PSALM 104: GOD — CREATOR AND SUSTAINER
by Henry E. Neufeld
(From a project presented in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the Master of Arts degree from Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI)
Note: In the original paper I used a Hebrew font. This font has been transliterated for this web publication using a precise method I designed. The table may be found at Hebrew Transliteration Table.
The one-hundred fourth Psalm is ideally suited as a case study for the models presented in the last three chapters. It is a creation hymn, which means that its imagery is bound up with the language of cosmology, and it is also of necessity very much concerned with the relation of the cosmic order to mankind.
This study will look first at the structure, in order to improve our understanding of the meaning, and then at the imagery and meaning of the Psalm. Finally, it will be fitted into a pattern of worship.
Many commentators read. Psalm 104 sequentially, attempting to thread a chain of thought through the various stanzas, and at times emending to draw some logic from the pattern.1 The Psalm is written in a complex pattern, which contributes considerably to its understanding by suggesting its theme as well as connections between parts.
The structure of the Psalm is in three interrelated systems (see Figures). The first is a straightforward sequential reading. This is also related to the structure of the individual stanzas, which is illustrated in Figure 12.
Figures – Use your “Back” button to return to this document.
Beginning with Figure 8, we see a chiastic type of structure, including the envelope (inclusio), barring the “Halleluja” at the end which should be included with the next Psalm rather than this one.
The most interesting structure is that of stanzas 1-5 which is in the form of a chiasm a-b-c-b’-a’. The first and fifth stanzas discuss God’s greatness and majesty. The second and fourth discuss his establishment and control of the world and the whole cosmic order, while the third one, which is also the longest, discusses his sustaining of the creatures of the surface of the earth. This provides the central theme of the Psalm.
The stanzas are interesting in that their structure is so regular, and in that the odd-numbered stanzas parallel the widest structure of the Psalm as a whole (Figure 9). Appendix A contains the translation of the Psalm on which the following discussion is based.
Imagery and Exegesis
After calling on his inmost being to praise God, the poet begins with a presentation of divine power and glory. It does not necessarily have to be described as a theophany, but it certainly serves that function literarily (cf. Ezekiel 1, Isaiah 6). God appears in order to perform the works for which he is being praised.
0 Lord, my God, You are very great;
You are clothed with majesty and splendour.
This states the theme of the stanza which continues through verse four. The second line calls to mind some parallels:
Chantez la déesse, la plus imposante des déesses,
Que soit glorifiée la maîtresse des gens, la plus grande des Igigu
Elle est revetue d’allégresse et d’amour,
Elle est parée d’appas, d’attirance et de charme.2
The two passages perform a similar function, and particularly in the use of the concept of dressing to describe an attribute. The Psalmist is not engaging in anthromorphic description, but is rather using a second means to express attributes. Thus the parallelism is:
a b c (counting as one unit)
c3 (all three elements combining to parallel “c” in the above)
These lines must be viewed as parallel, and are not linked to the following, nor is verse 1b linked to 1a, which rather forms part of the envelope.
He spreads out light like a covering;
He stretches out the heavens as a tent.
This begins a section of allusion to the creation myths and to Genesis 1. We begin with the creation of light, which is then followed by the stretching out of the heavens, part of the second-day acts of creation.
He fills his upper chambers with water;
He makes the clouds his chariot;
He travels on the wings of the wind.
That the first line of the tricolon belongs with the following two may be established by the imagery. The best parallel is in Gen 1:6: “God said, ‘Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide between the waters and the waters.'” The waters above the dividing vault are stored in “God’s upper chambers” (see also comment on v. 13). The clouds, which he here makes his chariot, are in this vault, and one also can ride on the winds within it.
Baal, the storm god, who fights with Yam, the sea, and Mot, death, in Ugaritic mythology, also rides on the clouds. It is interesting to note that the killing of Mot is a seasonal affair which has connections with fertility, as does this Psalm. However, there is double imagery here, and Yam is chaos, who will be driven off in the following verses.
There are also parallels with the Babylonian Creation story, where Marduk uses the wind against Tiamat, representing the primeval chaos:
The Evil Wind, the rearmost, he unleashed in her face.4
This is followed (IV 135-8) by the division of the monster, one half becoming the sky and the other the earth.
He makes the winds his messengers;
Fire and flame his servants.
This again has a parallel in Babylonian literature:
Dans le vent mauvais é tincellent ses armes.
À sa flamme sont dé truites des montagnes ardues.5
It is in this way that Marduk prepares for war.
Now that God has prepared for war, we come to the second stanza:
He established the earth on its foundations;
It shall not be moved forever and ever.
This bicolon states the theme for the stanza. Without the mythological parallels, it would be difficult to see the connection between the preceding verse and this one. It becomes clear, however, as it goes on. God is here presented as both creator and sustainer (“it shall not be moved”) of the earth.
The primeval ocean covered it like a garment;
The waters stood over the mountains.
For the primeval ocean (tehowm), compare Gen 1:2, and the Mesopotamian Tiamat, as well as the Ugaritic thmt. This idea also existed in other cultures such as Sumeria and Egypt. The reason for the preparations for war is that the chaotic ocean is viewed as a dragon who must be killed and held in check, (Evil dragons have a way of recovering, e.g., Mot at Ugarit.) Thus, Yahweh, being prepared for battle, goes out to fight the dragon.
From your rebuke they fled;
From your thunderous voice they rushed away.
God is not long in the action. The monstrous sea of chaos is swept away at his rebuke, and the orderly earth can now be established.
They went up to the mountains, down to the netherworld chasms,
To the place which you appointed for them.
The waters are defeated, and God appoints for them their place. This again suggests the dividing of the waters on the second day of creation. The purpose of their destinations may find a parallel in Ugaritic mythology, where Baal, the rain god, has his abode on the top of Mount Saphon. (A mountain seems to be a fairly popular place to have a god, as the Greeks did so also!) A Biblical parallel to this may be found in Isa 14:15, where the rebel wishes to stand “in the mountain of the assembly, on the sides of the north.”
On the other hand, according to Kaiser,7 there is a reasonable case of El’s (the head of the Ugaritic pantheon) abode being in the area between the “real” world and the netherworld. It is set at the “source of the two rivers,” which is also the source of the “two seas (thmtm).” Thus the primeval waters would travel down there to become the source of subterranean water and up to the mountain to become the source of rain for the storm god. Of course all of these functions are here performed by the true God. There is no necessity of viewing this as a belief on the part of the Israelites, simply a common type of location to which portions of the great deep are sent.
The Hymn to Aten expresses a similar idea, the “Nile in the Sky,” which waters foreign lands, and the “(true) Nile,” which comes up from the underworld and waters Egypt.
As for all distant foreign lands, thou makest their life,
For thou hast set a Nile in the sky,
That it may descend for them,
That it may make waves on the mountains like the sea,
To water their fields amongst their towns.
How excellent are thy plans, thou lord of eternity!
The Nile in the sky is for the foreign peoples,
For the flocks of every foreign land. that walk with their feet,
While the (true) Nile comes forth from the underworld for Egypt.
A closer parallel, and very possibly directly related, is in Gen 7:11, where the “springs of the primeval ocean (tehOwm)” are opened up, followed by the onset of rain in the next verse, so that waters are coming from above and below and so can be released on the earth. In Ps 104:10, the word for “springs” is the same as that in Gen 7:11 (ma;yAniym). This also suggests an idea which will be important later, that the world is kept as an orderly sphere by the constant guidance of God, When he ceases to protect it, the chaotic waters return, so that the flood was a reversal of the creation process.
You set them a limit which they cannot transgress;
They will not return to cover the earth.
Thus God protects the earth by this boundary. Once it had been breeched, but not again. This is more than simply a wall to hold back the water, but God’s ruling power, which holds back the forces of chaos. A parallel to this wider meaning is found in the Babylonian creation epic, After having killed Tiamat, divided her in half, and made the sky and. the earth out of her halves, Marduk:
(Therein) traced . . . lines for the mighty gods,
Stars, star-groups, and constellations he appointed for them:
He determined the year, marked out its divisions,
For each of the twelve months appointed three rising stars.
Having established the rules for the (astronomical) seasons,
He laid down the Crossing-line to make known their limits:
And that none should make mistake or in any way lose speed,
He appointed, conjointly with it, the Enlil- and Ea-9 lines.
This is a general session of legislation. I doubt that the one envisioned in our passage is any less thorough. It is God’s direction of the entire world which makes the boundary.
The main section of the Psalm (vv. 10-18) does not require verse by verse comment. It will suffice to discuss certain chains of thought contained in it.
The function of water is quite significant, which would be expected in a land like Palestine where rain is so important, More important, the waters are seen as tamed and under God’s control. This further demonstrates that the boundary which God set up for them effectively accomplished its purpose. The waters stored up in his upper chambers come down as rain and water the mountainsides (13). Those which He sent down to the underworld come up as springs.
This motif of control is quite significant in connection with such passages as Daniel 7, where the powers opposed to God’s people are represented as beasts sent from the chaotic ocean. They are tamed in succession, but the last one must be destroyed, whereupon God sets himself up as judge and settles things. This could include an allusion to Marduk establishing order following the defeat of Tiamat. Thus there is a creation-protection-recreation motif which develops around this type of imagery.11
A parallel to this entire stanza is the following, which shows the all-encompassing care of Aten:
All beasts are satisfied with their pasture;
Trees and plants are verdant.
The birds which fly from their nests, their wings are (spread) in adoration to thy soul;
All flocks skip with (their) feet;
All that fly up and alight
Live when thou hast risen for them.
He made the moon for appointed times;
The sun knows when to go down.
We now have the resumption of the creation, viewing the earth in a much broader sense. In the structure, this passage parallels the second stanza, and should begin with an act of God, so that the translation of Dahood, “The moon acts according to seasons,” must be rejected. Further support for the translation given here comes from a Mesopotamian hymn to Samas and Sin:
Sin, le dieu suprême des cieux, le fils aîné d’Enlil
Sinnu, acclamé par les cieux et la terre
Qui précède les dieux ses frères, le prince dont l’ordre est invariable,
le dieu brillant, respendissant, souverain,
Qui fixe la durée du jour, du mais et de l’année13
If the moon is here viewed as the arbiter of the seasons, this bicolon may even be completely parallel to verse 5, using the second colon as a result clause:
He made the moon for seasons,
So the sun knows when to set.
a b c
(God acting) (on part of cosmos) (prepositional phrase)
(result clause showing the result on the cosmos)
The sun is usually viewed as supreme, even in the above hymn, but perhaps the moon is seen as a sort of heavenly clock, as it was a clock for early man, It is also interesting to note that both result clauses show the maintaining of order. In the first, the established earth will not be moved. In the second, the sun knows when to set so that the activities in the following verses are properly regulated.
As in the second. stanza, this bicolon forms the theme statement for the following verses. The sun and the moon combine to regulate the actions of the animals and the work of man. Man is represented as quite dependent on them. Since God made the sun and moon, the theme of the world’s constant dependence on God is continued here, The final bicolon reemphasizes this reliance on God, and the fact that he is the central object of the divine attention. This contrasts with the Babylonian creation story, where man is created to be of service to the gods (VI 1-10).
The following section concludes the theme section of the Psalm. It speaks of the marvelous work of the Lord and of his complete taming of the unruly sea.
How marvelous are your works, 0 Lord!
You made them all wisely.
The earth is full of your created things.
This tricolon surmnarizes the section from verse 5 to verse 23, and resumes the thought left off in verse 4, of God’s glory. It is a fitting resumption. First, God’s glory was described, then it was demonstrated. through his creative and sustaining power. Now, it is completed on a summit of praise.
There is no reason to translate the second colon as “You made them all with wisdom at your side,” as does Dahood. The intent of the passage is clearly that God has done all well and in an orderly manner. Just as this passage climaxes the core of the Psalm, so the last colon summarizes it. God has done so well with his work that the earth is full of his created things.
One feels that the summit of praise has been reached in the last tricolon, but the poet has more in store. The climb continues. The sea is completely tame:
This sea, great and wide across,
In which are uncountable creatures,
Living things, both small and great —
There the ships travel;
Leviathan, which you made,
Plays in it.
The sea is full of God’s creation as well as the earth. Because it is under God’s control, the ships may safely travel in it. The following is a parallel from the Hymn to Aten expressing the same thought:
Ships sail upstream and downstream alike,
For every route is open at thine appearing.
The fish in the river leap before thee,
For thy rays are in the midst of the sea.14
Sixth stanza to the end.
The following stanza restates in plain language the thought which the poet has been proving throughout the entire passage. All of the creatures of the earth are dependent every moment on the sustaining power of God.
This is followed by a short stanza which resumes the thought of the second one, as well as completing the thought of the above. God, who created. the earth (vv. 5-9), controls it constantly. It is thus totally dependent on his care.
The Psalm closes with a song stating the response of man to the glory of God which has been demonstrated in the manifestations of nature described in this Psalm.
The Worship Situation
The Psalm fits into the monotheistic/henotheistic pattern (see Figure). Yahweh is being praised for his sustaining of the natural order for his people. The sun and the moon are seen, however, as performing the same sort of activities as in Assyrian culture, where they would also be seen as gods. The pattern here is therefore related to the pattern in Figure 7.
Psalm 104, therefore, is written with the language of Ancient Near Eastern cosmology, and has its worship situation in the henotheism of Israel, in which Yahweh is praised for the actions of natural forces which are still conceived in the roles which they have played as deities in other cultures.
lSee H, C. Leupold, Exposition of Psalms (n.p.: The Wartburg Press, 1959; reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969), pp. 722-752; Artur Weiser, The Psalms, Trans. Herbert Hartwell (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), pp. 663-671; and Hans-Joachim Kraus, Die Psalmen, 2 vols., 2. durchgesehene Auflage (Wageningen, Niederlande: Neukirchen Verlag, 1961), on Psalm 104 for examples.
2Seux, p. 39. Ancient Babylonian hymn to Ishtar, coming from its call to praise.
3Le Comte du Mesnil du Boisson, “L’explication mythique des saisons en Phénice: Baal tue ses frères taureaux de chaleur,” Berytus, 26 (1978):55-84.
4Thomas, p. 9.
5Seux, p. 77. From a hymn to Marduk.
6 which is also the name of Baal’s mountain headquarters. See particularly text 4 in the Ugaritic texts standard publication and in those following it. Herdner or Gibson in the bibliography.
7 Otto Kaiser, Die Mythische Bedeutung des Meeres in Ägypten, Ugarit und Israel, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, No. 78 (Berlin: Verlag Alfred Topelmann, 1962), pp. 47-56.
8Thomas, p. 147.
9Ea was the god of the waters, creator and protector of man. Enlil was the earth, air, and storm god. Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, 1949, s.v. “Ea” and “Enlil.”
10Thomas, p. 10.
11Norman W. Porteous, Daniel, Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965), pp. 93-117.
12Thomas, p. 146.
13Seux, p. 67.
14Thomas, p. 146. This also suggests the maintenance of the reading See also comments by Dahood and Kraus.