This psalm appears each year as the psalm set for Pentecost Sunday. This is in part due to the mention of God sending forth his ‘spirit’ or ‘breath’ (the Hebrew can be translated either way) in v. 30. The theme of God giving life to all creatures is particularly apt for that feast day. For a general introduction to Psalm 104 see the comments for Pentecost Sunday.
The portion of the psalm designated for today’s reading is vv. 1-9 and 24 and 35c. The later verses round out the psalm reading for today with an acclamation of the wisdom of God evident in God’s works in creation and a final blessing of the Lord. The first nine verses, on the other hand, consist of praise of God in two parts. In vv. 1-4 God is praised both for who God is in heavenly majesty (v. 1b-2a) and for the creation of the heavenly realm. We need to remember that the psalmist speaks out of an ancient cosmology with its hierarchical structure of the universe. In vv. 5-9 we hear of praise of God for the establishment of the earth. In this total description the psalmist expresses the belief that all there is in creation (we might say all there is in the whole universe) is the creation of God.
The language of the psalm is, as noted above, taken from an ancient world imbued with the stories of myth. In such myths the gods can be spoken of as if they act like humans but in much more spectacular ways. In Psalm 104 God is seen to be wearing such things as light, stretching out the heavens like a tent, and constructing with beams and posts the great dams of the cosmos keeping at bay the waters of chaos. God is a king who builds the world piece by piece in a way we can understand. In addition God rides on the clouds and winds. The heavenly phenomena, lightening and wind, are agents in God’s court. This language continues in vv. 5-9 with the earth set on foundations as one would a building, the mountains rising to their place and with the great waters fleeing like some terrified creature before an awesome foe. Everything and every creature has its place in this world (v. 9) and it is determined by God. All of it, finally, is arranged thus so that the waters of chaos and those things which by their nature threaten the cosmos may not do so again. There is an echo of the flood story here (Genesis 6-9) as well as other allusions to the creation story in Genesis 1 (see especially Ps 104:6).
This account of creation and God’s work in it is a fitting psalm portion to accompany Job 38:1-7. The power and awesome nature of God expressed in that speech from the whirlwind matches the language of Ps 104:1-9. However, the psalm goes on to speak of God giving water and food for the creatures of the heavens and earth, of giving them life and breath, and of ordering animal and human societies in ways that are beneficial to all. In v. 27 we see that all things look to God to sustain them in their living. The picture of God in vv. 1-9 might be overwhelming just as when in the twenty first century we gaze out at the stars and planets in our night sky knowing what immense distances and time our view takes in. But in both the language of the psalmist and in our own understanding of the faith, we know that the God who lies behind all this power and vast creation has a deeply close and loving knowledge of every creature in it. That is certainly worthy of praise.
Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship
The verses of the psalm set for this week can be used as a responsive prayer of adoration:
Bless the LORD, O my soul.Old Testament reading: Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
O LORD my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
fire and flame your ministers.
You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains,
ran down to the valleys to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.
Bless the LORD, O my soul.
Praise the LORD!
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