< May 15, 2016 >

Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

 

Psalm 104 presents a glorious picture of God as creator and a sweeping view of the world God made.1

The main subject of the psalm is the order of the world and the sovereignty of the God who created and maintains it. This subject in turn instills confidence that God can and will order the lives of those who seek God by keeping them in God’s purpose and away from evil.

Psalm 104 draws from theological ideas similar to those in the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a and the flood story in Genesis 6-9. In Genesis 1:1-2:4a God creates the world by pushing back the waters that covered the earth so there is a place for plants to grow and animals, including humans, to flourish. The flood story states that when God saw that human beings were completely bent toward evil (6:5) God decided to reverse creation and start over (note in 7:11 the flood occurred when the waters were allowed to cross the boundaries God had made).

But after the flood God realized that humans were still inclined toward evil (8:21b). Nevertheless, God decided to allow the world to remain intact (8:21a). This promise is the most basic sign of God’s grace. God determined to be patient with human beings and not to punish them as they deserve to be punished.

Psalm 104:24-30 describes again God’s mastery over all the creatures of the earth. God is even the master of Leviathan, the mysterious sea creature sometimes conceived as a symbol of chaos and evil (Psalm 74:14). The section ends with two important claims: God gives all creatures their food (104:27-28) and God gives them the breath of life, without which they could not survive (verses 29-30). The second point says essentially the same thing as Genesis 2:7 which reports how God made the first human being from the dust of the ground and then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.

Verses 24-25 give a particularly interesting testimony to God’s sovereignty and mastery over the creation. These verses begin much like the psalm begins, by lauding God for the marvelous works of creation. Verse 24 makes a new statement, however, that “in wisdom you have made them all.” The term “in wisdom” could also be translated “by wisdom.” The expression suggests that God created with great skill and insight and that all things made have a purpose. This statement is important for understanding the next two verses.

Verses 25-26 highlights the sea, which ancient Israelites often saw as mysterious, uncontrollable, and perhaps even evil (note that Pharaoh in Exodus is closely associated with the sea and Jonah flees from God on the sea). As if to deny that the sea is outside God’s creative purpose, verse 25 lists the sea and all its creatures as among those things God made “in wisdom.” Verse 26 emphasizes this wisdom by naming Leviathan, the great sea monster, as part of God’s plan: “there go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.”

Leviathan is often listed in the Old Testament as a dreaded creature that is untamable, like the sea itself (Job 41). Therefore, the statement about Leviathan is a particularly important claim that God is master over the creation that no creature is beyond God’s control. But verse 26 may make an even more radical claim than the translation given indicates. Leviathan appears here not as a fearsome creature, but one that “frolics” and plays (see the NIV translation). The translations above assume that the end of the verse means simply that Leviathan plays in the sea (NRSV, “in it;” NIV “there”).

But there is another intriguing possibility that would speak even more strongly to God’s creation of Leviathan with a purpose. The words “in it” (NRSV) are actually one word in Hebrew. The word is a combination of a preposition that can mean “in,” “by,” or “with” and a pronoun “it.” Our translations assume “it” refers to the sea, thus Leviathan sports and plays “in it.” But “it” could refer to Leviathan. If Leviathan is the intended antecedent then the verse is saying God made Leviathan “to play with it.”

In other words, not only is Leviathan not a creature God dreads or sees as an enemy, it is God’s pet or plaything. This image of God playing with the great sea monster offers comfort for all those who feel the world around them is chaotic and unruly; it assures them that God is ultimately in control even though they may feel out of control.

Verses 31-35 conclude the psalm with calls for God to be praised and honored. The first part of the final verse is not part of the lectionary reading, but it actually illustrates the theological point of the rest of the psalm. Verse 35a asks that “sinners be consumed from the earth.” The petition is consistent with the rest of the psalm in that the order of God’s world will not ultimately accommodate rebellion against God’s rule.

It may be helpful to note, further, that the main Hebrew manuscript used to translate the Old Testament (known as the Masoretic Text) actually reads “Let sins cease.” NRSV and NIV are translating “sinners” because that word appears in a manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The translators thought “sinners” was more logical since the term “wicked” appears as a parallel word later in the verse. Regardless of which wording is most accurate, however, the notion that God would cause “sins” to end is consistent with the spirit of the psalm.

God created the world with order and purpose and anyone or anything that acts against that purpose essentially tries to undo the good creation God established. Thus, the final petition of Psalm 104 is not really a prayer against particular people, but against the forces of evil with which people sometimes cooperate against the wishes of the Creator.


Notes:

1 This commentary was first published on the site on May 19, 2013.