Commentary on Psalm 8
James Limburg has described Psalm 8 as “a psalm for stargazers”1 and indeed, it is that. But even more, this is a psalm for soul searchers.
The psalm paints the picture of a soul searcher standing alone at night, staring up at the vast expanse of the universe and overcome by a haunting question. The NRSV, with its concern for inclusive language for humanity, pluralizes the singular nouns “a human being” and “a mortal,” rendering this translation: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” But this well-intentioned translation obscures the personal, existential crisis latent in the psalms question: “What is one human being, that you should remember him? What is a single mortal, that you should care for her?”
That is the question at the heart of this psalm. And the answer that the psalm offers is as surprising and relevant today as it was two-and-a-half millennia ago.
The psalm is a chiasm constructed around the existential question in verse 4:
verse 1a Praise to God in all the earth
verses 1b-3 God’s grandeur
verse 4 The question
verses 5-8 Humanity’s Vocation
verse 9 Praise to God in all the earth
The Inclusio — “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (verses 1b and 9)
Most hymns begin with a call to praise addressed to congregation. Psalm 8 begins — and ends — differently: with a word of praise addressed directly to God. When a psalm begins and ends with the same phrase (an inclusion), there is a dual function. First, it brings a sense of closure to the poem. Second, and more importantly, the phrase sounds just a little different when the audience hears it the second time. It sounds different the second time because the audience has heard the body of the poem in between. In the case of Psalm 8, which is replete with references to creation (the heavens, the moon and the stars, the field, the sea, etc.), the latter part of the phrase “how majestic is your name in all the earth” will sound especially different when it is read for the second time.
The Context: God’s Glory in Creation
Many people have had something along the lines of an ecstatic experience with nature at some point during their lives. A experience of a sunset, or a rainbow, or the northern lights, to which the natural response is simply, “O my!” or “Glory!” (as was the case with the author of Psalm 29). Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his sonnet “God’s Grandeur,” meditates on the experience of a sunrise and his sense of the constant renewal of creation:
. . . nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.2
The psalm has had a similar, ecstatic moment. Alone and outside at night, rendered seemingly insignificant by the vast expanse of heaven: “You have set your glory above the heavens!”
The text of the psalm is corrupt at verse 2. More than a few attempts have been made at interpreting the strange phrase, “out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes.” What could this mean? Since the rest of the psalm is about creation, the most appealing answer is that this is a poetic reference to the ancient Israelite idea that in the very act of creating God was overcoming the powers of chaos (the enemy and the avenger). This motif is present throughout the Old Testament (see, for example, Psalm 74). Because of the opaqueness of the verse, it is not worth getting hung up on. Better to move on to the center of the psalm.
The Center: A Soul-Searching Question
At the center of the psalm — the axis around which the body of the psalm orbits — comes a soul-searching question. The psalmist wonders why on earth the Creator of such a vast universe would ever care for or care about one, little, solitary soul.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
The moon and the stars that you have established;
What is a human being that you would remember him?
What is a mortal that you would care for her? (My translation3)
The use of the Hebrew particle mah (“what”) rather than the expected particle mi (“who?”) lends the question a derisive, disdainful edge. Rather than ask “who am I?” the psalmist wonders, “What is this thing called a human?”
The answer, when it comes in the next stanza, is surprising.
The Answer: Human Vocation
The answer comes: Human beings are not insignificant, they are but “a little lower than God.” In fact, God has “crowned them with glory and honor.” Indeed, God has given human beings meaningful work in the economy of creation. They have been given “dominion over the work of your hands.”
The concept here is that God so values the human beings in the “orders of creation,” that God has called human beings to share in God’s creative work by taking responsibility to care for the rest of creation. What more meaningful way is there to communicate that someone matters than to tell them, “You matter because what you do in life matters.” Here, God has called human beings to participate in God’s work of ordering, shaping, stewarding, and caring for life on the planet earth.
The term “given them dominion” (a hiphil participle from the root mashal, meaning “to rule”) is a word borrowed from the semantic field of royalty. Kings are given dominion. And as the laws concerning the limits of royal power in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 indicate, dominion is entrusted to the king as a sacred responsibility to be stewarded wisely, not as a privilege to be exploited for personal gain.
Just as Israel’s king was not to exalt “himself above other members of the community” (Deuteronomy 17:20), human beings are not to exploit creation — destroying, denuding, and deforesting — but we are to be faithful stewards. Creation does not belong to us, but to God (see Psalm 24:1). We are to care for it as a sacred trust given to us by the Creator. The glory that God has imbued into creation (verse 1c) is a glory that God has also bestowed on God’s human servants: “you have . . . crowned them with glory and honor” (verse 5).
The poetry of the psalm plays wonderfully with bodily imagery — “the work of your fingers,” “the work of your hands,” “crowned them,” “all things under their feet.” Similarly, the poem describes the animal kingdom in relationship to human community. Humanity has care for “sheep and oxen” (domesticated animals), “beasts of the field” (wild animals), “birds of the air” (still wilder animals), and “fish of the sea” (the part of creation furthest from the center of human life.
God may hold the whole world in God’s hands, but God has entrusted everything under our feet to our care.
We matter. God has given us meaningful work.
1James Limburg, Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 24.
2See Gerard Manly Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur,” at Bartleby.com, www.bartleby.com/122/7.html/.
3I substitute “her” for the more literal “him” in the final phrase of verse 4–in ancient Israel the 3ms pronoun was used as the gender-neutral common pronoun. Since this is not the case in English today, I employ poetic license, as it were, in the translation.