by Dr. Scott Swain; President and Professor of Theology; RTS ORLANDO
Psalm 104 celebrates God’s work of creation. It begins with a description of God’s work in creating the heavens and their inhabitants (vv. 1-4). It then moves to an extended discussion of God’s work of creating the earth and its inhabitants, including human beings, who have a special vocation as co-laborers with God in producing the varied fruits that bring joy and satisfaction to the human family (vv. 5-24). The psalm then briefly discusses the sea and its inhabitants (vv. 25-26), concluding with a description of creation’s utter dependence on divine benefaction for its continued existence (vv. 27-30) and a prayer that God would be glorified in and pleased with his works forever and ever (vv. 31-35). What caught my eye today while studying this psalm was its description of heaven’s supreme inhabitant (cf. v. 3: “his chambers”) in verses 1-2: “You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment.” What is happening here?
Psalm 104 comes toward the end of Book Four of the Psalms, a section of the biblical canon devoted to theme of divine kingship: Yhwh mlk–“the Lord is king/the Lord reigns” (Pss 93:1; 96:10; 97:1; 99:1; cf. Pss 102:12; 103:19). These psalms proclaim the name of the Lord by means of a “royal metaphor,” describing God in terms common to human kingship. Drawing upon a broad field of images associated with Ancient Near Eastern kings, Scripture portrays God by means of royal appellations (e.g., king, shepherd, etc.), royal qualities (e.g., long life, strength, etc.), and royal trappings (e.g., throne, clothing, etc.) (see Marc Zvi Brettler, God is King: Understanding an Israelite Metaphor). The latter are especially relevant to grasping Psalm 104:1-2, which speaks of the divine king’s clothing.
The Bible is remarkably reticent in describing God’s appearance because, strictly speaking, God has no visible form or likeness (Deut 4:12, 15-19). Strictly speaking, the divine king is invisible (Rom 1:20; 1 Tim 1:17). Nevertheless, the Bible, on occasion, does describe God’s appearance in metaphorical terms. One thinks of Isaiah’s vision of the divine king in Isaiah 6, of Ezekiel’s vision of the divine likeness in Ezekiel 1, and of Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7. In each instance, Scripture describes God in terms of “royal trappings” (Brettler): as one seated on a throne, as one clothed in royal garb. Psalm 104:1-2 is an instance of this kind of metaphorical description.
According to Psalm 104:1-2, the Lord is “clothed” in splendor, majesty, and light. These “articles” of clothing emphasize the divine king’s transcendent glory, the awesome, awe-inspiring nature of his divine being, rule, and worth. In order to appreciate more fully the significance of God’s radiant royal attire, we must further consider Scripture’s broader association of divine glory with created and uncreated light. We must follow Scripture as it leads us up the ladder of heavenly lights to their divine luminous source (James 1:17).
We begin with the lowest heavens, which are the visible heavens that you and I perceive anytime we walk outside. Psalm 19 tells us that the visible heavens are in the business of proclaiming “the glory of God” (Ps 19:1). Though they have no words to speak (Ps 19:3), the regular cycle of the sun and the moon in their daily and nightly rotations declares the divine king’s faithfulness. The universal scope of the sun’s illuminating power declares the divine king’s universal sovereignty (Ps 19:2, 4-6). The sheer joy that the sun exhibits in running its divinely ordained course proclaims the divine king’s goodness (Ps 19:5). Without words, these visible lights serve as royal ambassadors, announcing the invisible glory of the divine king (Rom 1:20).
From the visible heavens and its visible lights, Scripture leads us further up the ladder to consider the invisible heavens and its invisible lights. Here we enter the heavenly divine throne room, established by God when he created heaven and earth (Gen 1:1; Pss 93:1-2; 104:1-4; Isa 66:1-2; Col 1:16). Though it may be tempting to think that we have moved from created lights to uncreated lights in moving from the visible heavens to the invisible heavens, this is not the case. According to the unified witness of Scripture, even in beholding the lights of the heavenly divine throne room, we are not yet beholding God in his uncreated light. We are beholding “likenesses,” theophanic manifestations or “appearances” of God’s transcendent glory, not God’s transcendent glory in its otherwise blinding radiance (Ezekiel 1:22, 26-28). The heavenly glory of the divine king’s “robe,” which “fills” the heavenly throne room, manifests but the “hem,” the bottom tip of God’s holy and transcendent majesty (Isa 6:1). The created splendor with which the divine king “clothes” himself (Ps 104:1) in his heavenly abode also “covers” him (Ps 104:2).
Though the visible lights of the heavens above are ambassadors of God’s glory, proclaiming the faithfulness and universality of his sovereign rule, and though the invisible radiance of God’s splendid garb and heavenly throne room further manifest the glorious, awe-inspiring nature of God’s kingship, Scripture repeatedly emphasizes that neither form of created heavenly light is identical with God. Both forms reveal and conceal God’s utterly transcendent divine glory (cf. 1 Kings 8:27). God “dwells in unapproachable light,” a light which no man “has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16; cf. Exod 33:20; John 1:18). God’s uncreated glory, God’s uncreated light shines above and beyond the capacities of the creature’s physical or spiritual comprehension.
Why, then, does Scripture associate the divine king’s glory, his awe-inspiring majesty, his regal radiance, with light? According to 1 John 1:5, it is because God is truly light. To be sure, God’s light is a wholly spiritual, wholly invisible light (John 4:24; 1 Tim 1:17) but, according to scriptural logic, this makes God more truly light than the invisible lights of his heavenly throne room, more truly light the visible lights of the skies above: “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” God is identical with light. And God is nothing but light. God is the purest, most simple, brightest light that exists. His light transcends, outshines, outradiates all created lights, both visible and invisible. For this reason, though created lights, both visible and invisible, only manifest the “hem” of his transcendent splendor, they are nevertheless faithful ambassadors and fitting modes of the divine king’s revelation. Created luminaries lead us up the ladder to their uncreated source: the Lord who “is a sun” (Ps 84:11), the sovereign archetype and source of all being, truth, goodness, and, yes, beauty (Isa 33:17; James 1:17).
One final thought: The modesty of God in revealing his transcendent divine light by means of created heavenly lights suggests something about the final goal and end of divine revelation.
Not only when it comes to God, but also when it comes to human beings, clothing both reveals and conceals. The kind of clothes we wear reveals something about us. Clothing, for example, says something about our station in life (as our pastor reminded us last Sunday, the Israelites were commanded to wear tassels to signify their status as a priestly people). As a result of the fall of the human race in Genesis 3, however, clothing also covers. Clothing is essential to human modesty. Clothing conceals our nakedness. Even then, the concealing function of clothing is situation specific; it is not absolute. We clothe ourselves in public situations for the sake of modesty. But we do not always clothe ourselves in private situations. There is at least one context, one holy circumstance, where unclothing and unveiling ourselves is essential. A human being may unclothe himself or herself in the presence of another human being in the context of the marriage bed. We unclothe ourselves when engaging in conjugal intimacy.
There’s a lesson here about the economy of divine revelation. God “clothes” and “covers” his transcendent divine glory in the created luminaries of the visible heavens and in the created royal trappings of his invisible heavenly throne room. In doing so, he manifests something of the transcendent splendor of his being, sovereignty, and worth in a manner that is distant, even modest. That said, God’s self-veiling in created light is not the last word when it comes to divine self-revelation. Scripture promises that one day, when Jesus Christ our divine Bridegroom “appears” (1 Tim 6:14), we will see God’s face (1 Cor 13:12). We will behold God’s glory, not by means of his created, intermediary luminaries, but in the unveiled purity of God’s own transcendent light (Rev 21:23; 22:4-5). Those who have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ, who are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit for a holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14), are being prepared for the conjugal vision of the divine king in his unmediated light. This is our “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13). In his light–the light that is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we will see light (Ps 36:9), and we will be satisfied (Ps 17:15). In his light, we will reflect God’s glory back to him by praising the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light, something we have barely begun to do in this life (1 Pet 2:9).