February 14, 2012

Psalm 104 - The Harmony of Creation

TEXT (Hebrew text at the end)

1. Bless the LORD, O my soul.

O LORD my God, You are very great; You clothe yourself in glory and majesty.

2. Wrapped in light like a robe; spreading the heavens like a tent cloth;
3. roofing His lofts with the waters, making the clouds His chariot, moving on the wings of wind,1
4. making winds1 His messengers, flaming fire His servants,
5. He established the earth on its foundations, never to totter.

6. As clothing You covered it (with) the great sea; the waters stood above the mountains;
7. they fled at Your blast, took flight at Your thunder’s call,
8. rising to mountains, sinking through valleys, to the place You established for them.
9. You set a boundary they could not cross, so that they never again cover the earth,
10. Freeing springs to gush forth into ravines, they make their way between the mountains,
11. supplying water to all the wild creatures; the wild asses quench their thirst.
12. The birds of the heavens dwell beside them and from among the branches issue forth [their] call.
13. Supplying the mountains with water from Your lofts; the earth is sated from the fruit of what You have made,
14. causing vegetation to grow for the cattle and plants for man’s labor,
that he may bring forth food2 out of the earth:
15. thus wine will bring joy to the human heart, oil causing the face to shine, and bread will sustain the human heart.
16. The 3-magnificent trees of the LORD-3 drink to satiation, the cedars of Lebanon, which He planted,
17. where birds nest; the stork has her home in the junipers.
18. The high mountains are for wild goats; the crags, a refuge for badgers.

19. He made the moon to mark the set times; 4-the sun knows when to set.-4
20. You bring on darkness and it is night, when all the creatures of the forests move about,
21. the lions roaring for prey, seeking their food from God.
22. When the sun rises, they re-gather into their dens and lie down.
23. Man goes out to his work and to his labor until evening.
24. How many5 are the things You have made, O LORD; all of them You have made with wisdom; the earth is full of Your creations.

25. There is the sea, great and expansive, where there are innumerable moving things, creatures small as well as great,
26. where the 6-wailing fish-6 make their way, and 7-Leviathan that You formed to sport with.-7

27. All these look to You to issue their food in timely fashion.
28. Issue it to them, they gather it up; open Your hand, they are fully sated;
29. hide Your face, they are panic-struck; take away their breath,1 they die and return to their dust;
30. send forth Your breath,1 they are created, and You renew the face of the land.

31. May the glory of the LORD be forever; may the LORD rejoice in what He has made,
32. He Who looks at the earth and it trembles; He touches the mountains and they smoke.
33. I will sing to the LORD while I live; as long as I exist, I will chant hymns to my God.
34. May my speech be pleasing to Him; as for me, I will rejoice in the LORD.

35. May sinners be obliterated from the earth, and the wicked exist no longer.

Bless the LORD, O my soul.   Hallelujah.


1. “Breath” in verses 29 and 30 is the same term as “wind” in verses 3 and 4.
2. Same term as "bread" in next verse.
3. Literally, “trees of the LORD,” which could imply either divine origin or magnitude. This translation assumes both are implied, parallel to the continuation of the verse.
4. Alternatively, “the sun—He knows where [or when] it sets.”
5. Also implies “great.”
6. The Hebrew means “boats” elsewhere in the Bible. This translation follows a suggestion cited (without attribution) in Hacham, based on the Hebrew root and on the understanding that the reference here should be to a sea creature, not a ship.
7. Elsewhere, the Leviathan is a sea monster of threatening proportions, mythically connected to struggles against God. This verse implies that it is God’s plaything (as translated) or, using other possible translations, that it plays there or plays with other animals (i.e., dominates them) there.


Introduction and Overview

An awe-filled outpouring of appreciation for God’s wise maintenance of harmony in the universe, Psalm 104 is in fact a song of the “soul,” as literally cited, beginning and end. “Soul” in the Bible is not the only divine aspect of mankind (the body also is godly), but it does reflect the essence of the life force, one’s inner spiritual powers. The speaker’s inner being connects to a world teeming with life. This is an international, not a particularistic psalm. There is no mention of Israel or its history.

Psalm 104 is less praise than it is an ecstatic expression of wonder. The inspiration for the psalm, in turn, is less the Creation than God’s ongoing preservation of the patterns and details that make for a perfectly integrated world. There is but one element that can disturb this harmony, and that is reserved for the end of the poem.

One is hard put not to be swept along with the enthusiasm. Calling on himself to bless the Lord, the speaker’s personal (“my God,” vv. 1 and 33, an inclusio) testimony elicits sympathy and admiration. However, we begin to hear jarring tones toward the end of the poem: references to God hiding His face, to death, to nature’s fear of God’s presence, and ultimately (v. 35) to sinners and evildoers. These are the clearest indications that the psalm is more than an impressionistic paean.

I comment on the “God-language” of Psalm 104, on the presentation of this awe-filled impression, on the implications of harmony and support, on the difficulties of integrating humanity into this ideal order, and finally on some parallel literature and on the last “hallelujah.”

The “God-Language”

There is an early sharp division within Psalm 104. The opening sentences, describing God in heaven, are dominated by broad and effective metaphors. As the poem moves toward Creation and its maintenance, metaphor and simile become rare. The message is carried by action, with the use of “factual” descriptions rather than figurative speech.

The message seems clear. God is not encountered directly. On the contrary, the description of Him and His heavens is cloaked in positive but non-specific terms. He is wrapped in light, which is suggestive of clarity, understanding, happiness, hope, and so on. (The foregoing is Bar-Yosef’s list. Weiss notes that light was the first item created in the Genesis account, and appears elsewhere as a description of God’s revelation, power, salvation, and loving-kindness.) Wind is His messenger, fire His servant, and He is clothed in glory and honor, all attributes of kingship, but not of a physical kind. One does not “see” God in heaven.

In the world below, God is known through His acts. (“Make” is repeated six times.) He is the great provider and the great arranger. It is the experience of the world below that has allowed the poet to use the metaphoric description of the world above.

The Poetry of Awe-Filled Appreciation

By moving smoothly from subject to subject, the psalmist achieves the impression of an extended, continuous expression of enthusiasm.  Nevertheless, there are also verses that might best be described as outbursts of particular enthusiasm (e.g., vv. 24, 31).

Repetitions, used so often in Psalms to create sections, to inspire comparisons, and to associate with previous statements, flow naturally here as a reflection of the subject, as one aspect of nature flows freely into another. They do not serve to subdivide sections. The one more common use of repetitions might be the seven appearances of “earth” (vv. 5, 9, 13, 14, 29, 32, 35), which may reflect the core subject.

Not obvious in the English is the use of verb constructs. Emphasizing God’s ongoing Creation, there is an unusual dependence on participles as well as an extensive mixture of the perfect and imperfect modes. Frequent enallage, the speaker moving back and forth between second- and third-person references to God, may add to the tone of comprehensiveness. The use of the imperfect mode to indicate the past tense (an inheritance from earlier Semitic languages found on occasion, mostly in poetry) and the frequent use of older verb forms (particularly the use of the letter nun at the end of verbs in the imperfect mode) are evidently meant to give this psalm a sense of age and authenticity.

Harmony and Providence

The sense of harmony and God’s ongoing care is achieved by direct description, the choice of natural phenomena, the use of opposites, and the direct involvement of nature as a living partner in God’s environment, as I now detail.

In terms of direct description, one thing leads so naturally to another that the verbal images reflect a master plan almost beyond human conception. Water is rolled back to make room for dry land, but it then provides the sustenance for trees and for the animals beside them, with birds flying over the same area and resting in the trees, and so on.

The natural phenomena are carefully selected. This is nature that knows no disaster, coexistence of animals with little reference to killing, a world with no mention of disease, floods, or other catastrophes. Not only does the speaker emphasize the half-full glass—he totally ignores the part that is half-empty.

This is best seen, perhaps, in the use of opposites. In most literature, biblical included, day is a positive time, whereas night is a period of fear and danger. Here both have their place, and even life and death are presented as part of the positive cycle of renewal and eternal care. Water and land, sky and earth, man and beast are all portrayed not in conflict, but rather as complements to one another.

Nature, in its course, becomes more directly involved in, and appreciative of, God. The sun plays an active role, and the roaring of lions is understood as an address to God. If this is a symphony of creation, it is not sung by man alone. When the animals are threatened, God is said to momentarily “hide His face,” a biblical phrase used only here in relationship to animals. The animals react with panic. Even the earth trembles at God’s presence.

The Human Side of the Equation

The scope of the appreciation of, from, and by nature makes the role assigned to human beings in this psalm ever the more striking, an exception to the roles played by all other aspects of creation, one that has not been noted frequently enough.

From the first mention of man, he is atypical. God directly (or acting through nature) provides for all His other creatures with no effort needed on their part. In contrast, the blessings first mentioned for human beings are fascinating. They are bread, oil, and wine (v. 15). These specific products are precisely those that man cannot take directly from nature. These are not fruits, vegetables, or water, but items that man must not only gather but also process before they can be used. Indeed, the later blessing to man (v. 23) is that he has been given the day, not for gathering, but for working! To be clear: this is not a curse as it is in Genesis, but an opportunity. Man is granted the blessing of being a partner in creation.

These sentences lay the groundwork for the dissonance of the psalm’s jarring last verse. Having hinted that man is a partner, not just a recipient, the psalm ends, as do so many psalms, with a surprise: man alone has the ability to disrupt and destroy the accord. The beauty described in the poem is marred: evildoers must disappear and only then will God’s providence achieve its intended harmony. (Perhaps the problematic of human behavior was hinted at previously. Animals turn to God and pray in Psalm 104, while humans pursue secular activities of work.)

Literary Precedents

Many commentators note the close connection of Psalm 104 to the Creation story in Genesis. Indeed, certain details show an obvious dependence (e.g., verses 25 and 26 on the fifth day of Creation). However, this psalm clearly does not seek to retell the Genesis story; in fact some details of order and events conflict with it. There is also obvious reference here to another creation myth, reflected in various parts of the Bible, of God creating the world through a violent victory over the sea. Moreover, the language of Psalm 104 is not borrowed from Genesis and unlike Genesis, angels are included here. There is also conflict with Genesis 3:1, which sees man’s labor as a curse (for disobeying God) and not a blessing. In any case, it is most important to recall that the poem is about the speaker’s impression of God’s ongoing creation, not a repetition of the ancient tale.

There was a time when many commentators connected this psalm to an Egyptian poem written in the fourteenth century BCE, an appreciation of God’s creation of nature, a hymn to the god Aton. There are indeed certain similarities of imagery and wording, but as most interpreters have come to realize, there are just as many differences. (By way of example, darkness remains an evil and dangerous time in the Egyptian piece.) Seybold, who quotes the entire Egyptian poem (pp. 207–210) concludes “the literary dependence of one text upon the other must be ruled out.”

Of lasting fascination is the possible connection of Psalm 104 to Psalm 103, which I mentioned in that study. The two share the same enclosing phrase, frequent use of  participles, a tendency to use antiquated terminology, and a progression across the psalm between the cosmos and the individual, even if the order is reversed. The contents are quite different. Psalm 104 is ostensibly a spontaneous outpouring of awe-filled appreciation, whereas its predecessor is an argument for praising God. Psalm 104 bases itself on nature, its predecessor on history. It is hard to assume that the two are not somehow related, whether as separate works by the same author, a response of one to the other (is Psalm 104 the response to the call of Psalm 103 to bless God?), or perhaps two responses within a single poetic guild to a challenge to create a poem beginning and ending with the framing phrase. Whatever the relationship, it is not one of dependence, and therefore it remains a source of interest and fascination, but not a tool for interpretation.


“Hallelujah” appears here for the first time in Psalms. It will subsequently be found another twenty-three times, a combined term meaning “praise God.” Indeed, most of the other uses of that Hebrew root (hll, “praise”) also occur in this same section of Psalms. It is unclear whether this indicates that by the (presumably later) time of composition the term had become popular, that at that time psalms were written more as a matter of praise than lament (this description befits these psalms), or that this is a reflection of the editing stage of the entire book of Psalms. In Psalms generally, the term appears at the beginning and end of eight psalms, only at the beginning of two psalms, only at the end of five psalms, and once in the middle of a psalm.

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Additional Note

I briefly note two later Jewish liturgical uses of Psalm 104. First, most communities read this psalm as a special prayer on the first day of each lunar month, possibly due to the mention of the moon in verse 19  or to the general emphasis on the renewal of nature, reflective of the renewed growth of the moon. Second, every day, numbers of Jews when wrapping themselves in the prayer shawl (talit) in the morning recite the first two verses of Psalm 104.

The author of these essays is Rabbi Benjamin Segal, former president of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and author of The Song of Songs: A Woman in Love (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2009). This material is copyright by the author, and may not be reproduced. If you are interested in using the texts for study groups, please be in direct contact with the author, at psalmblog@gmail.com.


(א) בָּרְכִי נַפְשִׁי אֶת יְהֹוָה יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהַי גָּדַלְתָּ מְּאֹד הוֹד וְהָדָר לָבָשְׁתָּ:
(ב) עֹטֶה אוֹר כַּשַֹּלְמָה נוֹטֶה שָׁמַיִם כַּיְרִיעָה:
(ג) הַמְקָרֶה בַמַּיִם עַלִיּוֹתָיו הַשָֹּם עָבִים רְכוּבוֹ הַמְהַלֵּךְ עַל כַּנְפֵי רוּחַ:
(ד) עֹשֶׂה מַלְאָכָיו רוּחוֹת מְשָׁרְתָיו אֵשׁ לֹהֵט:
(ה) יָסַד אֶרֶץ עַל מְכוֹנֶיהָ בַּל תִּמּוֹט עוֹלָם וָעֶד:
(ו) תְּהוֹם כַּלְּבוּשׁ כִּסִּיתוֹ עַל הָרִים יַעַמְדוּ מָיִם:
(ז) מִן גַּעֲרָתְךָ יְנוּסוּן מִן קוֹל רַעַמְךָ יֵחָפֵזוּן:
(ח) יַעֲלוּ הָרִים יֵרְדוּ בְקָעוֹת אֶל מְקוֹם זֶה יָסַדְתָּ לָהֶם:
(ט) גְּבוּל שַׂמְתָּ בַּל יַעֲבֹרוּן בַּל יְשֻׁבוּן לְכַסּוֹת הָאָרֶץ:
(י) הַמְשַׁלֵּחַ מַעְיָנִים בַּנְּחָלִים בֵּין הָרִים יְהַלֵּכוּן:
(יא) יַשְׁקוּ כָּל חַיְתוֹ שָׂדָי יִשְׁבְּרוּ פְרָאִים צְמָאָם:
(יב) עֲלֵיהֶם עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם יִשְׁכּוֹן מִבֵּין עֳפָאיִם יִתְּנוּ קוֹל:
(יג) מַשְׁקֶה הָרִים מֵעֲלִיּוֹתָיו מִפְּרִי מַעֲשֶׂיךָ תִּשְׂבַּע הָאָרֶץ:
(יד) מַצְמִיחַ חָצִיר לַבְּהֵמָה וְעֵשֶׂב לַעֲבֹדַת הָאָדָם לְהוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ:
(טו) וְיַיִן יְשַׂמַּח לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ לְהַצְהִיל פָּנִים מִשָּׁמֶן וְלֶחֶם לְבַב אֱנוֹשׁ יִסְעָד:
(טז) יִשְׂבְּעוּ עֲצֵי יְהֹוָה אַרְזֵי לְבָנוֹן אֲשֶׁר נָטָע:
(יז) אֲשֶׁר שָׁם צִפֳּרִים יְקַנֵּנוּ חֲסִידָה בְּרוֹשִׁים בֵּיתָהּ:
(יח) הָרִים הַגְּבֹהִים לַיְּעֵלִים סְלָעִים מַחְסֶה לַשְׁפַנִּים:
(יט) עָשָׂה יָרֵחַ לְמוֹעֲדִים שֶׁמֶשׁ יָדַע מְבוֹאוֹ:
(כ) תָּשֶׁת חֹשֶׁךְ וִיהִי לָיְלָה בּוֹ תִרְמֹשׂ כָּל חַיְתוֹ יָעַר:
(כא) הַכְּפִירִים שֹׁאֲגִים לַטָּרֶף וּלְבַקֵּשׁ מֵאֵל אָכְלָם:
(כב) תִּזְרַח הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ יֵאָסֵפוּן וְאֶל מְעוֹנֹתָם יִרְבָּצוּן:
(כג) יֵצֵא אָדָם לְפָעֳלוֹ וְלַעֲבֹדָתוֹ עֲדֵי עָרֶב:
(כד) מָה רַבּוּ מַעֲשֶׂיךָ יְהֹוָה כֻּלָּם בְּחָכְמָה עָשִׂיתָ מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ קִנְיָנֶךָ:
(כה) זֶה הַיָּם גָּדוֹל וּרְחַב יָדָיִם שָׁם רֶמֶשׂ וְאֵין מִסְפָּר חַיּוֹת קְטַנּוֹת עִם גְּדֹלוֹת:
(כו) שָׁם אֳנִיּוֹת יְהַלֵּכוּן לִוְיָתָן זֶה יָצַרְתָּ לְשַׂחֶק בּוֹ:
(כז) כֻּלָּם אֵלֶיךָ יְשַׂבֵּרוּן לָתֵת אָכְלָם בְּעִתּוֹ:
(כח) תִּתֵּן לָהֶם יִלְקֹטוּן תִּפְתַּח יָדְךָ יִשְׂבְּעוּן טוֹב:
(כט) תַּסְתִּיר פָּנֶיךָ יִבָּהֵלוּן תֹּסֵף רוּחָם יִגְוָעוּן וְאֶל עֲפָרָם יְשׁוּבוּן:
(ל) תְּשַׁלַּח רוּחֲךָ יִבָּרֵאוּן וּתְחַדֵּשׁ פְּנֵי אֲדָמָה:
(לא) יְהִי כְבוֹד יְהֹוָה לְעוֹלָם יִשְׂמַח יְהֹוָה בְּמַעֲשָׂיו:
(לב) הַמַּבִּיט לָאָרֶץ וַתִּרְעָד יִגַּע בֶּהָרִים וְיֶעֱשָׁנוּ:
(לג) אָשִׁירָה לַיהֹוָה בְּחַיָּי אֲזַמְּרָה לֵאלֹהַי בְּעוֹדִי:
(לד) יֶעֱרַב עָלָיו שִׂיחִי אָנֹכִי אֶשְׂמַח בַּיהֹוָה:
(לה) יִתַּמּוּ חַטָּאִים מִן הָאָרֶץ וּרְשָׁעִים עוֹד אֵינָם בָּרְכִי נַפְשִׁי אֶת יְהֹוָה הַלְלוּ יָהּ:

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