The rebuke of the waters

Should Psalm 104:6-9 be connected with the Flood rather than with the Creation event? Some creationists say Yes and others say No. A look at its proper context provides us with the answer.

Warren H. Johns is associate editor of MINISTRY.
Psalm 104 is a hymn of praise for God's mighty acts in the natural world, bringing the world from chaos into intelligence and beauty, just as Psalm 106 is a hymn of praise for His mighty acts in bringing the Israelite people from bond age into freedom. One of His mighty acts in Psalm 104 is the separation of the land from the water, and the collecting of the waters into the confines of the ocean basins. All of this occurs at His rebuke or the sound of His thunderous voice.

The question that arises is whether the rebuke occurs at the time of Creation or at the time of the Noachian deluge. The verses in question read as follows: "Thou coveredst it [the earth] with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains. At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away. They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them. Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth" (Ps. 104:6-9).

One's first impression is that we have here a graphic picture of the activity of the Flood waters, which are under the control of God's omnipotent hand. The psalmist's description "the waters stood above the mountains" is strikingly reminiscent of words in the Flood account: "And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered" (Gen. 7:19). Then the psalmist's reference to the setting up of bounds for the waters, "that they turn not again to cover the earth," seems to be a direct parallel with the divine promise given to Noah's family that never again would the world be destroyed with a flood (chap. 9:11, 15).

But if Psalm 104:6-9 is a primary reference to the Noachian deluge, then we would have to explain why these verses are sandwiched into a Creation hymn. The rest of this psalm, as we shall see, is a magnificent description in poetic form of the work of the divine Creator, paralleling in many respects the account of Genesis 1. Should these verses, then, be placed within the context of the events of Creation week, rather than the Deluge? If so, we have the problem of explaining why there is almost no reference whatever to the Flood in the Old Testament outside its original description in Genesis.

It is significant to note how little is said about the Noachian deluge in the Old Testament other than in Genesis 6-11. Aside from possible tenuous allusions to the Flood in Job 12:15; 22:16; and Psalm 29:10, the only clear-cut reference to the Flood in Sacred Scripture from Exodus to Malachi is Isaiah 54:9. Generally, when the word flood is used it has reference to the overflowing of a river (Job 20:17; Ps. 32:6; Jer. 46:7, 8; Nahum 1:8), and sometimes in particular the flooding of the Nile (Amos 8:8; 9:5).

The scant attention that the Flood is given in the Old Testament, other than in Genesis, stands in contrast to the way other cataclysmic events described in the early chapters of the Bible are kept alive in Israel's memory. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah receives extensive coverage (Deut. 29:23; Isa. 1:9; Jer. 49:18; 50:40; Amos 4:11; Zeph. 2:9), as does the deliverance of the Israelites at the Red Sea (Num. 21:14; Deut. 11:4; Joshua 2:10; 4:23; 24:6; Neh. 9:9; Ps. 106:9-12, 22; 136:13-15). We would expect the Flood, which was both an act of destruction and an act of deliverance, to have received more than passing mention, because of the magnitude of the event. 1 If we add Psalm 104:6-9 to the one unambiguous reference in Isaiah 54:9, where the "waters of Noah" are twice mentioned, then we have four more Old Testament verses in support of the historicity of the Deluge.

From 1850 to 1950 commentators who have accepted the historicity of the Deluge have applied Psalm 104:6-9 to Creation, rather than to the Flood. In his 1860 commentary Hengstenberg2 views the mighty acts described in Psalm 104 as paralleling the events of Creation week. The two nineteenth-century harmonists of science and religion, Kurtz3 and Reusch, 4 both view this psalm in the light of Genesis 1. Barnes5 views verses 6-8 within the framework of Creation, but when he comes to verse 9, "Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over," he wavers a bit, stating, "It is possible that in connexion with this, the psalmist may also have had his eye on the facts connected with the deluge in the time of Noah."

In contrast to this predominant view, Denis Crofton, writing before 1850, applies Psalm 104:6-9 to the flood of Noah. However, he wishes to keep the previous verses within the context of Creation, and thus he argues: "There seems to be a period of above sixteen hundred years passed over in silence, between the fifth and sixth verses, the former referring apparently either to the creation or making of the earth, and the latter to the flood of Noah." 6 Whereas the popular gap theory of harmonization inserts thousands or even millions of years between the first two verses of Genesis, here we have a mini-gap theory, proposing the insertion of 1,600 years between two verses in Psalm 104.

It wasn't until the rise of "scientific creationism" in the 1950s that Crofton's mini-gap theory was resurrected by a substantial number of harmonists seeking to reconcile the literal record of Genesis and the findings of modern science. Writing in the 1950s Rehwinkel7 and Marsh8 both used portions of Psalm 104 in support of the Noachian flood. With the publication of Whitcomb and Morris's The Genesis Flood in 1965, we find a strong link being forged between Psalm 104:5-9 and Genesis 6-9. For the first time verse 5 of Psalm 104 is linked with the Deluge. 9 Also for the first time the subtle nuances of verses 5-9 are viewed as providing a scientific description of the isostatic adjustments made in the earth's crust for the accommodation of the Deluge waters that formerly were stored in the heavens. 10

In the years since the landmark publication of The Genesis Flood, subsequent studies defending Deluge geology have continued to fuse Psalm 104:6-9 with the Deluge rather than with Creation. 11 Thus more recently, creationists have used as one of the key Old Testament supports for the Flood outside of Genesis 6-9 this particular passage in the Psalms. The reason for this is that it appears to give additional solid scriptural support for the universality of the Flood. 12 A scientific reason for its usage is that it would also give strong support for orogenic (mountain-building) activity during the time of the Flood. The American Standard Version of Psalm 104:8 is used because it contains a clearer reference to this orogenic process: "the mountains rising and the valleys sinking, with the waters hasting away." 13 This alternative reading, which is based upon the Septuagint and the Vulgate, suggests the idea that the mountains, and not the waters, were rising.

The question here is not whether the Septuagint and Vulgate readings are correct; the real issue is whether this verse refers to the events of the Flood or to the Creator's activities on day three of Creation week. What will be proposed in the remainder of this article is that a few harmonists in their enthusiasm to reconcile the scriptural and geological records have utilized Biblical arguments that are weak or even unfounded.

A prime example is Psalm 104:6-9, where occasionally harmonists have lifted this passage out of its natural Creation context, which is tantamount to inserting a 1,600-year gap between verses 5 and 6, as Denis Crofton did. But they have gone a step further and inserted another 1,600-year gap between verses 9 and 10! It would seem strange that the psalmist would mention the Deluge, an act of destruction, in the same context as Creation, an act of construction, unless the destructive act were a prelude to the constructive, as in 2 Peter 3. In that case, we should have verses 2-5 follow, rather than precede, verses 6-9.

The most consistent interpretation of Psalm 104 is to view it as a hymn of Creation, a recounting of the Genesis 1 narrative in poetic form. The emotional and literary high point of this hymn is verse 24: "O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches." This verse is also the key to the proper interpretation of the entire hymn, which is a recounting of God's creative works, the same works that are described in Genesis 1. We have in Psalm 104 the creation of light (verse 2), paralleling day one of Creation week; the creation of the firmament (verses 2-4), paralleling day two; the creation of the dry land with its separation from the waters (verses 5-9), paralleling day three; the creation of the vegetation (verses 14-16), paralleling also day three; the creation of the sun and the moon (verse 19), paralleling day four; the creation of the birds (verse 17) and the fishes (verse 25), paralleling day five; and the creation of beasts (verse 18) and man (verse 23), paralleling day six. The psalmist views all of these as objects of the divine creative power, as denoted in his summary statement: "Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created" (verse 30). Even the mention of the "leviathan" (verse 26) finds a parallel in the creation of the "great sea monsters" of Genesis 1:21, R.S.V. * There is nothing in this psalm that is outside the scope of the divine creative activity.

Those who relegate verses 6-9 to the Flood are in effect defacing this beautifully written Creation account and leaving it incomplete. If these four verses are to be applied to the Flood, then this Creation hymn would have no reference to the creation of the dry land and no reference to the separation of the land from the water, resulting in the creation of the seas, as described in Genesis 1:9, 10. Then there would be no dry land upon which vegetation can grow, and no mountains to provide refuge for the wild goats and the conies. Neither would there be any ocean in which innumerable creatures could swim. The Creation account of Psalm 104 would be incomplete, and thus marred.

It's true that verses 6-9 have two apparently firm links with the Flood account: (1) the mention of the waters covering the mountains, and (2) the establishment of bounds for the waters, so that they would never again cover the earth. These links seem even stronger when comparison is made to the unambiguous reference to the Flood in Isaiah 54:9: "I have sworn that the waters of Noah should no more go over the earth." This echoes Psalm 104:9: "Thou hast set a bound that they [the waters] may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth." But these apparent ties with the Flood begin to sink into insignificance when we discover that Psalm 104:2-9 finds its strongest parallels with Job 38:4-30 and Proverbs 8:22-31. Scholars are unanimous in assigning these passages in both Job and Proverbs to Creation, not to the Flood.

It is interesting to note the striking similarities among these three accounts. All three mention the laying of the foundations of the earth (Ps. 104:5; Job 38:4; Prov. 8:29). All three also refer to the establishment of a decree resulting in the setting of boundaries beyond which the ocean waters could not pass (Ps. 104:9; Job 38:10, 11; Prov. 8:29; cf. Jer. 5:22). If the establishment of this decree took place at the time of the Noachian deluge, and not Creation, then we would be forced to assign Job 38 and Proverbs 8 to the Deluge, which would directly contradict the obvious references to God's mighty acts in creating. Speaking of the earth, the psalmist says, "Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment" (verse 6), which is very similar to the imagery in Job, where the cloud is made the covering of the sea—"I made the cloud the garment thereof " (chap. 38:9). In Psalm 104 the waters are collected "unto the place which thou hast founded for them" (verse 8), and in Job 38 the Creator retains the sea with "set bars and doors" and establishes its "decreed place" (verse 10). This is reminiscent of God's command in Gene sis: "Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place" (chap. 1:9). Here is a firm link between Psalm 104 and Genesis 1 by way of Job 38. The setting up of the bounds of the sea, and its confinement to its appointed place, took place at Creation, not at the close of the Flood.

Just as significant as the obvious parallels between these Creation pas sages is the noted lack of parallels between certain aspects of the Flood account and the verses in Job 38, Proverbs 8, and Psalm 104. These three Creation passages have no mention of the words "flood," or "rainbow," which would be expected if the Flood were being described. They have only two references to "rain" (Job 38:26, 28), but these occur within the context of Creation, not destruction. The only reference to the destruction of living creatures occurs in Psalm 104:29, "Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust," but the language here is closer to Genesis 2:7 and 3:19 than it is to Genesis 6-9. The expression "fountains of the deep" is used in only three places in Scripture (Gen. 7:11; 8:2; Prov. 8:28), but Genesis uses it to describe the breaking up of the fountains, and Proverbs in the sense of establishing the fountains. This expression is strikingly absent from both Psalm 104 and Job 38.

To take two or three apparent parallels between Psalm 104 and Genesis 6-9 and then to conclude we have in that psalm the most complete Old Testament description of the Flood outside of Genesis is to ignore completely the more numerous and convincing parallels between Psalm 104, Job 38, Proverbs 8, and the Creation account in Genesis 1. To do so is comparable to saying that because a porpoise has fins in place of feet and spends all its life in ocean waters, it must be classified as a fish. This would be ignoring that porpoises have major characteristics more in common with mammals than with bony fish.

Having restored Creation fully into its rightful place in Psalm 104, we can then begin to appreciate the beauty, magnificence, and wealth of meaning it has for us. There is no aspect of creation that is not under the care and control of the Creator—whether the wind or clouds, mountains or seas, the conies in the heights above or the leviathans in the depths below. God is over all, and to Him be the praise, honor, and glory forever!

* From the Revised Standard Version of the
Bible, copyright 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.

 

1 When we come to the New Testament, we
find numerous references to Noah and the Flood,
the Flood event taking on eschatological propertions,
as a symbol of the universal destruction by
fire in the last days. Sodom and Gormorrah are also
used in a similar way in the New Testament.

 

2 E. W. Hengstenberg, Commentary on the
Psalms (1860), vol. 3, pp. 233 ff.

 

3 J. H. Kurtz, History of the Old Covenant
(1859), vol. 1, p. 53.

 

4 F. H. Reusch, The Bibk and Nature (1886),
vol. 1, p. 226.

 

5 Albert Barnes, Notes on the Old Testament.
Psalms, vol. 3, pp. 84-85.

 

6 Denis Crofton, Genesis and Geology, p. 209.

 

7 Alfred M. Rehwinkel, The Flood (1951), p.
122.

 

8 Frank M. Marsh, Life, Man, and Time (1957),
p. 90.

 

9 John C. Whitcomb, Jr., and Henry M.
Morris, The Genesis Flood (1965), p. 122. cf.
Harold Coffin, Creation: Accident or Design?
(1969), p. 52.

 

10 Whitcomb and Morris, op. tit., pp. 77, 267,
269.

 

11 Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record (1976),
pp. 203, 206; John C. Whitcomb, Jr., The Early
Earth (1972), pp. 44, 66; Henry M. Morris, Studies
in the Bible and Science (1966), p. 41; Coffin, op cit.,
p. 57; Henry M. Morris, ed., Scientific Creationism
(1974), p. 245.

 

12 Henry M. Morris and Martin E. Clark, The
Bible Has the Answer (197'6), p. 103; Morris, Studies
in the Bible and Science (1966), p. 132.

 


13 Morris, Studies in the Bible and Science, p. 41.

 

 

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Warren H. Johns is associate editor of MINISTRY.

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