corner graphic   Hi,    
ver. 2.0.19.12.06
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to classic.studylight.org/

Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Psalms 104

 

 

Introduction

CIV.

This psalm touches the highest point of religious poetry. It is the most perfect hymn the world has ever produced. Even as a lyric it has scarcely been surpassed; while as a lyric inspired by religion, not only was all ancient literature, except that of the Hebrews, powerless to create anything like it, but even Christian poetry has never succeeded in approaching it. Milton has told the story of Creation, taking, as the psalmist does, the account in Genesis for his model; but the seventh book of the Paradise Lost, even when we make allowance for the difference between the narrative and lyric styles, is tame and prolix—seems to want animation and fire—by the side of this hymn.

At the very opening of the poem we feel the magic of a master inspiration. The world is not, as in Genesis, created by a Divine decree. It springs into life and motion, into order and use, at the touch of the Divine presence. Indeed, the pervading feeling of the hymn is the sense of God’s close and abiding relation to all that He made; the conviction that He not only originated the universe, but dwells in it and sustains it: and this feeling fastens upon us at the outset, as we see the light enfolding the Creator as His robe, and the canopy of heaven rising over Him as His tent. It is not a lifeless world that springs into being. There is no void, no chaos; even the winds and clouds are not for this poet without denizens, or they themselves start into life and people the universe for his satisfaction. He cannot conceive of a world at any time without life and order. Nor has any poet, even of our modern age, displayed a finer feeling for nature, and that not in her tempestuous and wrathful moods—usually the source of Hebrew inspiration—but in her calm, everyday temper. He is the Wordsworth of the ancients, penetrated with a love for nature, and gifted with the insight that springs from love. This majestic hymn is anonymous in the Hebrew. The LXX. have ascribed it to David. Its close connection with Psalms 103, and an Aramaic word in Psalms 104:12, indicate a post-exile date for its composition. The verse shows every variety of rhythm.


Verse 1

(1) Clothed.—For the same metaphor see Psalms 93:1.


Verses 1-4

(1-4) First and second days of Creation. Instead, however, of describing the creation of light, the poet makes a sublime approach to his theme by treating it as a symbol of the Divine majesty. It is the vesture of God, the tremulous curtain of His tent, whose supporting beams are based, not on the earth, but on those cloud-masses which form an upper ocean. This curtain is then, as it were, drawn aside for the exit of the Monarch attended by His throng of winged messengers.


Verse 2

(2) Who coverest.—Perhaps better with the participles of the original retained:

Putting on light as a robe;

Spreading the heavens as a curtain.

The psalmist does not think of the formation of light as of a single past act, but as a continued glorious operation of Divine power and splendour. Not only is light as to the modern poet,

“Nature’s resplendent robe,

Without whose vesting beauty all were wrapt

In unessential gloom,”

but it is the dress of Divinity, the “ethereal woof” that God Himself is for ever weaving for His own wear.

Curtain.—Especially of a tent (see Song of Solomon 1:5, &c.), the tremulous movement of its folds being expressed in the Hebrew word. Different explanations have been given of the figure. Some see an allusion to the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exodus 26, 27). The associations of this ritual were dear to a religious Hebrew, and he may well have had in his mind the rich folds of the curtain of the Holy of Holies. So a modern poet speaks of

“The arras-folds, that variegate

The earth, God’s ante-chamber.

Herder, again, refers the image to the survival of the nomadic instinct. But there is no need to put a limit to a figure so natural and suggestive. Possibly images of palace, temple, and tent, all combined, rose to the poet’s thought, as in Shelley’s “Ode to Heaven”:—

“Palace roof of cloudless nights!

Paradise of golden lights!

Deep immeasurable vast,

Which art now, and which wert then;

Of the present and the past,

Of the Eternal where and when,

Presence-chamber, temple, home,

Ever-canopying dome

Of acts and ages yet to come!”


Verse 3

(3) Layeth the beams.—Literally, maketh to meet The meaning of the Hebrew word, which is an exact equivalent of the Latin contignare, is clear from Nehemiah 2:8; Nehemiah 3:3; Nehemiah 3:6, and from the meaning of the derived noun (2 Kings 6:2; 2 Kings 6:5; Song of Solomon 1:17).

Chambers.—Literally, lofts or upper stories. (See 2 Kings 4:10; Jeremiah 22:13-14.)

In the waters.—The manner of this ethereal architecture is necessarily somewhat difficult to picture. The pavilion which God rears for His own abode appears to rest on a floor of rain-clouds, like a tent spread on a flat eastern roof. (See Psalms 18:11; Amos 9:6-7.) Southey’s description of the Palace of Indra may perhaps help the imagination:—

“Built on the lake, the waters were its floor;

And here its walls were water arched with fire,

And here were fire with water vaulted o’er;

And spires and pinnacles of fire

Round watery cupolas aspire,

And domes of rainbow rest on fiery towers.”

Curse of Kehama.

Who maketh the clouds His chariot.—See Psalms 18:10, probably the original of this verse; chariot (rekhûb) here taking the place of cherub.

Walketh upon the wings of the wind.—Doubtless the metaphor is taken from the clouds, which, in a wind-swept sky, float along like “the drifted wings of many companies of angels.” The clause is thus in direct parallelism with the description of the cloud chariot. The figure has passed into modern song:

“Every gust of rugged wings

That blows from off each beaked promontory.”

MILTON: Lycidas.

“No wing of wind the region swept.”

TENNYSON: In Memoriam.


Verse 4

Verse 5

Verses 5-18

Verse 6

(6) The deep.—The water-world is first considered as a vast garment wrapped round the earth, so that the mountain-tops are covered. But here it is beyond its right, and the Divine rebuke forces it to retire within narrower limits. It is noticeable that the idea of a chaos finds no place in the poetic conception of the world’s genesis. The primitive world is not formless, but has its mountains and valleys already existing, though merged beneath the sea.


Verse 8

Verse 9

Verse 10

(10) Springs.—The account in Genesis goes on abruptly from the appearance of the dry land to speak of the vegetation which covers it, apparently without any physical means for its production. But a poet, especially an Oriental poet, thinks first of the springs and rivers on which fertility and life depend. And such is his sympathy with nature that in disregard of the original record he hastens at once to people his world with creatures to share the Creator’s joy in its beauty and goodness.

Valleys—i.e., the torrent beds, the “wadys” as the Arabs now call them.

Which run.—Better, they flow between the hills. The LXX. supply the subject “waters.”


Verse 11

(11) Wild asses.—See Job 39:5-8.


Verse 12

(12) By them.—Better, above them, i.e., in the trees and bushes growing on the bank of the stream. Translate by the present, have their homes.


Verse 13

(13) Chambers—i.e., of cloud, as in Psalms 104:3.

Thy works.—If we go by the parallelism, this means the “rain,” here called God’s works, as in Psalms 65:9 (see Note), his “river.” Others prefer to see a general reference to the operations of nature which produce fruit.


Verse 14

(14) For the service of man—i.e., for his use (so Gesenius). But some deny this meaning to the Hebrew, which properly means “labour” or “office.” (In 1 Chronicles 27:26; Nehemiah 10:37, it means “agriculture,” “tillage.”) Hence they render, “And herbs for man’s labour in bringing them forth from the earth,” alluding to his task of cultivating the soil. Standing by itself the clause would indeed naturally require this sense, but the parallelism is against it, and in 1 Chronicles 26:30, “service of a king,” we have a near approach to the meaning “use.”

That he may.—Better, bringing food out of the earth, taking the verb as gerund instead of infinitive absolute.


Verse 15

(15) And wine that . . .—Better, and wine gladdens man’s heart, making his face shine more than oil (see-margin. The alternative follows the LXX. and Vulg., and suggests the anointing with oil at a banquet), and bread man’s heart sustains.

Oil.—For oil and its uses see Psalms 133:2; Psalms 141:5.

Strengtheneth.—Properly, props or supports. (Comp. “the staff of bread,” Psalms 105:16), and our “staff of life,” and for the same phrase Genesis 18:5; Judges 19:5).


Verse 16

Verse 17

(17) Stork.—The LXX. give “heron,” but Dr. Tristram has shown that there is no need to prefer “heron” here, on account of “the nesting in fir trees,” since if near its feeding-grounds the stork readily selects a fir as the tallest and most convenient tree for its nest (Nat. Hist. of the Bible, p. 244).

“The eagle and the stork

On cliffs and cedar-tops their eyries build.”—MILTON.


Verse 18

(18) Wild goats.—Heb., climbers, and so at home on the “high hills.” (See 1 Samuel 24:2, “the rocks of the wild goats.”) “This animal, which is a relation of the Swiss ibex or steinbock, is now called the beden or jaela “(Bible Educator, II., 104).

Conies.—Heb., shâphan, i.e., “hider.” (Comp. Leviticus 11:5, and Bible Educator, II., 201.) Naturalists know it as the hyrax Syriacus. The LXX., Vulg., and Aquila have “hedgehogs.”


Verse 19

(19) The moon for seasons.—See Psalms 89:37, Note. The mention of the inferior luminary first is no doubt partly due to its importance in fixing the calendar, but partly also to the diurnal reckoning, “the evening and the morning” as making the day.

The sun knoweth.—So Job 38:12’ of the dawn. The sun is no mere mechanical timepiece to the Israelite poet, but a conscious servant of God. How beautifully this mention of sunset prepares the way for the exquisite picture of the nocturnal landscape, as the sunrise in Psalms 104:22 does for the landscape of the day.

In Genesis the creation of the “heavenly bodies”—the fourth day’s work—is related in, so to speak, a scientific manner. But the poet, as in the former part of his treatment of the subject, at once goes to the influence of these phenomena on animated being. In Genesis the lamps of heaven are, as it were, hung out at God’s command; in the poem they seem to move to their office of guiding the seasons and illuminating the earth like living things who are conscious of the glorious function they have to perform.


Verse 20

(20) Creep forth.—The word “forth” is better omitted. The Hebrew verb is that especially used of crawling animals and reptiles, and here, no doubt, his chosen to express the stealthy motion of the beasts when on the track of their prey. (See Psalms 104:25; comp. Job 37:8; Job 38:40.)


Verse 22

Verse 23

The Day’s Work

Man goeth forth unto his work

And to his labour until the evening.—Psalms 104:23.

The psalm from which the text is taken is one of the most complete and impressive pictures of the universe to be found in ancient literature, and it breathes the very spirit of the Hebrew race. It has been called the Psalm of the Cosmos. It moves through all creation, and begins and ends with praise. Like all the highest reaches of the human imagination, it lays hold of the inner and deeper truth of things, and suggests much more than literary description can convey. He was not a man of knowledge in the modern sense, this Hebrew poet, although the wide sweep of his thought seems to speak of some contact with foreign culture; but he was at home in that knowledge of God which is Eternal Life. No careful reader of the psalm will fail to see that it follows mainly the order and sequence of the story of the beginnings of things with which our Bible opens—a story which in its groupings of the creative action into progressive stages dimly anticipates our modern idea of development: yet the psalm is no mere copy of that story. The story of Genesis is the record of a past and finished creation: the psalm is a picture of a continuous, ever-proceeding creation—a kind of prophecy of the genesis of science. All the work of the ancient record we see going on before our eyes: the wondrous week of Divine activity is every week, and its six great days are repeated in all the days. In the psalm, as in the Book of Genesis, we see life moving on in the same ordered and stately way to the same goal; rising up in slow and steady grandeur to man, and in man reaching its summit and crown. The going forth of man is the highest point in the vast, ascending movement—the end or goal of life on its material side. In this psalm, until we reach this verse, God is represented as working alone, causing the grass to grow and giving to the wild beasts their food; but man goeth forth—goeth forth a self-conscious, self-acting being, a distinct person, a sovereign soul with power to shape the course of his own life and activity. And this going forth of man is not only the summing-up and end of a creation, but the beginning of a new creation. However closely he may be allied to what is beneath him, he belongs to another order. Because he thinks and wills and loves, he is kindred to the Infinite Mind and Will and Heart—kindred to God; not only a creature formed and sustained by the Creator’s power, but a son of God, and therefore more to God than vast worlds and blazing suns.

In the Psalms, Alexander von Humboldt recognized an epitome of scientific progress, a summary of the laws which govern the universe. “A single Psalm, the 104th,” he writes, “may be said to present a picture of the entire Cosmos. We are astonished to see, within the compass of a poem of such small dimension, the universe, the heavens and the earth, thus drawn with a few grand strokes.”1 [Note: R. E. Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life, 315.]

In the 104th Psalm the inspired poet gives us a magnificent picture of the movement and march of a living world. The clouds roll on like the swift chariots of God; the winds are winged creatures; the springs of water run among the hills; the grass is growing, the sap circling through the cedars, the birds building their nests among the branches; the moon keeps her seasons; the sun rises and sets, the beasts of the forest creep forth in search of their food; the ships are sailing upon the great and wide sea. And of man, set in the midst of this vast, busy scene, the Psalmist says, “Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labour until the evening.” There is a beauty and pathos in these words which makes them smite upon the heart like the fingers of a skilled player upon his instrument, a beauty and pathos which is due essentially to their truthfulness to human experience, turning them, all simple as they are, into the solemn refrain of the Psalm of Life.2 [Note: J. C. Lambert, The Christian Workman, 18.]

I

Work as a Law of Man’s Life

1. To the vast majority of men and women work is a law, first of all, in the sense that it is a positive necessity of their daily existence. We must eat to live, and we must work to eat; that is what the law comes to in its ultimate physical form.

In one of his poems Arthur Hugh Clough gives us a realistic picture of morning in the city:—

Labourers settling

Slowly to work, in their limbs the lingering sweetness of slumber;

Humble market-carts coming in, bringing in not only

Flowers, fruit, farm-store, but sounds and sights of the country

Dwelling yet on the sense of the dreamy drivers; soon after,

Half-awake servant-maids unfastening drowsy shutters

Up at the windows, or down letting in the air by the doorway.

No early stroller through the streets has failed to observe with interest this awaking of a great city from its slumbers, this re-application of itself to all its manifold tasks and toils. And if he seeks an explanation of it all, the reason at bottom undoubtedly is that in no other way than by arising and working can human beings earn their daily bread. A little further on in Clough’s poem, we get a glimpse of the secret spring which drives the huge machine, as we read of the

Little child bringing breakfast to “father,” that sits on the timber

There by the scaffolding; see, she waits for the can beside him.1 [Note: J. C. Lambert.]

2. But it is not merely in this lower sense that work must be conceived of as the universal law of human life, a sense determined by the relations in which we stand to the forces of Nature on the one hand, and the social order on the other. Work is the proof that man offers of his manhood. This is his law of relationship to the complex universe. He works. He creates a world for himself. He makes his own environment. He does not merely accept from Nature his range of opportunity. He does not merely find her useful for his purposes, and rest satisfied with the food he can capture from her, or the shelter that she suggests. He sets to work to bring about what he will require. He takes up what she gives him, and out of its materials he contrives, fashions, invents, improves, thinks, reasons, imagines, and toils until he has brought into existence a whole creation of things that were not there before. His life is his own in the sense that his head and hands and heart have produced it. It could not come into existence but by the sweat of his brow. And as he began, so he continues. He is ever at work. He is ever bettering, correcting, enlarging. Ever a worker! Ever a creator! Ever a builder! Ever labouring to win a fuller result! Ever sowing in tears that he may reap in joy! Ever hoping to wring a richer spoil out of the rugged soil! Ever dreaming of a finer reward, ever foreseeing a better day; ever spending and being spent; ever giving himself away for a vision still denied him, of a hope still deferred! Ever on his pilgrim way, with his eyes set on far horizons! Ever warring with a stubborn earth which must be purged of thorn or thistle in order to correspond with his strong desire! So man down all the ages, amid the awful silence of a nature that waits around him in expectation, “goeth forth to his work and to his labour.”

It has been well said—said by a poet—that labour is at once the symbol of man’s punishment and the secret of man’s happiness. And it has been well said too that the gospel does not abolish labour, but gives it a new and nobler aspect. “The gospel abolishes labour much in the same way as it abolished death: it leaves the thing, but it changes its nature.”1 [Note: A. K. H. Boyd, The Graver Thoughts of a Country Parson, ii. 148.]

There are three things to which a man is born—labour, and sorrow, and joy. Each of these three things has its baseness and its nobleness. There is base labour, and noble labour. There is base sorrow, and noble sorrow. There is base joy, and noble joy. But you must not think to avoid the corruption of these things by doing without the things themselves. Nor can any life be right that has not all three. Labour without joy is base. Labour without sorrow is base. Sorrow without labour is base. Joy without labour is base.2 [Note: Ruskin, Time and Tide, v. § 21.]

When Charles Lamb was released for life from his daily drudgery of desk-work at the India Office, he felt himself the happiest of men. “I would not go back to my prison,” he said to a friend, “ten years longer, for ten thousand pounds.” He also wrote in the same ecstatic mood to Bernard Barton: “I have scarce steadiness of head to compose a letter,” he said; “I am free! free as air! I will live another fifty years. Would I could sell you some of my leisure! Positively the best thing a man can do is—nothing; and next to that, perhaps good works.” Two years—two long and tedious years—passed; and Charles Lamb’s feelings had undergone an entire change. He now discovered that official, even humdrum work—“the daily round, the common task”—had been good for him, though he knew it not. Time had formerly been his friend; it had now become his enemy. To Bernard Barton he again wrote: “I assure you, no work is worse than overwork; the mind preys on itself—the most unwholesome of food. I have ceased to care for almost anything.… Never did the waters of heaven pour down upon a forlorner head. What I can do, and overdo, is to walk. I am a sanguinary murderer of time. But the oracle is silent.”1 [Note: S. Smiles, Character, 98.]

3. Work, then, is the significance of our manhood. We are those who present themselves to the earth in the eye of God as workers. We create a world of our own—the world of human society. We build a city, we organize a fellowship, we produce a wealth, which were not there until we called them into existence out of the resources and materials supplied us by God in nature. And every one contributes to this work, every one is a worker, who spends a continuous and rational effort in creating, or sustaining, or fulfilling, or enriching, the social fabric that man has fashioned for himself. All who contribute by head, or hand, or heart, to the common endeavour have found and verified their manhood; they have justified themselves as members of that humanity which for ever goes forth to its work and to its labour. And, reversely, those who play no such part at all, who have no intelligible function to fulfil, who bring no contribution, who have discovered no rational purpose for which to labour, and no special use for their heads or their hands, and no end that they can serve, and can see no reason why they should not be idle if they choose, and leisured when they like, and live to please themselves—such, the workless, have failed their manhood; they have betrayed humanity.

On a passenger ship the officers and crew keep the watches day and night, and busy themselves continually with the working and the safety of the vessel; while the passengers, looking upon the voyage as a mere holiday, amuse themselves on deck by day, and lie down in their berths at night, without any sense of responsibility. But on board ship every one knows that the positions and relations of passengers and crew are of a special and temporary kind, due to the specialization of social function through the division of labour, and that they justify themselves by that very fact. When Jack gets ashore, it is his turn for a holiday; while yonder lounging passenger in the deck-chair will have to put on his harness again as soon as the vessel reaches port, and work all the harder because of the respite he is now enjoying. What is natural and proper, for the time being, on board of an ocean liner is neither natural nor tolerable on the voyage of life. Here all are sharers in a common duty and responsibility. No one has any prescriptive right to enter himself in the ship’s books as a mere cabin-passenger. In some capacity or other every one is morally bound to take a part in the working of the vessel; and, from the point of view of social obligation, those who refuse to do so are no better than malingerers or mutineers.1 [Note: J. C. Lambert.]

Indolence is one name of many for the abstraction of Francis’s mind and the inactivities of his body. He was not of the stuff to “break ice in his basin by candle-light,” and no doves fluttered against his lodging window to wake him in summer, but he was not indolent in the struggle against indolence. Not a lifetime of mornings spent in bed killed the desire to be up and doing. In the trembling hand of his last months he wrote out in big capitals on pages torn from exercise-books such texts as were calculated to frighten him into his clothes. “Thou wilt not lie a-bed when the last trump blows”; “Thy sleep with the worms will be long enough,” and so on. They were ineffectual. His was a long series of broken trysts—trysts with the sunrise, trysts with Sunday Mass, obligatory but impossible; trysts with friends. Whether it was indolence or, as he explained it, an unsurmountable series of detaining accidents, it is certain that he, captain of his soul, was not captain of his hours. They played him false at every stroke of the clock, mutinied with such cunning that he would keep an appointment in all good faith six hours after it was past. Dismayed, he would emerge from his room upon a household preparing for dinner, when he had lain listening to sounds he thought betokened breakfast. He was always behindhand with punctual eve, and in trouble with strict noon.1 [Note: E. Meynell, The Life of Francis Thompson (1913), 32.]

II

Work as a High Calling of God

1. We ought to think of our work as an expression of our personal life—to think of it as the means granted to us to give body and coherence and aim to the great universe-forces. And then, if in our imagination we can identify these universe-forces with the wisdom and love of God, the One who with us lives and works, we shall be able to rise to the point of view which Christ took—that point of view which becomes both light and inspiration: “My Father worketh continuously, and so do I.” That is the highest reach of the human spirit—to conceive of one’s work as a part of the Divine activity itself. The daily life, with its tasks and occupations, its duties and its cares, its problems to solve, its burdens to carry, its beauty to appreciate and enjoy—all these become an echo and reflection of what the infinite activity itself is. Viewed in this light

The trivial round, the common task,

Would furnish all we ought to ask—

Room to deny ourselves; a road

To bring us daily nearer God.

“Ask me,” she wrote, “to do something for your sake, something difficult, and you will see that I shall do it regularly, which is for me the most difficult thing of all.” Let those who reproach themselves for a desultoriness, seemingly incurable, take heart again from the example of Florence Nightingale! No self-reproach recurs more often in her private outpourings at this time than that of irregularity and even sloth. She found it difficult to rise early in the morning; she prayed and wrestled to be delivered from desultory thoughts, from idle dreaming, from scrappiness in unselfish work. She wrestled and she won. When her capacities had found full scope in congenial work, nothing was more fixed and noteworthy in her life and work than regularity, precision, and persistence.2 [Note: Sir Edward Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale, i. 40.]

No author of modern times has striven more earnestly or impressively than George Eliot to inculcate a law of duty which rests simply upon our human and social relations, and is independent of the great spiritual sanctions of the Christian faith. The late Mr. F. W. H. Myers, in one of his essays, tells how at Cambridge he walked with her once in the Fellows’ Garden of Trinity, and how she, “taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of man—the words God, Immortality, Duty—pronounced, with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third. Never, perhaps, had sterner accents affirmed the sovereignty of impersonal and unrecompensing law. I listened, and night fell; her grave majestic countenance turned towards me like a Sibyl’s in the gloom; it was as though she withdrew from my grasp, one by one, the two scrolls of promise, and left me the third scroll only, awful with inevitable fate. And when we stood at length and parted, amid that columnar circuit of the forest trees, beneath the last twilight of starless skies, I seemed to be gazing, like Titus at Jerusalem, on vacant seats and empty halls—on a sanctuary with no Presence to hallow it, and heaven left lonely of a God.1 [Note: J. C. Lambert.]

Carlyle preached the gospel of work as the panacea for human ills. But he did so with the air of a parent who is mixing a disagreeable medicine for a child, and is insisting on its wholesome effects in order to take away attention from its nauseousness. To Morris work was a sheer joy. It has been said that he picked out only those forms of work that were attractive. It would be truer to say that whatever work he undertook he made attractive. It was a joy to him, because he imported beauty into it. When his spirits flagged, it meant, not that he was tired, but that his insatiable energies cried out for even more.2 [Note: A. G. Rickett, William Morris, 24.]

2. Work and labour have changed indeed since the Psalmist pictured man in the fields, on the hillside, rising with the sun, to go out to his work on the soil until the fading twilight sent him peacefully home again. Now labour stays not with the dying day. No evening sets in its quiet limit. On and on through the night its vast mechanism clangs and roars. On and on through the night the loaded trains groan and shriek; the furnaces blaze on in the deep holds of the liners that press on untiringly through the black waters. Labour means no longer the slow pacing of ploughing oxen, the long watch of the creeping sheep along the folds. It means now the storm and stress of tumultuous cities, the haste of quivering looms, the heat of rushing wheels, the shout of hurrying multitudes, and the rush of crowded streets. Yes! But all this is still humanity at work. It is man achieving his purpose. It is man fulfilling his Divine prerogative. It is man building himself a city. By his labour, tremendous in its volume and energy and force, he comes to himself. He discloses his powers. He reveals his elemental character. He creates a new world. He proclaims himself a man, he discharges his obligations to God. He fulfils his high calling.

Woe to us if we let our work lose the inspiration that comes from knowing that we do it for our Heavenly Father and not for ourselves! We stand in danger of letting that knowledge go, because work so absorbs us and enchains us by its own sheer power; but yet we know that that slavery to work which we are aware is growing in ourselves is not the highest or most noble type of life as we behold it in other men. We know that the man to whom work is really sanctifying and helpful is the man who has God behind his work; who is able to retire out of the fret and hurry of his work into the calmness and peace of Deity, and come out again into his labour full of the exalted certainties of the redemption of Christ and the love of God: to make work sweet and fresh and interesting and spiritual by doing it not for himself, not for itself, but for the Saviour in whom he lives.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Seeking Life, 347.]

In Millet’s “Angelus” we see the toil-worn peasants, who have been bending over the ground through the long afternoon, standing up from their work to think reverently and prayerfully of God, as the notes of the evening bell come floating over the fields from the dim church tower. The pious men of Israel continually heard a Divine monition, as clear and sweet as the sound of the Angelus-bell, reminding them that life’s labours were part of a godly service, and that the eyes of the Lord were upon them in the midst of the common occupations of each returning day.2 [Note: J. C. Lambert.]

III

Work as Fellowship with God

1. St. Paul more than once in his Epistles describes himself and his companions in service and sacrifice as fellow-workers with God. The words speak of conscious and voluntary co-operation, of willing and intelligent oneness of purpose and effort, with the will and work of God. In creating and perfecting His world, in getting His will done on earth as it is in heaven, God has made Himself dependent upon the help and fidelity of His human children. And the more we understand of the nature of God and the range of His working, the more shall we realize the extent to which it is possible for man to have a share in doing God’s work. Our Lord’s teaching about the Fatherhood of God and His personal care for every detail of every life has thrown a new light both on the nature of human work and on the spirit in which it may be done. Since all the trivialities of life and the petty drudgeries are steps in the progress towards one end, there is no sphere of human activity which is excluded from contributing towards the realization of the Divine purpose for the comfort and good of man.

All service ranks the same with God.

And there is no labourer, however humble, who may not be inspired at his toil by the child’s proud consciousness that he is helping his Father. Under all circumstances he is called to co-operate with God in the service of man.

Her devotion and her power of work were prodigious. “I work in the wards all day,” she said, “and write all night”; and this was hardly exaggeration. Miss Nightingale has been known, said General Bentinck, to pass eight hours on her knees dressing wounds and administering comfort. There were times when she stood for twenty hours at a stretch, apportioning quarters, distributing stores, directing the labours of her staff, or assisting at the painful operations where her presence might soothe or support. She had, said Mr. Osborne, “an utter disregard of contagion. I have known her spend hours over men dying of cholera or fever. The more awful to every sense, any particular case, especially if it was that of a dying man, the more certainly might her slight form be seen bending over him, administering to his ease by every means in her power, and seldom quitting his side till death released him.”1 [Note: Sir Edward Cook, The Life of Florence Nightingale, i. 234.]

You remember George Eliot’s fine poem on the famous violin-maker of Cremona and its lesson:

… Not God Himself can make man’s best

Without best men to help Him.…

’Tis God gives skill,

But not without men’s hands: He could not make

Antonio Stradivari’s violins

Without Antonio.

It is a bold saying, but true. We have a work to do in the world which God cannot do, which we must do, or it will be left undone. Only as we co-operate with Him, can His will be done on earth as in heaven.1 [Note: John Hunter, De Profundis Clamavi, 238.]

2. The Divine power in the world is not an abstract, impersonal energy. God is in the world creating and perfecting, His power and spirit dwelling in and working through industrious, righteous, faithful, beneficent lives. The unit of power in the world is not God isolated from man, and not man isolated from God; but God and man united, working purposely and continuously together; God quickening and inspiring man, and man opening his life to be a part of the Divine life of the world. The religion of Jesus Christ represents this union of man and God in purpose and work. Man works with God: God inspires man. “My Father,” said Jesus, “works continuously and I work. The works I do are not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me. I do what I see My Father doing. And as the Father sent Me so send I you. The glory He has given to Me I give to you—that we may all be one, doing the same thing, working the same work.”

We have all been tired in our time, one may presume; we have toiled in business, or in some ambitious course, or in the perfecting of some accomplishment, or even in the mastery of some game or the pursuit of some amusement, till we were utterly wearied: how many of us have so toiled in love? How many of us have been wearied and worn with some labour to which we set ourselves for God’s sake? This is what the Apostle has in view in his phrase “labour of love,” and, strange as it may appear, it is one of the things for which he gives God thanks. But is he not right? Is it not a thing to evoke gratitude and joy, that God counts us worthy to be fellow-labourers with Him in the manifold works which love imposes?2 [Note: J. Denney, The Epistles to the Thessalonians, 29.]

Ah! brothers, let us work our work, for love

Of what the God in us prevails to do!

And if, when all is done, the unanswering void

And silence weigh upon our souls, remember

The music of a lonely heart may help

How many lonely hearts unknown to him!

The seeming void and silence are aware

With audience august, invisible,

Who yield thank-offering, encouragement,

And strong co-operation; the dim deep

Is awful with the God in whom we move,

Who moulds to consummation where we fail,

And saith, “Well done!” to every faithful deed,

Who in Himself will full accomplish all.1 [Note: Roden Noel, Collected Poems, 354.]

3. If work is ever to win its honour, it will be from out of the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. He was Himself the ideal worker. He lived in the spirit of work, aware of the task set Him—lived to do the will of Him that sent Him; conscious of the strain of the allotted limit—the twelve hours of the working day into which all the work must be crowded before the night fall, in which no man can work; living ever among men as one that worketh; straining under the yoke as He felt the terrible pressure of His task; straitened until it was accomplished; consecrated to the work of glorifying the Father by doing the work which He gave Him to do; yielding Himself to death as soon as He could pronounce that work to have been done faithfully and could say over it, “It is finished.”

The highest soul this world has seen was a mechanic by trade. Behind His year and a half as a teacher lay long years in which He toiled in wood, “making ploughs and yokes,” as one of the earliest Fathers says. And that was a preaching mightier perhaps than His mightiest word. It was the inauguration of labour’s day. It was the shifting of the basis of esteem. In the age into which He came, work of that kind was under taboo. The Greek, the Roman, thought it an occupation for slaves. And for long ages after, that continued the current view. It was endorsed by official Christianity. The Pope in the splendour of his Court forgot the tradition of the Carpenter. To-day we are beginning once more to remember it. The Redeemer of our soul is becoming the Redeemer of our economics, of our social state. The age-long blindness is passing away.1 [Note: J. Brierley, Life and the Ideal, 24.]

Lord of the breeze, the rolling tide,

The rivers rushing to the sea,

The clouds that through the azure glide,—

Well works the hand that works with Thee.


How finely toil, from morn till eve,

Thy ministers of light and shade;

How fair a web the sunbeams weave

Of waving grass and blossoms made!


O Thou that madest earth and man

That man should make an earth more fair,

Give us to see Thy larger plan

And Thy creative joy to share.


Had we but eyes, and hands of skill,

Had we but love, our work would be

Wisely begun, and bettered still,

Till all were perfected by Thee.


Work Thou with us, that what is wrought

May bring to earth diviner days,

While in the higher realms of thought

A temple glorious we raise.2 [Note: W. G. Tarrant, Songs Devout, 48.]

IV

Work and Rest

The strangest thing about work is the way in which all men praise it, and yet all men try to get away from it. There is no subject so popular as the blessedness of work. There is no theory so universal as that of the wretchedness of not being compelled to work. There is no man who does not feel a certain excited sense of admiration, a certain satisfaction, a certain comfort that things are right, when he stands where men are working their hardest, where trade is roaring or the great hammers are deafening you as they clang upon the iron. Everywhere work and the approval of work! and yet everywhere the desire to get away from work! Everywhere what all these men we see are toiling for is to make such an accumulation of money that they shall not have to toil any longer. Now, this double sense, this value of work and impatience with work as they exist together, seems to be the crude expression in men’s minds of the conviction that work is good, that men degenerate and rust without it, and yet that work is at its best and brings its best results, is most honourable and most useful, only when it is aiming at something beyond itself. Everybody will bear witness that this is the healthiest feeling about any work that we have to do; satisfaction and pleasure in doing it, but expectation of having it done some day and graduating from it into some higher state which we think of as rest.

1. If we look to the arrangements of nature for indications of what man’s life is meant to be, we see at once that, bravely as she has provided for his work, she has not thought of him only as a working being. She has set her morning sun in the sky to tempt—nay, to summon—him forth to his work and to his labour, to make him ashamed of himself if he loiters and shirks at home; but she has limited her daylight, she has given her sun only his appointed hours, and the labour and work are always to be only “until the evening.” Rest as truly as work is written in her constitution. Rest, then as much as work is an element of life.

After a very hard day’s work,—during which he had confirmed candidates, preached at the re-opening of a church, spoken two or three times, and done much beside in a manner which perhaps no person but himself could have accomplished,—Bishop Wilberforce returned in the evening to Turvey, where he was staying. A small party had been invited to meet him at dinner, and there was some bright and pleasant conversation. When the time came for retiring into the drawing-room, the Bishop, who looked a little fatigued, said to me: “There is nothing which makes me more absolutely disgusted with myself than feeling tired when evening comes. What business have I to be tired? nothing gives me any comfort at all but that verse in the Psalms,—‘Man goeth forth to his work and to his labour until the evening’; and so, I suppose that, when evening comes, he may rest.”1 [Note: J. W. Burgon, Lives of Twelve Good Men, ii. 39.]

2. Man goes out to his work, to his labour, only with one softening clause in the agreement—“until the evening.” There are limits set; there are reliefs permitted and contrived; there are moments for slackening, for recreation, for repose. Not unbroken this labour; not monotonously blind this work. No, fixed times, ordered signals, ordained closes!

Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me.

Man knows the signs. He is not left forgotten or unconsidered. He can calculate when the strain will be off.

Twilight and evening bell,

And after that the dark.

So, in kindly, successive periods, he turns to the rest that he has earned. “He goeth forth to his work” with the friendly sense in his heart that it will not last for ever. It will end in the quiet hour when the sun goes down.

When in the beginning God said: Let there be Light, and there was Light, Light did not spring into undivided empire, but was ordained to rule alternately with darkness. Day and night abide for ever. What was the reason, so far as man is concerned, for this curbing and restriction of so free an element as Light? The readiest reason seems to be—for our relief and rest. But that is not half the reason. Our light is broken up and shortened, not only in order to afford us intervals of rest, but also to bestow upon us intensity; not only to relieve our faculties from the strain of life, but also to strain and stimulate them ever more keenly. According to Christ Himself the night cometh when no man can work, not merely that man may hope for release beneath its shelter, but that he may work while it is called to-day. Had there been no interval, since first upon the tones of God’s word Light rippled across the face of the deep—had the Sun been created to stand still in the midst of the heavens, then indeed one might say there would have been no progress for man. Let your imagination strike Night out of the world, and you need not begin to speculate on the iron frames men should have required to bear the unrelieved strain, for it is tolerably certain that, without the urgency and discipline which a limited day brings upon our life, we should never have been stimulated to enough of toil to make us weary. Night, which has been called the Liberator of the Slave, is far more the task-mistress of the free—a task-mistress who does not scourge nor drive us in panic, but who startles our sluggishness, rallies our wandering thoughts, develops our instincts of order, reduces our impulsiveness to methods, incites us to our very best, and only then crowns her beneficence by rewarding our obedience with rest. In short, Night, while she is nature’s mercy on our weakness, is nature’s purest discipline for our strength.1 [Note: George Adam Smith, The Forgiveness of Sins, 92.]

3. The daily drawing of the curtain between man and his active labours represents and continually reminds us of the need of the internal as well as the external in our lives. It brings up to us our need, by bringing up to us our opportunity, of meditation, of contemplation. For active life is always tending to become shallow. It is always forgetting its motives, forgetting its principles, forgetting what it is so busy for, and settling itself into superficial habits. So God shuts us out from our work and bids us daily think what the heart of our work is, what we are doing it for. If this is the meaning of the evening—and no man sees the daylight sink away and the shadows gather without sensitively feeling some such meaning in it—then surely we need it.

It is hard to see how, were it not for the continually repeated, daily stoppages of work, we could remember, as we need to remember, the great close of work which is coming to every one of us and may be very near. I picture to myself a world without an evening, a world with an unsetting daylight, and with men who never tired at their tasks; and it seems as if death in a world like that would be so much more terrible and mysterious than it is now; when once a day, for many years, we have learned that work was not meant to last always, and have had to drop our tools as if in practice and rehearsal for the great darkness when we are to let them go for ever.2 [Note: Phillips Brooks, Seeking Life, 348.]

“And is the twilight closing fast?

(I hear the night-breeze wild);

And is the long week’s work all done?”

“Thy work is done, my child.”


“Must I not rise at dawn of day?

(The night-breeze swells so wild);

And must I not resume my toil?”

“No! nevermore, my child.”


“And may I sleep through all the dark?

(The wind to-night is wild);

And may I rest tired head and feet?”

“Thou mayest rest, my child.”


“And may I fold my feeble hands?

(Hush! breezes sad and wild);

And may I close these wearied lids?”

“Yes, close thine eyes, my child.”


“Oh, passing sweet these closing hours!

And sweet the night-breeze mild,

And the Sabbath-day that cometh fast!”

“The Eternal Day, my child.”


“The night is gone, clear breaks the dawn,

It rises soft and mild;

Dear Lord! I see Thee face to face!”

“Yes! face to face, my child.”

Literature

Bain (J. A. K.), For Heart and Life, 357.

Boyd (A. K. H.), The Graver Thoughts of a Country Parson, ii. 144.

Brooks (P.), Seeking Life, 331.

Brown (J. B.), The Christian Policy of Life, 108.

Clarke (J. E.), Common-Life Sermons, 94.

Dewhurst (F. E.), The Investment of Truth, 157.

Dix (M.), Christ at the Door of the Heart, 65.

Hood (P.), Dark Sayings on a Harp, 69.

Hunter (J.), De Profundis Clamavi, 227.

Lambert (J. C.), The Christian Workman, 1.

Newman (J. H.), Sermons on Subjects of the Day, 395.

Prothero (R. E.), The Psalms in Human Life, 315.

Smith (G. A.), The Forgiveness of Sins, 89.

Christian World Pulpit, xli. 56 (G. A. Smith); xlii. 8 (T. Young); lxx. 139 (H. M’Gahie); lxxvii. 309 (H. S. Holland).

Church of England Pulpit, xlix. 309 (J. White); lix. 197 (B. S. Tupholme).

Church Times, May 6, 1910 (H. S. Holland).

Literary Churchman, xxxii. 316 (J. L. Spencer).


Verse 24

(24) Riches.—LXX., “creation;” Aquila, Symmachus, and the Vulg., “possession.” The MSS. vary between singular and plural. Creatures will perhaps. best express the sense here.

There is something as fine in art as true in religion in this sudden burst of praise—the “evening voluntary” of grateful adoration—into which the poet bursts at the mention of the day’s close. Weariness leaves the soul, as it is lifted from contemplation of man’s toil to that of God. Athanasius remarked on the sense of rest and refreshment produced by this change of strain.


Verse 25

(25) So is . . .—Better, Yonder is the sea great and broad. For a moment the poet, “lost in wonder, love and praise,” has forgotten his model, the Mosaic account of creation. But suddenly, as his eye catches sight of the sea—we imagine him on some hill-top, commanding on the one hand the range of Lebanon, on the other the Mediterranean—the words recur to him, “Let the waters bring forth abundantly,” &c

Creeping.—See Psalms 104:20. Perhaps here, “swarming.”


Verse 26

(26) Ships.—The poet writes like one who had been accustomed to see the navies of Phœnicia, one of the indications which leads to the hypothesis that he belonged to the northern part of Palestine. And here for once we seem to catch a breath of enthusiasm for the sea—so rare a feeling in a Jew.

Leviathan.—See Psalms 74:14. In Job (Job 41) it is the crocodile, but here evidently an animal of the sea, and probably the whale. Several species of cetacea are still found in the Mediterranean, and that they were known to the Hebrews is clear from Lamentations 4:3. Various passages from classic authors support this view.

Whom Thou . . .—This clause is rendered by some “whom Thou hast made to play with him” (so LXX. and Vulg.), referring to Job 41:5. It is a rabbinical tradition that Leviathan is God’s play thing.


Verse 29

(29) Thou hidest Thy face.—Elsewhere an image of displeasure, here only of withdrawal of providential care. (See Psalms 30:7, where the expression “troubled” also occurs.)

Thou takest away their breath.—Not only is the food which sustains animal life dependent on the ceaseless providence of God, but even the very breath of life is His, to be sent forth or withdrawn at His will. But to this thought, derived of course from Genesis (comp. Psalms 90:3, Note), the poet adds another. The existence of death is not a sorrow to him any more than it is a mystery. To the psalmist it is only the individual that dies; the race lives. One generation fades as God’s breath is withdrawn, but another succeeds as it is sent forth.


Verse 30

(30) Spirit.—Rather, breath, as in Psalms 104:29. We must not here think of the later theological doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The psalmist evidently regards the breath of God only as the vivifying power that gives matter a distinct and individual, but transient, existence. Even in the speculative book of Ecclesiastes, the idea of a human soul having a permanent separate existence does not make its appearance. At death the dust, no longer animate, returns to the earth as it was, and the breath, which had given it life, returns to God who gave it—gave it as an emanation, to be resumed unto Himself when its work was done. Still less, then, must we look in poetry for any more developed doctrine.


Verse 31

(31) The Lord shall rejoice.—The poet still follows Genesis in representing God as looking on His finished work with pleasure, but he says nothing of a sabbath. But it is possible that the thought of the sabbath hymns of praise led him to join man with the Divine Being in celebrating the glory and perfection of creation.


Verse 32

(32) Trembleth.—With the praise is united something of awe and fear, since the majesty and power of Him who made the world is so great. Its very existence is dependent on His will, and a glance, a touch from Him would be enough to shake it to its foundations and consume it. For “the smoky mountain tops,” comp. Psalms 144:5, and see Note, Psalms 148:8.


Verse 34

(34) My meditation.—Rather, my singing or my poetry.


Verse 35

“I heard a thousand blended notes,

While in a grove I lay reclined,

In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts

Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran

And much it grieved my heart to think

What Man has made of Man.”

Bless thou the Lord.—This is the first hallelujah in the psalter. Outside the psalter it is never found, and was therefore a liturgical expression coined in a comparatively late age. It is variously written as one or two words.

 


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Psalms 104:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/psalms-104.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, December 6th, 2019
the First Week of Advent
ADVERTISEMENT
Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
ADVERTISEMENT
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology