Psalm 104
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This glorious Psalm is conspicuous alike for its poetic beauty and for its religious significance. It is a companion piece to Psalms 103, and was probably written by the same poet. Both of them begin and end with the same call to adoring praise, Bless Jehovah, O my soul. In Psalms 103 that call is based upon the consideration of God’s mercy exhibited in His recent deliverance of Israel, in Psalms 104 upon the contemplation of His power, wisdom, and goodness manifested in the creation and maintenance of the world. History and Nature render their concurrent testimony.

The author of this Psalm has been called “the Wordsworth of the ancients, penetrated with a love for nature, and gifted with the insight that springs from love” (Aglen). Undoubtedly he was an enthusiastic lover of Nature, but it was not for its own sake merely that he loved it. It was to him “a book which heavenly truth imparts.”

“The earth

And common face of nature spake to him

Rememberable things.”

For him the invisible attributes of God. His everlasting power and divinity, were daily rendered visible to human reason in the works of creation (Romans 1:20).

The general arrangement of the poem is suggested by the story of creation in Genesis 1, but the treatment of the subject is free and original. Often we are reminded of the creation-pictures in Job 38-41, with which the author must have been familiar. Sometimes he draws a picture of the process of creation, but for the most part it is the present order and continuous maintenance of the universe by the beneficent will of the Creator which kindles his devout enthusiasm. God did not make the world and leave it to itself. It depends absolutely upon His will for the continuance of its existence. It is He who “giveth to all life, and breath, and all things” (Acts 17:25). And at the end the poet looks forward to the banishment of evil, and the restoration of the harmony of creation, “that God may be all in all.”

The following analysis may help to indicate the plan of the Psalm.

Creation is a revelation of the incomparable majesty of God. The elemental forces of Nature are an expression of His Almighty power (Psalm 104:1-4). He formed the earth and separated the land and sea (Psalm 104:5-9); and while the great mass of waters is thus confined in its appointed place, provision is made for the needs of beast and bird by spring and stream (Psalm 104:10-12). He sends rain to fertilise the earth, and make it produce food for man and beast (Psalm 104:13-15); He plants it with stately trees, which are the home of the birds, and peoples the mountains and rocks with His creatures (Psalm 104:16-18). Moon and sun mark times and seasons, day and night (Psalm 104:19-23). Then, after an exclamation of adoring wonder, the poet points to the sea with its manifold marvels (Psalm 104:24-26), and emphasises the perpetual dependence of every living thing on God not only for sustenance but for life (Psalm 104:27-30). Finally with a glance at the awful power of Him Who can destroy as easily as He can create, the Psalmist prays that His works may never cease to please Him and reveal His glory. As long as he lives he will sing praise to God. May all that disturbs the harmony of creation be banished from the earth (Psalm 104:31-35).

The choice of this Psalm as a Proper Psalm for Whitsunday was probably due to the reference it contains to the spirit of God as the source of life; it has moreover a singular fitness for the great festival which in this country falls at the time when spring has once more “renewed the face of the ground.”

Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.
1. The verbs (not adjectives or participles as in Psalm 96:4) of the Heb. express an act rather than a state: thou hast made thyself very great … thou hast clothed thyself &c. It is not, so to speak, God’s eternal and immutable greatness which the poet celebrates, but the revelation of His greatness, the assumption, as it were, of a new robe of imperial majesty in the creation of the world. Honour and majesty are the attributes of a king. Cp. Psalm 96:6; Psalm 21:5; Psalm 8:1. For the phrase of line 3 cp. Job 40:10; Psalm 93:1.

1–4. The greatness and majesty of Jehovah exhibited in creation.

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
2. Light, the first created element, is as it were God’s robe, revealing while it conceals Him. Nothing can serve better as the expression of His Nature (1 John 1:5; 1 Timothy 6:16). Light is universally diffused; it is the condition of life, the source of gladness, the emblem of purity.

who stretchest out &c.] Cp. Isaiah 40:22. The canopy of the sky is compared to a tent-curtain, stretched out over the earth. By His simple fiat God spread out these heavens as easily as a man might pitch his tent. Their vastness is a symbol of the majesty of the King Who dwells in His royal pavilion, Whom yet “heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain.”

Observe the present participles, covering thyself, stretching out. The original act of creation is regarded as continued into the present in the maintenance of the universe.

Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
3. By a bold paradox the Creator is described as laying the beams of his upper chambers in the waters. On the mysterious reservoir of waters, which was imagined by the ancient Hebrews to exist above the ‘firmament’ (Genesis 1:7; Psalm 29:3; Psalm 148:4), He constructs His secret dwelling, as a man builds “upper chambers” on the roof of his house for air and privacy. The line is an echo of Amos 9:6, “he that buildeth his upper chambers in the heavens.”

who maketh the clouds &c.] The stormcloud and the tempest are the symbols of His Advent. Cp. Psalm 18:10; Isaiah 19:1; Daniel 7:13; Matthew 24:30.

Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
4. The A.V. follows the LXX, which is quoted in Hebrews 1:7, with the change of a flaming fire into a flame of fire. The Greek like the Hebrew is ambiguous, for the word for angels may mean simply messengers, and that for spirits may mean simply winds. But it is clear that the spiritual nature of angels is not in question here, and that the right rendering is winds. The construction of the whole verse has however been the subject of much discussion.

(1) If the construction of the A.V. and LXX is retained, and it is the most natural construction of the Heb. words, we may render,

Who maketh his angels winds,

His ministers a flaming fire,

and the meaning will be that as Jehovah reveals Himself in the works of creation, so He arrays the spiritual agents and ministers who surround Him (Psalm 103:20-21) with the form of physical phenomena, the wind and the lightning. “Where men at first see only material objects and forms of nature there God is present, fulfilling His will through His servants under the forms of elemental action” (Bp Westcott on Hebrews 1:7). The Targ., adopting the same construction, paraphrases, “Who makes his messengers swift as winds, his ministers strong as fire,” but this explanation misses the connexion with the preceding verses.

(2) Most commentators however think that the context demands the rendering,

Who maketh winds his messengers,

Flaming fire his ministers.

As the clouds are Jehovah’s chariot, so winds and lightnings are His messengers and servants. The great forces of Nature are His agents, employed by Him to do His bidding. Cp. Psalm 148:8. But this rendering is not free from objection on grammatical grounds. The order of the words is decidedly against it.

(3) A third possible rendering is,

Who maketh his messengers of winds,

His ministers of flaming fire.

Jehovah forms His messengers and ministers out of winds and lightnings; He uses these natural agents for the execution of His purposes. This rendering expresses the same sense as (2), though somewhat less directly, and is free from its grammatical difficulty.

The first rendering however deserves more consideration than it has generally received. It is the most natural rendering, and its connexion with the context, if less obvious than that of (2) and (3), is still real. The general purport of these verses is not to shew “how the various natural agents are appropriated to different uses by the Creator,” but how the Creator is revealed in and through the works of Creation. And as Jehovah is represented in Psalm 104:20-21 of Psalms 103, which is so closely related to this Ps., as environed by hosts of angels and ministers, it is suitable to shew here how these angels and ministers find expression in physical phenomena.

On the grammatical question see Driver’s Hebrew Tenses, § 195, Obs.

Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
5. He founded the earth on its bases,

That it should not be moved for ever.

The earth is compared to a building erected upon solid foundations. Cp. Job 38:6; Proverbs 8:29.

5–9. The formation of the earth, and the separation of land and water: the work of the third day, Genesis 1:9-10; cp. Job 38:8-11.

Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.
6. This verse does not refer to the Flood, though its language may be borrowed from the account of the Flood (Genesis 7:19-20; and cp. Psalm 104:9 with Genesis 9:11; Genesis 9:15), but to the primitive condition of the earth. It is regarded as already moulded into hill and valley, but enveloped with the ‘abyss’ of waters (Genesis 1:2), by which even the highest mountains are covered. Cp. Milton, Par. Lost, vii. 278,

Over all the face of earth

Main ocean flowed.”

The tense of the original is a graphic ‘imperfect.’ “The waters were standing above the mountains.”

At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.
7. At thy rebuke they flee,

At the voice of thy thunder they haste away,

7, 8. The graphic imperfects are continued, picturing the process of the separation of land and water.

They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.
8. (The mountains rise, the vales sink down,)

Unto the place which thou hadst founded for them.

The ‘rebuke’ of God is His command, uttered as it were with a voice of thunder (Psalm 18:15; Isaiah 50:2). It is best to follow the marg. of A.V. and R.V. in taking Psalm 104:8 a as a parenthesis, describing the result of this Divine command. Mountains and valleys appear (Genesis 1:9) as the waters retire to the place appointed for them. Cp. Ov. Metam. i. 344 f.

“Flumina subsidunt, colles exire videntur,

Surgit humus, crescunt loca, decrescentibus undis.”

See also Milton, Par. Lost, vii. 285 ff.

The rendering of the A.V. and R.V., which is also grammatically possible, appears to describe the commotion of the waters as the great deep breaks up and they seek their appointed place.

Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.
9. The reference is not to the Flood, but to the original separation of land and water confirmed after the Flood (Genesis 9:9 ff.). Cp. Job 38:10-11; Proverbs 8:29.

He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.
10. Who sendeth forth springs into the valleys;

They run among the mountains.

Cp. the description of Palestine in Deuteronomy 8:7.

10–18. While He confines the great mass of waters to its appointed place, He fertilises the land by springs and rain, and makes bountiful provision for the wants of men and animals.

They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst.
11. every beast of the field] Wild animals, as distinguished from domesticated animals, the ‘cattle’ of Psalm 104:14.

the wild asses] Mentioned particularly as one of the most striking and beautiful of wild animals. See Davidson’s note on Job 39:7, a passage which may have been in the Psalmist’s mind, for he was evidently familiar with Job. Jeremiah (Jeremiah 14:6) draws a graphic picture of the sufferings of the wild ass in a drought.

quench] Lit. break. Cp. frangere sitim.

By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.
12. Beside them dwell the birds of the heaven;

From among the leafage they utter their song.

Beside the springs and streams grow the trees which are the home of the birds, whose song of praise to their Maker ever rises from their branches.

He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.
13. Who giveth the mountains drink from his upper chambers. Palestine was “a land of mountains and valleys, drinking water of the rain of heaven” (Deuteronomy 11:11). It is not inaccessible mountain tops which the poet is thinking of, so much as the upland corn fields (Psalm 72:16), watered by the rain which God sends down from His “upper chambers” (Psalm 104:3), as the valleys are watered by streams.

the fruit of thy works] Generally explained to mean the rain, as a product of the clouds which God has made. But this is harsh: it is much more natural to take the phrase in the simple sense of “fruit produced by God’s manifold operations.” Earth is fertilised by the rain and springs, and rejoices in its abundant produce. The thought is further developed in Psalm 104:14-18.

He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth;
14. herb] Cp. Genesis 1:11-12; Genesis 1:29-30; Genesis 3:18; Genesis 9:3. The term includes all vegetable products.

for the service of man] The use of the word in Psalm 104:23 and elsewhere is in favour of the rendering of R.V. marg., for the labour of man:—God makes the soil respond to man’s tillage with abundant produce. But the Heb. word seems to be capable of the same extension of meaning as ‘service’ and this sense fits the parallelism and the context best.

14 b, 15. The division of the verses obscures the parallelism. Render,

That he may bring forth bread out of the earth,

And that wine may gladden the heart of man.

That he may make his face to shine with oil,

And that bread may sustain man’s heart.

Corn wine and oil were the chief products of Palestine (Deuteronomy 12:17). God provides for man’s enjoyment as well as for his sustenance. Cp. for the language Jdg 9:13; Ecclesiastes 10:19.

And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart.
The trees of the LORD are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted;
16. The trees of Jehovah are not merely stately and majestic trees, but as the next line shews, those which He has planted, the natural growth of the primeval forest, in contrast to trees planted by the hand of man. Cp. Numbers 24:6. They are satisfied (cp. 13 b) with the rain from heaven.

Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.
17. the stork] Chăsîdâh, the Heb. name for the stork, is connected with chĕsĕd, “lovingkindness, and it was so called from its affection for its young, a trait often noticed by Greek and Latin writers. Thus it is called πτηνῶν εὐσεβέστατον ζῴων by Babrius (Fab. 13), and ‘avis pia’ or ‘pietaticultrix’ (Petron. 55. 6). Though in Western Europe the stork commonly builds its nest on houses, and in the East selects ruins where they are to be found, “where neither houses nor ruins occur, it selects any trees tall and strong enough to provide a platform for its huge nest, and for this purpose none are more convenient than the fir tree.” Tristram, Nat. Hist. of Bible, p. 248.

The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies.
18. From the lofty trees which are the home of birds it is a natural transition to the lofty mountains which are the home of animals. The Syrian wild goat, lit. ‘the climber,’ is a species of ibex (1 Samuel 24:2; Job 39:1): see Tristram, p. 95. The ‘coney,’ Heb. shâphân = ‘the hider,’ is not the rabbit, but the hyrax Syriacus, a peculiar animal, not unlike a marmot in appearance, which “lives in holes in the rocks, where it makes its nest and conceals its young, and to which it retires at the least alarm.” See Tristram, p. 75.

He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down.
19. The changes of the moon mark periods of time and the proper times for festivals. Cp. Sir 43:7, “From the moon is the sign for the festival.” The sun knows and fulfils its daily duty. The sunset is mentioned, to introduce the picture of night in Psalm 104:20 ff.; and night precedes day, as commonly in oriental reckoning.

19–23. Moon and sun mark the seasons and the alternations of day and night. The work of the fourth day, Genesis 1:14.

Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
21. The dreaded beasts of prey are part of God’s creation, depending on His bounty. Cp. Psalm 147:9.

The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.
22. they gather themselves together] Better as R.V., they get them away.

Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.
O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.
24. in wisdom] Cp. Proverbs 3:19; Proverbs 8:22 ff.

thy riches] The word may mean thy possessions (Vulg. J er. possessione tua, representing a Sept. reading τῆς κτήσεώς σου): or, thy creation or creatures (LXX τῆς κτίσεώς σου, Syr., Targ.): but usage is in favour of the first sense. Cp. Psalm 105:21.

24–30. An exclamation of wonder and admiration at the variety and wisdom of God’s works introduces a description of the marvels of the sea, and the mystery of life. Psalm 104:25-26 are based on Genesis 1:20-21 : Psalm 104:27-28 on Genesis 1:29-30.

So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.
25. So is this great and wide sea] R.V. rightly, Yonder is the sea, great and wide. It would almost seem as if the sea lay stretched before the Psalmist’s gaze as he composed his poem. Dean Stanley has pointed out that all the natural features of the Psalm are in sight from the cedar grove of Lebanon (Sermons in the East, p. 217).

things creeping] Or, things moving; cp. Genesis 1:21; Psalm 69:34. The word (used in Psalm 104:20 of the stealthy movement of animals in quest of their prey) is not limited to reptiles properly so called. It may refer either to land animals or water animals, or may include both.

both small and great beasts] Living creatures, both small and great.

There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.
26. The stately ships, which excited the wonder and admiration of the landsman (Proverbs 30:19; Isaiah 2:16), seem part of the life of the sea, and the mention of them suggests its use as a means of transit.

there is that leviathan] There is leviathan, whom thou hast formed, either (1) to play therein, or (2) to play with him. Both renderings are grammatically possible. For (1) Job 40:20 offers a parallel, and for (2) Job 41:5 (Heb. 40:29). But (1) suits the context best. The thought required is not that the wildest and strongest of God’s creatures are but as it were His tame pets, but that the sea is the playground of the mighty monsters which display His power and goodness as they disport themselves there in the enjoyment of their life. In Job 41 leviathan means the crocodile, but here the name is evidently used of sea-monsters generally, particularly the great cetaceans, of which there are many, and formerly were probably many more, in the Mediterranean.

These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.
27. These wait all &c.] All of them wait upon thee. Not marine animals only, but all living creatures are meant, as in Genesis 1:29-30. God is the great householder, dispensing to all His family their portions. Cp. Psalm 145:15-16; Psalm 147:9.

That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.
28. Thou givest unto them, they gather:

Thou openest thine hand, they are satisfied with good.

Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.
29. All creatures depend upon God for life as well as food. The breath or spirit of God is the source of the life-breath of His creatures. The Psalmist probably had Job 34:14-15 in his mind. Cp. Acts 17:25; Colossians 1:17. The ‘hiding’ of God’s face is usually the symbol of His wrath; but here it denotes rather the withdrawal of His sustaining power. Cp. Psalm 30:7.

thou takest away their breath] Or, thou gatherest in, withdrawing the spirit lent for a time (Ecclesiastes 12:7), so that they expire, and their bodies return to the dust whence they were taken (Genesis 3:19).

Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.
30. But life not death rules in Nature. A new generation takes the place of the old. Creation continues, for God is perpetually sending forth His spirit, and renewing the face of the earth with fresh life.

The glory of the LORD shall endure for ever: the LORD shall rejoice in his works.
31. May the glory of Jehovah endure for ever!

May Jehovah rejoice in his works!

31–35. Concluding prayers and vows.

He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth: he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.
32. Who looketh on the earth, and it trembleth,

Toucheth the mountains, and they smoke.

May this manifestation of God in Nature ever continue! May Jehovah never cease to rejoice in His works as He rejoiced when He pronounced all things to be very good (Genesis 1:31; Proverbs 8:31). A look, a touch are enough to remind the earth of the awful power of its Creator, Who if He willed could annihilate as easily as He created. The Psalmist has in mind Amos 9:5 (cp. above Psalm 104:3), Exodus 19:18; Psalm 104:32 b is imitated in Psalm 144:5, Psalm 104:33 in Psalm 146:2.

I will sing unto the LORD as long as I live: I will sing praise to my God while I have my being.
My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the LORD.
34. Let my meditation be sweet unto him:

As for me, I will rejoice in Jehovah.

Sweet, i.e. acceptable, a word used of sacrifices in Jeremiah 6:20; Hosea 9:4; Malachi 3:4. Cp. Psalm 19:14. As Jehovah rejoices in His works (Psalm 104:31), so the Psalmist rejoices in Jehovah.

Let the sinners be consumed out of the earth, and let the wicked be no more. Bless thou the LORD, O my soul. Praise ye the LORD.
35. Let the sinners be consumed &c.] There is no need to make excuse for this conclusion of the Psalm. It is not an imprecation, but a solemn prayer for the restoration of the harmony of creation by the banishment from it of “all things that cause stumbling, and them that do iniquity.” The preceding verses (31, 32) have just hinted that there is something in the world which may hinder God from continuing to rejoice in His works. What is it?

“Disproportioned sin

Jarred against nature’s chime, and with harsh din

Broke the fair music that all creatures made

To their great Lord, whose love their motion swayed

In perfect diapason, whilst they stood

In first obedience, and their state of good.”

Modern thought would say, ‘May sin be banished’: but Hebrew thought is not abstract but concrete, and moreover the form of the prayer reminds us of the solemn truth that sin is a personal thing, which cannot be separated from the sinner, but has its existence through his perverted will. It may be noted that the intensive form of the word for sinner implies obstinate and incorrigible habit.

As in Psalms 103, the Psalmist concludes as he began, Bless Jehovah, O my soul, to which is appended the general call to praise, Hallelujah, ‘Praise ye Jah.’ This word (for according to the Massoretic tradition it is to be written as one word except in Psalm 135:3) occurs nowhere but in the Psalter[57] and meets us here for the first time.

[57] In Jeremiah 20:13 the phrase is ‘Praise ye Jehovah,’ as in Psalm 117:1. Cp. however Tob 13:18, “All her streets shall say, Hallelujah”: 3Ma 7:13, “The priests and all the people shouted, Hallelujah.”

According to Graetz (Comm. p. 91), and Ginsburg (Introd. to the Heb. Bible, pp. 376 ff.), it was the summons addressed by the precentor to the congregation to join him in reciting the Psalm, or to respond by repeating the first verse after his recitation of each verse. Its proper place therefore is at the beginning not at the end of a Psalm, and in the LXX (with the possible exception of Psalms 150) it is always found at the beginning. In the Massoretic text however it occurs at both beginning and end of eight Psalms, at the beginning only of two, at the end only of five, and once in the text of the Psalm (Psalm 135:3).

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