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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 104

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-35

Psalms 104:1-35

LIKE the preceding psalm, this one begins and ends with the psalmist’s call to his soul to bless Jehovah. The inference has been drawn that both psalms have the same author, but that is much too large a conclusion from such a fact. The true lesson from it is that Nature, when looked at by an eye that sees it to be full of God. yields material for devout gratitude no less than do His fatherly "mercies to them that fear Him." The keynote of the psalm is struck in Psalms 104:24, which breaks into an exclamation concerning the manifoldness of God’s works and the wisdom that has shaped them all. The psalm is a gallery of vivid Nature pictures, touched with Wonderful grace and sureness of hand. Clearness of vision and sympathy with every living thing make the swift outlines inimitably firm and lovely. The poet’s mind is like a crystal mirror, in which the Cosmos is reflected. He is true to the uniform Old Testament point of view, and regards Nature neither from the scientific nor aesthetic standpoint. To him it is the garment of God, the apocalypse of a present Deity, whose sustaining energy is but the prolongation of His creative act. All creatures depend on Him; His continuous action is their life. He rejoices in His works. The Creation narrative in Genesis underlies the psalm, and is in the main followed, though not slavishly.

Psalms 104:1 would be normal in structure if the initial invocation were omitted, and as Psalms 104:35 would also be complete without it, the suggestion that it is, in both verses, a liturgical addition is plausible. The verse sums up the whole of the creative act in one grand thought. In that act the invisible God has arrayed Himself in splendour and glory, making visible these inherent attributes. That is the deepest meaning of Creation. The Universe is the garment of God.

This general idea lays the foundation for the following picture of the process of creation which is coloured by reminiscences of Genesis. Here, as there, Light is the firstborn of Heaven; but the influence of the preceding thought shapes the language, and Light is regarded as God’s vesture. The Uncreated Light, who is darkness to our eyes, arrays Himself in created light, which reveals while it veils Him. Everywhere diffused, all-penetrating, all-gladdening, it tells of the Presence in which all creatures live. This clause is the poetic rendering of the work of the first creative day. The next clause in like manner deals with that of the second. The mighty arch of heaven is lifted and expanded over earth as easily as a man draws the cloth or skin sides and canopy of his circular tent over its framework. But our roof is His floor; and, according to Genesis, the firmament (lit. expanse) separates the waters above from those beneath. So the psalm pictures the Divine Architect as laying the beams of His upper chambers (for so the word means) in these waters, above the tent roof. The fluid is solid at His will, and the most mobile becomes fixed enough to be the foundation of His royal abode. The custom of having chambers on the roof, for privacy and freshness, suggests the image.

In these introductory verses the poet is dealing with the grander instances of creative power, especially as realised in the heavens. Not till Psalms 104:5 does he drop to earth. His first theme is God’s dominion over the elemental forces, and so he goes on to represent the clouds as His chariot, the wind as bearing Him on its swift pinions, and, as the parallelism requires, the winds as His messengers, and devouring fire as His servants. The rendering of Psalms 104:4 adopted in Hebrews from the LXX is less relevant to the psalmist’s purpose of gathering all the forces which sweep through the wide heavens into one company of obedient servants of God, than that adopted above, and now generally recognised. It is to be observed that the verbs in Psalms 104:2-4 are participles, which express continuous action. These creative acts were not done once for all, but are going on still and always. Preservation is continued creation.

With Psalms 104:6 we pass to the work of the third of the Genesis days, and the verb is in the form which describes a historical fact. The earth is conceived of as formed, and already moulded into mountains and valleys, but all covered with "the deep" like a vesture-a sadly different one from the robe of Light which He wears. That weltering deep is bidden back to its future appointed bounds; and the process is grandly described, as if the waters were sentient, and, panic struck at God’s voice took to flight. Psalms 104:8 a throws in a vivid touch, to the disturbance of grammatical smoothness. The poet has the scene before his eye, and as the waters flee he sees the earth emerging, the mountains soaring, and the vales sinking, and he breaks his sentence, as if in wonder at the lovely apparition, but returns, in Psalms 104:8 b, to tell whither the fugitive waters fled-namely, to the ocean depths. There they are hemmed in by God’s will, and, as was promised to Noah, shall not again run wasting over a drowned world.

The picture of the emerging earth, with its variations of valleys and mountains, remains before the psalmist’s eye throughout Psalms 104:10-18, which describe how it is clothed and peopled. These effects are due to the beneficent ministry of the same element, when guided and restrained by God, which swathed the world with desolation. Water runs through the vales, and rain falls on the mountains. Therefore the former bear herbs and corn, vines and olives, and the latter are clothed with trees not planted by human hand, the mighty cedars which spread their broad shelves of steadfast green high up among the clouds. "Everything lives whithersoever water cometh," as Easterns know. Therefore round the drinking places in the vales thirsty creatures gather, birds flit and sing; up among the cedars are peaceful nests, and inaccessible cliffs have their sure-footed inhabitants. All depend on water, and water is God’s gift. The psalmist’s view of Nature is characteristic in the direct ascription of all its processes to God. He makes the springs flow, and sends rain on the peaks. Equally characteristic is the absence of any expression of a sense of beauty in the sparkling streams tinkling down the gloomy wadies, or in the rainstorms darkening the hills, or in the green mantle of earth, or in the bright creatures. The psalmist is thinking of use, not of beauty. And yet it is a poet’s clear and kindly eye which looks upon all, and sees the central characteristic of each, -the eager drinking of the wild ass; the music of the birds blending with the brawling, of the stream, and sweeter because the singers are hidden among the branches; the freshly watered earth, "satisfied" with "the fruit of Thy works" (i.e., the rain which God has sent from His "upper chambers"), the manifold gifts which by His wondrous alchemy are produced from the ground by help of one agency, water; the forest trees with their foliage glistening, as if glad for the rain; the stork on her nest; the goats on the mountains; the "conies" (for which we have no popular name) hurrying to their holes in the cliffs. Man appears as depending, like the lower creatures, on the fruit of the ground; but he has more varied supplies, bread and wine and oil, and these not only satisfy material wants, but "gladden" and "strengthen" the heart. According to some. the word rendered "service" in Psalms 104:14 means "tillage," a meaning which is supported by Psalms 104:23, where the same word is rendered "labour," and which fits in well with the next clause of Psalms 104:14, "to bring forth bread from the earth," which would describe the purpose of the tillage. His prerogative of labour is man’s special differentia in creation. It is a token of his superiority to the happy, careless creatures who toil not nor spin. Earth does not yield him its best products without his cooperation. There would thus be an allusion to him as the only worker in creation similar to that in Psalms 104:23, and to the reference to the "ships" in Psalms 104:26. But probably the meaning of "service," which is suggested by the parallelism, and does not introduce the new thought of cooperation with Nature or God, is to be preferred. The construction is somewhat difficult, but the rendering of Psalms 104:14-15 given above seems best. The two clauses with infinitive verbs (to bring forth and to cause to shine) are each followed by a clause in which the construction is varied into that with a finite verb, the meaning remaining the same; and all four clauses express the Divine purpose in causing vegetation to spring. Then the psalmist looks up, once more to the hills. "The trees of Jehovah" are so called, not so much because they are great, as because, unlike vines and olives, they have not been planted or tended by man, nor belong to him. Far above the valleys, where men and the cattle dependent on him live on earth’s cultivated bounties, the unowned woods stand and drink God’s sift of rain, while wild creatures lead free lives amid mountains and rocks.

With Psalms 104:19 the psalmist passes to the fourth day, but thinks of moon and sun only in relation to the alternation of day and night as affecting creatural life on earth. The moon is named first, because the Hebrew day began with the evening. It is the measurer, by whose phases seasons (or, according to some, festivals) are reckoned. The sun is a punctual servant, knowing the hour to set and duly keeping it. "Thou appointest darkness and it is night." God wills, and His will effects material changes. He says to His servant Night, "Come," and she "comes." The psalmist had peopled the vales and mountains of his picture. Everywhere he had seen life fitted to its environment; and night is populous too. He had outlined swift sketches of tame and wild creatures, and now he half shows us beasts of prey stealing through the gloom. He puts his finger on two characteristics-their stealthy motions, and their cries which made night hideous. Even their roar was a kind of prayer, though they knew it not; it was God from whom they sought their food. It would not have answered the purpose to have spoken of "all the loves, Now sleeping in those quiet groves." The poet desired to show how there were creatures that found possibilities of happy life in all the variety of conditions fashioned by the creative Hand, which was thus shown to be moved by Wisdom and Love. The sunrise sends these nocturnal animals back to their dens. and the world is ready for man. "The sun looked over the mountain’s rim," and the beasts of prey slunk to their lairs, and man’s day of toil began-the mark of his preeminence, God’s gift for his good, by which he uses creation for its highest end and fulfils God’s purpose. Grateful is the evening rest when the day has been filled with strenuous toil.

The picture of earth and its inhabitants is now complete, and the dominant thought which it leaves on the psalmist’s heart is cast into the exultant and wondering exclamation of Psalms 104:24. The variety as well as multitude of the forms in which God’s creative idea is embodied, the Wisdom which shapes all, His ownership of all, are the impressions made by the devout contemplation of Nature. The scientist and the artist are left free to pursue their respective lines of investigation and impression, but scientist and artist must rise to the psalmist’s point of view, if they are to learn the deepest lesson from the ordered kingdoms of Nature and from the beauty which floods the world.

With the exclamation in Psalms 104:24 the psalmist has finished his picture of the earth, which he had seen as if emerging from the abyss, and watched as it was gradually clothed "with fertility and peopled with happy life. He turns, in Psalms 104:25-26, to the other half of his Vision of Creation, and portrays the gathered and curbed waters which he now calls the "sea." As always in Scripture, it is described as it looks to a landsman, gazing out on it from the safe shore. The characteristics specified betray unfamiliarity with maritime pursuits. The far-stretching roll of the waters away out to the horizon, the mystery veiling the strange lives swarming in its depths, the extreme contrasts in the magnitude of its inhabitants, strike the poet. He sees "the stately ships go on." The introduction of these into the picture is unexpected. We should have looked for an instance of the "small" creatures, to pair off with the "great" one, Leviathan, in the next words. "A modern poet," says Cheyne, in loc., " would have joined the mighty whale to the fairy nautilus." It has been suggested that "ship" here is a name for the nautilus, which is common in the Eastern Mediterranean. The suggestion is a tempting one, as fitting in more smoothly with the antithesis of small and great in the previous clause. But, in the absence of any proof that the word has any other meaning than "ship," the suggestion cannot be taken as more than a probable conjecture. The introduction of "ships" into the picture is quite in harmony with the allusions to man’s works in the former parts of the psalm, such as Psalms 104:23, and possibly Psalms 104:14. The psalmist seems to intend to insert such reference to man, the only toiler, in all his pictures. "Leviathan" is probably here the whale. Ewald, Hitzig, Baethgen, Kay, and Cheyne follow the LXX and Vulgate in reading "Leviathan whom Thou hast formed to sport with him," and take the words to refer to Job 41:5. The thought would then be that God’s power can control the mightiest creature’s plunges; but "the two preceding ‘there’s’ are in favour of the usual interpretation, ‘therein" (Hupfeld), and consequently of taking the "sporting" to be that of the unwieldy gambols of the sea monster.

Psalms 104:27-30 mass all creatures of earth and sea, including man, as alike dependent on God for sustenance and for life. Dumbly these look expectant to Him, though man only knows to whom all living eyes are directed. The swift clauses in Psalms 104:28-30, without connecting particles, vividly represent the Divine acts as immediately followed by the creatural consequences. To this psalmist the links in the chain were of little consequence. His thoughts were fixed on its two ends-the Hand that sent its power thrilling through the links, and the result realised in the creature’s life. All natural phenomena are issues of God’s present will. Preservation is as much His act, as inexplicable without Him, as creation. There would be nothing to "gather" unless He "gave." All sorts of supplies, which make the "good" of physical life, are in His hand, whether they be the food of the wild asses by the streams, or of the conies among the cliffs, or of the young lions in the night, or of Leviathan tumbling amidst the waves, or of toiling man. Nor is it only the nourishment of life which comes straight from God to all, but life itself depends on His continual inbreathing. His face is creation’s light; breath from Him is its life. The withdrawal of it is death. Every change in creatural condition is wrought by Him. He is the only Fountain of Life, and the reservoir of all the forces that minister to life or to inanimate being. But the psalmist will not end his contemplations with the thought of the fair creation returning to nothingness. Therefore he adds another verse (Psalms 104:30); which tells of "life reorient out of dust." Individuals pass; the type remains. New generations spring. The yearly miracle of Spring brings greenness over the snow-covered or brown pastures and green shoots from stiffened boughs. Many of last year’s birds are dead, but there are nests in the cypresses, and twitterings among the branches in the wadies. Life, not, death, prevails in God’s world.

So the psalmist gathers all up into a burst of praise. He desires that the glory of God, which accrues to Him from His works, may ever be rendered through devout recognition of Him as working them all by man, the only creature who can be the spokesman of creation. He further desires that, as God at first saw that all was "very good," He may ever continue thus to rejoice in His works, or, in other words, that these may fulfil His purpose. Possibly His rejoicing in His works is regarded as following upon man’s giving glory to Him for them. That rejoicing, which is the manifestation both of His love and of His satisfaction, is all the more desired, because, if His works do not please Him, there lies in Him a dread abyss of destructive power, which could sweep them into nothingness. Superficial readers may feel that the tone of Psalms 104:32 strikes a discord, but it is a discord which can be resolved into deeper harmony. One frown from God, and the solid earth trembles, as conscious to its depths of His displeasure. One touch of the hand that is filled with good, and the mountains smoke. Creation perishes if He is displeased. Well then may the psalmist pray that He may forever rejoice in His works, and make them live by His smile.

Very beautifully and profoundly does the psalmist ask, in Psalms 104:33-34, that some echo of the Divine joy may gladden his own heart, and that his praise may be coeval with God’s glory and his own life. This is the Divine purpose in creation-that God may rejoice in it and chiefly in man its crown, and that man may rejoice in Him. Such sweet commerce is possible between heaven and earth; and they have learned the lesson of creative power and love aright who by it have been led to share in the joy of God. The psalm has been shaped in part by reminiscences of the creative days of creation. It ends with the Divine Sabbath, and with the prayer, which is also a hope, that man may enter into God’s rest.

But there is one discordant note in creation’s full-toned hymn, "the fair music that all creatures made." There are sinners on earth: and the last prayer of the psalmist is that that blot may be removed, and so nothing may mar the realisation of God’s ideal, nor be left to lessen the completeness of His delight in His work. And so the psalm ends, as it began, with the singer’s call to his own soul to bless Jehovah.

This is the first psalm which closes with Hallelujah (Praise Jehovah). It is appended to the two following psalms, which close Book 4, and is again found in Book 5, in Psalms 111:1-10; Psalms 112:1-10; Psalms 113:1-9; Psalms 115:1-18; Psalms 116:1-19; Psalms 117:1-2, and in the final group, Psalms 146:1-10; Psalms 147:1-20; Psalms 148:1-14; Psalms 149:1-9; Psalms 150:1-6. It is probably a liturgical addition.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 104". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/psalms-104.html.
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