Old Testament

PSALM 8 

8:1 O Lord our God, how great is your name in all the earth! You whose splendour covers the heavens. 8:2 From the mouths of children and infants you have established a stronghold in defiance of your enemies, bringing to an end those who rebel against you. 8:3 When I look at the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the starts that you have put into place, 8:4 what is man that you spare a thought for him, the son of man that you care for him? 8:5 Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowning him with glory and honour. 8:6 You have appointed him to rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet: 8:7 sheep and oxen, all of them, along with the beasts of the field, 8:8 the birds of the air and the fish of the sea, whatever travels the paths of the oceans. 8:9 O Lord our God, how great is your name in all the earth! 

Background: 

This can be read as a song of the praise of God in which the created person is understood in terms of the creator God. It was more than likely sung during a formal time of worship in the temple probably during the time after the exile. Some of its elements though go back to a time well before that in Israelite history and religion and pick up elements of Canaanite worship. 

Commentary: 

8:1 The psalm begins with a clear proclamation that the Lord, the God of Israel is not only king but he is the creator of the universe. Both of these elements are important for the understanding of how the created person fits into this picture of reality. God is the creator king and any understanding of the human person must be developed out of this starting point. The name of God is great throughout creation because of his power, his glory and his might. Significantly, this name is not hidden away but has been revealed to his chosen people Israel. Having the name means that they also have access to this glory through the covenant God has made with them. 

This is the context in which we need to begin to read this psalm. It starts with a tone of wonderment, of thanksgiving, praise and astonishment that this all powerful God would chose to reveal himself to mere creatures and chose one people out of all creation to be his own. It is in this revelation of the name of God that helps us to understand not only the meaning of creation but also the place that human beings have in it. Whatever the psalm might go on to say about the human creature, the starting point for understanding that creature is God. 

8:2 This is notoriously difficult verse to translate and interpret and the best way forward is to read them as though written by a poet. It is out of the babbling of infants at the breast that the primacy of God is asserted and proclaimed. These are so small there is no way that they could resort to logic and reason to appreciate their need to praise God yet their praise is itself a foil against the agnostic, against those who reject God and those who worship him. A bulwark is built by these babies against those who wish to wage war against God and that bulwark is nothing less than their joyful babbling at the wonders they see around them. In the eyes of infants the world is filled with glories and splendours that we adults no longer notice. They babble and laugh, giggle and chatter away at the gaudy baubles that are all around them. In this they praise God - without even knowing him. They rejoice in the beauties of creation out of a natural wonderment, an innate understanding that something marvellous exists here. 

The baby surrenders himself or herself to the world around and allows their minds to be caught up by those splendours. The sceptics and the atheists are so entangled by their own preconceived ideas, by the power of their own logic and power of thinking that they are no longer able to see beyond what their minds can absorb. That is why they cannot see God. Their intelligence and self pride is like a wall they put up that blocks God out. To see the greatness of God, to be caught up in his kingly power, one needs to step outside of human limitations and allow oneself to be taken up into the mysteries of God. 

8:3-4 We now continue on with our understanding of the magnificence of this God. What kind of God is it that can create the heavens with just the power that comes from his fingers! A God who can move around the moon and the stars at will? Imagine what could happen if he was to let loose with both of his hands! What we have here is a God who becomes very personally and directly involved in creation. It is his. He has placed his own personal stamp on it, just as surely as does the artist who creates a jug out of a piece of clay. It is his own and in it we can find something of God himself. 

It is in this context that we can now begin to appreciate the wonder that comes into the song of the poet. Given the magnificence of this creator and ruler of creation, why should the human person be considered as being so special? Why would such an all powerful God spare a thought for one of his creatures? Why would God even bother to keep men and women in his mind? It makes no sense and cannot arise out of the greatness of the human person. Any special consideration could only come about because of an initiative on the part of God. 

In this verse there are two words used for the human person: there is the word "adam" and then another word "enosh". Both mean the same thing but while one refers more to the human person as created by God, man and woman before the fall, the other refers to the fallen person, men and women who are caught up in the web of sin. This is where the true power of the psalm comes alive. It is one thing for the all powerful creator God to love one of his creatures when they live in the way they were created to be living. It is another entirely when we find this same magnificent God loving the fallen creature. The man and woman who disobey him, who reject him and who refuse to acknowledge him as Lord and God. The Lord our God loves them both and holds both of them close to his heart. 

8:5 Just what this means can be seen in this verse. God has raised up the man and the woman to such a level that they are only little less than gods. The word is "elohim" a word used for God as well as for other heavenly beings. They are made in the image and likeness of God, raised up by God to have a heavenly element to them. This divine within the human has not been taken away by sin. Men and women may be fragile creatures, insignificant when compared to the vastness of the heavens, yet in the mind of God they have a special place, a particular role and carry within them something of the ongoing activity of God himself. What makes the human so important, sacred and valuable is not what he or she can achieve on their own but through what is alive within them. 

8:6 It is because they exist under the command of God that they carry out his dominion over the other creatures on the earth. God commanded them to care for, to rule over the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. They do not exercise this capacity by their own right but only because they are placed here by God. God is the only King and Ruler in creation and we humans must always understand that our power is limited to obedience to his will. All of our powers and privileges emanate from God and are to be considered as being good and acceptable only inasmuch as they reveal God. When they are used soley for our own benefit, for our own pleasure and when they are exercised in a way that enslave and dis-empower others, then they are being abused. If they are used in ways that harm the environment, that do not take into account the sovereignty of God over creation, then they become abusive powers for which we will be held to account. 

8:7-8 In this section we move onto the domesticated animals as well as the wild and untamed beasts. All of these come under the power of the created adam (and enosh) because that is the way God wills it to be. It has nothing to do with human splendour and might. It has everything to do with the very nature and goodness of God. 

8:9 Significantly, the psalm ends as it begins, in the praise of God. The middle sections of the psalm seem to sing of the glory of the human person but the fact that the psalm begins and ends with the praise of God keeps the human within their rightful context - God. Any glory that we might be tempted to attach to ourselves is always limited by the reality of God. When we look at ourselves and the world around us, the only thing we can really say is: "O Lord our God, how great is your name in all the earth". 

Reflection: 

This psalm does two important things. It sings of the glory of God who is the unquestionable king and ruler of the whole of creation. But it also sings of the dignity and sanctity of the human person. Because God is who he is we creatures have a special place in creation, one that should not be taken lightly but also one that should not be raised up beyond the reality that we come from God. 

The whole of creation, including ourselves, is permeated with the glory of God. In everything we see and in all that we do, we should be able to find reason to give praise to God for his goodness and his loving mercy. It is everywhere, in everything and at all times working away to reveal his power. While there are certainly times when this is not immediately evident to us, this does not diminish the reality: God's glory is throughout the whole of creation. This includes our human activities and the passage of history. 

When we wish to speak of the human we need to speak of men and women within the context of God. This is why the psalm begins and ends with the same statement about the glory of God, about how great is his name in all the earth. Only within this setting can we then go on and speak about the human. This is important when we come to things like ethics, laws and human behaviour. These all have to take into account our origins (God), our destiny (God) and our purpose for being here on earth (God's plan). Everything we do, think and say must be understood within these parameters. 

To fully understand and appreciate this psalm we must read into it the incarnation. For it is in the coming of the Son of Man as a human being among us, like us but without sin, that we can fully live as psalm 8 sets out. It is in Jesus that we are able to live out our existence in the manner set out for us by God in creation. In Jesus we see psalm 8 coming alive and only in Jesus are we able to see the God who is being revealed to us, not only in the majesty of heaven but in all that happens under the sun.