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God’s Word for You

Psalm 104:24-30 the leviathan

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Thursday, May 31, 2018

24 How many are your works, O LORD!
  In wisdom you made them all;
  the earth is full of your creatures.
25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,
  teeming with creatures beyond number—
  living things both large and small.
26 There the ships go to and fro,
  and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
27 These all look to you
  to give them their food at the proper time.
28 When you give it to them,
  they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
  they are satisfied with good things.
29 When you hide your face,
  they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
  they die and return to the dust.
30 When you send your Spirit, they are created,
  and you renew the face of the earth.

In this part of the Psalm, the Fifth and Sixth Days of creation are visited. The most remarkable verse is surely verse 26, where mankind is mentioned only in passing (“ships”) and the mysterious leviathan comes surging out of the deep.

Understanding what is meant by “leviathan” is a small and somewhat dead-ended study. The leviathan occurs six times in the Bible. It might be related to the word leviah “wreath, garland; or encirclement” (Proverbs 1:9, 4:9). In Job 3:8, it could be the entire ocean that encircles the earth (like a wreath or garland). In Job 41:1, the leviathan is a ferocious creature that cannot be tamed with a fishhook—it could be anything from a whale to a crocodile (or, again, the entire ocean). In Psalm 74:14, the idea of “crocodile” seems better, since the fierce creature is given as food “the creatures of the desert,” which fits the idea of the Nile or the Jordan. Here in Psalm 104:26, whales or other cetaceans seem to fit the context best with their frolicking. Sperm whales and other smaller whales sometimes make their way into the Mediterranean Sea and up the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Finally, leviathan is mentioned twice in Isaiah 27:1: “In that day, the LORD will punish with his sword, his fierce, great and powerful sword, Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the coiling serpent; he will slay the monster of the sea.” Not only is the leviathan compared to a coiling serpent (perhaps a crocodile? or a dragon?), but Isaiah uses the phrase “in that day,” which is often a finger pointing toward judgment day. So there the enemies or Enemy of God’s people is really meant. This use of leviathan seems to correspond somewhat to the dragon that is the devil, mentioned 14 times in Revelation (see especially Revelation 12:9 and 20:2).

Some people have proposed that the Canaanites, like so many other races, had a primordial (seven-headed?) dragon in their mythology—the Jewish Talmud even speaks of two such dragons or sea monsters, one (the female) that was killed, and the other (the male) that will be slain by the archangel Michael on the Last Day. Perhaps only the word survives from the Canaanite mythology and not the belief—the way we take our names for the days of the week from Nordic mythology without any of the mythological belief.

Perhaps, if leviathan has its roots in poetry and not in nature, we should understand “leviathan” the way we understand “dragon.” It is a word that often stands for something else, but in leviathan’s case, generally refers to a terror in the water.

But God has given the sea, the earth and the whole of creation to mankind. We don’t need to be afraid of it—but, like the whale and the crocodile, we need to respect it and care for it. God opens his hand and satisfies the desires of every living thing. Luther once joked: “God must have a big kitchen.” What God has is unlimited mercy and love for us. He has given us everything we need. Even a savior from our sins.

Praise God, who made heaven and earth for us to enjoy, subdue, and care for.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

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