Science in Christian Perspective
Creation Science Takes Psalm 104:6-9 Out of Context
Paul H. Seely*
1544 S.E. 34th Ave.
Portland, OR 97219
From: PSCF 51 (September 1999): 170-174.
Creation science theory interprets Noah's flood as a global event. One of the many facts which falsifies that interpretation is that there is not enough water on all the earth (including the negligible amount in the atmosphere) to cover "all the high mountains" (Gen. 7:19) on the globe. To cover all the high mountains on the globe would take eight times more water than now exists on earth and in the atmosphere.1
One might suppose that creation science theorists would simply have God create more water for the Flood and then just as miraculously have it disappear after the Flood. They rightfully reject this solution, however, because in the Bible the water of the Flood comes only from natural sources (rain and the waters from above and below [Gen. 7:4, 11, 12]); and after the Flood it does not disappear instantly and supernaturally but rather subsides very slowly over months via the natural processes of evaporation and running off (Gen. 8:1-3).
By accepting the biblical account in Gen. 8:1-3, however, and thus restricting the water of Noah's flood to that which presently exists on earth--preeminently in the oceans, creation science theorists are saddled with the problem of there not being enough water to cover "all the high mountains" (Gen. 7:19) on the globe. For even if all the ocean beds were raised to present sea level and all of the world's ocean water was thus thrust up and over the land, it would only reach a depth of c. two miles, c. 12,000 feet.2
That would leave Mt. Ararat, which is c. 17,000 feet high, only about two-thirds covered; Mt. Everest, which is c. 29,000 feet high, only about one-third covered; and numerous other mountains on earth likewise only partially covered. All of the mountains of the globe would not even begin to have fifteen cubits of water above their tops as specified by Gen. 7:20. Also, there is no good reason to suppose that all of the earth's ocean beds were raised to present sea level during Noah's flood.
This lack of sufficient water to cover all the mountains of the earth, as Gen. 7:20 requires (when "earth" is interpreted globally), falsifies the theory that Gen. 6-8 is speaking of a global flood. But, creation science theorists, not realizing they are unconsciously reading modern science's concept of a global earth into Gen. 6-8,3mistakenly identify their eisegetical interpretation with God's revelation.
So, although they acknowledge there is not enough water on earth to cover all the mountains of the globe as they exist today,4 creation science theorists attempt to save their misinterpretation by reducing the height of the mountains at the time of Noah's flood to 12,000 feet or less. John Whitcomb believes they were probably only 6,000-7,000 feet high (a height apparently chosen because some creation scientists believe that all of the water in the oceans would only cover the earth to a depth of about 7,500 feet). The mountains, according to the dominant creation science theory, only grew to their present heights during the latter part of Noah's flood.5
This solution is rationally plausible, but there is no scientific evidence which even suggests that all of the mountains of earth were less than 12,000 feet high at the time of Noah's flood. Geologists, including the majority of professing Christian geologists, believe the mountains at the time of Noah's flood (say 2,500-7,000 BC) were essentially the same height they are today.6
Not even the scientists in the Creation Research Society are able to provide scientific evidence of any kind to show that mountains at today's heights did not exist at the time of Noah's flood, but rose to their present heights only at the end of the Flood.
In fact, the creation science belief that the mountains only rose to their present heights and the ocean beds fell to their present depths during Noah's flood is so contrary to the laws of physics that even scientists within the Creation Research Society admit there is no way this could have happened unless God suspended some of the most basic constants in physics. For example, as one of them pointed out, for the mountains of today to have been formed during Noah's flood, God would have had to have made the earth's crustal plates move one million times faster than they move today and the rocks cool as least ten thousand times faster than the laws of physics allow for.7
Another very capable creation scientist, seeing how scientifically improbable it is that the mountains rose to their present heights and the ocean beds fell to their present depths during Noah's flood, concluded that it would be easier from a scientific point of view to believe that the earth and its inhabitants were half as big as they are now; and thus the mountains at their present heights could have been flooded with the water available--with the earth and its inhabitants growing to their present size since the time of Noah's flood!8
Another creation scientist, seeing how extraordinarily improbable it is that the mountains of earth rose to their present heights during Noah's flood, is writing a paper on "the unlikelihood of orogeny [mountain building] occurring during the Flood.9
One or two other creation scientists who participated in the "Minisymposium on Orogeny," which was published in the Creation Research Society Quarterly in 1987, offered speculations as to how the mountains doubled and even tripled in size during Noah's flood; but, their speculations skirted the most serious scientific problems; and, none of the offered speculations is regarded even by their fellow creation scientists as particularly believable.
So, the creation scientists of the Creation Research Society nowhere offer scientific proof for saying that all the mountains of Noah's day were less than 12,000 feet high and only rose to their present heights during Noah's flood. This belief, therefore, rests solely upon the fact that it is logically necessary in order to save the interpretation of Gen. 6-8 as a global flood. The argument for the rising of the mountains in the latter part of the Flood is thus circular and hence logically invalid.
Whitcomb and other creation science theorists, therefore, seeing that they have neither a scientific nor a logically valid basis for saying that the mountains of earth were only 12,000 feet or less high before Noah's flood, turn to Scripture for support. They attempt to save their theory by appealing to Ps. 104:6-9 as teaching that the mountains rose to their present heights and the ocean basins fell to their present depths during Noah's flood.10 The question is, "Does Psalm 104 really teach this?"
Is Psalm 104:6-9 about Creation or Noah's Flood?
You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
The waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they fled;
At the voice of your thunder they hastened away.
They went up over the mountains; They went down into
To the place which you founded for them.
You have set a boundary that they may not pass over,
That they may not return to cover the earth.
Psalm 104:6-9 (NKJ)
Of the twenty-eight commentaries on Ps. 104:6-9 (ranging from the sixteenth century to the present) which I consulted, all of them regarded Ps. 104:6-9 as referring to the third day of creation. Some of them explicitly denied that these verses referred to Noah's flood. Three commentators, however, said that in addition to the reference to the third day of creation there is also a secondary reference to Noah's flood. No commentator saw Ps. 104:6-9 as referring solely to Noah's flood--as creation science theorists do. The basic reason commentators see Ps. 104:6-9 as a reference to the third day of creation is that v. 2a of the Psalm is an implicit reference to the first day of creation, vv. 2b and 3a are references to the second day of creation, and v. 5 which is tied literarily to vv. 6-9 is a reference to the third day of creation. So, context favors the idea that vv. 6-9 are a reference to creation, not to the Flood.
The use of the word tehom ("the deep") in v. 6 connects better with Gen. 1 than with the Flood account according to the commentators; but, one must grant that the phrase "above the mountains" reminds one of Gen. 7:19. Yet, neither of these wordings settles the issue because the Flood account also mentions the tehom (Gen. 7:11); and, the phrase "above the mountains" lacks the word "high" which is used in Gen. 7:19, leaving it so general a phrase that it is just as applicable to Gen. 1 as to the Flood account. There is nothing in Gen. 1 which excludes the earth from having mountains today as high as they were before the earth was separated from the waters (Gen. 1:9). Also, other biblical passages associate the creation of the earth with the creation of the mountains (Prov. 8:25, 26; Ps. 90:2). Psalm 104:9 is the verse which creation science theorists really count on to connect Ps. 104:6-9 to the Flood account. As Whitcomb and Morris put it:
that this passage [Ps. 104:6-9] refers to the Flood rather than to the initial Creation is evident from the last verse, which refers to God's promise that the world-covering flood would never again be visited upon the earth (Gen. 9:11).11
If one lifts vv. 6-9 out of the context of the preceding verses, one might agree that v. 9b, "the waters will not return to cover the earth," fits the promise of Gen. 9:11 better than Gen. 1:9. But, is interpreting v. 9b apart from its context a good enough reason to reject the historic interpretation of the church?
In addition to the fact that verses 2-5 place verses 6-9 in a context of creation, the action of Ps. 104:9, "setting a boundary," also fits the context of the first three days of Genesis. On day one in Genesis, light is separated from darkness: God puts a boundary between them. On day two, the waters above are separated from the waters below: God puts a boundary between them. On day three, the waters below are gathered into one place and separated from the dry land: God puts a boundary between them (which is the sand of the seashore according to Jer 5:22). Psalm 104:6-9 with its "setting a boundary" thus fits very nicely into the creation context and seems to be clearly referring to God's actions on day three.
Finally, it is quite clear from the way the waters are described in Ps. 104:7 that the reference is not to the removal of the Flood's waters from the earth. That is, in Ps. 104:7 the waters are described as rebuked by God in such a way that they "fled" ... "hastened away," in the sense of being in a hurry or alarm. The picture is one of waters rapidly running off, just as would have occurred in Gen. 1:9, 10 as the newly created earth emerged from below as a submarine rising to the surface. In contrast, Gen. 8:3 describes the removal of the waters of Noah's flood as subsiding very, very slowly, taking some seven and one-half months to get to the place where it was dry enough for Noah to get off the ark.12
The picture of waters fleeing in panic given in Ps. 104:7 is just the opposite of the interminably slow lowering of the waters by draining and evaporation given in Gen. 8:3. We can see then that Ps. 104:6-9 fits the context of Gen. 1 much better than the context of Gen. 8.
Despite the fact that the context of Ps. 104:9 is that of creation rather than the Flood, Whitcomb and Barker each try to save it as a reference to the Flood by citing Isa. 54:9 as "a significant parallel passage." Isaiah 54:9 reads: "To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth."
If you remove Ps. 104:9 from its context, it can look partially parallel to Isa. 54:9 in that both verses refer to water not again covering the earth. But, even removed from its context, Ps. 104:9 is significantly different from Isa. 54:9. In Isa. 54:9, God made a covenant with living beings and swore to them that the waters of Noah would never again flood the earth. In Ps. 104:9, on the other hand, there is no covenant with living beings and no oath. God simply "sets a boundary" for the inanimate waters. Isaiah 54:9 is not a true parallel to Ps. 104:9.
If one were looking for genuine parallels to Ps. 104:9, they are easily found in Prov 8:29 and Job 38:4-11. Both passages speak not only of God setting a boundary for the sea, just as Ps. 104:9 does, but also of God laying the foundation of the earth, just as Ps. 104:5 does. They are accordingly much closer parallels than Isa. 54:9; and since their context is creation, they confirm that Ps. 104:9 is a reference to creation.
This leaves the question: "What does Ps. 104:9b mean when it says the waters 'will not return to cover the earth'?" How can this be a reference to creation as the context demands when the waters did in fact return and cover the earth at the time of the Flood? The answer to this question is that v. 9b is a rhetorical statement made for the purpose of emphasizing God's power and sustaining control over nature as he keeps the sea from engulfing the land. (Cf. Jer 5:22 where the point of mentioning God's setting a boundary for the sea is to obtain respect for God.) The rhetorical statement is like the statement in Ezek. 21:5 [Hebrew 10] where in the threat against Jerusalem and the land of Judah. God says: "I the Lord have drawn my sword from its scabbard; it will not return (shub, same word as in Ps. 104:9b) again." This statement is even stronger than the one in Ps. 104:9b because it adds the word 'od ("again"), thus making the "not" a virtual "never." Yet Ezek. 21:5 is just rhetorical, emphasizing God's determination to judge and to slay. It is not to be taken literally because just seven chapters later Ezekiel is prophesying the return of Israel to live in the land in peace (Ezek. 28:25, 26), just the opposite of the Lord never returning his sword to his scabbard.13
Similarly, Ps. 104:5 says: "The earth will never be moved." If you interpret that literally as an absolute promise, you contradict Rev. 20:11. Further, since the straightforward meaning of Ps. 104:6-9 is a reference to creation, if you insist on taking the words, "they will not return to cover the earth," literally, you would have to conclude that the waters of Noah's flood must not have completely covered the earth and therefore the Flood was local.
Does Psalm 104:8 Say that Mountains Rose?
Since the subject of verses 7, 8b and 9 is "the waters" and verses 10-13 all revolve around water, one must say that contextually the subject of v. 8a is probably "the waters." Most exegetes have understood it that way; and, the minority who understood the text to say, "the mountains rose," understood it with reference to creation--with no thought that the mountains at creation would not be as high as they are today.
Barker, unable to see that the waters are being poetically described (apparently as an army in rout14) rejected "water" as the subject because, he said, water going up mountains "violates the natural order of things."15
He interpreted v. 8a as meaning that the mountains rose to their present heights in "the latter part of the flood year." The tendential nature of this interpretation is evident not only in its ascription of the verse to the Flood when virtually every other exegete in history has ascribed it to Creation; but also in Barker's self-contradiction. For he interprets the verse as describing mountains rising so fast they certainly "violate the natural order of things." The fact that his interpretation is given with an explicit reference to creation science theory strongly suggests that it is flood theory rather than the biblical context which is determining his exegesis.
Nearly all exegetes throughout church history have understood Ps. 104:6-9 as referring to the third day of creation. The preceding verses, the action of "setting a boundary," the rapid retreat of the waters, and the parallel verses in Prov. 8:29 and Job 38:4-11 all testify that Ps. 104:6-9 is about Creation not the Flood. The fact that the Flood waters are described in Gen. 8:1-14 as running off very, very slowly is just the opposite of the description given in Ps. 104:7; so, we can be sure Ps. 104:6-9 is not a reference to the Flood.
Creation science theorists are departing from their own standards of following a straight forward interpretation of Scripture when they offer an interpretation of Ps. 104:6-9 which is contrary to its context and which virtually no one but themselves has ever seen there. It seems apparent the only reason they do this is because they desperately need a cover for the fact they have arbitrarily introduced a gigantic miracle ad hoc to save their theory from being falsified.16
1Bernard Ramm, The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 244; Wayne Ault, "Flood" in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible; M. C. Tenney and S. Barabas, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 555, 556.
2John Whitcomb, The World That Perished (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988) 42, 44, 56. Other creation scientists say just 1.7 miles of water (Glenn Morton, Creation Research Society Quarterly 24 (9/1987): 54, Frederick Filby and Byron Nelson both say 1.5 miles (The Flood Reconsidered, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970], 7; The Deluge Story in Stone, [Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1931], 23). The basic math is simple: the ocean averages c. 2.4 miles in depth and covers c. two-thirds of the earth; if it has to cover the remaining third, the depth will fall one-third to c. 1.6 miles.
3The concept of the "earth" in Gen 6-8 goes back ultimately to Gen 1; but, in spite of the fact that a global earth is frequently read into Gen 1 by modern readers, this interpretation is not the historico-grammatical meaning. See my paper, "The Geographical Meaning of 'earth' and 'seas' in Gen 1:10," Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997): 231-55.
4Whitcomb, The World, 42, 44; Donald, DeYoung, Weather and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), 115.
5John C. Whitcomb and Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Flood, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1961), 77; Whitcomb, The World, 42.
6Ault, "Flood," 552; Cf. Donald Boardman, "Did Noah's Flood Cover the Entire World? No" in The Genesis Debate; Ronald Youngblood, ed., (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1986), 210-2: 217-8.
7John Baumgardner, "The Imperative of Non-Stationary Natural Law in Relation to Noah's Flood," Creation Research Society Quarterly 27 (12/1987): 99; Cf. Davis Young, Creation and the Flood (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977), 177-85.
8Glenn Morton, "Mountain Synthesis on an Expanding Earth," Creation Research Society Quarterly 24 (Sept. 1987): 125. Although Glenn Morton no longer subscribes to creation science, he was sincerely trying to justify creation science when he wrote this paper.
9"Bernard Northrup, "Mountains, Meteorites and Plate Tectonics," Creation Research Society Quarterly 24 (12/1987): 125.
10Whitcomb and Morris, The Genesis Flood, 121-2, 267; Whitcomb, The World, 37-42; David Barker, "The Waters of the Earth: An Exegetical Study of Psalm 104:1-9," Grace Theological Journal 7.1 (1986): 57-80; Mace Barker, "Evidence of a World Wide Flood from a Study of Dinosaurs," in Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Creationism (Pittsburgh, PA: Creation Science Fellowship, 1990), 15.
11Whitcomb and Morris, The Genesis Flood, 122; Barker says the same thing in "The Waters of the Earth," 78-9.
12Whitcomb and Morris, The Genesis Flood, 8. It should also be noted that the slow draining of the Flood waters implies that uniformitarian natural law is already in effect; hence the idea of mountains rising during this period far more rapidly than natural law allows is contrary to the tenor of the biblical account.
13Similarly, Prov. 30:30 speaks of the lion as "mighty before the beasts and does not retreat (shub) before any;" but, in fact, a lion will retreat before an elephant or a crocodile. The statement is rhetorical to glorify the lion as Ps. 104:9 is rhetorical to glorify God.
14Richard Clifford, "A Note on Psalm 104:5-9," Journal of Biblical Literature 100 (1981): 89.
15Barker, "The Waters of the Earth," 78.
16Whitcomb sees Ps. 104:6-9 as solving "one of the great problems connected with a universal flood." (Whitcomb, The World, 39).