Commentary on Psalm 8
From beginning to end, Psalm 8 addresses God directly. Despite this fact, it is unanimously characterized as a song of praise or a hymn.
Perhaps we should call it a “prayer of praise.” Lending support to this proposal is the fact too that Psalm 8 fails completely to accord with the typical structure of the songs of praise — that is, invitation to praise followed by reasons for praise. Even so, the poetic structure of Psalm 8 is very noticeable and quite significant. It begins and ends with the same exuberant affirmation: “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
The Hebrew word translated “how” in verses 1 and 9 also occurs as the first word in the first line of verse 4 where it is translated “what.” Verse 4 is exactly the middle line of the psalm when Psalm 8 is laid out in what was probably its original poetic form. Thus, the repetition serves to highlight the frame of the psalm (verses 1, 9), along with its structural center (verse 4 or verses 4-5), effectively focusing attention on the two main and inextricably related characters — God and human beings. The poetic features and structure of this prayer of praise invite, therefore, reflection on the crucial relationship of God and humankind.
Theology and anthropology
Psalm 8 is the first prayer or song of praise in the Psalter; and after the sequence of laments/complaints in Psalms 3-7 has presented an embattled and suffering psalmist, it is a distinct and perhaps surprising turn when we hear that human beings are “little lower than God, and crowned … with glory and honor” (verse 5). The vocabulary in verse 5 is elsewhere associated with royalty. The seemingly small and insignificant human creature (verses 3-4), the constantly opposed and suffering human creature (Psalms 3-7), has been given the royal treatment by the Sovereign of the universe (verses 1, 9). Given the obvious similarities between Psalm 8 and Genesis 1, we might say that the Psalm 8 affirms that human suffering does not mean that humanity is no longer imaging God (see Gen 1:26-27). This exalted view of the human creature is good news!
But what does all this mean for God? God’s sovereignty is clearly proclaimed, but it is crucial to note what God does with God’s power — that is, God shares it! As verse 6 says, “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” This verse recalls Genesis 1:26, 28 (even though the Hebrew root underlying “dominion” differs in Psalm 8 and Genesis 1); and the implications are profound.
As Terence Fretheim points out in commenting on Genesis 1, God has engaged in “divine self-limitation,” and what it means is this: “The very act of creation thus might be called the beginning of the passion of God.”1 In short, God suffers; so, as it turns out, human suffering is part and parcel of what it means to image God.
Not surprisingly, Psalm 8 figures prominently in the book of Job, an extended exploration of what it means to be human in relation to God and vice-versa. In the midst of his abysmal suffering, Job questions the affirmation of Psalm 8 that humankind shares in God’s glory. Job turns Psalm 8:4 upside down: “What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment?” (Job 7:17-18). But what Job ultimately learns is that his suffering is clearly not divine punishment. In the end, Job says, “I change my mind about dust and ashes [that is, the human condition]” (Job 42:6b).2 Job has learned that suffering is simply a condition for participation in creation, for humankind and for God. In the final analysis, Job has claimed the perspective of Psalm 8.
Psalm 8 and ecology
We began the treatment of Psalm 8 by pointing out a couple of instances of repetition — the poetic frame of verses 1 and 9, along with the word translated “how” or “what” in verses 1, 4, 9. There is one more important instance of repetition. It is the word “all” in verses 1, 6, 7, and 9. While verses 1 and 9 are identical, the same affirmation sounds different when we consider the intervening material in verses 2-8, especially the material in verses 6-8 where we learn that God’s “all-ness” has been made subject to the dominion of humankind.
Upon hearing the affirmation in verses 1 and 9 the second time, we now know that God’s majesty on earth is intimately affected by the behavior of humankind! To be sure, human behavior can enhance the majesty of God as reflected in God’s earth; but as has become increasingly clear in the past 50 years, human behavior can also diminish and effectively destroy the divine majesty revealed in creation. The responsibility, the choice, is ours; and Psalm 8 suggests that God suffers when we choose to desecrate and destroy rather than to preserve and enhance God’s earth. In the final analysis, praise is not only a liturgical act, but it is also a lifestyle that honors God by honoring God’s creation. As James Limburg puts it, Psalm 8 teaches us “that the God-praising and the earth-caring community are one.”3
Terence Fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Overtures to Biblical Theology; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 58.
See J. Gerald Janzen, Job (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), 251-259.
James Limburg, “Who Cares for the Earth? Psalm 8 and the Environment,” Word and World Supplement Series 1 (1992):51.