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Psalm 104 Biblical Commentary:
This is a companion psalm to Psalm 103. The first line of the two psalms is exactly the same in Hebrew: i nepes barak yhwh (“My soul, praise/bless Yahweh!”). However, Psalm 103 praises Yahweh for his redemptive work, and Psalm 104 praises him for his creative work.
In the first 23 verses of this psalm, the psalmist includes many elements from the Genesis creation story. He mentions:
- Light (v. 2; see Genesis 1:3).
- The heavens (v. 3; see Genesis 1:1).
- Wind (vv. 3-4; see Genesis 1:2).
- The deep (v. 6; see Genesis 1:1).
- Water covering mountains and then receding (vv. 6-9; see Genesis 1:9-10).
- Vegetation (vv. 14-16; see Genesis 1:11-13).
- Birds (v. 17; see Genesis 1:20-22).
- Animals (vv. 18-22; see Genesis 1:24-25).
- The sun and moon (vv. 19-22; see Genesis 1:14-18).
- Man (v. 23; see Genesis 1:26-27).
In verses 24-32, the psalmist notes that Yahweh’s creative endeavors are an ongoing process, making possible life as we know it. By Yahweh’s grace, the sea is full of “innumerable living things” (v. 25). Creatures receive food at Yahweh’s hand (v. 28). Yahweh brings forth new life and oversees their deaths (vv. 29-30).
The last verses of this psalm reaffirm the psalmist’s determination to praise Yahweh––to bless him.
PSALM 104:1 BLESS YAHWEH, MY SOUL
1 Bless Yahweh, my soul.
Yahweh, my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty.
“Bless (Hebrew: barak) Yahweh, my soul” (Hebrew: nepes) (v. 1a). The psalmist is exhorting himself rather than the community in this line. He is reminding himself to bless Yahweh.
The word barak (bless) is closely related to berak (kneel) and berek (knee). When the psalmist speaks of blessing Yahweh, the word barak suggests kneeling in homage to Yahweh as a demonstration of reverence and an expression of praise.
The Israelites used the word nepes (soul) to mean breath, the animating force that gives the creature life––and, by extension, the living creature itself.
“Yahweh, my God (Hebrew: elohim), you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty” (v. 1b). The Israelites thought of Yahweh as the proper name of the God of Israel.
Elohim (God) is the plural of el (god). Both can apply to any god or gods, but when used to refer to Yahweh, as in this verse, the usage is called “the intensive plural” or “the majestic plural,” acknowledging that all that constitutes deity is summed in Yahweh.
The psalmist states three of Yahweh’s attributes that make Yahweh worthy of praise:
- He is great––exceedingly so.
- He is clothed with honor.
- He is clothed with majesty.
PSALM 104:2-4. HE COVERS HIMSELF WITH LIGHT
2 He covers himself with light as with a garment.
He stretches out the heavens like a curtain.
3 He lays the beams of his rooms in the waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot.
He walks on the wings of the wind.
4 He makes his messengers winds;
his servants flames of fire.
These verses constitute some of the loveliest poetry in the Bible. Poetry, of course, conveys images through words, and these verses do that wonderfully well.
“He covers himself with light as with a garment” (v. 2a). If you happen to be into high fashion, this would make you want to learn the name of Yahweh’s tailor. Just imagine golden threads of light spun into cloth! Imagine a suit cut from the shimmering fabric! Such is the garb of the creator Lord.
“He stretches out the heavens like a curtain” (v. 2b). Imagine Yahweh unwinding the fabric of heaven from one horizon to the other––as one might unwind a great bolt of cloth.
“He lays the beams of his rooms in the waters” (v. 3a). At first, this seems counter-intuitive. Jesus talked about the folly of building on sand (Matthew 7:26-27). Building on water would seem even more foolish.
But the psalmist is picturing Yahweh laying the foundation of his private chambers in the waters above the skies (see Genesis 1:7-8). From that high perch, he could survey the whole of creation.
“He makes the clouds his chariot
He walks on the wings of the wind” (v. 3b). We love to ride skis and jet water skis and snowboards and snowmobiles. The less machine there is between us and the water or the snow, the more exhilarating the ride.
So imagine being able to step onto a cloud and to summon the winds to transport you at high speeds across the skies.
“He makes his messengers winds” (v. 4a). We have become so accustomed to cell phones and text messages and email that using winds to convey messages doesn’t seem as compelling to us as it would have in earlier days.
In the psalmist’s day, there was no instant anything. To send a message and get a response might take days or weeks––and there was no guarantee that the intended recipient would ever see the message. But Yahweh could direct the winds to carry his word to distant places, knowing that they would do his bidding.
“his servants flames of fire” (v. 4b).
- Would these servants be shafts of lightning with accompanying thunder? (Exodus 19:16).
- Or would his servants be sulfur and fire from heaven as judgment for sin? (Genesis 19:24).
- Or would they be a burning bush that was not consumed by the fire? (Exodus 3:2).
- Or would they be a pillar of fire to light the way during wilderness nights? (Exodus 13:21-22).
- Or would they be a burnt offering––”an offering made by fire to Yahweh”? (Exodus 29:18).
- Or would the fire have the purpose of testing purity? (Numbers 31:23).
- Or would they be a fire at Horeb from which the Lord would speak? (Deuteronomy 4:12).
- Or would they be a devouring fire? (Deuteronomy 4:24).
The answer is “Yes!” Yes to all the above––and more.
PSALM 104:5-9 HE LAID THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE EARTH
5 He laid the foundations of the earth,
that it should not be moved forever.
6 You covered it with the deep as with a cloak.
The waters stood above the mountains.
7 At your rebuke they fled.
At the voice of your thunder they hurried away.
8 The mountains rose,
the valleys sank down,
to the place which you had assigned to them.
9 You have set a boundary that they may not pass over;
that they don’t turn again to cover the earth.
In these verses, the psalmist expresses wonder at the marvels of Yahweh’s creation.
“He laid the foundations of the earth,
that it should not be moved forever” (v. 5). I once read a book written by a man who helped to build the steel frame for the original World Trade Center buildings. It was a magnificent effort––herculean in scope––brilliant in execution.
I had lived in New York City and vicinity from 1975-1985––not long after those buildings were completed (1973). I had seen those towers countless times. I had taken friends and family to the high observation floor. I marveled that anyone could build anything so magnificent.
But then in 2001, I watched on television as planes attacked those buildings. I saw smoke pouring from them. I saw them collapse, one by one. I remember reading that there were 50,000 telephones in those buildings, but not one was found intact. If I remember correctly, there wasn’t even a piece that was identifiable as a telephone.
What we build is temporary. In some cases, the obsolescence is planned (as in automobiles or clothing styles). In other cases, moth and rust do their work to undo our efforts.
But the psalmist has experienced the permanence embodied in the world on which he has firmly planted his feet. He believes that nothing will move it forever.
The Lord will reveal a different vision to the prophet Isaiah. “For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17). The new heavens and earth will restore the paradise of the original creation. In them, righteousness will dwell (2 Peter 3:13).
But that doesn’t cancel the permanence of Yahweh’s creation. It will remain intact until he deems its renewal complete.
“You covered it with the deep as with a cloak.
The waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they fled.
At the voice of your thunder they hurried away.
The mountains rose,
the valleys sank down,
to the place which you had assigned to them” (vv. 6-8). These verses recount Genesis 1:9-10, where God gathered the waters together so that the dry land would appear.
But the point is not what happened, but the wonder of it. At God’s word, the miracle happened.
“You have set a boundary that they may not pass over;
that they don’t turn again to cover the earth” (v. 9). This recounts the Lord’s words when he asked where Job was when Yahweh laid the foundations of the world––and “shut up the sea with doors”––and “marked out for it my bound, set bars and doors, and said, ‘Here you may come, but no further. Here your proud waves shall be stayed?'” (Job 38:8-11).
It also brings to mind the story of Noah and the flood––and the covenant that Yahweh made never to cut off all flesh again by the waters of a flood (Genesis 9:8-17).
PSALM 104:10-23 NOT IN THE LECTIONARY READING
These verses aren’t in the lectionary reading, but I am including them (without commentary) for your convenience.
10 He sends forth springs into the valleys.
They run among the mountains.
11 They give drink to every animal of the field.
The wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 The birds of the sky nest by them.
They sing among the branches.
13 He waters the mountains from his rooms.
The earth is filled with the fruit of your works.
14 He causes the grass to grow for the livestock,
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food out of the earth:
15 wine that makes glad the heart of man,
oil to make his face to shine,
and bread that strengthens man’s heart.
16 Yahweh’s trees are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon, which he has planted;
17 where the birds make their nests.
The stork makes its home in the fir trees.
18 The high mountains are for the wild goats.
The rocks are a refuge for the rock badgers.
19 He appointed the moon for seasons.
The sun knows when to set.
20 You make darkness, and it is night,
in which all the animals of the forest prowl.
21 The young lions roar after their prey,
and seek their food from God.
22 The sun rises, and they steal away,
and lay down in their dens.
23 Man goes forth to his work,
to his labor until the evening.
PSALM 104:24 HOW MANY ARE YOUR WORKS
24 Yahweh, how many are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all.
The earth is full of your riches.
“Yahweh, how many are your works!” (v. 24a).
- When we think of Yahweh’s works, the first thing that comes to mind is the creation as recounted in Genesis 1:1 – 2:4––but that was merely the beginning.
- The psalmist surely considered the Exodus as one of Yahweh’s greatest works. The Exodus required not only freeing Israel from Egyptian servitude, but protecting Israel from Pharaoh’s world-class army and sustaining Israel through forty years of wandering in the wilderness.
- Another mighty work was enabling Israel to take possession of the Promised Land.
- Another mighty work was raising up Cyrus to allow the Israelites to return to Jerusalem.
- Another mighty work was inspiring men to write the scriptures.The end product, penned over many centuries by various authors, is amazingly coherent.
- Many stories tell of Israel prevailing against great odds. The stories of David killing Goliath and Gideon and his tiny band of warriors come immediately to mind.
- Yahweh engaged in a multitude of less celebrated works––of men and women enabled to do great things––of species being created and culled––of mountains rising from the sea and deserts blooming––of solar eclipses and northern lights––of old stars dying and new stars forming.
- How many species of trees has Yahweh created? How many grasses? How many edible grains? How many birds? How many fishes? How many insects? How much energy has Yahweh stored beneath the surface of the earth in the form of coal, gas, petroleum, volcanic fires, and hot springs? The list goes on and on.
“In wisdom (Hebrew: hokmah) have you made them all” (v. 24b). The Old Testament shows great respect for wisdom (hokmah). Wisdom involves knowledge, experience, and street smarts. Wisdom also involves personal disciplines such as prudence and discretion. The combination of knowledge, experience, and personal discipline makes it possible to decide wisely and to get things done with a minimum of muss and fuss.
This verse says that Yahweh acted wisely in all his creative endeavors––incorporated wisdom into the creation of every molecule of the universe––into the creation of every creature, great and small. Lady Wisdom was present before the creation––and a partner in every step of the creative process (Proverbs 8:22-31).
“The earth is full of your riches” (v. 24c). The seas are full of sea life, much of which is suitable for food. The sea floor is littered with manganese modules and other treasures. Beneath the sea floor lies great wealth in gas, oil, and minerals.
The riches on land are even more so. Rich loam. Gold and silver. Coal, gas, oil. Iron and other metals. Rare earth minerals. Grasses, shrubs, trees. People. Elephants, lions, tigers, alligators, snakes, dogs, cats, birds. Microbes.
Even the air is valuable. Not only do we breathe it, but we use it to generate electricity. It supports air travel.
And then, of course, there is the solar system. Without the sun, we would instantly freeze. The sun lights our days and the moon and stars our nights. But more than that, they constitute God’s artwork on the dark tapestry of the sky––made for our wonderment and joy.
Space supports the satellites that power our GPS’s and cell phones––and monitor water usage and agriculture.
Consider the riches that we have discovered in the last century, and imagine the riches that we will discover in the next century. When you do that, keep in mind that God put all those riches in place at the very beginning.
PSALM 104:25-30 THERE IS THE SEA
In these verses, the psalmist recounts the wonders of the seas––the creatures that Yahweh created there––Yahweh’s provision for their welfare––their dependence on Yahweh––and the ongoing creative activity that is going on even as the psalmist pens these words.
25 There is the sea, great and wide,
in which are innumerable living things,
both small and large animals.
26 There the ships go,
and leviathan, whom you formed to play there.
27 These all wait for you,
that you may give them their food in due season.
28 You give to them; they gather.
You open your hand; they are satisfied with good.
29 You hide your face: they are troubled;
you take away their breath: they die, and return to the dust.
30 You send forth your Spirit: they are created.
You renew the face of the ground.
“There is the sea, great and wide,
in which are innumerable living things” (v. 25a). With the Great Sea (the Mediterranean) forming Israel’s western border, the Israelites were quite conscious of the vast width and breadth of the seas.
They had pulled many fish from the sea with their nets, and had often found unfamiliar fish and other creatures along with their useful harvest. The seas never seemed to run dry of fish (pun intended). Yahweh provided generously for sea creatures, and those sea creatures, in turn, provided generously for the people living near the seas.
“both small and large animals” (v. 25b). Without a microscope, the psalmist would not have realized the full scope of this statement. In terms of numbers, much sea life is invisible to the naked eye. Plankton (some visible to the naked eye and others not) are a food source for larger sea creatures––to include whales, for whom krill (a variety of plankton) is a major source of food.
“There the ships go,
and leviathan (Hebrew: liwyatan), whom you formed to play there” (v. 26). We know about ships sailing the seas, but of leviathan we are less certain.
- This verse pictures leviathan as a frolicking sea creature.
- Job 41:1 asks if it is possible to “draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,” leaving the impression that it is a very large sea creature, perhaps a whale.
- Psalm 74 speaks of God breaking “the heads of the sea monsters in the waters” (v. 13) and breaking “the heads of Leviathan in pieces. You gave him as food to people and desert creatures” (v. 14).
- Isaiah 27:1 speaks of Yahweh punishing Leviathan, a twisted and fleeing serpent. In that same verse, he speaks of Yahweh killing “the dragon that is in the sea.” The proximity suggests that the serpent and the dragon are synonymous.
At any rate, being paired with ships in this verse leads us to think that the leviathan was a large and formidable sea creature.
“These all wait for you,
that you may give them their food in due season” (v. 27).
The “innumerable living things” and the “small and large animals” of verse 25 wait for Yahweh that he might feed them. The same is true for the leviathan of verse 26, and for the ships of that same verse.
You give to them; they gather.
You open your hand; they are satisfied with good” (v. 28). Anyone who has thrown bread crumbs on the water to feed fish will be familiar with the imagery here. The word soon gets around that bread is available, and the fish gather to get their fill. It is like tossing bread crumbs to pigeons. The supply of bread crumbs might be limited, but the supply of pigeons is eternal.
“You hide your face: they are troubled;
you take away their breath: they die, and return to the dust” (v. 29). “Hide your face” is a code phrase for turning away from the other being. When Yahweh hides his face, the object of his wrath will find himself standing alone––troubled––out of breath. To be deprived of Yahweh is tantamount to death––physical, spiritual, or both.
“You send forth your Spirit (Hebrew: ruah): they are created.
You renew the face of the ground” (Hebrew: ‘adamah) (v. 30). This verse is the reason this psalm is used in the lectionary at Pentecost (all three years).
The Hebrew word ruah means spirit, wind, or breath––much like the Greek word pneuma, used often in the New Testament, meaning spirit or wind. Yahweh’s Spirit (or breath) is his agency for creation and renewal.
That brings to mind Genesis 2:7, which says, “Yahweh God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
The word ‘adamah (ground) means dirt, ground, or clay. It can be broadened to mean the planet, as in “kings of the earth (‘adamah) below” (Isaiah 24:21) and “all the clans of the earth” (‘adamah) (Amos 3:2).
In his verse, both the narrow definition (dirt, ground, or clay) and the broader definition (the planet Earth) would be true. Yahweh renews the soil––and the planet.
PSALM 104:31-32 LET THE GLORY OF YAHWEH ENDURE FOREVER
31 Let the glory of Yahweh endure forever.
Let Yahweh rejoice in his works.
32 He looks at the earth, and it trembles.
He touches the mountains, and they smoke.
“Let the glory (Hebrew: kabod) of Yahweh endure forever” (v. 31a). The word “glory” (kabod) is used in the Bible to speak of various wonderful things––but especially God’s glory––an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty.
The psalmist asks that the glory of Yahweh endure forever. That is pretty much a given, because nothing is going to diminish Yahweh’s glory. However, the psalmist’s statement is an expression of his faith in Yahweh and his gratitude for Yahweh’s works.
“Let Yahweh rejoice in his works” (v. 31b). The psalmist rejoices in Yahweh’s works, and expresses the hope that Yahweh will do so too. Yahweh should be able to do that, because on the sixth day of creation he surveyed all that he had done and pronounced it “very good” (Genesis 1:31)––sufficiently complete that he could take the next day off (Genesis 2:1).
“He looks at the earth, and it trembles.
He touches the mountains, and they smoke” (v. 32). A glance from Yahweh is enough to trigger an earthquake––and a touch will unleash a volcano.
PSALM 104:33-35 I WILL SING PRAISE TO MY GOD
33 I will sing to Yahweh as long as I live.
I will sing praise to my God while I have any being.
34 Let your meditation be sweet to him.
I will rejoice in Yahweh.
35 Let sinners be consumed out of the earth.
Let the wicked be no more.
Bless Yahweh, my soul.
“I will sing to Yahweh as long as I live.
I will sing praise to my God while I have any being” (v. 33). The psalmist moves toward his conclusion by vowing to sing praises to Yahweh throughout the rest of his life.
“Let your meditation be sweet to him.
I will rejoice in Yahweh” (v. 34). Just as we give a gift in the hope that the recipient will find it pleasing, so also the psalmist gives his song in the hope that it will be pleasing to Yahweh. Just as we find pleasure in giving a gift, so also the psalmist rejoices in the one to whom he has dedicated his song of praise.
“Let sinners be consumed (Heb. tamam 8552) out of the earth.
Let the wicked be no more” (v. 35a). In radio broadcasting, they speak of a discordant song “breaking the sound.” On a classical station, a country song would break the sound––and vice versa. Broadcasters strive for consistency.
At first glance, this verse breaks the sound of this psalm. Everything the psalmist has said to this point is celebratory in tone. The psalmist sings. He praises. He tells of wondrous things. He speaks in awe of Yahweh’s mighty power. He takes joy in Yahweh’s majestic creation.
And then he wishes that sinners be consumed (tamam). The word tamam (consumed) means of to finish or conclude. The psalmist is hoping for sinners to disappear––to cease to exist.
In verses 35bc, the psalmist returns to his theme of blessing and praising Yahweh––but verse 35a breaks the sound––introduces a foreign element into a song of praise. It seems out of place.
Did someone slip into the psalmist’s chambers in the dead of night and add this taste of poison? I think not. The psalmist wrote this song to honor Yahweh and his wonderful creation––but is aware that wicked people have defaced Yahweh’s grand canvas and have taken a hammer to Yahweh’s lovely sculpture.
The psalmist is offended by these offenses, and wants God’s creation restored to perfection. That cannot happen if wicked people remain free to do their dastardly work––so the psalmist wants sinners removed from the scene so they can never again ruin what God has created. I agree. A few years ago, I would have been glad to offer up one of my neighbors.
But the psalmist has failed to acknowledge that we are all sinners and have all participated in defacing God’s artistry (Romans 3:23). While we might want God to remove another sinner from the scene, we need to recognize the need for mercy––for ourselves as well as others.
“Bless Yahweh, my soul” (v. 35b). This repeats the first line of this psalm. See the commentary on verse 1 above.
“Praise Yah!” (Hebrew: yah) (v. 35c). The Hebrew word yah is an abbreviated form of Yahweh (the name of God, often translated “the Lord.”) It is found twice in Exodus (15:2; 17:16), once in Isaiah (38:11), and a number of times in the Psalms.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Allen, Leslie C., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 101-150 (Waco: Word Books, 1983)
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2018, Richard Niell Donovan