This great psalm has some similarities with the Egyptian Hymn to the Sun (14th century BC). But there are major differences too, not least in the way that this psalm echoes the structure of Gen 1. Indeed, there is a huge difference between worshiping the Sun and worshiping its Maker, and this psalm may well have been written to demonstrate that point.
This psalm is the basis for the hymn ‘O worship the King’.
104:1 Praise the LORD, O my soul!
O LORD my God, you are magnificent.
You are robed in splendor and majesty.
In these early verses, we learn of a God who is distinct from his creation (contra pantheism), and yet intimately involved in it (contra deism).
‘The metaphor of his taking up [creation’s] parts and powers as his robe, tent, palace and chariot invites us to see the world as something he delights in, which is charged with his energy and alive with his presence. The nature miracles of Christ show that this is no fantasy.’ (Kidner)
104:2 He covers himself with light as if it were a garment.
He stretches out the skies like a tent curtain,
He stretches out the heavens like a tent – Some attempt to find in Scripture anticipations of modern scientific discoveries. This verse, along with several similar statements, is thought to ‘declare that the universe is expanding and has continuously expanded from its beginning’ (Hugh Ross, Why the Universe is the Way it is). Now, these passages speak eloquently of the power and majesty of our Creator-God. But the imagery is, quite plainly, of the stretching of a canopy, or of a tent. It is the stretching of the ‘canvas’ of the sky over the earth. It is entirely gratuitous to suggest that such passages teach the continuous expansion of the universe. The Bible is not a book full of scientific facts just waiting for modern science to catch up with it. See ‘Does the Bible anticipate modern cosmology?’
104:3 and lays the beams of the upper rooms of his palace on the rain clouds.
He makes the clouds his chariot,
and travels along on the wings of the wind.
[He] lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters – The picture here is of the clouds forming but the foundation of his lofty palace.
104:4 He makes the winds his messengers,
and the flaming fire his attendant.
Heb 1:7 (and the LXX) takes this the other way round, and the Heb. word indeed allows this.
‘As God himself is conceived as really present in nature, wrapping himself in light, setting up his tent in the heavens…; so his angels…are made to assume the form of winds and lightnings.’ (Briggs). Kidner adds: ‘The argument in Heb 1:7f is that while angels can be described in these lowly terms, the Son is addressed as God.’
104:5 He established the earth on its foundations;
it will never be upended.
Verses 5-9 reflect on the third day of Gen 1, ‘whose quiet statement that the waters were gathered into one place, for the dry land to appear, is now presented with exhilarating vigour, but also with a strong emphasis on the Creator’s control and “changeless decree”.’ (Kidner)
104:6 The watery deep covered it like a garment;
the waters reached above the mountains.
104:7 Your shout made the waters retreat;
at the sound of your thunderous voice they hurried off—
104:8 as the mountains rose up,
and the valleys went down—
to the place you appointed for them.
‘The vivid rhetoric of verses 7 and 9 finely dramatizes the rise of continents and the formation of ocean depths which their companion verse 8 presents in more sober terms. It is a rhetoric we still need, at a time when the accepted model of reality is all mechanism and no Maker.’ (Kidner)
‘Almost without exception biblical references to thunder and thunderstorms speak of them as the direct activity of God. (e.g., Ex 9:23-34; 1 Sam 7:10; Ps 104:7) Thunder is an awesome manifestation of divine power, altogether beyond human comprehension. (Job 26:14 38:25 40:9) Sometimes thunder accompanies God’s speaking to his people. In Jn 12:29 the voice of God from heaven is thought by many bystanders to be no more than thunder. When God gave the law upon Mt. Sinai there were “thunder and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount,” (Ex 19:16; 20:18) and in the book of Revelation thunder accompanies all the proclamations from heaven.’ (Rev 4:5; 6:1; 8:5; 10$:3f; etc.) (ISBE)
104:9 You set up a boundary for them that they could not cross,
so that they would not cover the earth again.
104:10 He turns springs into streams;
they flow between the mountains.
104:11 They provide water for all the animals in the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
104:12 The birds of the sky live beside them;
they chirp among the bushes.
104:13 He waters the mountains from the upper rooms of his palace;
the earth is full of the fruit you cause to grow.
104:14 He provides grass for the cattle,
and crops for people to cultivate,
so they can produce food from the ground,
The psalmist turns now from the wild animals to the domesticated beats and to the cultivable plants and fruit trees.
104:15 as well as wine that makes people feel so good,
and so they can have oil to make their faces shine, as well as food that sustains people’s lives.
Wine…oil…bread – Here are examples of products where God’s bounty and man’s skill are combined in partnership.
104:16 The trees of the LORD receive all the rain they need,
the cedars of Lebanon which he planted,
104:17 where the birds make nests,
near the evergreens in which the herons live.
104:18 The wild goats live in the high mountains;
the rock badgers find safety in the cliffs.
Reflecting on vv 14-18, Kidner comments: ‘To the modern reader, this planet, with the almost infinite variety of life which it supports, stands out in all the more brilliant contrast to its starkly inhospitable neighbours.’
104:19 He made the moon to mark the months,
and the sun sets according to a regular schedule.
104:20 You make it dark and night comes,
during which all the beasts of the forest prowl around.
In vv 19-23 we see regularity without monotony, activity alternating with rest (Kidner).
104:21 The lions roar for prey,
seeking their food from God.
104:22 When the sun rises, they withdraw
and sleep in their dens.
104:23 Men then go out to do their work,
and labor away until evening.
104:24 How many living things you have made, O LORD!
You have exhibited great skill in making all of them;
the earth is full of the living things you have made.
104:25 Over here is the deep, wide sea,
which teems with innumerable swimming creatures,
living things both small and large.
104:26 The ships travel there,
and over here swims the whale you made to play in it.
104:27 All of your creatures wait for you
to provide them with food on a regular basis.
104:28 You give food to them and they receive it;
you open your hand and they are filled with food.
104:29 When you ignore them, they panic.
When you take away their life’s breath, they die
and return to dust.
104:30 When you send your life-giving breath, they are created,
and you replenish the surface of the ground.
Of this section (vv24-30) Ponsonby writes: ‘This is perhaps the glorious passage in Scripture articulating God’s ongoing, sustaining, vivifying presence in creation through his Spirit. God is the sole creator and sustainer of the world. He is responsible for its vastness and the variety of its living creatures. He oversees the rhythms of the seasons (cf. Acts 14:17), he provides the source and sustenance of life. “The power of life and death are his: Yahweh’s own breath is the secret of physical life” (Hartley, cf. Gen 2:7; 6:17). Life is God’s breath, God’s Spirit. As Weiser says: “When God holds his breath then what is alive becomes dust.”‘ (God Inside Out, p47)
Spirit – the same word is translated ‘breath’ in the preceding verse.
Verses 27-30 show the complete dependence of creation on the Creator. This is in (deliberate?) contrast to the Egyptian Hymn to the Sun, which praises the Sun in the following terms: ‘When thou hast risen they live, When thou settest they die’. (Quoted by Kidner)
104:31 May the splendor of the LORD endure!
May the LORD find pleasure in the living things he has made!
May the Lord rejoice in his works – In the light of v32, we might well pray that God would survey his handiwork with joy, not judgment. (Kidner)
104:32 He looks down on the earth and it shakes;
he touches the mountains and they start to smolder.
104:33 I will sing to the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I exist!
‘Up to this point in the psalm, the creation has glorified God simply by what it is. But man’s response is personal: he alone on earth can sing to him. There was singing, delightful in its way, in v12; but here the song has content, and is meant for him, offered for his delight.’ (Kidner)
104:34 May my thoughts be pleasing to him!
I will rejoice in the LORD.
104:35 May sinners disappear from the earth,
and the wicked vanish!
Praise the LORD, O my soul!
Praise the LORD!
But, notwithstanding all that has be said, the creation is a battlefield as well as a garden. We must work with God to reclaim the world for him.