Psalm 104

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The Septuagint links this psalm to David, but the Masoretic Text makes no mention of the name. Extant Dead Sea scroll evidence is mixed, with the name David being included or omitted in the manuscripts.

104:1-9

With his “soul” or his entire being, the psalmist determined to “bless,” speak well of, or praise YHWH. When acknowledging YHWH his God as “very great” or “exceedingly magnified” (LXX), the psalmist may primarily have had the impressive creative works in mind, which are the focus of the composition. These creative works testify to God’s “majesty and splendor,” as if he were clothed with dignity and magnificence. (For additional comments on verse 1, see the Notes section.)

Light covers the Most High as if it were a garment, for he is the creator of light. The celestial dome or vault resembles a canopy, and this appears to be the basis for the words identifying YHWH as the one who stretches out the heavens like a curtain or a tent cloth.

The psalmist regarded the clouds as filled with water, and perceived the Most High to be above the clouds. From this standpoint, it appeared to him as if YHWH had “laid the beams” (“roofed,” LXX) his “upper chambers” (singular in a Dead Sea scroll) “in” or “on” the waters.

Clouds in motion are referred to as God’s chariot. In the extant Septuagint text, the term rékev (“chariot”) is epíbasis, which term designates something on which one steps. The Most High is poetically depicted as walking on the “wings of the wind [winds, LXX],” as the wind would be blowing below, moving as if it had wings.

The psalmist perceived YHWH as using winds and lightning for his purposes. Accordingly, he spoke about God’s making winds his messengers and flaming fire his ministers. (See the Notes section for additional comments regarding verse 4.)

Likening the earth to a building, the psalmist spoke of YHWH as firmly placing it on its foundations so that it would never be shaken.

Initially, as indicated in the first chapter of Genesis, water completely covered the earth. With apparent reference to this time, the psalmist depicted the earth as covered with the “deep” (a huge body of water) as with a garment. “The waters stood above the mountains,” indicating that no land surface was visible.

The psalmist continued with a poetic description of YHWH’s creative activity and his provisions for animals and humans. At God’s “rebuke” or the expression of his will respecting them, the waters “fled,” making it possible for land to appear. His voice—the “sound of thunder”—caused the waters to take flight. The Septuagint rendering represents the waters as becoming afraid. To the place God had appointed, the mountains rose and the valleys sank. He established a boundary for the waters beyond which they could not pass, preventing them from covering the earth or land as formerly.

104:10-23

The Most High sends forth springs in the valleys, and these springs form streams that flow between the mountains or hills. From the flowing water, all the wild animals can drink, and even the wild asses or onagers can slack their thirst. Birds nest alongside the streams, where bushes, trees, and other vegetation flourishes. From the midst of the foliage (“rocks,” LXX), birds can be heard singing and chirping.

As in verse 3, the psalmist (in verse 13) referred to God’s dwelling place above the earth as “his upper rooms.” From there, the Most High waters the mountains. The “fruit” of his works probably is to be understood to include the provisions for sustaining life on earth. This “fruit” satisfies the earth, furnishing the land with water and all other essentials for productivity.

Grass or vegetation, on which cattle and other animals can feed, sprouts from the land. For humans, there are cereal grains and other food plants. The expression “plants for the labor of man” could either mean plants that people can cultivate for food or plants that can serve as food. From grapes, wine can be made for man’s enjoyment. The rejoicing of the “heart” is descriptive of the cheering effect that wine can have on a person. Olive oil, when applied to the skin after exposure to the hot sun, can make the “face shine” or take on a pleasant appearance on account of the refreshing effect. According to the Septuagint, the face would be made cheerful. “Bread strengthens a man’s heart” or serves to sustain his organism and renews his energy.

Without any attention from man, the “trees of YHWH” or the magnificent cedars of Lebanon thrive. The psalmist identified God as the one who planted them and provides them with water. In the trees, the birds (“sparrows,” LXX) build their nests, the stork (“heron,” LXX) finding a home in the “junipers.” (See the Notes section regarding verse 17.)

Mountain goats have their habitat in high elevations. Among the rocks, hyraxes find refuge.

For the Hebrews, the day began at sunset. This may explain why the psalmist mentioned the moon first, being the orb that marks the beginning of the day. The phases of the moon provided the basis for calculating the months, with each month starting on the day of the new moon. Accordingly, the psalmist referred to God as making the moon “for times” or “seasons,” or that people could reckon time by the moon. As the sun dropped below the horizon each evening, the psalmist portrayed it as knowing the time or place of its setting.

Although the psalmist knew that night came as a result of the setting of the sun, he attributed the making of darkness to his God. At night, the creatures of the forest begin to stir and set out in search of food. Young lions roar for their prey, “seeking their food from God.” The psalmist’s words indicate that he regarded all living things as dependent on the Most High for the continuance of their existence, and this included even the powerful beasts of prey.

With the rising of the sun, the wild animals return to their concealed places to lie down, sleeping when people are up and engaging in labor until the evening.

104:24-35

Deeply impressed by what he observed, the psalmist acknowledged that YHWH’s works are many and reveal his wisdom as the maker. The “earth” or land was full of God’s creatures or the home of a great variety of animal life.

Beyond the land, lies the “great and wide” sea, teeming with innumerable living things both small and large. Ships ply the waters, and “Leviathan,” which God has made, plays there. “Leviathan” (“dragon,” LXX) denotes a huge sea creature.

The psalmist portrayed all of the creatures as waiting on or looking to YHWH to provide food for them in “its season” or at the proper time. They gather up what he furnishes. The ease with which the Most High is depicted as making generous provisions is likened to the opening of his “hand.” All the creatures are then satisfied with “good things” or ample food.

When YHWH hides his face, not granting them his attention, the creatures are “terrified” or troubled. If he takes away their spirit (the life force that is sustained by breathing), they die, returning to “their dust” or to the element from which (according to Genesis 2:19) they were originally formed.

During the winter, the land appeared to be dead. Crops had been harvested and nothing grew in the fields. Then, in the spring, the surface of the ground came to be covered with new growth. Regarding this development, the psalmist said of YHWH, “When you send out your spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.”

The prayerful expression of the psalmist is that YHWH’s glory (probably meaning the splendor revealed in the creative works) would endure for all time to come and that he would continue to rejoice or take delight in his works.

With reference to God’s power, the psalmist spoke of God as merely looking at the earth or land and thereby causing it to tremble. His touching the mountains would make them smoke. The touching of the mountains likely refers to lightning strikes that start forest fires.

As long as he had life, the psalmist determined to praise YHWH, raising his voice in song. He wanted his meditation or his thoughts to be pleasing to his God. For the psalmist to “rejoice in YHWH” would signify that he would find his greatest delight in having an approved relationship with him as his devoted servant.

Recognizing God’s justice, the psalmist referred to the end for “sinners” (those who deliberately and habitually violated divine commands) and the “wicked” or “lawless ones” (LXX). Whereas sinners would vanish from the land and the wicked would cease to be, he, with his whole being (his “soul”), would bless YHWH or appreciatively continue to speak well of him. The psalmist then concluded with the imperative, “Praise Yah [the abbreviated form of YHWH]!”

Notes:

Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.

In verse 1, extant Dead Sea scrolls, instead of “YHWH my God” (in the Masoretic Text) read either “YHWH our God” or “YHWH God.” In the concluding part of this verse, fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus refers to God as being clothed with “acknowledgment and magnificence” (a form of megaloprépeia), but Rahlfs’ text reads “acknowledgment and comeliness” or “dignity” (a form of euprépeia).

The Hebrew and Greek words for “messengers” and “winds” can also mean “angels” and “spirits.” In his letter to the Hebrews (1:7), the writer quoted Psalm 104:4 and made an application that focused on the meaning “angels.” To emphasize the greatness of the Son of God, he used the words of the psalmist to show that angels are merely servants of the Most High, functioning in various ways for the accomplishment of his will.

There is a possibility that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, had in mind events at Mount Sinai when the law was transmitted through angels. (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19; Hebrews 2:2) On that occasion, the phenomena included thunder and lightning and, therefore, also wind. (Exodus 19:16; compare Hebrews 12:18.) This aspect may have been one reason the writer quoted from Psalm 104:4 and associated wind and fire with the angels. It is of note that the Targum paraphrases the psalmist’s words to mean that God makes his messengers “swift” like winds and “strong” like flaming fire. The Son, who is greater than the angels, always remains unchangeable (the same yesterday, today, and forever) and thus also differs from the angels who are represented in the application of Psalm 104:4 as variable—like “wind” and like “fire.” (Hebrews 1:10-12; 13:8)

With one exception, the quotation in the letter to the Hebrews is the same as the extant Septuagint text of Psalm 104:4, which reads, “The one making his angels [or messengers] winds [or spirits] and his servants flaming fire.” Instead of “flame” (phlóga) as in Hebrews 1:7, the Septuagint reads “flaming” (phlégon).

The Hebrew term berósh, in verse 17, has been variously understood to designate the juniper, cypress, fir, or pine. Evidence from Akkadian favors the juniper, and a number of translations (NAB, Tanakh) have chosen this rendering. The extant Septuagint text does not mention a tree but refers to the “house of the heron” as “leading” them. Perhaps this was understood to mean that, among the birds, the heron took the lead or was the first to have its home in the trees.

In verse 29, extant Dead Sea scrolls omit the opening words found in the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint, “When you hide [turn away, LXX] your face, they are terrified.” The shorter text reads, “When you take away your spirit [their spirit, Masoretic Text and LXX], then they perish, and to their dust they return.”