Holy Trinity

“Are We Alone?” asks the December 2009 issue of National Geographic, against the backdrop of a sky billowing with stars.

May 30, 2010

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Commentary on Psalm 8

“Are We Alone?” asks the December 2009 issue of National Geographic, against the backdrop of a sky billowing with stars.

“Searching the Heavens for Another Earth,” reads the subtitle, and the article within details the scientific search for Earth-like planets outside our solar system, planets that might be able to sustain life.

The psalmist of Psalm 8 stands under the same sky ablaze with stars and asks a different, but related, question: “What are human beings?”

Keenly aware of God’s presence, the psalmist does not wonder whether humanity is alone. He or she wonders instead how the God who created the heavens and set the stars in their courses could have any regard at all for mere human beings: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

Confronted with the vastness of the night sky, the psalmist knows his or her own insignificance. How much more should we wonder at our place in the world, we who have delved into some of the mysteries of that sky? The magnitude of the Milky Way galaxy, let alone the universe, boggles the mind. To take a smaller example, if one were to scale down the size of the Solar System so that the Sun was the size of a tennis ball, the Earth would be the size of a grain of sand about 27 feet away. And the next nearest star to the Sun would be more than 1400 miles away! The Milky Way itself is 100,000 light years across, and is only one of billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars!

“What are human beings?” Faced with such knowledge of the vastness of the universe, the answer must be, “less than insignificant.” Or, as one of Job’s erstwhile friends puts it, humanity is “a maggot…a worm!” (Job 25:6).

The psalmist, however, gives no such answer to the question. Instead, he writes, “Yet you have made them a little lower than God (or ‘the gods’/’the heavenly beings’), and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands.”

Like the writer of Genesis 1, the psalmist proclaims the likeness of humanity to the divine. Though the language of “imago Dei” is not used explicitly here, the psalm trades on the same sort of anthropology: Humanity is given a place in the cosmos only a little lower than the divine beings. Moreover, humanity is given dominion over the rest of the works of God’s hands: animals, domestic and wild, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, even “whatever passes along the paths of the sea”; that is, the great sea creatures of legend and lore. God has placed “all things under their [humanity’s] feet,” an idiom used in the ancient Near East to describe the rule of kings.

It is a bold statement, perhaps even a dangerous one in our time and place, when we know the effects of exploitative human “dominion” on this rare and beautiful planet. To guard against a distorted or dangerous reading, the preacher, it seems to me, should emphasize two things about this psalm.

First, though the psalm espouses a high view of humanity, it begins and ends with praise of God: “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Such praise puts into perspective where honor is due. We are made in God’s image. We are given a very exalted place, indeed. But we are not God. Our proper duty is to praise the Creator. It is just such a sentiment that may lie behind the obscure language of verse 2: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark [literally, ‘strength’] because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.” The Septuagint reads “praise” instead of “strength.” In other words, praise of God guards against evil. The praise even of infants exalts God and silences the enemy. “So long as they sing, the chaos is silenced, the meaninglessness repulsed.”1  Praise is our proper duty.

Second, with “dominion” comes great responsibility. If we are indeed made in God’s image, or (to use an image more pertinent to the psalm) if we are God’s viceroys, then surely we are to rule as God rules; that is, not as those who exploit and ravage the earth, but as caretakers, as stewards, as ones who will live for the rest of creation.

The same creatures over whom we are given dominion in Psalm 8 are listed in Psalm 148 as those called upon to praise the LORD! Wild and domestic animals, sea creatures, birds, all are exhorted to sing “hallelujah,” along with sun, moon, and stars, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, and people of every age and social station. Praise of God, the Creator, is not only the proper duty of human beings, but also the proper duty of every created being! But we have interfered with that praise. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” says Psalm 19:1, but not as clearly when they are filled with smog. When we interfere with the ability of creation to praise its Maker, we sin against Creator and creature alike.

“What are human beings?” The composer of Psalm 8 gazes at the vast night sky ablaze with stars, and feels an altogether proper humility. The psalmist also, however, knows the special regard God has for humanity and the great responsibility God gives humanity. Such knowledge of the place of humanity in creation leads to praise of the Creator: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Such praise of the God who sets the stars in their courses should be the starting and ending point also for the sermon based on Psalm 8.

1John Eaton, The Psalms (New York: Continuum, 2005), 81.