“Praise the Lord, sun and moon and all you shining stars!”
Psalms 104 and 148 are different from the three psalms we have studied earlier in that they are entirely focused on the natural world, on gratitude for God as the Creator of earth, sea and sky.
Psalm 104 is written in the second person and directed toward God: “You are . . . wrapped in light as with a garment”; “you ride on the wings of the wind.”
Psalm 148 is written in the third person and calls on all creation — both animate and inanimate — to praise the Lord, even “you sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling God’s command.” In this stanza we finally find a text that evokes the weather of January in the Northern Hemisphere!
Both of these psalms send me back to our other creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. It is as if they take these stories and set them to music.
Genesis 1 is actually a highly structured prose poem that works well as a chant, which I have used often in college classes. Psalm 104:2-4 says the same thing in pure, singing poetry: “You stretch out the heavens like a tent, . . . you make the clouds your chariot . . . you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.” The cattle and creeping things and wild animals of Gen. 1:24 become young lions roaring for their prey (104:20). The birds of Gen. 1:20 are now building their nests in the cedars of Lebanon, and “the stork has its home in the fir tree” (104:16-17).
Of the selected stanzas from Psalm 104, verses 27-30 do not stress the creative power of God but the sustaining power. “These all look to you to give them their food in due season; when you give to them, they gather it up.” God’s breath is what sustains life, and “when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.”
All our biblical creation stories stand in contrast to the polytheistic, violent creation accounts of the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians. All this magnificence is poured forth peacefully and abundantly from one God, not the result of strife among many gods struggling to be dominant.
When you discuss Psalm 148, compare the thought-units with those of Psalm 104. For example, how does the “boundary” of 104:9 relate to “[God] fixed their bounds” in 148:6? Look at what 148:10 says about animals. How much more expansive is the description of them in 104:14-23? How does each psalm illustrate synonymous parallelism?
During my high school years, on warm evenings I would often cross the country road on which we lived to sit by our neighbors’ pond in the meadow, flanked by a huge sycamore tree. There I would watch the sun set and sense the presence of God hovering over the water and turning the western clouds pink.
I don’t recall reading either Psalm 104 or 148 by the pond, but I wish I had. Their emotional and evocative qualities stand in such contrast to most of the characters who dominate the historical books of Kings and Chronicles. I can’t imagine any king or warrior or royal scribe writing poetry of such emotional depth.
We owe so much to some nameless Hebrew mystics with a talent for words who took time to carefully observe nature and see a divine hand in its beauty.
Reta Halteman Finger is retired from Messiah College, teaches Bible part-time at Eastern Mennonite University and has written Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts.