Commentary on Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
In Psalm 104, the world that God creates and recreates is not just ordered, but rhythmic, each created thing a note that contributes to the Spirit’s song.
The whole of creation is like a song of joy sung by the Spirit of the Lord.
Looking at the whole of Psalm 104 helps us to see more deeply the significance of the portion of the text appointed for today. The psalm begins with a hymn of praise for the glory of the Creator, “clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light” (verses 1b-2a). That glory is manifest in the manifold works of creation, in the rhythmic ordering of the world and all its parts.
The ensuing song of creation closely, although not slavishly, follows the cadence of the creation narrative in Genesis 1. God is praised for stretching out the heavens “like a tent” (verse 2b), for establishing the foundation of the earth (verse 5), and covering it with the deep (verse 6), and for rebuking the waters to flee to their appointed places, “so that they might not again cover the earth” (verse 9). The moon is made to mark the seasons, and night and day establish a natural rhythm for nocturnal creatures and for human beings (verses 19-23). Verse 24 reads, or sings, like an elaboration on God’s assertion of the goodness of created things; the multiplicity of creatures, and the wisdom with which they are made, further elucidate the meaning of “good.” Psalm 104 is like the poetry of Genesis 1 set to music, singing the wondrous order that God has brought forth.
The musicality of the psalm is further enhanced by its emphasis on the interdependence of God’s creatures. Springs that “gush forth in the valleys” provide water for wild animals (verse 10). Vegetation is made to grow in order to supply food for cattle and human beings (verse 14). God not only made trees, but made various trees as homes for different birds (verses 16-17).
Mountains are created to provide homes for goats, and rocks to provide homes for “coneys” (mostly likely the hyrax, a small hoofed mammal indigenous to parts of the Middle East and Africa2; verse 18). Everything that God has made exists for another creature’s survival, and even enjoyment; birds “sing among the branches” of trees that grow alongside streams of water (verse 12). Interdependence is the order that God has given to the world, so that each created thing sounds a note in an ongoing harmony.
That creatures are made not only to survive but also to enjoy life underscores what is perhaps the central motif of the entire psalm, and particularly of the passage for today: joy. God delights in the creation, and we, the created, delight in this world and in the God who made it. The world is made from joy and for joy.
The “gushing forth” of springs and the joy of birdsong in the trees alongside (verses 10-12); the abundantly-watered “trees of the Lord” (verse 16); “wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart” (verse 15) — these point to a world made not just for the satisfaction of need but also for the happiness of its inhabitants. In these works God rejoices (verse 31), and all creatures return that joy not only by rejoicing in God (verse 34), but also by delighting in the things that God has made.
It is by understanding joy as a central theme in this text that we can understand the role of Leviathan in the passage for today. Verse 24 operates as a summation of what has come before: God is praised for the multiple wonders of the earth, and for the wisdom with which they were made. The psalmist then turns to the sea and its inhabitants, as the crowning example of the wonder of creation. “Innumerable creatures” inhabit the sea, “living things both small and great” (verse 25). The greatest of these is the Leviathan.
In other texts, like Psalm 74:14, Leviathan is among the monsters of chaos and evil that God vanquishes at the beginning of creation. God’s response to Job consists in large part of a challenge to Job to overpower Leviathan as God has done (Job 41). Thus references to Leviathan tend to operate as vehicles for proclaiming divine might over the forces of chaos. In Psalm 104, however, Leviathan is simply another creature that delights in the world that God has made; Leviathan’s purpose in the created order is “to sport” in the sea (verse 26). The joy with which God creates is reflected in the playfulness of the sea’s most dreaded beast. Thus joy triumphs over chaos in a way that raw power cannot: by winning it over.
When God provides, creatures thrive, “they are filled with good things” (verse 28). If God’s face were to turn away from the creation, God’s creatures would be dismayed (verse 29a); God’s presence and attentiveness are necessary for the fullness of life of all God’s creatures. The removal of divine breath, of spirit, results in death, but the sending forth of the spirit of God brings life, and renews that which has been reduced to dust (verses 29b-30). The God whose look causes the earth to tremble, whose touch causes mountains to smoke (verse 32), and for whom sin and evil are offending breaches in the harmony of creation (verse 35a) — this God is most powerfully made manifest not in acts of might but in moments of joy.
There is joy at the foundation of the earth, in the dew on the grass, in the romping of a dog, in the quiet of cricket song on a summer night. There is joy in the wondrous interdependence of God’s creatures, in the necessity in which we exist for one another. There is joy in the winning over of the chaos that continues to threaten God’s harmonious creation. There is joy in the gifts of life and spirit that we receive from God, and in our rejoicing in those gifts. For this joy, we offer God our joyous praise.
1 Encyclopedia Brittnica, “Hyrax,” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/280175/hyrax, accessed 5/19/14.