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Commentary on Psalms - Volume 4
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Psalm 104:5-9

5. He hath founded the earth upon its foundations, so that it shall not be moved for ever. 6. He hath covered it with the deep as with a garment: the waters shall stand above the mountains. 7. At thy rebuke they shall flee; at the voice of thy thunder they shall haste away. 180180     “The waters, by a beautiful prosopopoeia, are supposed to be put into a panic at the voice of Jehovah. See Psalm 77:16” — Dimock. 8. The mountains shall ascend, and the valleys shall descend 181181     Calvin here renders mountains and valleys in the nominative case. In our English version they are rendered in the accusative: “They go up by the mountains, they go down by the valleys.” “It is not here certain,” says Hammond, “whether הרים, mountains, and בקעות, valleys or plains, be to be read in the nominative or in the accusative case. If they be in the nominative, then we must read as in a parenthesis, (‘the mountains ascend, the plains or valleys slink down,’) joining the end of the verse, ‘unto the place,’ etc. to ‘haste away,’ verse 7, thus: The waters once stood above the mountains, — those places which now are such; — but at the uttering God’s voice, they fled and hasted away (the mountains ascending and the valleys descending) unto the place which thou hast prepared for them.’ Thus the LXX. and Latin understand it, ἀναβαίνουσιν ὄρη καταβαίνουσι πεδία, ‘ascendunt montes, et descendunt campi,’ ‘the mountains ascend, and the plains descend,’ referring to the change that was made in the earth from being perfectly round and encompassed with waters, into that inequality wherein now it is, great mountains in some parts, and great cavities in other parts, wherein the waters were disposed, which before covered the face of the earth. But they may be more probably in the accusative case, and then מים, the ‘waters,’ verse 6, which were understood, verse 7, though not mentioned, (for it was the waters that there fled and hasted away,) must be here continued also, viz., that ‘the waters יעלו, ascend,’ or ‘climb the mountains,’ and ירדו, ‘descend,’ or ‘fall down upon the valleys,’ or ‘fissures,’ or ‘hollow places,’ ditches, and the like receptacles of waters, (for so בקוע now signifies among the Rabbins.) And this sense the Chaldee follows, ‘They ascend from the abyss to the mountains, and they descend into the valleys, to the place,’ etc. And this is the clearest exposition of it, rendering an account of the course of waters, since the gathering of them together in the ocean, that from thence they are, by the power of God, directed to pass through subterranean meatus to the uppermost parts of the earth, the hills and mountains, where they break forth in springs, and then, by their natural weight, descend, and either find or make channels, by which they run into the ocean again, that מקום, place, which God hath hewed out as a receptacle for them; and by their thus passing, they are profitable for the use of men, in watering the cattle, and the fruits that grow in the earth, verse 10, etc.” to the place which thou hast founded for them. 9. Thou hast fixed a bound over which they shall not pass; they shall not return to cover the earth.

 

5 He hath founded the earth upon its foundations Here the prophet celebrates the glory of God, as manifested in the stability of the earth. Since it is suspended in the midst of the air, and is supported only by pillars of water, how does it keep its place so steadfastly that it cannot be moved? This I indeed grant may be explained on natural principles; for the earth, as it occupies the lowest place, being the center of the world, naturally settles down there. But even in this contrivance there shines forth the wonderful power of God. Again, if the waters are higher than the earth, because they are lighter, why do they not cover the whole earth round about? Certainly the only answer which philosophers can give to this is, that the tendency of the waters to do so is counteracted by the providence of God, that a dwelling-place might be provided for man. If they do not admit that the waters are restrained by the determinate appointment of God, they betray not only their depravity and unthankfulness, but also their ignorance, and are altogether barbarous. The prophet, therefore, not without reason, recounts among the miracles of God, that which would be to us wholly incredible, did not even experience show its truth. We are very base indeed if, taught by such undoubted a proof, we do not learn that nothing in the world is stable except in as far as it is sustained by the hand of God. The world did not originate from itself, consequently, the whole order of nature depends on nothing else than his appointment, by which each element has its own peculiar property. Nor is the language of the prophet to be viewed merely as an exhortation to give thanks to God; it is also intended to strengthen our confidence in regard to the future, that we may not live in the world in a state of constant fear and anxiety, as we must have done had not God testified that he has given the earth for a habitation to men. It is a singular blessing, which he bestows upon us, in his causing us to dwell upon the earth with undisturbed minds, by giving us the assurance that he has established it upon everlasting pillars. Although cities often perish by earthquakes, yet the body of the earth itself remains. Yea, all the agitations which befall it more fully confirm to us the truth, that the earth would be swallowed up every moment were it not preserved by the secret power of God.

6. He hath covered it with the deep as with a garment, This may be understood in two ways, either as implying that now the sea covers the earth as a garment, or that at the beginning, before God by his omnipotent word held gathered the waters together into one place, the earth was covered with the deep. But the more suitable sense appears to be, that the sea is now the covering of the earth. At the first creation the deep was not so much a garment as a grave, inasmuch as nothing bears less resemblance to the adorning of apparel than the state of confused desolation and shapeless chaos in which the earth then was. Accordingly, in my judgment, there is here celebrated that wonderful arrangement by which the deep, although without form, is yet the garment of the earth. But as the context seems to lead to a different view, interpreters are rather inclined to explain the language as denoting, That the earth was covered with the deep before the waters had been collected into a separate place. This difficulty is however easily solved, if the words of the prophet, The waters shall stand above the mountains, are resolved into the potential mood thus, The waters would stand above the mountains; which is sufficiently vindicated from the usage of the Hebrew language. I have indeed no doubt that the prophet, after having said that God had clothed the earth with waters, adds, by way of exposition, that the waters would stand above the mountains, were it not that they flee away at God’s rebuke. Whence is it that the mountains are elevated, and that the valleys sink down, but because bounds are set to the waters, that they may not return to overwhelm the earth? The passage then, it is obvious, may very properly be understood thus, — that the sea, although a mighty deep, which strikes terror by its vastness, is yet as a beautiful garment to the earth. The reason of the metaphor is, because the surface of the earth stands uncovered. The prophet affirms that this does not happen by chance; for, if the providence of God did not restrain the waters, would they not immediately rush forth to overwhelm the whole earth? He, therefore, speaks advisedly when he maintains that the appearance of any part of the earth’s surface is not the effect of nature, but is an evident miracle. Were God to give loose reins to the sea, the waters would suddenly cover the mountains. But now, fleeing at God’s rebuke, they retire to a different quarter. By the rebuke of God, and the voice of his thunder, is meant the awful command of God, by which he restrains the violent raging of the sea. Although at the beginning, by his word alone, he confined the sea within determinate bounds, and continues to this day to keep it within them, yet if we consider how tumultuously its billows cast up their foam when it is agitated, it is not without reason that the prophet speaks of it, as kept in check by the powerful command of God; just as, both in Jeremiah, (Jeremiah 5:22) and in Job, (Job 28:25) God, with much sublimity, commends his power, as displayed in the ocean. The ascending of the mountains, and the descending of the valleys, are poetical figures, implying, that unless God confined the deep within bounds, the distinction between mountains and valleys, which contributes to the beauty of the earth, would cease to exist, for it would engulf the whole earth. It is said that God has founded a place for the valleys; for there would be no dry land at the foot of the mountains, but the deep would bear sway, did not God command the space there to be unoccupied by the sea, as it were contrary to nature.

9. Thou hast set a bound which they shall not pass The miracle spoken of is in this verse amplified, from its perpetuity. Natural philosophers are compelled to admit, and it is even one of their first principles, that the water is circular, and occupies the region intermediate between the earth and the air. It is entirely owing to the providence of God, that part of the earth remains dry and fit for the habitation of men. This is a fact of which mariners have the most satisfactory evidence. Yea, were even the rudest and most stupid of our race only to open their eyes, they would behold in the sea mountains of water elevated far above the level of the land. Certainly no banks, and even no iron gates, could make the waters, which in their own nature are fluid and unstable, keep together and in one place, as we see to be the case. I have just now said that earthquakes, which bring destruction upon some places, leave the globe, upon the whole, as it was before; and in like manner, although the sea, in some parts of the world, overpasses its boundaries, yet the law, which confines it; within certain limits, stands fast, that the earth may be a fit habitation for men. The Baltic Sea, in our own time, inundated large tracts of land, and did great damage to the Flemish people and other neighboring nations. By an instance of this kind we are warned what would be the consequence, were the restraint imposed upon the sea, by the hand of God, removed. How is it that we have not thereby been swallowed up together, but because God has held in that outrageous element by his word? In short, although the natural tendency of the waters is to cover the earth, yet this will not happen, because God has established, by his word, a counteracting law, and as his truth is eternal, this law must remain steadfast.


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