< June 07, 2020 >

Commentary on Psalm 8

 

Psalm 8 is arguably one of the best known and best loved psalms in the Psalter. 

It masterfully weaves together words of wonder at the creator God and awe at God’s mindfulness (NRSV) of humanity. God, in fact, entrusted the care of the creation, the work of God’s fingers, to mere humans.

The words, “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (NRSV) begin and end the psalm, forming a frame of praise around the poem. The psalmist addresses God as “LORD” and “Sovereign.” The word “LORD” is the translation of the personal name of Israel’s God, Yahweh, the name that God revealed to Moses at the burning bush. The word translated “Sovereign” is ’adon, a word used by someone of a lower position to address someone in a higher position. So the psalm singer addresses God by God’s personal name, Yahweh, and acknowledges Yahweh as “our overlord, one greater than us.”

Verse 2 of the psalm can be puzzling: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.” Out of the mouths of the most vulnerable in society—the very young among us—those who do not yet even have full capacity for speech and communication—even out of their mouths—perhaps their cries for reassurance and sustenance—out of such, God will form a bulwark. The word “bulwark” means “protection, refuge, strength.” Protection from those who oppress comes from God, not from our own strength. God can use even the babbling of babes and infants to turn back oppression and silence the enemy and avenger.

The singer thus begins Psalm 8 with words of wonder at God’s majesty and at God’s sovereignty over life’s situations of oppression. The psalmist continues in verse 3 with words of awe-struck wonder: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established.” Ancient peoples worshiped the moon and stars as gods in their own right. Our ancestors in the faith recognized that Yahweh was the only God and that Yahweh God was not one of the moon and stars, but rather, Yahweh God created the moon and the stars.

And then—God created humanity. And the psalm singer ponders in verse 4: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” The word translated “human being” is the Hebrew word ’enosh, a word used in the Old Testament to convey the idea of the frail character of human life. The word “mortal” is the Hebrew ben-’adam. Ben-’adam is used in the Old Testament in reference to humanity as the offspring of that first human whom God formed from the ground in Genesis 2. Literally, verse 4 of Psalm 8 says,  

Verse 5 says that God made us frail humans “a little lower than God and crowned us with glory and honor” (again, the NRSV). You will find a number of renderings of the phrase “a little lower than God,” in various translations: “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (ESV); “a little lower than the angels” (NIV, KJV); and “slightly less than divine” (CEB). Regardless of the way we choose to translate the words, they are a powerful statement about humanity's unique relationship with God.

Verses 6 and 7 continue the musing, stating that God has given humanity “dominion” over the works of God’s hands. God has put all things “under the feet” of humanity. All sheep and oxen and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatever passes along the paths of the sea.

“Dominion” is the Hebrew word mashal. It is used most often in the Hebrew Bible to describe the rule of a king over the people. But, God’s ideal for a monarch’s rule was not that of absolute and arbitrary dictatorial power. The role of the king in ancient Israel was to provide a place where people could live in peace and safety, raise their animals and their crops, be treated with justice and equity, and be cared for if they were unable to care for themselves. The role of one having dominion? Kindness, provision for good, peace and well-being, plenty for all.

Interestingly, the word “mashal” has another meaning. It also means “proverb” or “wise saying.” And thus, we might translate verse 6 of Psalm 8, as “you have made us wise over the works of your hands.” Wisdom IS power; but wise power does not exploit, does not “use up and throw away.” Rather, wise power is mindful of and cares for, just as Psalm 8:4 describes God as being mindful of and caring for human beings.

What a powerful statement about the relationship between God and humanity in the nine short verses of Psalm 8. Yahweh God is our sovereign who provides protection from oppressors and enemies—even out of the mouths of babes and infants. God is mindful of and cares for humanity, and God crowns humanity with glory and honor. In response, humanity is to rule wisely over the good created order—over the sheep and the oxen, the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea. God calls us to be co-creators in the endeavor called life on earth. Richard Bauckham, in the book Creation and Ecology, states these apt concluding words to this brief look at Psalm 8:

All God’s creatures are first and foremost creatures, ourselves included. All earthly creatures share the same Earth; and all participate in an interrelated and interdependent community ... Cosmic humility is a much needed ecological virtue ... We need the humility “to walk more lightly upon the Earth, with more regard for the life around us.” ... We need the humility to know ourselves as creatures within creation, not gods over creation, the humility of knowing that only God is God.1


Notes

  1. Richard Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), 64, 46.