“He wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent. . .” Psalm 104:2
Not long ago, my student assistant went camping. It was mid-summer, mid-South Dakota, boiling hot. I told her she was simply going to fry. She did, she said.
“What did you camp in?” I asked.
A trailer, her friend’s parents’.
I was thinking a tent. “I bet it was hot,” I said.
She shrugged her shoulders. “We had air.”
THE TRAILER HAD AC. “Call that camping?” I said.
My age was showing. Fifty years ago, our family started out on a trip across America, in a brand-new Sears tent. Camping was the only way my parents could have afforded a trip to California with three kids. Camping, to me, still means a tent.
I should know better. For years, I worked at a Wisconsin state park where tents slowly disappeared as pop-up campers and Airstreams started rolling in. When I started, the park had separate areas—one for tents, the other, much smaller, for trailers. Tenters, today, are few and far between.
The virtual disappearance of the tent may be crucial to negotiating the intent of this verse of Psalm 104—“he stretches out the heavens like a tent.” I’m guessing that the associations most of us have with tents—a rather slavish way to camp nowadays—keep us from catching what most KJV readers probably picked up vividly with an alternative translation: “he stretches out the heavens like a curtain.” That line offers a different picture, a royal portrait of God almighty as King.
Watch the action unfold here. In verse two, God almighty enrobes himself with light, then sits before a curtain, in very royal fashion. (And there’s more to come.) He’s king, of course, king of creation.
But then, I confess that, as an American, I’m not all that susceptible to the allure of monarchy. Princess Diana was a knock-out, but California is full of starlets, a ton of them, probably, comelier. She’s been dead for years, but if you want to sell a grocery-aisle magazine, break a story on her—or fake one. She was royalty after all—or at least she married into royalty. Yawn.
But the psalmist is no 21st century American. He’s reaching for his richest reservoir of images here, and that reservoir is filed under “the King.” He wants to get the most he can from his words, and he can’t reach higher than royalty.
Nonetheless, he says “tent,” and I see a Sears-Roebuck with aluminum poles—or a two-man mountain dome, something shaped like an igloo. I don’t see a king, but then, even if I would I wouldn’t fawn. I’m an American. We vilified King George and fought a revolution to rid ourselves of monarchy, right? Read Thomas Paine sometime.
But I live where the sky is huge, and frankly I don’t care if God uses the heavens as a tent in a park or a curtain in a castle. I’m floored from the allusion that God almighty, a God who loves me, uses all of this sky, the broad, unending heavens themselves, as if they were a fashion accessory.
Tent or curtain, verse two brings me back to that image in Psalm 8 of God the Creator, smiling upon us as his fingers tinker with solar systems as if they were car keys, the work of his hands.
King or camper—no matter. All of our language fails anyway. He is our God.
That’s the gospel.