Psalm 104: Here Be Dragons

Read Psalm 104.

On certain old maps and globes, there are warnings: “Here be dragons.” To modern eyes, these words seem quaint, naïve, and foolish. We’ve sailed the world, plumbed the depths of the deepest seas, and found no sea monsters.

The giant squids of legend couldn’t be found—er, well, actually, they could. And we discovered larger squids besides, known as colossal squids. These beasts can weigh more than a thousand pounds and measure as long as forty-five feet or more. So who are we to say that other beasts of the deep are mere legends?

In my own studies, I’ve found the ancients to be right much more often than we acknowledge. So when I see a sign warning of dragons, I’m extra careful.  

Psalm 104 contains such a warning: “There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number—living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there” (vv. 25–26).

The psalmist praises God for His work of creation in the first nine verses, but then shifts gears to highlight God’s active role in sustaining the world He made. Ugarit, Israel’s neighbor to the north, believed Leviathan was a seven-headed monster who lived in the sea. Depending on which sources you choose to read, Leviathan may be another name for the sea god Yam, or it could be that the monster was one of his powerful minions. Either way, Ugaritic literature holds that the god Baal subdued Leviathan in a great cosmic battle at the beginning of history.

The biblical writers don’t deny the existence of Leviathan, but their take on his sordid history is a bit different from that of their Ugaritic counterparts. Psalm 74:14 says, “It was you [God] who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave it as food to the creatures of the desert.” Job warns about “those who are ready to rouse Leviathan” (Job 3:8) and pictures the great beast as a creature who likes to play (41:1–34). In Psalm 104, Leviathan is again at play, “formed to frolic” (v. 26), or as the late Eugene Peterson put it, Leviathan is God’s “pet dragon” (MSG). Isaiah reveals that Leviathan will meet his demise at the end of history (Isaiah 27:1). And there may be a connection to Leviathan in the book of Revelation, where both the ancient red dragon identified with Satan and the beast from the sea are said to have seven heads (Revelation 12:3; 13:1), just like the creature of Ugaritic fame.

While I’m not holding out hope that scientists will soon discover a species of seven-headed aquatic dinosaurs in the Mediterranean Sea, it just won’t do to ignore what the Bible says about Leviathan. It also won’t do to flatten out the literature of Scripture, supposing that the ancient Israelites who penned these verses were incapable of using figurative language or symbolism. In other words, it doesn’t really matter whether there once existed a sea creature that more or less fits the description of Leviathan. It also doesn’t matter if people in the ancient Near East believed in real-life sea monsters. What matters is how they used the common and accepted understanding of Leviathan in their own writings, even as the Holy Spirit inspired and preserved the words they wrote.

For the Israelites and their neighbors, the sea was not a friendly place. In fact, it was synonymous with chaos and death. Leviathan, whose realm was the ocean, became a perfect symbol of destruction and disorder.

Now, think about what the Bible says about the creation of our world. Before God spoke light into being, “the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). In other words, the world was a pulsing mass of wet chaos. There was nothing but ocean. But then God spoke, and He brought form to the formless and filled all that was empty.

If you were to chart the days of creation, you’d see that the first three days have to do with forming and the last three have to do with filling. You’d also see that the two sets of three days correspond. The realms that were formed on day one (day and night) were filled on day four (with the sun, moon, and stars). The same sort of relationship exists between days two and five, and days three and six.

The six days of creation put an end to the chaos. God brought goodness out of the watery mess that was the world in Genesis 1:1–2. That’s why the biblical authors are quick to correct the record coming out of Ugarit. In essence, they said, “Oh, you think chaos was subdued when Baal defeated Leviathan? No, Yahweh is the true God. He ended the chaos. He defeated Leviathan. In fact, the beasts of the sea were created by God; they answer to Him.”

Adam and Eve woke Leviathan when they sinned, and chaos once again entered our world. The beauty of the garden gave way to shame and emptiness. We continue to rouse Leviathan when we sin today. But God is bringing a new creation, and Leviathan will never again lift his seven heads to bring trouble to this world.

This new world is coming not because of a word spoken, but because of the Word made flesh, crucified, and raised to new life.

Note: I’ll be taking a break from these posts for the New Year’s holiday, but Psalm 105 will be ready and waiting for you on Monday, January 4, 2021. Have a blessed New Year!

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