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.
Psa 104:1 Praise the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with 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)
Psa 104:2 He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent
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?’
Psa 104:3 and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides 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.
Psa 104:4 He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.
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.’
Psa 104:5 He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.
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)
Psa 104:6 You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.
Ps 104:7 But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;
‘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)
Psa 104:8 they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them.
Psa 104:9 You set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth.
Psa 104:10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains.
Psa 104:11 They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
Psa 104:12 The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.
Psa 104:13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.
Psa 104:14 He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth:
The psalmist turns now from the wild animals to the domesticated beats and to the cultivable plants and fruit trees.
Psa 104:15 wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.
Wine…oil…bread – Here are examples of products where God’s bounty and man’s skill are combined in partnership.
Psa 104:16 The trees of the LORD are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.
Psa 104:17 There the birds make their nests; the stork has its home in the pine trees.
Psa 104:18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the coneys.
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.’
Psa 104:19 The moon marks off the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down.
Psa 104:20 You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl.
Psa 104:21 The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God.
Psa 104:22 The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens.
Psa 104:23 Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening.
In vv 19-23 we see regularity without monotony, activity alternating with rest (Kidner).
Psa 104:24 How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
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)
Psa 104:25 There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number— living things both large and small.
Psa 104:26 There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
Psa 104:27 These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time.
Psa 104:28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.
Psa 104:29 When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.
Psa 104:30 When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
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)
Psa 104:31 May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works—
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)
Psa 104:32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke.
Psa 104:33 I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.
‘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)
Psa 104:34 May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD.
Psa 104:35 But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more. 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.