YEAR B: PENTECOST
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Psalm 104 is one of the great psalms of the collection, often called ‘the pearl of the Psalter’. It is a hymn to the Lord as creator and is written in typical hymnic style. It has found wide use in both Jewish liturgy (it is chanted on the morning of Yom Kippur, the ‘Day of Atonement’, and on the evening of the New Moon, and on Sabbaths through winter; all these are occasions celebrating new life) as well as in Christian liturgy. In Greek Orthodox churches Psalm 104 is sung daily in vespers in gratitude for the life of the day. It has also been associated in Christian circles with Pentecost activities, chiefly because of reference to the ‘spirit’ in v. 30. Historically, the psalm bears many similarities to the Egyptian hymn to Aten (the sun god) from the period of so-called Egyptian ‘monotheism’ under Pharaoh Akhenaten (1364-1347 BCE). These similarities are strong enough to suggest that parts of the psalm have been taken from the Egyptian hymn. On the other hand we should also note that Psalm 104 has similarities to Genesis 1.
The psalm breaks into a number of sections. After a call to praise the Lord in vv. 1-4, vv. 5-9 speak of the establishment of the earth. The psalm employs much mythological language, speaking of the deeps being given boundaries (v. 9) or of the waters fleeing (v. 7). The picture is one of bringing order out of chaos. The promise is that all that brings chaos into life will never return. In vv. 10-23 there is a description of how the world is ordered by the Lord. God brings forth water to sustain life through vegetation and plants for food, and orders life for all creatures including people. All things have their place in this ordered world. We should not miss the fact that this psalm is not focussed on humans as somehow superior among God’s creatures. They are but part of the scene. Further, the themes of water (for maintaining life) and mountains (for protection) reverberate throughout the psalm. Even the seasons and times are ordered so that there are times for all creatures and their activity.
Verses 24-34, the main part of today’s reading, exclaim the greatness of the Lord’s works. Again the language used has echoes of mythical accounts of creation, speaking especially of the sea as a place of great mystery and danger where great creatures go, including Leviathan. Such creatures are often seen as dangerous monsters that must be defeated (cf. Ps 74:14) but here something different is expressed. Even Leviathan has become a plaything. The emphasis is again on the Lord’s provision of sustenance for all creatures and his preservation of their life (vv. 27-30). The reference to the Lord’s ‘spirit’ (Heb: ruach) has echoes of Gen 2:7 where the word is translated as ‘breath’. We are not speaking directly about the Holy Spirit as we might understand that in Christian terms. On the other hand, God’s act of sustaining life through divine ‘spirit/breath’ is not disassociated from what we see as the work of the Spirit. The point is that all creation and its creatures are totally dependent on God’s presence and ‘breath’.
The psalmist finishes (vv. 31-32) hoping that the Lord’s glory might endure and that they may have joy in God’s works (cf. v. 24). The psalmist finishes by proclaiming their own praise (vv. 31-34). The lectionary omits v. 35a which seeks not only the banishment of sinners but their ‘being consumed’ and ‘being no more’. Presumably the lectionary omission is because of the ethical difficulty of praying for the demise of others. It does not fit Jesus’ call to love others including one’s enemies. This is hardly Christian. Such sensitivity might justifiably raise a question about whether v. 35a of the psalm should be read in the congregation. On the other hand, our proper awkwardness with such sentiments ought not to prevent us asking what the psalm is getting at in v. 35a. The language is that of creation. As noted above the concept of creation in ancient Israel and the ancient Near East in general is about the ordering of chaos, i.e. removing what is harmful to life, what is not life-giving, and allowing God’s life-giving ‘spirit’ to fill all creation. There is an ethical dimension to creation. The psalmist’s wish in v. 35a is that in society as much as among all creatures in the cosmos, what opposes God’s life-giving purpose ought to be exposed and removed. So while we might be rightfully cautious about using the words of v. 35a without much thought, we ought not to let the desire for seeing God’s life-giving way established in the world be lost.
Finally, we need to note that in vv. 27-30 the Hebrew verbs are in what scholars call ‘the imperfect form’. This implies action that is not yet complete. This is important for understanding the nature of creation described in not only this psalm but in other places in the Old Testament. Creation is ‘incomplete’. In Old Testament thinking creation is not just an ‘event’ of the distant past. It is something that goes on even now. In the words of this psalm God continues to bring creation to fullness through sustaining it, providing for it and enjoying it. In our own life-building activities, our mission in Christian terms, whether it be in creating opportunities for life-giving experiences or in opposing wickedness and evil where we find it, we participate in God’s ongoing creative activity. It is a challenge to all God’s people to pursue God’s goodness in creation.
Suggestions for use of the psalm in worship:
Psalm 104:26-35 can be adapted for a prayer of adoration within worship as follows:
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, spread far and wide,
and there move creatures beyond number, both small and great.
There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan
which you have made to play in the deep.
All of these look to you
to give them their food in due season.
When you give it them, they gather it;
you open your hand and they are filled with good.
When you hide your face they are troubled;
when you take away their breath, they die and return again to the dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
May the glory of the Lord endure for ever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works;
He looks on the earth and it trembles;
he touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will make music to my God while I have my being.
This psalm text is from the Psalter in Uniting in Worship 2 which is taken from Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England, London: Church House Publishing, 2000. Kind permission has been given to use this Psalter, which is a revised version of the Psalter published in the Standard Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church in the USA, prepared by the Liturgical Commission of the General Synod of the Church of England. Permission is given to reproduce the psalms in that Psalter for non-commercial use in local orders of service with this acknowledgment.
Old Testament reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
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