Psalm 104

Psalm 104 is one of the great creation praise hymns of Israel. As worship, it blesses God as both creator and provider. As theology, it identifies creation in theocentric rather than anthropocentric ways. God is not only sovereign over the creation but is immanent within it. The creation is more about God than it is humanity.

Indeed, there is no hint in this psalm that humanity shares God’s dominion over the creation. While Genesis 1 looms large in the background of Psalm 104, the psalm does not allude to the role of humanity within the creation as the image of God (and does not deny it either; cf. Psalm 8). Instead, the hymn stresses that God is the central figure in a theology of creation. God creates for God’s self, rejoices in the creation for God’s own sake, and enjoys the creation to God’s own delight. God is the primary actor in this hymn, and no aspect of creation is without God’s presence.

Following some of Goldingay’s suggestions in his Psalms commentary, the psalm moves through various dimensions of creation and climaxes  climatically in the heart-felt worship of a believer. Psalm 104:31-35 is a liturgical response to the reality the psalmist envisions in 104:1-30.

In that vision the psalmist moved from divine transcendence to divine immanence, from God’s sovereign ordering of the chaotic waters to the use of those waters for the care of the plants, animals, and humanity. The psalm moves easily from God’s initiating acts (as in Genesis 1) to God’s ongoing acts in the care of the world.

God’s Sabbath rest in Genesis 2 does not entail inactivity. Rather, God created a world in which God would dwell with humanity and in the creation much like builders live in their houses.  Yahweh spread a tent–the heavens (sky) themselves–and came to dwell within the creation. God completed the divine work of building the home (bringing the creation into being and ordering so that it was now habitable space), but God’s work continues in the care, development, and enjoyment of what God has created. God is no couch potato lazily overseeing the world, but an active agent within the creation as an expression of God’s own joy.

I suggest, following Goldingay in many ways, the movement of Psalm 104 looks something like this:

Bless Yahweh, O my soul (1a)

God’s Transcendent Identity (1b-4)

God’s Ordering of the Chaotic Waters (5-9)

God’s Benevolent Use of Land and Water  (10-18)

God’s Ordering of the Cosmos (19-23)

God’s Ordering of Life (24-30)

Liturgical Response to God’s Creative Work (31-35ab)

Bless Yahweh, O my soul (35c)…and Praise Yah! (35c)

God’s transcendent identity is clear by the allusions to Genesis 1 in Psalm 104:1-4: light, heavens, waters. God towers above and beyond the creation; this is God’s greatness or transcendence.  This is clear in the images the psalmist utilizes. Yahweh wraps on light like a garment and stretches the sky like a tent. Yahweh dwells in the clouds; God has a luxury apartment in the heights (“in the waters”). Yahweh rides the clouds like a chariot as even the storms carry Yahweh back and forth throughout the creation.

The images, of course, are not literal; they are poetic. The language describes a God who fills the sky from one end of the earth to the other. Yahweh reigns over the earth and thus we ascribe honor and majesty to God. The poetry offers a picture God’s limitless power. The cosmos does not confine God, even light itself is a coat that God wears and the heavens are a tent Yahweh spreads. It does not limit God. Rather, God chooses to dwell in the tent.

Just as in Genesis 1, God orders the chaotic waters. At one time the earth was covered with water (cf. Genesis 1:2) and was uninhabitable. The waters represent chaos, that is, they are a threat to the existence of creation as a habitable space. But God is not threatened by chaos. On the contrary, God rebukes the waters and at the sound of divine thunder, the waters flee and gather together in the place God designed for them.

As the waters flee, the ground emerges with its mountains and valleys. Dry ground emerges from the waters, and the waters are given boundaries so that they will not cover the earth.  In other words, God creates habitable space for plants, animals, and humanity. God takes the initial chaotic watery world first created (Genesis 1:2) and orders it in such a way that now habitable land is present within the creation (thus, now it is “very good”). God takes the chaos and brings order to it.

God then makes benevolent use of this land, and the water satisfies the earth. Goldingay helpfully suggests that Psalm 104:10-18 has a kind of chiastic structure:

Mountains and Wild Animals (10-11)

Trees and Birds; Yahweh Satiates (12-13)

Yahweh Provides for Animals and Humanity (14-15)

Trees and Birds; Yahweh Satiates (16-17)

Mountains and Wild Animals (18)

Interestingly, water–though representative of chaos in the previous section–now becomes a blessing. God satisfies the earth with the rain, and the earth produces plants, which feed the animals.   The “circle of life” is present in the Psalm; life is situated in an ecosystem by divine design.

This “circle of life” involves birds in the branches of trees, goats on high mountains, badgers living in rocky crags as well as domesticated animals. God provides for animals that have no intimate connection with humanity, that is, animals that live in the wild or live in places inhospitable to humankind. Nevertheless, God cares and provides for them. God is interested in the creation even when it has no direct relationship with or connection to humanity!

The centerpiece of this structure, however, is the food God provides for animals and humans. Specifically, God provides humanity with

  • wine from vines to enjoy life
  • oil from trees to enhance human health
  • bread from grain to nourish the body

Each of these is subject to abuse (e.g., bread can lead to obesity and wine to drunkenness), but they are nevertheless fundamental goods which God gives to humanity through the creation. Each has its own purpose. Wine is for joy, grain is for nourishment (“strength”), and oil is for refreshed living (oil was used medicinally as well as to moisten the body after a hard day in the sun and scorching winds). These are creation’s goods that God intends for humanity to enjoy, even amidst the chaos that sometimes (even often) surrounds us (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

God orders the cosmos. The present creation has darkness and light, night and day. The sun and moon have their functions within that order, and there is regularity in their movements. They are predictable.  There are twenty-eight days in the lunar calendar, and the sun rises and sets at predictable times. At root, this means that science is possible because the universe functions in regular, predictable ways.

This order extends to the the function of night and day in the creation.  At night the lions hunt, and humanity works their fields by day. There is balance to life, and God values each.  God wants both the lions and humanity to have their food; God wants both to pursue life, and  God enjoys both.

The reality of darkness, however, is paralleled by the “tooth and claw” nature of the creation.  The psalmist does not idealize the present creation, or speak of the present creation as if is the future new creation. Rather, it is realistic–lions kill their prey. Eschatologically, this may not always be so, but it is true now. Chaos still exists, and creation has not yet reached its full potential or its eventual goal. Darkness yet exists though tempered by the light of the moon and stars, but one day there will be no night in the new creation. That day, however, has not yet come. So, lions still hunt their prey in the night, and humans–unfortunately–often do the same, and even bring their violence against fellow-humans and the creation itself into the light of day.

God’s orders life. Like Proverbs 8, the psalmist appeals to divine wisdom as the root of God’s creative work. The creation exhibits divine wisdom, even if perhaps we might not be able to discern it at times. And it is evidenced in the wide variety of life within the world–on the earth and in the sea, both small and great. Indeed, God has an aquarium the size of the earth’s oceans, and only God has seen most of those sea creatures.

In fact, this ordering of life is most famously exhibited in how God orders the chaos of the Leviathan, which is well-known in the ancient world as a (mythological) sea monster. The Leviathan represents the chaotic waters and lives in those waters. Often it is pictured as hostile to humanity, and certainly no human is able to tame it (Job 41; Isaiah 27:1).

Yet, God plays with the Leviathan (NJPS) or enjoys watching the Leviathan play in the oceans. God is not threatened by the chaos that the Leviathan represents. On the contrary, God enjoys and delights in the play of the Leviathan. Even “sea monsters,” which fostered dread and fear among ancient peoples, do not intimidate God because God created “sea monsters” (Genesis 1:21). The chaos within creation, the Leviathan, is yet under God’s sovereign control and so much so that God can enjoy the Leviathan’s playfulness.

The ordering of life, however, is not all play.  The psalmist’s realism emerges once again in the affirmation that both life and death are in God’s hands.  When God sends ruach (spirit, breath, wind), God gives life.  When God hides God’s face and withdraws ruach (spirit, breath, wind), then there is death. This is the nature of our creatureliness, and one we share with all life on earth.  Whether cattle or lions, or human beings, life depends upon God’s breath. Just as humans came to life through the breath of God in Genesis 2, so they return to the earth (the dust of the ground) when that breath is taken away. Life and death lie in God’s hands, and so it should be since God is the Creator.

The psalmist offers a liturgical response to this poetic narration of God’s creative work.  The creation serves the glory and delight of God, and the wish-prayer ascribes this to God.  Powerfully, God rejoices in creation; God enjoys what God has made! The creation is about God rather than humanity.

Humanity joins God in this joy and delight, and sings and offers musical praise to God in the light of this good creation.  We are grateful for what God has provided, and we admire the beauty, diversity, and order as well as the mysterious chaotic rhythms of creation. So, we sing and play.

The psalmist describes his reflection as a “meditation,” as most translations render it. The word is not exactly about meditation. Often it is translated lament, complaint, or protest.  Here, of course, it is used in a positive sense. The semantic point appears to be that this is a passionate and deeply held perspective. It arises out of the deepest regions of the soul, and the poem is a passionate outpouring of love and praise for the Creator.

If the praise and wish-prayers for God are a natural response to this passionate poem, Psalm 104:25a comes somewhat as a shock. From where does this wish-prayer for the destruction of the wicked arise? How is this congruent with the psalm as a whole?

The passion for the good things of creation is mirrored by the passion against those things that are toxic to the creation. The psalmist’s passion for creation is also a passion against those who would destroy it. The “wicked” and the “sinner” may have a general reference, but I think it probably relates more specifically to what spoils the earth, the goodness of creation, and the ends for which God created the world. In one sense all sin does that, but the prayer is that God will consume those who are committed to the subversion of God’s goodness in creation.

It should not surprise us, I think, that in passionate worship that we also display a passionate commitment to God’s goodness. Should we not be angry with poachers who endanger the Black Rhino? Should we not be angry about pollutants that render our air and waters toxic?

The prayer that God might rejoice in God’s own works is concomitant with the prayer that God would destroy those who destroy God’s creation.

The psalm ends on a final call to praise. Though the psalm begins and ends as an individual hymn of praise (“Bless Yahweh, O my soul”), its final words address the congregation. “Praise Yah” is a plural imperative. The psalmist invites Israel to praise God in the light of the poem the composer has just sung. It as if a soloist has asked the congregation to affirm his/her testimony of praise by singing the last verse with him/her.

This praise affirms that the creation is neither anthropocentric nor biocentric, but theocentric. God is the primary mover, goal, and agent in the creation, and God acts for the sake of the other (both animals and humans) in all that God does. God is Creator, and that is no mere ancient title.  God is still at work within the creation!

The creation is not about humanity, and it is not about the biosphere. It is about God.

One Response to “Psalm 104”

  1.   Doris Jackson Says:

    thank you so much for sharing your writings about the psalms. I have greatly enjoyed the readings and study.

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