< June 11, 2017 >

Commentary on Psalm 8

 

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 8 is a psalmic interpretation of creation, comparable to Genesis 1-2 and Job 38-41. More specifically, it is a panegyric on human excellence (Psalm 8:4-6) couched within a pious frame (8:1a, 9). For the psalm celebrates not so much God as the God who created human beings. Human beings, according to our psalm, occupy the honored center in the great chain of being -- “a little lower than divine” (8:5 JPS) but above all earthly creatures (8:6-8).

All of this raises the question that the psalmist appropriately places at the structural heart of the psalm: “What is humanity?” (8:4). And the psalm provides an intricate response: Humanity plays the intermediary role of articulating creaturely praise to God and of mediating divine sovereignty to creation.

The structure of the Psalm and the cosmic order

The structure of Psalm 8 mirrors the structure of the cosmos.

God and humanity anchor and animate the structure of the psalm. On the one hand, the praise of God frames the psalm at the beginning and the end (8:1a, 9); and, on the other, at the structural center of the psalm, is humanity (8:4-5). This is not a static structure. Far from it, mutual regard between God and humanity dynamically connect the outer frame and the core of the psalm: God, from the outside, looks inward toward humanity with care and concern: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (8:4 NRSV); and humanity, from the middle, looks outward toward God in praise: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (8:1a, 9). The entire psalm, then, is an echo chamber of divine love and human adoration, pulsating in rhythmic response inward and outward.

Filling out the rest of the psalm are creatures above and below humanity. Above human beings are the heavenly bodies: the sun, the moon, the stars, and divine beings (in Hebrew, ?elohim, which may be translated as “God” or “gods” [8:5]) (8:3, 5). Below humanity are all earthly creatures: domesticated and wild animals of land, sky, and sea (8:6-8).

The total picture is of an orderly world that mirrors exactly the structure of the psalm. God embraces all of creation all around, and humanity sits crowned and, I dare say, enthroned at the center of the created world. Human beings, even more than God, are the stars of the psalm.

In light of this exaltation of human beings in the psalm, it is important to note that human beings are nowhere subjects of verbs of action in the psalm. Rather, God is always and everywhere the one who acts: God “makes [human beings] less than divine,” “crowns them with glory and honor” (8:5), “makes them rulers,” and “places” all other creatures under their authority (8:6). That is to say, whatever glory, honor, and power humanity possesses, their source is God. Humanity rules, but it does so at the pleasure of God as God’s ambassador.

The proper understanding of humanity’s relationship of authority over creation as a mediation of divine will attenuates the temptation to misinterpret the psalm as a theological carte blanche for human beings to use and abuse creation solely for their own ends. For, if we remember that God’s desire for creation is that it be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1), then it becomes incumbent on humanity, as God’s faithful representative, to work toward making life on earth flourish, not only for human beings, but also for all of God’s creation. The duty and the privilege to do so constitutes the honor and glory of human beings.

The enigma of infant lips

The world according to Psalm 8 is orderly and resplendent and, as noted above, reflected in the structural artistry of the psalm itself. But not all is right angles and straight lines. In verse 2, God’s cosmic foes, the enemy and the destroyer, appear -- curiously in the same frame as babes and infants.

God’s enemies, in the context of creation, are the forces of chaos and evil that appear elsewhere in the Bible as Leviathan, Rahab, and sea monsters (Isaiah 27:1; 51:9-10; Psalm 74:13-15; Genesis 1:21). And God’s ongoing work of creation involves maintaining a cosmic boundary to keep the sea monsters at bay, lest they penetrate creation and work death and destruction on earth (Psalm 104:9; Job 38:10-11; Daniel 7). According to Hebrew thought, shared by our psalmist, evil persists in the world, and God actively battles forces of evil in continuous assertions of divine and creative power.

Divine combat, however, does not appear in Psalm 8. To our great surprise, the psalm does not assert that God battles the enemy but that, remarkably, human babes and infants do! How can we resolve this enigma?

As noted above, human beings are passive beneficiaries of divine action; God creates, empowers, and authorizes them to rule. But human beings are not utterly inactive, and their modest activities have cosmic consequences. First, human beings see,“When I look at your heavens…” (8:3). The result of sight, it appears, is appreciation of God’s majesty which is manifest in creation, the works of God’s fingers and hands (8:3, 6-8). This leads to the all-important second human activity. Human beings speak and declare God’s praise: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” In sum, human beings perceive God’s glory manifest in creation and so give praise to God.

The observation that should be underlined at this point is that human declaration of praise constitutes the outer frame of the psalm, which we said above is analogous to the outer boundary of the cosmos that God maintains in order to keep out chaos and evil. In other words, according to the theology of the psalm, human praise somehow makes God present as a protective reality for creation. Praise keeps out evil.

This is not mere speculation on the structure of the psalm but may be the solution to the enigma of the “mouth of babes and infants” (8:2). Verse 2 says that God founds a bulwark, one might reasonably surmise, against God’s cosmic foes “from the mouth of babes and infants.” If we assume that these are human babes, what the psalmist may be saying is that even the mumbled praise of babes, no less than the fully articulate praise of human adults which frame the psalm, constitute the bulwark erected against evil. Not only professional temple singers but also little children participate in the duty and privilege of all humanity: In declaring God’s praise, babes and infants defeat the enemy and make real God’s orderly reign on earth.

So we join in the unending song:

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!