The Lectionary compilers were evidently attracted to the use of this psalm for the feast of Pentecost because of how it speaks of the positive work of the (Holy) Spirit and the consequences of the (potential?) withdrawal of the Spirit.
The text, particularly when filleted down for the Lectionary, bears that interpretation but the ruah (wind, breath, spirit) of the Old Testament is not the same as the pneuma (spirit, Holy Spirit) of the New Testament, and still less that Holy Spirit expounded as third person of the Trinity in Christian doctrine.
In the psalm itself the psalmist emphasises the wonder of nature, and more specifically of creation, for all is seen as the work of God and serving the glory of God – and of humankind, privileged amongst the many recipients of the blessings of God.
In the psalm nature’s breath (ruah) seems to be that which is its own by right. It is the life spirit, and probably understood as a (merely) natural quality as opposed to the new spirit which comes from God and is supernatural. The natural spirit can be removed by God, but God is also able to imbue ‘dead’ nature with the divine breath, divine ruah, divine spirit. (vv 28, 29)
The psalmist seems to want to contrast this work of God (the Creator God of the Jewish faith) to the sorts of action of the gods of Canaanite religion (which has a cosmology in which gods do not create but – to a degree! – introduce order into a pre-existing but chaotic universe.)
The clippings of the psalm used this Sunday fail to bring to the Liturgy so much of the richness of the psalm, though they make their point. But reading it and praying with it today gives us a chance to enjoy and benefit afresh from the wondrous psalm 104 (103) in its fulness.
(NB the text set for Sunday is given below in bold and in ‘quote sections’ below; the rest is the immediate biblical text from which the Lectionary text is extracted)
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 103(104):1,24,29-31,34
Psalm 104 (103)
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, how great you are,
clothed in majesty and honour,
2 wrapped in light as with a robe!
You stretch out the heavens like a tent.
3 On the waters you establish your dwelling.
You make the clouds your chariot;
you ride on the wings of the wind.
4 You make the winds your messengers,
flame and fire your servants.
5 You set the earth on its foundation,
immovable from age to age.
6 You wrapped it with the depths like a cloak;
the waters stood higher than the mountains.
7 At your threat they took to flight;
at the voice of your thunder they fled.
8 The mountains rose, the valleys descended,
to the place which you had appointed them.
9 You set limits they might not pass,
lest they return to cover the earth.
10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow in between the hills.
11 They give drink to all the beasts of the field;
the wild asses quench their thirst.
12 There the birds of heaven build their nests;
from the branches they sing their song.
13 From your dwelling you water the hills;
by your works the earth has its fill.
14 You make the grass grow for the cattle
and plants to serve mankind’s need.
That he may bring forth bread from the earth
15 and wine to cheer the heart;
oil, to make faces shine,
and bread to strengthen the heart of man.
16 The trees of the Lord drink their fill,
the cedars he planted on Lebanon;
17 there the birds build their nests;
on the treetop the stork has her home.
18 For the goats the lofty mountains,
for the rabbits the rocks are a refuge.
19 You made the moon to mark the months;
the sun knows the time for its setting.
20 You spread the darkness, it is night,
and all the beasts of the forest creep forth.
21 The young lions roar for their prey,
and seek their food from God.
22 At the rising of the sun they gather;
and they go to lie down in their dens.
23 Man goes forth to his work,
to labour till evening falls.
24 How many are your works, O Lord!
In wisdom you have made them all.
The earth is full of your creatures.
25 Vast and wide is the span of the sea,
with its creeping things past counting,
living things great and small.
26 The ships are moving there,
and Leviathan you made to play with.
27 All of these look to you
to give them their food in due season.
28 You give it, they gather it up;
you open wide your hand, they are well filled.
29 You hide your face, they are dismayed;
you take away their breath, they die,
returning to the dust from which they came.
30 You send forth your spirit, and they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth.
31 May the glory of the Lord last forever!
May the Lord rejoice in his works!
32 He looks on the earth and it trembles;
he touches the mountains and they smoke.
33 I will sing to the Lord all my life,
sing psalms to my God while I live.
34 May my thoughts be pleasing to him.
I will rejoice in the Lord.
35 Let sinners vanish from the earth,
and the wicked exist no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
- Translation of Psalms: From The Revised Grail Psalms: A Liturgical Psalter. (c) 2010.
- Commentary: (c) 2020, Allen Morris
- Photo (c) 2017, Allen Morris.