance a fig tree in leaf, He went to see if perhaps He would find anything on it; and when He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” And His disciples were listening.

Note that the Lord spoke directly to the fig tree within deliberate earshot of His disciples (both Matthew and Mark make this very clear).

The Lord did not say something like this to the disciples:

“I tell you, My disciples (referred to directly), that this fig tree (referred to indirectly) will not bear fruit ever again.”

[An interesting note here: the Lord forbad the tree from producing fruit. Once the reason for the fig tree's existence had been disallowed—producing fruit—it no longer had a reason to exist and therefore died.]

Psalm 103 affords a very cogent testimony of this same truth. Note the wonderful parallelism found in these verses:

Psa 103.20-22
20Bless the LORD, you His angels, mighty in strength, who perform His word, obeying the voice of His word!
21Bless the LORD, all you His hosts, you who serve Him, doing His will.
22Bless the LORD, all you works of His, in all places of His dominion; bless the LORD, O my soul!

In verses 20 and 21 and the last phrase of verse 22, the command to bless the Lord is given to angels and the heavenly host (beings other than what we know as “angels” but who nonetheless inhabit heaven with God to serve Him).

When we get to verse 22, the command to bless the Lord is given to “all you works of His”! In typical Hebrew poetic parallelism, “all you works of His” is paralleled to beings clearly understood to be sentient, namely angels and the hosts of heaven. Verse 22 makes sense only if “the works” are capable of blessing God just as angels are—a clear indication of sentience.

Likewise, consider this amazing text from Revelation 5:

Rev 5.13-14
And every created thing which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all things in them, I heard saying, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.” And the four living creatures kept saying, “Amen” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

John adds the all-inclusive phrase “and all things in them”—that it, all “things” in heaven, the earth, and the sea. Nothing is to be excluded when the entire creation bows the knee to the Lord Christ and declares the joint glory of the Father and Son (which will take place before the Lord Christ returns to the earth to rule).

While the phrases “in heaven”, “on the earth”, “under the earth” (those who died but nonetheless still exist as sentient persons) clearly imply humans, things “in the sea” clearly does not. Without doubt, marine life is declared capable of praising its Creator.

 


Additional Biblical Examples of the Sentience of the Creation

I have now laid the foundation from those multiple and very clear texts of Scripture for the sentience of the creation; there is, however, a great deal more to review.

First, though, remember these from both Old and New Testament:

Psa 2.1-3
Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against His Anointed, saying, “Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their cords from us!”

Rev 1.7
Behold, He is coming with the clouds and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him.

The peoples of the earth will not give praise to the Lord Christ His due praise when He returns to “rule with a rod of iron”; in fact, they show only contempt and disdain.

Above, I referred to Luk 19.40, the Lord's clear statement that the stones would cry out if the people of Jerusalem did not give Him praise at the time of His entry into Jerusalem. What is very interesting to note in many of the references below is the context in which their expressions occur: the Lord's return!

Many of these verses teach that when the Lord returns and the peoples do not receive Him with praise, the creation will, in stark contrast, cry out with praise for the Creator of All, just as He said it would in Luke chapter 19!

Read carefully the following texts and note how this beautiful truth is expressed.

Jos 24.26-27
And Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone and set it up there under the oak that was by the sanctuary of the LORD. Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be for a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the LORD which He spoke to us; thus it shall be for a witness against you, so that you do not deny your God.”

It was not the fact that the stone merely existed at some point in the Promised Land where this agreement took place, to function merely as corroborating evidence. It was that the stone “heard all the words of the LORD”! This statement makes sense only if the stones were sentient. Moreover, implicit in Joshua's declaration is the fact that the stones would need to remember the event in order to be a witness to it!

1 Chr 16.32-33
Let the sea roar, and all it contains; let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the LORD; for He is coming to judge the earth.

Notice the verbs of sentience declared of the sea (“roar”), the field (“exult”) and the trees (“sing for joy”). Why? The Lord Christ has returned, just as He promised.

Job 12.7-10
But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you; and the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you. Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you; and let the fish of the sea declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?
[Job, an ancient, understood this truth.]

Job 38.7
When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
[Many commentators assume—with no biblical evidence—that the “morning stars” are angels. Given the overwhelming evidence of the sentience of creation and the complete lack of evidence that the morning stars are angels it becomes evident that these really are "morning stars".]

Job 38.35
Can you send forth lightnings that they may go and say to you, 'Here we are'?

Psa 18.7
Then the earth shook and quaked; and the foundations of the mountains were trembling and were shaken, because He was angry.
[A sentient creation reacts to its Creator's displeasure.]

Psa 42.7
Deep calls to deep at the sound of Your waterfalls; all Your breakers and Your waves have rolled over me.
[The term “deep” is an interesting study. It literally is the deep parts of great bodies of water.]

Psa 46.2-3
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride. Selah.

Psa 65.8
They who dwell in the ends of the earth stand in awe of Your signs; You make the dawn and the sunset shout for joy.

Psa 65.12-13
The pastures of the wilderness drip, and the hills gird themselves with rejoicing. The meadows are clothed with flocks and the valleys are covered with grain; they shout for joy, yes, they sing.

Psa 77.16,18
The waters saw You, O God; the waters saw You, they were in anguish; the deeps also trembled. … The sound of Your thunder was in the whirlwind; the lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.

Psa 96.11-13
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all it contains; let the field exult, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy before the Lord, for He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth. ...

Psa 98.7-9
Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it. Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy before the LORD, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.
[Note that “the world” is in distinction from “those who dwell in it”.]

Psa 103.22
Bless the LORD, all you works of His, in all places of His dominion; bless the LORD, O my soul!

Psa 114.3-6
The sea looked and fled; the Jordan turned back. The mountains skipped like rams, the hills, like lambs. What ails you, O sea, that you flee? O Jordan, that you turn back? O mountains, that you skip like rams? O hills, like lambs?

Psa 145.10
All Your works shall give thanks to You, O LORD, and Your godly ones shall bless You.
[Note that “Your works” and “Your godly ones” is an excellent example of Hebrew parallelism. The sentience required by “Your godly ones” must be matched by the sentience of “Your works”.]

Psa 148.3,7-10
Praise Him, sun and moon; praise Him, all stars of light! ... Praise the LORD from the earth, sea monsters and all deeps; fire and hail, snow and clouds; stormy wind, fulfilling His word; mountains and all hills; fruit trees and all cedars; beasts and all cattle; creeping things and winged fowl;
[This is one of the most detailed list of elements presented together in the entire Scripture.]

Isa 42.10
Sing to the LORD a new song, sing His praise from the end of the earth! You who go down to the sea, and all that is in it. You islands, and those who dwell on them.
[Note the parallelism of “You islands” and “those who dwell on them”.]

Isa 44.23
Shout for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done it! Shout joyfully, you lower parts of the earth; break forth into a shout of joy, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it; for the Lord has redeemed Jacob and in Israel He shows forth His glory.

Isa 49.13
Shout for joy, O heavens! And rejoice, O earth! Break forth into joyful shouting, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted His people and will have compassion on His afflicted.

Rev 16.17; 19.5
Then the seventh angel poured out his bowl upon the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple from the throne, saying, “It is done.”And a voice came from the throne, saying, “Give praise to our God, all you His bond-servants, you who fear Him, the small and the great.”
[Vers 16.17, by itself, could be understood as a reference to the LORD who sits on the throne. However, verse 19.5 can’t be understood that way—unless, of course, the LORD refers to Himself in the third person! I therefore understand 16.17 literally: the throne spoke.

The Apostle John is very careful to state that the LORD sits on the throne (cf., Rev 4.2,3,9,10; 5.13; 6.16; 7.10,15; 19.4; 21.5), so verses 16.17 and 19.5 stand out because they detail the fact that the throne speaks, not “the One sitting on the throne speaks”.]

I end this article with some of the most interesting verses in the OT which present this topic. The first are three parallel verses from Leviticus:

Lev 18.25
‘For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants.

Lev 18.28
so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you.

Lev 20.22
‘You are therefore to keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and do them, so that the land to which I am bringing you to live will not spew you out.

The context of each of these is the LORD’s stern warning to the ancient Jews prior to entering the land He promised to them. If they remained faithful to the LORD, they would have the LORD’s blessing. If they continued in their characteristic obstinance and rebellion, the land would “spew” them out.

[In other places in the OT, the word translated “spew” here is translated as “vomit”—an interesting choice, given the sentience of creation. The land would respond just as a person would who had ingested something repulsive.]

Finally, there is this extended section from the prophet Ezekiel:

Eze 36.1-15
“And you, son of man, prophesy to the mountains of Israel and say, ‘O mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God, “Because the enemy has spoken against you, ‘Aha!’ and, ‘The everlasting heights have become our possession,’ therefore prophesy and say, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “For good reason they have made you desolate and crushed you from every side, that you would become a possession of the rest of the nations and you have been taken up in the talk and the whispering of the people.”’” Therefore, O mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord God. Thus says the Lord God to the mountains and to the hills, to the ravines and to the valleys, to the desolate wastes and to the forsaken cities which have become a prey and a derision to the rest of the nations which are round about, therefore thus says the Lord God, “Surely in the fire of My jealousy I have spoken against the rest of the nations, and against all Edom, who appropriated My land for themselves as a possession with wholehearted joy and with scorn of soul, to drive it out for a prey.” Therefore prophesy concerning the land of Israel and say to the mountains and to the hills, to the ravines and to the valleys, “Thus says the Lord God, ‘Behold, I have spoken in My jealousy and in My wrath because you have endured the insults of the nations.’ Therefore thus says the Lord God, ‘I have sworn that surely the nations which are around you will themselves endure their insults. But you, O mountains of Israel, you will put forth your branches and bear your fruit for My people Israel; for they will soon come. For, behold, I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you will be cultivated and sown. I will multiply men on you, all the house of Israel, all of it; and the cities will be inhabited and the waste places will be rebuilt. I will multiply on you man and beast; and they will increase and be fruitful; and I will cause you to be inhabited as you were formerly and will treat you better than at the first. Thus you will know that I am the Lord. Yes, I will cause men—My people Israel—to walk on you and possess you, so that you will become their inheritance and never again bereave them of children.’
“Thus says the Lord God, ‘Because they say to you, “You are a devourer of men and have bereaved your nation of children,” therefore you will no longer devour men and no longer bereave your nation of children,’ declares the Lord God. “I will not let you hear insults from the nations anymore, nor will you bear disgrace from the peoples any longer, nor will you cause your nation to stumble any longer,” declares the Lord God.’”

When we begin to read Eze 36, we might automatically dismiss the expression of “prophesy to the mountains of Israel” as poetry, merely a metaphor for the nation of Israel. But, when we get to verse 8, we encounter a serious problem with that flawed interpretation: there is a clear distinction between the entities being addressed and “My people Israel”:

"But you, O mountains of Israel, you will put forth your branches and bear your fruit for My people Israel; for they will soon come."

If we make the careless assumption that Eze 36.1-15 is poetry, then we find a command for Israel (referred to by means of the metaphor of the “mountains”) to bear fruit for itself. The very idea is nonsensical! Note also that in the address to the mountains, Israel is referred to in the 3rd person: they will soon come.”

Verse 10 continues the distinction (“you” and the “house of Israel”):

“I will multiply men on you, all the house of Israel, all of it”

Clearly, the people (“all the house of Israel”) “on” the mountains are different from the mountains, on which men are multiplied.

Likewise, verse 12 adds to the thought:

“Yes, I will cause men—My people Israel—to walk on you and possess you, so that you will become their inheritance and never again bereave them of children.’”

Again, if we attempt to make the “mountains of Israel” a metaphor for Israel, then we end up with this nonsense:

"I will cause My people Israel to walk on and possess themselves, and you will inherit yourself and never again bereave yourself of your children.”

It is difficult to imagine a more foolish and inane interpretation to something that is so simple and clear. As unexpected or unusual as it may be for us to accept, the Lord gave command to Ezekiel to address the “mountains of Israel” (and the few other named geophysical entities) with a detailed and specific message of what they were to do when Israel is restored.

[Note: Ezekiel lived many centuries ago, but his prophecy to the mountains was for a time that is yet future, namely the return of the Lord Christ to rule. So, the mountains must possess memory, another characteristic of sentience.]

To state the matter in the familiar terms of Romans 8, in the past the mountains of Israel “bereaved the nation of its children” and “endured the insults of the nations”—in short, it was “subjected to futility” (Rom 8.20). But the time is coming when the mountain of Israel will both be a blessing to Israel and will themselves be blessed through Israel's possession of them and upon them.

Beyond any doubt, the LORD’s creation is sentient!

While that wonderful fact is not naturally evident to us, it is true nonetheless. Even today, despite our technology, we certainly don’t understand its details. The LORD is alive, and therefore one of creation’s predominant characteristics is that His creation shares that endowed property in the same way as mankind does.

While not a direct statement of Scripture, it is biblically defensible to say that the LORD does not—and could not!—create anything “dead”!

I end with a clip from one of my favorite hymns:

Be Still My Soul
Katharina von Schlegel, 1752 (translated by Jane Borthwick, 1855; alt. 1990, mod.)
Finlandia, Jean Sibelius 1899

v2:
Be still my soul, your God will undertake
to guide the future as He has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake;
all now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still my soul the waves and winds still know
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.

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