Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

This psalm of praise is unique in the Psalter in that it is addressed directly to the Lord throughout.

Job's Sufferings
Job's Sufferings, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, Tenn. Original source.

October 4, 2015

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Commentary on Psalm 8

This psalm of praise is unique in the Psalter in that it is addressed directly to the Lord throughout.

With no asides to the congregation calling them to participate in the psalmist’s praise, no descriptive passages in the third person, nor even any inward conversation on the psalmist’s part (“O my soul”) as are seen in other psalms, Psalm 8 conveys a distinctive sense of intimacy and directness. We are here invited to listen in on and participate directly in the writer’s private prayer, and it is therefore the task of the interpreter to lead the congregation into that prayer as participants, taking up the psalmist’s meditations as their own.

The psalm opens and closes with a well-known evocation of God’s majesty: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” The transcendent glory of God is thus set forth as the defining context of the psalm, so that the other matters it raises must be considered in relationship to God’s overarching lordship. When we turn to the central subject matter of the psalm in verses 3-8, we will see why it is crucial to keep this context in mind.

The other major concern of Psalm 8 is the vocation of humankind in the creation. This vocation is described in terms of “dominion” over the rest of creation, given to human beings by God. There are, therefore, two relationships in view in the psalm, that between humankind and the rest of creation, and that between the Creator and his human creations. Each of these relationships could serve as a focal point for the interpreter of the psalm:

  • The language of dominion, coupled with the catalogue of creation over which this dominion is granted, will remind many readers of the creation narrative in Genesis 1, particularly verses 26-31. This connection opens the possibility of connecting human vocation in general, and our relationship to our fellow creatures in particular, with God’s creative intent. Throughout both texts, it is made clear that whatever dominant position humankind enjoys with respect to the creation, that position is owing to God’s decision, God’s purposes, and God’s actions. Interpretation could therefore focus on how our exercise of this vocation is or is not in harmony with God’s intent, and venture from there into the rich topic of stewardship.
  • While it may indeed have made sense for the newly-created, thus far sinless human beings, bearers of the unsullied image of God, to exercise the office of God’s stewards over creation, the same cannot necessarily be said of humankind after the Fall. Given what humanity has, by its own choice, become, the Psalmist might well wonder why on earth God still chooses to grant us dominion. The magnificence of the starry night sky demonstrates to the Psalmist’s satisfaction that the Creator certainly had other options — if God’s hand framed the very cosmos, there can be no question of God’s being stuck with unwanted stewards. The question “What are human beings that you are mindful of them” (verse 4) is left tantalizingly open for meditation on the nature of God’s mercy, grace, and care for his fallen people.

If the preacher wishes to follow the psalmist in drawing a connection between the two relationships in view in the psalm (Creator-human and human-creation), one possible approach is to suggest that the question of verse 4 must ultimately be answered by both looking back at our creation and looking forward to our final destiny. Human beings were created as bearers of the image of God, and even the very worst of accumulated human sin has not entirely effaced that image. God’s intention for us, in other words, is not to be thwarted by our disobedience. That said, our exercise of our vocation has clearly suffered from our corruption, and the dominion humankind has exercised over the creation has seldom looked like the loving stewardship that God ordained in Eden.

The solution to this conundrum, and therefore the answer to the question of Psalm 8:4, lies in the redeeming work of Christ. In him was revealed humankind as we were intended to be from the beginning, humankind untouched by sin. Thus, he is the pattern for the dominion we are called to exercise, a dominion marked by nurturing love rather than selfish exploitation. And if he is the pattern, he is also the means by which God has chosen to fit us to the pattern, to return us to our intended state and vocation. “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” We are, through Jesus, the adopted children of the household; the objects of God’s grace, love, salvation, and sanctification; and ultimately, through him, the image-bearers and stewards of creation that we were created to be in the first place. This, according to the sovereign will of the one whose name is indeed majestic in all the earth.