Psalm 104
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

This psalm touches the highest point of religious poetry. It is the most perfect hymn the world has ever produced. Even as a lyric it has scarcely been surpassed; while as a lyric inspired by religion, not only was all ancient literature, except that of the Hebrews, powerless to create anything like it, but even Christian poetry has never succeeded in approaching it. Milton has told the story of Creation, taking, as the psalmist does, the account in Genesis for his model; but the seventh book of the Paradise Lost, even when we make allowance for the difference between the narrative and lyric styles, is tame and prolix—seems to want animation and fire—by the side of this hymn.

At the very opening of the poem we feel the magic of a master inspiration. The world is not, as in Genesis, created by a Divine decree. It springs into life and motion, into order and use, at the touch of the Divine presence. Indeed, the pervading feeling of the hymn is the sense of God’s close and abiding relation to all that He made; the conviction that He not only originated the universe, but dwells in it and sustains it: and this feeling fastens upon us at the outset, as we see the light enfolding the Creator as His robe, and the canopy of heaven rising over Him as His tent. It is not a lifeless world that springs into being. There is no void, no chaos; even the winds and clouds are not for this poet without denizens, or they themselves start into life and people the universe for his satisfaction. He cannot conceive of a world at any time without life and order. Nor has any poet, even of our modern age, displayed a finer feeling for nature, and that not in her tempestuous and wrathful moods—usually the source of Hebrew inspiration—but in her calm, everyday temper. He is the Wordsworth of the ancients, penetrated with a love for nature, and gifted with the insight that springs from love. This majestic hymn is anonymous in the Hebrew. The LXX. have ascribed it to David. Its close connection with Psalms 103, and an Aramaic word in Psalm 104:12, indicate a post-exile date for its composition. The verse shows every variety of rhythm.

Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.
(1-4) First and second days of Creation. Instead, however, of describing the creation of light, the poet makes a sublime approach to his theme by treating it as a symbol of the Divine majesty. It is the vesture of God, the tremulous curtain of His tent, whose supporting beams are based, not on the earth, but on those cloud-masses which form an upper ocean. This curtain is then, as it were, drawn aside for the exit of the Monarch attended by His throng of winged messengers.

(1) Clothed.—For the same metaphor see Psalm 93:1.

Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
(2) Who coverest.—Perhaps better with the participles of the original retained:

Putting on light as a robe;

Spreading the heavens as a curtain.

The psalmist does not think of the formation of light as of a single past act, but as a continued glorious operation of Divine power and splendour. Not only is light as to the modern poet,

“Nature’s resplendent robe,

Without whose vesting beauty all were wrapt

In unessential gloom,”

but it is the dress of Divinity, the “ethereal woof” that God Himself is for ever weaving for His own wear.

Curtain.—Especially of a tent (see Song of Solomon 1:5, &c.), the tremulous movement of its folds being expressed in the Hebrew word. Different explanations have been given of the figure. Some see an allusion to the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26, 27). The associations of this ritual were dear to a religious Hebrew, and he may well have had in his mind the rich folds of the curtain of the Holy of Holies. So a modern poet speaks of

“The arras-folds, that variegate

The earth, God’s ante-chamber.

Herder, again, refers the image to the survival of the nomadic instinct. But there is no need to put a limit to a figure so natural and suggestive. Possibly images of palace, temple, and tent, all combined, rose to the poet’s thought, as in Shelley’s “Ode to Heaven”:—

“Palace roof of cloudless nights!

Paradise of golden lights!

Deep immeasurable vast,

Which art now, and which wert then;

Of the present and the past,

Of the Eternal where and when,

Presence-chamber, temple, home,

Ever-canopying dome

Of acts and ages yet to come!”

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) Layeth the beams.—Literally, maketh to meet The meaning of the Hebrew word, which is an exact equivalent of the Latin contignare, is clear from Nehemiah 2:8; Nehemiah 3:3; Nehemiah 3:6, and from the meaning of the derived noun (2Kings 6:2; 2Kings 6:5; Song of Solomon 1:17).

Chambers.—Literally, lofts or upper stories. (See 2Kings 4:10; Jeremiah 22:13-14.)

In the waters.—The manner of this ethereal architecture is necessarily somewhat difficult to picture. The pavilion which God rears for His own abode appears to rest on a floor of rain-clouds, like a tent spread on a flat eastern roof. (See Psalm 18:11; Amos 9:6-7.) Southey’s description of the Palace of Indra may perhaps help the imagination:—

“Built on the lake, the waters were its floor;

And here its walls were water arched with fire,

And here were fire with water vaulted o’er;

And spires and pinnacles of fire

Round watery cupolas aspire,

And domes of rainbow rest on fiery towers.”

Curse of Kehama.

Who maketh the clouds His chariot.—See Psalm 18:10, probably the original of this verse; chariot (rekhûb) here taking the place of cherub.

Walketh upon the wings of the wind.—Doubtless the metaphor is taken from the clouds, which, in a wind-swept sky, float along like “the drifted wings of many companies of angels.” The clause is thus in direct parallelism with the description of the cloud chariot. The figure has passed into modern song:

“Every gust of rugged wings

That blows from off each beaked promontory.”

MILTON: Lycidas.

“No wing of wind the region swept.”

TENNYSON: In Memoriam.

Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire:
(4) Who maketh . . .—Rather,

Who maketh winds His messenger

A flaming fire His ministers.

Or, keeping the order of the Hebrew,

Who maketh His messengers of winds,

And His ministers of flaming fire.

This is plainly the meaning required by the context, which deals with the use made by the Divine King of the various forms and forces of Nature. Just as He makes the clouds serve as a chariot and the sky as a tent, so he employs the winds as messengers and the lightnings as servants.

Taken quite alone, the construction and arrangement of the verse favours the interpretation of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 1:7, Note, New Testament Commentary). This was the traditional Jewish interpretation, and on it were founded various theories of angelic agency.

But not only do the exigencies of the context set aside this interpretation, but Hebrew literature offers enough instances to show that the order in which a poet arranged his words was comparatively immaterial. Indeed, Dean Perowne has adduced two instances (Isaiah 37:26; Isaiah 60:18) of precisely similar inversion of the natural order of immediate object and predicate. (See Expositor, December, 1878.) And no difficulty need be made about the change of number in flame of fire and ministers, since even if the former were not synonymous with lightnings, its predicate might be plural. (See Proverbs 16:14, “The wrath of a king is messengers of death.”)

Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
(5–18) The work of the third day of Creation in its two great divisions. (1) The separation of the land and water (Psalm 104:5-9); (2) the clothing of the earth with grass, herbs, and trees (Psalm 104:10-18). The poet, however, ranges beyond the Mosaic account, and already peoples the earth with the living creatures of the fifth day. “It is not a picture of still life like that of Genesis, but a living, moving, animated scene” (Perowne).

(5) Who laid . . .—Better, He fixed the earth on its foundations. (Comp. Job 38:4-6; Proverbs 8:29.)

The inconsistency of this with Job 26:7, “He laid the earth upon nothing,” need not cause difficulty. Both treatments are poetical, not scientific. The word foundations implies stability and endurance (comp. Psalm 82:5), as in Shakespeare’s

“The frame and huge foundation of the earth.”

The verse has a historical interest from having supplied the Inquisition with an argument against Galileo.

Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.
(6) The deep.—The water-world is first considered as a vast garment wrapped round the earth, so that the mountain-tops are covered. But here it is beyond its right, and the Divine rebuke forces it to retire within narrower limits. It is noticeable that the idea of a chaos finds no place in the poetic conception of the world’s genesis. The primitive world is not formless, but has its mountains and valleys already existing, though merged beneath the sea.

They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.
(8) They go up.—This translation is grammatically possible, but is inconsistent with the preceding description. It is better therefore to take the clause parenthetically, and to make hills and valleys the subjects. Hills rise, valleys sink, an interesting anticipation of the disclosures of geology, which, though in a different sense, tells of the upheaval of mountains and depression of valleys. Two passages in Ovid have been adduced in illustration (Met. i. 43, 344). And Milton, no doubt with the psalm as well as Ovid in his mind, wrote

“Immediately the mountains huge appear

Emergent,” &c—Paradise Lost, book vii.

Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.
(9) A bound.—It is striking to observe what a deep impression their little line of coast, the barrier which beat off the waves of the Mediterranean, made on the Hebrew mind. The sea was an object of dread. Or if dread passes into reverent wonder, as in Psalm 104:25-26, it ends there; the Jew never took delight in the sea. Hence, the coast has for him only one purpose and suggestion. It is not for enjoyment or recreation, or even for uses of commerce. It is simply the defence set by God against the hostile waters.

He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.
(10) Springs.—The account in Genesis goes on abruptly from the appearance of the dry land to speak of the vegetation which covers it, apparently without any physical means for its production. But a poet, especially an Oriental poet, thinks first of the springs and rivers on which fertility and life depend. And such is his sympathy with nature that in disregard of the original record he hastens at once to people his world with creatures to share the Creator’s joy in its beauty and goodness.

Valleysi.e., the torrent beds, the “wadys” as the Arabs now call them.

Which run.—Better, they flow between the hills. The LXX. supply the subject “waters.”

They give drink to every beast of the field: the wild asses quench their thirst.
(11) Wild asses.—See Job 39:5-8.

By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.
(12) By them.—Better, above them, i.e., in the trees and bushes growing on the bank of the stream. Translate by the present, have their homes.

He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.
(13) Chambersi.e., of cloud, as in Psalm 104:3.

Thy works.—If we go by the parallelism, this means the “rain,” here called God’s works, as in Psalm 65:9 (see Note), his “river.” Others prefer to see a general reference to the operations of nature which produce fruit.

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) For the service of mani.e., for his use (so Gesenius). But some deny this meaning to the Hebrew, which properly means “labour” or “office.” (In 1Chronicles 27:26; Nehemiah 10:37, it means “agriculture,” “tillage.”) Hence they render, “And herbs for man’s labour in bringing them forth from the earth,” alluding to his task of cultivating the soil. Standing by itself the clause would indeed naturally require this sense, but the parallelism is against it, and in 1Chronicles 26:30, “service of a king,” we have a near approach to the meaning “use.”

That he may.—Better, bringing food out of the earth, taking the verb as gerund instead of infinitive absolute.

And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart.
(15) And wine that . . .—Better, and wine gladdens man’s heart, making his face shine more than oil (see-margin. The alternative follows the LXX. and Vulg., and suggests the anointing with oil at a banquet), and bread man’s heart sustains.

Oil.—For oil and its uses see Psalm 133:2; Psalm 141:5.

Strengtheneth.—Properly, props or supports. (Comp. “the staff of bread,” Psalm 105:16), and our “staff of life,” and for the same phrase Genesis 18:5; Judges 19:5).

The trees of the LORD are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted;
(16) The trees . . .—Better, Jehovah’s trees are satisfied. The parallelism shows what are Jehovah’s trees. The cedar of Lebanon (see 1Kings 4:33) was the grandest and fairest tree known to the Hebrew; and like lightning and the tropical rain, is honoured by the epithet most expressive of grandeur. (See Bible Educator, iv., 359.) Such trees the poet feels must have been planted by the Divine hand itself—man could grow herbs, but not cedars—and here, as a proof of the lavish provision made by the Creator for the fertility of the earth, he states that even these monarchs of the wood have enough.

Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house.
(17) Stork.—The LXX. give “heron,” but Dr. Tristram has shown that there is no need to prefer “heron” here, on account of “the nesting in fir trees,” since if near its feeding-grounds the stork readily selects a fir as the tallest and most convenient tree for its nest (Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 244).

“The eagle and the stork

On cliffs and cedar-tops their eyries build.”—MILTON.

The high hills are a refuge for the wild goats; and the rocks for the conies.
(18) Wild goats.—Heb., climbers, and so at home on the “high hills.” (See 1Samuel 24:2, “the rocks of the wild goats.”) “This animal, which is a relation of the Swiss ibex or steinbock, is now called the beden or jaela “(Bible Educator, II., 104).

Conies.—Heb., shāphan, i.e., “hider.” (Comp. Leviticus 11:5, and Bible Educator, II., 201.) Naturalists know it as the hyrax Syriacus. The LXX., Vulg., and Aquila have “hedgehogs.”

He appointed the moon for seasons: the sun knoweth his going down.
(19) The moon for seasons.—See Psalm 89:37, Note. The mention of the inferior luminary first is no doubt partly due to its importance in fixing the calendar, but partly also to the diurnal reckoning, “the evening and the morning” as making the day.

The sun knoweth.—So Job 38:12’ of the dawn. The sun is no mere mechanical timepiece to the Israelite poet, but a conscious servant of God. How beautifully this mention of sunset prepares the way for the exquisite picture of the nocturnal landscape, as the sunrise in Psalm 104:22 does for the landscape of the day.

In Genesis the creation of the “heavenly bodies”—the fourth day’s work—is related in, so to speak, a scientific manner. But the poet, as in the former part of his treatment of the subject, at once goes to the influence of these phenomena on animated being. In Genesis the lamps of heaven are, as it were, hung out at God’s command; in the poem they seem to move to their office of guiding the seasons and illuminating the earth like living things who are conscious of the glorious function they have to perform.

Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth.
(20) Creep forth.—The word “forth” is better omitted. The Hebrew verb is that especially used of crawling animals and reptiles, and here, no doubt, his chosen to express the stealthy motion of the beasts when on the track of their prey. (See Psalm 104:25; comp. Job 37:8; Job 38:40.)

The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens.
(22) Lay them down.—With sunrise all is changed. The Wild animals, with their savage instincts, give way to man with his orderly habits and arranged duties. The curse of labour, on which the account in Genesis dwells, is here entirely out of sight, and instead there appears the “poetry of labour.” And if all sense of the primal curse has disappeared, the later curse, which lies so heavy on the modern generations of overworked men,

“Who make perpetual moan,

Still from one labour to another thrown,”

has not appeared. The day brings only healthy toil, and the evening happy rest.

O LORD, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.
(24) Riches.—LXX., “creation;” Aquila, Symmachus, and the Vulg., “possession.” The MSS. vary between singular and plural. Creatures will perhaps. best express the sense here.

There is something as fine in art as true in religion in this sudden burst of praise—the “evening voluntary” of grateful adoration—into which the poet bursts at the mention of the day’s close. Weariness leaves the soul, as it is lifted from contemplation of man’s toil to that of God. Athanasius remarked on the sense of rest and refreshment produced by this change of strain.

So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts.
(25) So is . . .Better, Yonder is the sea great and broad. For a moment the poet, “lost in wonder, love and praise,” has forgotten his model, the Mosaic account of creation. But suddenly, as his eye catches sight of the sea—we imagine him on some hill-top, commanding on the one hand the range of Lebanon, on the other the Mediterranean—the words recur to him, “Let the waters bring forth abundantly,” &c

Creeping.—See Psalm 104:20. Perhaps here, “swarming.”

There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.
(26) Ships.—The poet writes like one who had been accustomed to see the navies of Phœnicia, one of the indications which leads to the hypothesis that he belonged to the northern part of Palestine. And here for once we seem to catch a breath of enthusiasm for the sea—so rare a feeling in a Jew.

Leviathan.—See Psalm 74:14. In Job (Job 41) it is the crocodile, but here evidently an animal of the sea, and probably the whale. Several species of cetacea are still found in the Mediterranean, and that they were known to the Hebrews is clear from Lamentations 4:3. Various passages from classic authors support this view.

Whom Thou . . .—This clause is rendered by some “whom Thou hast made to play with him” (so LXX. and Vulg.), referring to Job 41:5. It is a rabbinical tradition that Leviathan is God’s play thing.

Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.
(29) Thou hidest Thy face.—Elsewhere an image of displeasure, here only of withdrawal of providential care. (See Psalm 30:7, where the expression “troubled” also occurs.)

Thou takest away their breath.—Not only is the food which sustains animal life dependent on the ceaseless providence of God, but even the very breath of life is His, to be sent forth or withdrawn at His will. But to this thought, derived of course from Genesis (comp. Psalm 90:3, Note), the poet adds another. The existence of death is not a sorrow to him any more than it is a mystery. To the psalmist it is only the individual that dies; the race lives. One generation fades as God’s breath is withdrawn, but another succeeds as it is sent forth.

Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.
(30) Spirit.—Rather, breath, as in Psalm 104:29. We must not here think of the later theological doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The psalmist evidently regards the breath of God only as the vivifying power that gives matter a distinct and individual, but transient, existence. Even in the speculative book of Ecclesiastes, the idea of a human soul having a permanent separate existence does not make its appearance. At death the dust, no longer animate, returns to the earth as it was, and the breath, which had given it life, returns to God who gave it—gave it as an emanation, to be resumed unto Himself when its work was done. Still less, then, must we look in poetry for any more developed doctrine.

The glory of the LORD shall endure for ever: the LORD shall rejoice in his works.
(31) The Lord shall rejoice.—The poet still follows Genesis in representing God as looking on His finished work with pleasure, but he says nothing of a sabbath. But it is possible that the thought of the sabbath hymns of praise led him to join man with the Divine Being in celebrating the glory and perfection of creation.

He looketh on the earth, and it trembleth: he toucheth the hills, and they smoke.
(32) Trembleth.—With the praise is united something of awe and fear, since the majesty and power of Him who made the world is so great. Its very existence is dependent on His will, and a glance, a touch from Him would be enough to shake it to its foundations and consume it. For “the smoky mountain tops,” comp. Psalm 144:5, and see Note, Psalm 148:8.

My meditation of him shall be sweet: I will be glad in the LORD.
(34) My meditation.—Rather, my singing or my poetry.

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) Sinners be consumed.—This imprecation, which comes in at the close of this otherwise uniformly glad hymn, has been variously excused. The truth seems to be that from a religious hymn of Israel, since religion and patriotism were one, the expression of the national feeling against heathen oppressors and apostates who sided with them could not well be absent, whatever its immediate subject and tone. But the poet touches even a profounder truth.[19] The harmony of creation was soon broken by sin, and the harmony of the song of creation would hardly be complete, or rather, would be false and unreal, did not a discord make itself heard. The form such a suggestion would take was conditioned by the nationality of the poet; the spirit of it brings this ancient hymn at its close into accord with the feeling of modern literature, as reflected in Wordsworth’s well-known “Verses Written in Early Spring”:—

[19] In reality the power of sin to interfere with God’s pleasure. in His universe is present as an undercurrent of thought in Psalms 103, as well as 104. In the former it is implied that forgiveness and restoration are requisite before the harmony of the universe (Psalm 104:20-22) can become audible. The two psalms are also closely related in form.

“I heard a thousand blended notes,

While in a grove I lay reclined,

In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts

Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran

And much it grieved my heart to think

What Man has made of Man.”

Bless thou the Lord.—This is the first hallelujah in the psalter. Outside the psalter it is never found, and was therefore a liturgical expression coined in a comparatively late age. It is variously written as one or two words.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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