Psalm 104.4


This article considers the remarkable difference between the translation of Psalm 104.4 in the Authorised (King James) Version and its translation in most modern English versions. In the Authorised Version the verse appears thus:

Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire

Most modern versions make no mention of either ‘angels’ or ‘spirits’, but only of ‘messengers’ and ‘winds’. The New International Version, for example, translates the verse:

He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants.

The difference in the translation is principally due to the fact that the Hebrew for ‘his angels’, מלאכיו, could also mean ‘his messengers’, and the Hebrew for ‘spirits’, רוחות, could also mean ‘winds’. While the Authorised Version translators understood these Hebrew words in Psalm 104.4 to mean angels and spirits, most modern versions understand them as messengers and winds. So which is correct?

In order to answer this question we first consider the verse itself, then the context of the verse, and finally the important principle of the analogy of Scripture.


The Verse Itself

The Hebrew of Psalm 104.4 is as follows:

לֹהֵֽט׃ אֵ֣שׁ מְ֝שָׁרְתָ֗יו רוּח֑וֹת מַלְאָכָ֣יו עֹשֶׂ֣ה

If we translate literally and keep to the order in which the Hebrew words appear, taking מַלְאָכָ֣יוto mean His angels and רוּח֑וֹת spirits, we obtain:

(he) making his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire

This agrees with the Authorised Version translation.

It may be observed in this translation that His angels and His ministers are the subjects in the verse and spirits and a flaming fire are predicates. Of course, given the parallelism of the verse, His minister in the second part of the verse is most likely simply a reference to the angels in the first part under another name, so that there is actually only one subject.

On the other hand, if we translate using messengers and winds we obtain:

(he) making his messengers winds; his ministers a flaming fire

This is closer to the NIV rendering of the verse, except that the NIV inverts the order of the words and places winds before His messengers and flames of fire before His servants:

He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants

This inversion makes winds and flames of fire the subjects and His messengers and His servants predicates, contrary to the order of the Hebrew words. While it is true that Hebrew is not so bound by word order as English, it is also true that when translating the Hebrew we are not warranted to depart from the word order unless constrained by the context or some other pressing consideration to do so. But no such constraint is evident in this case.

So why did the NIV translators invert the order of the words? The surprising answer is that it was actually due to their decision to translate the Hebrew, מַלְאָכָ֣יו, as His messengers rather than His angels, and to translate רוּח֑וֹת as winds rather than spirits. Once this decision was made the close parallelism of the verse is broken up, there being now two subjects (winds and fire) and not just one (angels), and the focus of the verse—and consequently its meaning—is shifted. It is no longer a statement about the nature of angels, but now speaks of winds and fire and how those elemental forces are servants of the LORD. Thus, winds and fire have become the subjects of the verse and His messengers and His servants the predicates. The NIV translators simply inverted the word order in their English translation to reflect this idea.

The inversion of the word order in the NIV, contrary to the word order of the Hebrew, is thus an inevitable consequence of the decision to translate as מַלְאָכָ֣יו and messengers His as רוּח֑וֹת winds. This mismatch with the word order of the Hebrew ought to have alerted the NIV translators that there was a problem with their translation choice. Why did they not consider the alternative translation using angels and winds since it was free from any such problem? Apparently because they were quite sure that the verse was not speaking of angels, but rather of winds and fire, and this preconception regarding the meaning of the verse led them to ignore the evidence of the normal reading of the Hebrew. Another problem with the NIV translation is its use of the plural flames of fire, even though the Hebrew is in fact singular, a flaming fire. Why did the NIV translators arbitrarily, and contrary to the Hebrew, translate with the plural? Well, they were to some degree compelled to do so because once they had inverted the word order of the second part of the verse, and what was the subject now became the predicate; it would have looked odd to have a plural predicate, His servants, with a singular subject, a flame of fire. We would not normally say a flaming fire His servants, but rather flames of fire His servants. Therefore they arbitrarily changed the singular in the Hebrew to a plural in their English translation.

Finally, we may note a further problem in the NIV with its use of the word servants, rather than ministers, in the last part of the verse:

flames of fire his servants

The Hebrew word used here, מְ֝שָׁרְתָ֗יו, is a plural participle form (with the possessive pronominal suffix, his) of the verb שרת ‘to minister, serve’. This verb is always used of the higher order service of intelligent beings, such as the Levites and priests who ministered in the Temple worship, and never of the unthinking obedience of the inanimate creation. Therefore ministers is surely the better translation. But since the NIV translators had decided that the verse did not refer to angels, but rather to inanimate, material substances, winds and fire, they naturally felt that ministers might be somewhat too elevated a title and so settled on the lesser term servants. In doing so they were not faithful to the Hebrew, but were simply trying to cover over a problem that their own misunderstanding of the verse had produced.

On the other hand, angels are elsewhere in Scripture explicitly said to be ministers of the LORD, e.g. Psalm 103.21, and fire often forms a part of the description of the appearance of angels or else is closely associated with them. So the Authorised Version’s translation of the last part of the verse as

his ministers a flaming fire

is entirely warranted and unencumbered with any difficulty.

Thus the Authorised Version translation of Psalm 104.4 which uses angels and spirits is clearly to be preferred as a plain and faithful translation of the Hebrew. It is a translation free from difficulty and one which gives a perfectly good sense, making a statement regarding the nature of the angels, that is, that they are spiritual beings rather than corporeal, and that they have the nature of flaming fire. Other translations governed by the preconception that the verse cannot be speaking of angels involve themselves in numerous and needless difficulties.


The Context

Let us now consider which translation best fits the context. In Psalm 104 the psalmist praises God for His glorious works in creating and sustaining the world (verses 1, 33–34). The psalmist begins with the creation of light and of the heavens (verse 2), describing how the LORD lays the beams of His chambers in the waters of the heavens, making the clouds His chariots and walking upon the wings of the wind (verse 3). But before descending further to the glorious works of God in the creation of the earth and the sustaining of it (verses 5–35), the psalmist speaks in verse 4 either of the angels as that higher order of beings whom God employs as His ministers, or else of winds and fire as the elemental forces and material substances that are His servants.

Some argue that because there is a mention of winds in verse 3, therefore winds in verse 4 best suits the context. But this argument is superficial. In verse 3 the psalmist speaks of the LORD walking on the wings of the wind and then, according to this argument, he is speaking in verse 4 of making His messengers winds. But if verse 3 is to be understood metaphorically of the winds as divine messengers, how does verse 4 add anything to this thought? It clearly adds nothing, but becomes a mere repetition of the last part of verse 3. This is inconsistent with the steady progression of thought and lack of repetition seen elsewhere in the psalm.

And how are we to explain the mention of fire in the second part of verse 4 when the psalmist does not come to the creation of the earth until verse 5? Some hold that flaming fire is a reference to a lightning bolt in the heavens and not to literal fire. While it is true that fire may apparently sometimes be used poetically for lightning (Psalm 148.8), the particular expression, flaming fire, is nowhere else used of lightning, and the addition of the adjective flaming to fire certainly seems to favour a literal rather than a poetic meaning.

On the other hand, with the translation that uses angels and spirits, the mention of angels at verse 4 and the statement regarding their nature come in quite naturally after speaking of the glory of God and of His glorious works in the heavens above, and before descending to His glorious works upon the earth below. The angels in verse 4 are thus closely associated with God, just as angels also are in the previous psalm, Psalm 103.20–21.

Hence from an examination of the context of Psalm 104.4, there is good reason to prefer the Authorised Version’s rendering of the verse.

Consistent with the Principle of the Analogy of Scripture

But there is a further reason, and a weighty one, for preferring the Authorised Version’s rendering of Psalm 104.4 and that is that it is consistent with the principle of the analogy of Scripture. The Apostle Paul quotes Psalm 104.4 in exactly the same sense as the Authorised Version in Hebrews 1.7 as a proof text that the angels are of lower dignity than the Son:

And of the angels he saith, Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire.

In the Greek of this verse there is the same ambiguity as in the Hebrew of Psalm 104.4: the Greek word for angels can also mean messengers and the Greek word for spirits can also mean winds. But most translators cannot deny that angels is the correct translation here in Hebrews 1.7, since it is quite evident from the context that Paul intends a comparison between Christ and the angels (verses 5–6).

Since Hebrews 1.7 cannot reasonably be translated otherwise than as:

Who maketh his angels spirits, and his ministers a flame of fire

and since the very same Spirit who inspired Psalm 104.4 also inspired Hebrews 1.7, it may be pertinently asked why translators have not taken more heed of Hebrews 1.7 when translating Psalm 104.4. After all, this is clearly a case where the important principle of the analogy of Scripture should apply. Surely the lack of agreement between Psalm 104.4and Hebrews 1.7 in the modern translations only introduces an inconsistency where none need be. Clearly, such an inconsistency would not have come about except that modern translators generally ignored the principle of the analogy of Scripture.


There are three solid reasons for preferring the Authorised Version’s rendering of Psalm 104.4 as:

Who maketh his angels spirits; his ministers a flaming fire

Firstly, it is a rendering of the verse consistent with the normal reading of the Hebrew, from which there is no pressing necessity in this case to depart. Secondly, the context of the Psalm favours this understanding of the verse. Thirdly, and very importantly, it is consistent with the principle of the analogy of Scripture. The Apostle Paul quotes the verse in exactly the same sense in Hebrews 1.7.

Thus we conclude that the Authorised Version translators have correctly rendered Psalm 104.4, in contrast to most modern translations. Since the Authorised Version translators were men evidently called of God to the work of translating the English Bible, it is not surprising that their work has proved to be of a superior and enduring quality.