"he makes his messengers winds, his ministers a flaming fire."
Jim Eliot, the iconic missionary of the 20th century who was martyred in January, 1956 in Equador while trying to bring the gospel to the Auca Indians, once wrote in his Journal, "Am I ignitible? God deliver me from the dread asbestos of 'other things'. Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be a flame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this, my soul -- short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God's house consumed Him. 'Make me Thy Fuel, Flame of God.' (quoted from The Journals of Jim Elliot and also Through Gates of Splendor by Elizabeth Elliot). Ever since it was first published, this quote, based on Psalm 104:4, has been the gold standard for what those who aspire to all sorts of Christian service. Oh, to have a heart like Jim Elliot!
But wait. Does a famous meditation on a verse obscure other things we can mine from the text? As you can see, I've been so conditioned as to what the interpretation of this passage is that I can quote you, not just chapter and verse, but even tell you that the quote is to be found on page 18 in Through Gates of Splendor. The Evangelical Movement of the 20th century is a well-quoted movement. But how many "flames of fire" actually came out of that movement, and how many of us lived these things vicariously rather than experience them for ourselves?
Since Elliot's time there has been a huge amount done in terms of making the understanding of the hebrew or greek texts accessible to the lay person. If I were to take a stab at a "common" translation of this verse it would say, "God (He) makes the winds his messengers, flames of fire are his ministers." This is not to say that Jim Elliot got it wrong. I just want to dig as deeply as I can. And in context, this reading opens up the idea of the greatness of God so vividly!
Bless the Lord, O my soul!
O Lord my God, you are very great!
You are clothed with splendor and majesty,
covering yourself with light as with a garment,
stretching out the heavens like a tent.
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters;
he makes the clouds his chariot;
he rides on the wings of the wind;
he makes his messengers winds,
his ministers a flaming fire.
In this passage light itself is the only suitable thing for God to wear. He dwells in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16).
No building on earth could contain God -- he had to use the expanse of the heavens just to make a sort of a tent. Of course, the hebrew word tent is also where we get the idea of a tabernacle.
Science tells us that the earth is between 70 and 75% covered in water. Since the earth is just about 24,900 miles around (measured at the widest points), that should give you some idea of the size of a room God is thinking about when he talks about laying out the support beams for his "chambers".
I love lying on my back on a warm fall day and watching the clouds speed past. Don't ask NASA to build a vehicle that can do what God is suggesting here. Only clouds will do:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform:
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines,
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
-- William Cowper (1774)
And now the meaning of verse 4 comes into sharp relief! In the 1930s politicians used to travel around the country in vans with great loudspeakers on top blaring their message. If God's "van" is the clouds, then the loudspeaker he uses to proclaim his message is the wind! And if the mountains are God's footstool and if he dwells there in unapproachable light, then nothing short of active volcanos would suffice as lamp stands in his great tabernacle! O! How majestic and splendid is our God!
Finally, I am reminded, not just of Jim Elliot, but of all those who give their lives with the Word of Christ in their heart and on their lips. As the poet James R. Lowell (1845) reminds us, "By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track." They, too, are lamps in the great Hall of the King, set on fire by men's cruelty, fear, violence, and judgment. What we see on earth is a momentary flame, burning out quickly the way Jim Elliot imagined himself, dying at only 28. But their flame burns eternally before the King, pointing the way always to Christ and his Eternal Throne.