The Importance of Biblical Interpretation
One recent discussion I took part in examined how to understand Psalm 104:5–9. This passage reads (all Scripture quotations from the NASB, except as noted):
(5) He established the earth upon its foundations, So that it will not totter forever and ever.
(6) You covered it with the deep as with a garment; The waters were standing above the mountains.
(7) At Your rebuke they fled, At the sound of Your thunder they hurried away.
(8) The mountains rose; the valleys sank down To the place which You established for them.
(9) You set a boundary that they may not pass over, So that they will not return to cover the earth.
The focus of discussion was whether or not these and similar verses refer to the Flood of Noah. At stake is whether certain creationary models of the formation of the Earth are biblically valid. How so? If the “boundary” spoken of in 104:9 was set up after the Flood as part of God’s promise never to send a worldwide flood again, this passage allows for a number of possible scientific models involving a complete restructuring of the surface of the Earth during the Flood. However, if the boundary was an unalterable one God established for the seas at Creation, then the Flood was just a temporary suspension of that boundary for the purpose of executing judgment on a sinful world, with an eventual return to the previously-ordained boundaries after the judgment was over.
Key creationist models impacted by this exegetical question include the Hydroplate Theory and Catastrophic Plate Tectonics. Completely apart from the scientific plausibility of these two models is the question of whether their scriptural justification is solid. So it is crucial that Ps. 104:5–9 and similar passages first be carefully examined as to their grammar and context, or else we are in danger of starting with a scientific model and then hunting for shaky proof texts to support it. Our search for truth must start first with an accurate understanding of Scripture.
God is the ultimate Author of all Scripture. He inspired His writers to record what He wanted written, while still allowing for the individual’s own style to shine through. Thus, since a single Author of infinite wisdom would not have contradictory things written in different places (when properly understood), one Scripture can be used to shed light on the meaning of another. Taken together, the books of the Bible form one whole cloth of divine revelation, not a patchwork quilt. This means that a passage in the book of Job or in the Psalms, for example, properly understood from its immediate context and grammar, can shed light on the meaning of a similar but somewhat obscure passage elsewhere. This is the principle behind systematic theology, which uses Scripture to interpret Scripture. If there ever seems to be a conflict between passages, it indicates we are missing something, which should goad us to prayer and further study until God gives the needed insight to resolve the matter.
A related principle is that, in order to communicate true history to us, the Lord uses ordinary written language in the Bible, subject to the same interpretive constraints as any other type of writing. Unlike the rest of His creation, God has hard-wired mankind to know how to use and interpret language—we might consider this the distinctive human instinct. It is self-evident to any sane person that the immediate surrounding context of a passage sets limits on how we are to understand the use of any particular word. Figurative language, such as the use of simile and metaphor, is known throughout the world and poses no barriers to clear communication in ordinary writing, so we can expect it will not cause confusion in understanding the biblical writings either. We simply need to recognize it when it appears. Context, therefore, is crucial.
With these principles in mind, let us now look at several interrelated Scripture passages that, taken together, shed light on their shared meanings. We will look at Genesis 1:1–2, 9–10; Job 38:4–11; Proverbs 8:22–31; and Jeremiah 5:22. The insights from those passages should help us understand the meaning of Psalm 104:5–9.
Genesis 1: The Primeval World Sea with a Single Continent
We begin by reading Genesis 1:1–2, 9–10:
(1) In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
(2) The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.
(9) Then God said, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear”; and it was so.
(10) God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters he called seas; and God saw that it was good.
These verses tell us that at Creation, all the waters of the world sea—what the Bible terms “the deep” (Hebrew tĕhowm), a word first used in verse 2—were “gathered into one place.” The significant, logical corollary of this statement is that there was likewise a single original landmass localized in one place. The waters are said to be “gathered,” indicating they originally covered the entire world. God apparently deepened a basin—a valley, if you will—to allow the waters to collect there and cause the land to rise out of the sea. Since there is no hint of any event prior to Noah's Flood that could have broken up the original landmass, we can reasonably conclude that the dry land first took the form of a single super-continent at least up to the time of the Flood. Science knows this by the name Pangaea. And since it was separated from the deep, the dry land obviously had a boundary.
Job 38: Insights from God on the Creation
Let us now seek further insight from the book of Job. It is well accepted that the content of this book, if not its commitment to writing, is far older than the Psalms. The age of the material may be inferred from Job’s longevity, his practice of true religion outside the bounds of the Abrahamic covenant, and the early economic and political developments reflected in the book (cf. Kline, Wycliffe Bible Commentary). It may be taken as a given that King David and the other Psalmists were as familiar with Job as they were with Genesis, so it would have been raw material in their minds for the Lord to tap into when He inspired the Psalmists to write. For this reason Job 38:1–11 provides clarifying material for properly understanding Psalm 104:5–9. The principle of using more clear material to understand what is less clear is both sound logic and the time-tested approach used in systematic theology.
In Job 38:4–11, God directly addresses Job with these words:
(4) Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth! Tell Me, if you have understanding.
(5) Who set its measurements, since you know? Or who stretched the line on it?
(6) On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone,
(7) When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
(8) Or who enclosed the sea with doors, When, bursting forth, it went out from the womb;
(9) When I made a cloud its garment, And thick darkness its swaddling band,
(10) And I placed boundaries on it, And I set a bolt and doors,
(11) And I said, “Thus far you shall come, but no farther; And here shall your proud waves stop”?
In verses 10–11, as in Ps. 104:9, we encounter the mention of boundaries, and in this context they clearly apply to the sea, not the waters of the Flood. Theories that propose that the ocean floor and the land changed places during the Flood, or that the original surface of the Earth was largely subducted into the mantle, run into a problem with this passage. Verses 4–7 are very obviously talking about the original creation. With the “morning stars/sons of God” looking on—poetic, figurative language for the angels—God speaks of measurements made, lines stretched, bases sunk, and the laying of a cornerstone. This is the language of an architect; He planned where everything would be.
Since these verses set the context for what immediately follows, verses 8–11 do not speak of the Flood, but remain focused on the original Creation. If we restrict ourselves to exegetical considerations, it appears that most of the water at this stage would have resided in a huge subterranean chamber, constrained under pressure by the primordial basement rocks and minerals above it (the metaphorical "doors" of Job 38:8). Then God opened these "doors" and the waters burst out under extreme pressure, due to both heat and the overburden of the heavier materials He had formed above its reservoir. When the waters burst out, it resulted in covering the entire primeval Earth with the tĕhowm deep, together with the uneven deposition of pulverized sedimentary material upon the now-submerged basement rocks. That first sediment would later provide the soil substrate for the plants of Eden, and its uneven deposition in the deep would have meant some undersea topography, probably including low mountains.
Since the womb is where a baby develops before birth, the figurative language in verse 8a must refer to the birth of the ocean, coming out from within the newly formed world. This is NOT the Flood, but the first overspreading of the earth’s surface with the primeval world sea, the tĕhowm. After it was “born” and overspread the globe, God covered the sea with a cloud and thick darkness, which He likens in verse 9 to the protecting, comforting garments wrapping a newborn baby. This is exactly what Genesis 1:2 likewise tells us: that “darkness was over the surface of the deep,” where “the deep” was the waters of the world-covering sea. Clearly, the Flood is not in view in Job 38. An outside observer at that time would have seen the Earth covered with a relatively uniform depth of water. It would have been “formless and void” not in an absolute sense, but in comparison to what it would be when God was finished with His creative work. It is at this stage that Genesis 1:2 takes up its narrative; Genesis does not address what came earlier, which was revealed for the first time by God to Job. We thus see that the Job passage is a complement to Genesis 1, providing fresh revelation from God of details not recorded there.
Proverbs 8: What Wisdom Saw at the Creation
Proverbs 8:22–31 echoes Job 38 and Psalm 104, and strongly indicates that the other two passages refer not to a promise to never again send a worldwide flood, but to the setting of limits on the sea at Creation. Note particularly verse 29.
(22) The LORD possessed me [Wisdom] at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old.
(23) From everlasting I was established, From the beginning, from the earliest times of the earth.
(24) When there were no depths I was brought forth, When there were no springs abounding with water.
(25) Before the mountains were settled, Before the hills I was brought forth;
(26) While He had not yet made the earth and the fields, Nor the first dust of the world.
(27) When He established the heavens, I was there, When He inscribed a circle on the face of the deep,
(28) When He made firm the skies above, When the springs of the deep became fixed,
(29) When He set for the sea its boundary So that the water would not transgress His command, When He marked out the foundations of the earth;
(30) Then I was beside Him, as a master workman; And I was daily His delight, Rejoicing always before Him,
(31) Rejoicing in the world, His earth, And having my delight in the sons of men.
It is abundantly clear that the entire context of Proverbs 8:22–31 is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, tied to the initial creation, not the Flood. We will later see this helps us understand the meaning of Psalm 104:9.
Jeremiah 5: The Boundaries of the Sea Set by Eternal Decree
In Jeremiah 5:22 God further states, “For I have placed the sand as a boundary for the sea, an eternal decree, so it cannot cross over it.” “An eternal decree” is mighty strong language; it testifies to an original land/sea boundary that the Flood event did not change! “The sand” appears to refer to the continental shelf area of the continents, which abruptly end at the continental slope that plunges into the ocean. These continental shelves appear to have been ordained as land/sea boundaries before the Flood, and continue after it. There is no textual reason to conjecture that this decree was limited to post-Flood times. The clear parallel of this passage with Proverbs 8:29 leads one to expect, on the principle that Scripture explains Scripture, that the boundary spoken of in Jeremiah is the one set up when God first “marked out the foundations of the earth” (Prv 8:29). Noah's Flood must therefore be viewed as a temporary judgment, differing only in degree from things like the disastrous Indonesian tsunami a few years ago. It was never meant to set aside God’s original ordained land/sea boundaries. Therefore, when Genesis 8:5 speaks of the tops of the mountains becoming visible as the Flood waters decreased, these are the tops of the same mountains which were inundated in Genesis 7:19–20. They are not newly erected mountains. And it follows that the single landmass which was inundated by the Flood directly corresponds to the divided continents we have today.
Psalm 104: Praise to God for His Care Over His Creation
With the insights offered by the parallel passages, we now return to Psalm 104. This is a difficult book for the English reader to fully understand! Birnbaum states, “It has been declared that it is worthwhile studying the Hebrew language for ten years in order to read Psalm 104 in the original” (Daily Prayer Book, Philip Birnbaum, 1949, p. 465). It will help to see some alternative renderings of the Hebrew in several English renderings. As a first example, here is a translation from http://psalms104.com—note how it seamlessly ties together verses 6 through 9, with a continuous focus on the movement of the waters:
(5) Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed for ever.
(6) Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.
(7) At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.
(8) They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.
(9) Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.
The NET Bible, http://net.bible.org/passage.php?passage=Psalm+104#n9, treats the passage similarly:
(5) He established the earth on its foundations; it will never be upended.
(6) The watery deep covered it like a garment; the waters reached above the mountains.
(7) Your shout made the waters retreat; at the sound of your thunderous voice they hurried off—
(8) as the mountains rose up, and the valleys went down—to the place you appointed for them.
(9) You set up a boundary for them that they could not cross, so that they would not cover the earth again.
Once again, another translation from the Hebrew, at http://www.amightywind.com/hebrewbible/psalms104.html, that clarifies the movement of the waters, not of the land surface, is the focus of verses 6 through 9:
(5) Who laid the foundations of the earth, That it should not be moved for ever.
(6) Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a vesture; The waters stood above the mountains.
(7) At thy rebuke they fled; At the voice of thy thunder they hasted away
(8) (The mountains rose, the valleys sank down) Unto the place which thou hadst founded for them.
(9) Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; That they turn not again to cover the earth.
With these varied translations as background, let us now try to answer this question: Does Psalm 104:1–9 refer completely to the Creation, or does it focus partly on the Flood as well? After examining it closely and comparing it to the other Scriptures discussed above, I believe Psalm 104 refers only to the Creation. The possibility that verses 6–9 refer to the Flood is prompted in our minds primarily by two factors: verse 9’s superficial resemblance to God’s well-known Rainbow Covenant promise never again to send another flood over the whole world, and not recognizing that the mention of “waters” in the passage is explicitly equated, via poetic Hebrew parallelism, with “the deep” in verse 6—a term never used elsewhere to describe the waters of the Flood. The Flood is always referred to by either its unique Hebrew term, mabbul, or by the context-defined generic term mayim, “waters.” There are no clear uses of tĕhowm, “the deep,” where it applies to the Flood. Missing this subtle exegetical detail has made it far too easy for English readers to see a mention of the Flood here, in so doing ignoring clear contextual clues that the whole of Psalm 104:1–9 refers only to the Creation.
I also believe the other biblical passages make it clear that the common mentions of boundaries on the waters indicate these are poetic language equivalents for the narrative of Genesis 1:9. Since God obviously created mountains as part of the original antediluvian world (otherwise there would have been none for the Flood to cover, Gn 7:19–20), just mentioning mountains cannot, by itself, place verses 6–9 during the Flood. There must be other persuasive evidence to establish this.
I do not think such persuasive evidence exists. The overall theme of the Psalm, its overarching context, is the Lord's care over all His works. The Flood was a judgment upon sin, a theme inconsistent with the dominant theme of praise. When one gets an overview of the structure of the entire Psalm, one notices this praise theme quite clearly. It begins, in verses 1–4, with praise to Him for calling the heavens and earth into being, and from there moves on to praising God for establishing the boundaries of the dry earth and sea (5–9), providing water for the animals to drink (10–13), praise for food for all creatures, for places to live, for all provisions for life.
Psalm 104 actually appears to move through Genesis 1 in almost chronological order, starting with the mention of God clothing Himself with light (v. 2a=Gn 1:3), moving on to the stretching out of heaven (2b=Gn 1:6), and “the beams of His upper chambers in the waters” (3a) connects with Genesis 1:7–8. Logically this progression should continue, so we should expect verses 5–9 to be a praise having some direct connection with Genesis 1. I think this is apparent. Psalm 104:5 speaks of establishing the foundations of the earth. Establishing these foundations involved calling the earth into being, initially without form and void, covered “with the deep as with a garment” (6a) by the primeval waters of Creation. (Recall Job 38:9, where the Lord says he made a cloud the “garment” for the primeval waters. There is no place in Genesis 6–8 where the Flood waters are called a “garment,” which is to be understood in the positive sense of a protective covering.)
The phrase “the deep” is also a clear reference to the primeval waters of Genesis 1:2. The Flood story in Genesis 6–8 never refers to the waters of the Flood as “the deep”; though it talks about the breakup of “the fountains of the great deep,” whenever the waters of the Flood are specifically referred to (not the fountains, where “of the great deep” is a modifier to make clear WHAT “fountains” are referred to), they are always spoken of as “the flood,” “the water,” or “the waters of the flood,” never as “the deep.” This complete covering of the planet by “the deep” extended even to covering the mountains (6b), a poetic word picture emphasizing that the entire land surface of the world was covered by “the deep” at this point. This is entirely consistent with our observation that Psalm 104 is mirroring Genesis 1, and has nothing to do with the Flood.
In Ps. 104:7 the Psalmist moves on to the next stage, mirroring Genesis 1:9–10—the exposing of the dry land. “At thy rebuke they fled” is a poetic way of restating Genesis 1:9, “Let the waters below the heavens be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear.” God commands the primeval waters covering the planet to move so the dry earth can be exposed. To do so, He deepens a hollow on the surface of Planet Earth so the waters have a place to “gather” to. “The mountains rose; the valleys sank down” (8a) is thus best understood as a poetic way of expressing these geophysical changes, with no reference to the judging Flood of Genesis 6–8 intended. The use of the word “establish” in 8b hearkens back to Job 38, where the Lord was portrayed as a master builder doing planning, surveying and foundation-laying for the grand project of constructing the Earth.
In addition, as seen in the various English translations above, there are solid contextual reasons to view the mention of mountains and valleys as parenthetical details to a primary emphasis in Psalm 104:6–9 on the moving of the primeval waters. The understanding that the antecedent of the clause in 104:8b, “unto the place which thou hast founded for them,” is not the valleys of 8a, but the fleeing waters of 7a. Verses 7a and 8b together constitute a completed thought—“at Your rebuke, the waters fled...to the place You established for them”—with 7b and 8a serving as minor clauses. Thus, the main focus if verses 6–9 is all about elaborating on Genesis 1:9.
Finally, 104:9 has an even closer connection to Job. When the Psalmist wrote, “Thou didst set a boundary that they [the waters] may not pass over; that they may not return to cover the earth,” he parallels God’s words in Job 38:10:
And I placed boundaries on it [“it” being the sea, referred to in verse 8],
And I set a bolt and doors,
And I said, “Thus far you shall come, but no farther;
And here shall your proud waves stop.”
Altogether, I think we can see that the primarily poetic nature of Psalm 104, its praise theme, plus the clear echoes of Genesis 1 and Job 38, points to Psalm 104 having no reference to the Flood, no mid-course change of context at verse 6. It is entirely a work of praise to God for His provision in Creation, including setting the bounds that kept the sea in its place. The mentions of mountains and valleys are poetic equivalents for the raising of the primordial continent out of the world sea as its waters were “gathered together” into the hollows He established for them.
Proverbs 8:29, which speaks of the setting of the boundary of the sea, also sheds tremendous light on the meaning of Psalm 104:9, “Thou didst set a boundary that they may not pass over.” “They” in this verse must refer to the primeval waters of the Creation. The antecedent of “they” in 104:9 is found in 104:6, where the two parts of the verse are an example of Hebrew poetic parallelism. In 6a, the primeval sea is first called “the deep” that covered the earth; in 6b, the same primeval sea is called “the waters [which] were standing above the mountains.” Both parts of verse 6 are saying the same thing, just in different ways. It is because these boundaries are set on the primeval waters of the world sea, that “they may not return to cover the earth.” Verse 9b, although it easily brings to mind God’s promise to never again send a worldwide Flood, IN CONTEXT does not refer to the Flood, but only to the setting of bounds on the sea. So once again, applying the principles of systematic theology and allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture indicates that the poetic language of Psalm 104 is not to be understood as referring to the Flood.
Tying it All Together
In this study we have observed that the passages in Job 38 and Proverbs 8, as in Jeremiah 5, all speak of “boundaries on the sea” in remarkably similar terms, strengthening the case that they all have the Creation in view. Let’s see all of these verses together:
And I placed boundaries [choq] on it [antecedent yam, v. 8],
And I set a bolt and doors,
And I said, “Thus far you shall come, but no farther;
And here shall your proud waves stop.”
When He set for the sea [yam] its boundary [choq]
So that the water would not transgress His command,
When He marked out the foundations of the earth...
For I have placed the sand as a boundary [gĕbuwl] for the sea [yam], an eternal decree, so it cannot cross over it...
These three passages share the common points of speaking of the sea and of boundaries imposed on it. Compare these with Psalm 104:6–9. I have clarified the antecedents of some words in brackets.
(6a) You covered it [the Earth] with the deep [tĕhowm] as with a garment;
(6b) The waters [mayim] were standing above the mountains.
(7a) At Your rebuke they [the waters] fled,
(7b) At the sound of Your thunder they [the waters] hurried away.
(8a) The mountains rose; the valleys sank down
(8b) To the place which You established for them [the waters].
(9a) You set a boundary [gĕbuwl] that they [the waters] may not pass over,
(9b) So that they [the waters] will not return to cover the earth.
We see the Hebrew poetic parallelism in 6a and 6b clarifies that “the deep” and “the waters” are equivalent. In verses 7 and 9 there is also no disputing that the antecedent of “they” is the waters introduced in verse 6. A key exegetical question is, what is the antecedent of “them” in verse 8? Is it “the valleys” of 8a, or “the waters” of 6b, 7a, 7b, 9a and 9b? Did the valleys sink down to the place God established for them, or did the waters hurry away to their place? If we look at the entire context of Ps. 104:1–9 and the various English versions quoted above, I think we are presented with a powerful argument that “them” in 8b refers to the waters. The mention of the mountains and valleys in 8a is a poetic, parenthetical detail that does not break the focus on the waters. This is one of the rare cases where the NASB rendering confuses the meaning for the English reader.
The clear implication of Gen. 1:9 is that there were only two “places”: the waters were in one place (not multiple places, like today), and the dry land was in the other place. The dry land was a single contiguous landmass corresponding to Pangaea. And the dry land/sea boundaries discussed by Job 38:10, Psalm 104:9, Proverbs 8:29 and Jeremiah 5:22 were set up by God at this time. These boundaries have to do with the outer margins of Pangaea, and have never been abrogated. The Flood was a temporary punishment, after which the original land/sea boundaries manifested themselves again; and the Peleg-era breakup of the continents I believe occurred years after the Flood, involved the introduction of NEW boundaries internal to the original Pangaean continent, not the nullifying of those already set up at Creation.
In closing, all of these passages have the same focus on the events of Creation, demonstrated by the similar language about the sea and the boundaries set upon it. Accordingly, none of these passages can legitimately be used as scriptural support for models of the Flood; they have nothing to do with it. They also impose exegetical limits on what scientific explanations we can put forth to explain the mechanisms at work during the Flood, in that they support the straightforward interpretation that the Flood was essentially a temporary incursion of the world ocean onto the land surface, an event followed by the restoration of the original land boundaries. This casts great doubt on the validity of any Flood models which replace with new crust the original landmass exposed in Genesis 1:9–10.