From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 104 is a song of praise to God for his works of creation. Here most fully in Book Four, the psalmist seeks comfort and encouragement for his faith in the power and wisdom of God’s creative acts. This psalm praises God for the goodness of his creation and the great variety planted in it. It is an exuberant celebration of the God of creation.
This kind of psalm we might call the “old song” of creation. The phrase “old song” does not appear in the Psalter, but is the proper contrast to the “new song” spoken of in six psalms, (33:3, 40:3, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1). In the context of these six psalms, it is clear that the “new song” is not a reference to the creativity of the psalmist in writing a novel expression of praise. Rather, it is a reference to the songs that celebrate the redemptive work of God. We can see that clearly in Psalm 96:1-2: “Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the Earth! Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.” These news songs of redemption stand in contrast to the old songs of creation.
The book of the Revelation confirms this distinction. In Revelation 4, the twenty-four elders sing a song of praise to God for his creation: “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created,” (v. 11). In chapter 5, these elders sing a song of praise to Christ for his redemptive work, a song called, “a new song”: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they shall reign on the Earth,” (vv. 9-10). The new song of redemption comes to supplement the old song of creation.
The old song of creation here in Psalm 104 is also called a meditation: “May my meditation be pleasing to him, for I rejoice in the Lord,” (v. 34). The call to meditation is frequent in the Wisdom Books of the Bible. Meditation is focused attention and reflection on God and his works. Meditation takes place in the mind, but also in the mouth. The Hebrew word for meditation has the sense of mumble. Meditation is not necessarily a silent activity but usually includes speaking or singing out our thoughts. Notice in this psalm that at times the psalmist speaks to God in praise for his works and at other times speaks meditatively about God and his creation.
The function of this meditation is to lead the psalmist to greater confidence in and gratitude to God. When faith faces trials, meditation on God and his works of creation and redemption will build up our faith. When we are tempted to ingratitude, we must remember all that God has done for us. We find comfort and strength in this meditation on creation.
This psalm in many ways is a poetic reflection on Genesis 1. It begins with praise for God’s inherent majesty, (v. 1), and then proceeds to show how he expressed that splendor in his various works of creation. God makes the light, the heavens, and the upper waters as his clothing. His habitation, his chariot, and his messengers, (vv. 2-4; cf. Genesis 1:1-8). God is not identified with nature (a mistake made in many ancient religions), but he is connected strongly and personally to that creation as its maker. He is not distant or indifferent; he is the personal Creator.
The second section of the psalm reflects on the waters that covered the Earth, (vv. -9; cf. Genesis1:9-10). God rebuked the waters and they fled to the places appointed for them: “You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the Earth,” (v. 9). God has not only made all that is created, but he continues to control it. God has a plan and a purpose for every part of creation to fulfill.
Third, the waters, now in their proper places, refresh the beasts and the birds and cause plants to grow. These plants not only sustain life but bring joy to it, (vv. 10-18; cf. Genesis 1:11-13, 20-31). For example, the psalmist rejoices in “wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart,” (v. 15). The world is filled with various creatures, which all find their proper place and function in it.
One of the interesting aspects of this psalm is the sense that God did not make a purely utilitarian world. He made a world in which his creatures could delight. Wind does not just nourish man, it gladdens his heart. The beasts of the sea do not just occupy the oceans, but they “play” there, (v. 26). Creation should be a source of joy to God’s creatures. The joy that the beauty and diversity of creation bring to us was part of God’s wise plan: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the Earth is full of your creatures,” (v. 24).
Fourth, the psalmist returns to the theme of the order that God has planted in creation. The sun and moon mark off the days from the nights and one season from another, (vv. 19-26; cf. Genesis 1:14-19). The night is the time for the beasts of prey to seek their food, while man goes forth to work for his food during the day. The sea is filled with many creatures and man sails there as well. Man has a central place in all the parts of creation.
Fifth, the psalmist makes clear that God is not just a Creator who gets things going and then withdraws to let the world run on its own. No, God remains ever active and involved. Man and beast do not live ultimately by their own work; rather, they remain ever dependent on God for food and life, (vv. 27-30). As creatures, we ought always to recognize that food truly comes only from the hand of God. When God gives life, we live, and when he takes it away, we die. But the God of life and death is also the God of renewal: “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground,” (v. 30). Creation helps us see that God’s purpose is life for us and that he can bring life out of death.
The psalmist concludes his meditation with renewed praise, (vv. 31-35). As God rejoices in the glory that his works display, so the psalmist rejoices in the Lord. His mind and mouth are filled with praise “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being,” (v.33).
This final section of praise, however, includes a surprising prayer: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more!” (v. 35) This prayer reminds us of a similar concern in another old song, Psalm 8. The psalmist never forgets that the original goodness and purpose of creation has been marred by sin and that redemption will include the judgment of the unrepentant. The psalmist has sought comfort in creation from the trial of faith that the apparent success of the wicked has brought to him. But he still remembers the problem of his enemies and prays that God would restore the Earth to its original goodness. We know that this restoration has begun with the first coming of Jesus and will be completed by him when he returns: “God making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in Heaven and things on Earth,” (Ephesians 1:9-10). Christ is Lord of creation as well as redemption.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why is this kind of psalm referred to as an “old song” of creation? How does the book of Revelation confirm the distinction between new songs of redemption and old songs of creation?
- Why is one of the interesting aspects of this psalm the sense that God did not make a purely utilitarian world?
- Why is it important for you to remember, like the psalmist, that the original goodness and purpose of creation has been marred by sin and that redemption will include the judgment of the unrepentant?