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Psalm 8

Psalm 8 speaks of God as creator and so lends itself appropriately to Trinity Sunday readings. It is a short psalm of praise to God as creator with every single verse addressed to God. It has some similar expressions to Genesis 1 with which it is connected this week. One can easily imagine the psalmist gazing at the night sky and finding it both an exhilarating and a humbling experience. Aware of the immensity of the created order we are also patently aware of the insignificance of humans in the scheme of things. And yet, for some reason God is deeply concerned with these particular creatures, giving them dominion over all else.

The psalm poses many questions for both humans in general and the Christian community in particular. Some are clearly voiced within the psalm (v. 4) while others are implied. These include questions about God, about humankind in general, about the creation, not to mention a question about how this relates to Jesus, a matter raised by the quotation of the psalm in Hebrews 2. We cannot isolate any of these matters. Read in the context of the Bible as a whole, this psalm proclaims that the relationship between these issues is as important as the individual issues themselves. Perhaps that is the important thing to hear from Psalm 8 on Trinity Sunday.

But the preacher’s task is not to answer all the questions raised by Psalm 8. As a hymn the psalm invites praise and wonder and a sermon on the psalm should seek to foster those very things as much as, or even more than, explore its questions. Reason and logical deduction are not paramount in this psalm. Its concern is in proclamation, praise and wonder. A sermon on this psalm should ‘go and do likewise’.

We are first confronted by the ‘shape’ of Psalm 8. It is enveloped by an inclusio – where vv. 1a and 9 are the same. The psalm also has a general ‘hourglass’ shape. The inclusio gives a sense of completeness to the psalm. All things about which this psalm speaks, or which are implied by the psalm, are enclosed within the sovereignty of God in all the earth. God’s sovereignty is the beginning and end of all things. The ‘middle’ of the psalm deals with the question of how this is proclaimed or known in the earth, and the one with whom the middle of the psalm is most concerned, namely humankind, is the same one who in the person of the psalmist declares God as ‘our sovereign’ at the beginning and end.

The body of the psalm begins with reference to the heavens (v. 1b). There is a movement within the body from the heavens down to the earth. But a major difficulty immediately confronts us. It is not clear to scholars how to translate v. 1b, whether God’s glory is ‘set’, ‘chanted’, ‘sung’, or ‘worshipped’ etc. above the heavens, or how v. 1b is related to v. 2. That is, what are the ‘babes and infants’ doing? Are the weakest of humans praising God or somehow becoming a stronghold against God’s enemies. But, whatever solution we opt for (see the differences in translations between the major English Bibles, cf. also Matt 21:16), it is clear that what happens to God’s glory happens ‘above the heavens’, in the farthest reaches above the skies.

Verses 3-4 shift our gaze easily from the heights of the heavens, and the work of God’s fingers, to the realms of human life. We then pass on from the human sphere (v. 5) to the air, the sea and the uttermost paths of the sea (vv. 6-8), to the farthest reaches. The statement on the humans in vv. 4-5 is at the centre of the psalm. All of this interconnectedness and movement is enveloped by the sovereignty of God. In vv. 3-4 it is not so much the insignificance of humans that catches the psalmist’s attention as the interest that God shows in humans. The psalmist makes a quick change of image, from the grandeur of the heavens to the relative smallness of the human frame, at the same time as they shift from a statement to a question. As readers our thoughts slow down and we too find ourselves pondering that question. Verse (v. 5) keeps our minds working at a slower pace, but at a deeper level as the psalmist makes another statement which stands in contrast to the question in v. 4. Humans are a ‘little lower’ than God (or gods) and yet crowned with ‘glory and honour’.
The words used to describe humans in vv. 5-6 are important. Even as the psalmist describes human ‘insignificance’ in v. 4, the language in vv. 5-6 elevates them to great heights. ‘Glory and honour’ are attributes usually associated with God (e.g. Pss 19:1; 29:1-2, 9 etc.). The reference to ‘crowning’ humans with glory and honour also introduces the royal language of v. 6. This echoes the royal language used of God in vv. 1a and 9 and ties in with the royal language used in Gen 1:26-28. The work of God’s hands in v. 6 calls to mind the ‘work of God’s fingers’ in v. 3. The remainder of the body of the psalm (vv. 7-8) lists the creatures under human dominion - domestic and wild animals, birds of the air, fish and the creatures of the deep.
The two movements from the expanse of the heavens down to the humans, and then out from the humans to the expanse of the earth, balance each other and have as their fulcrum the statement on humans in vv. 4-5. The wonder of the heavens brings to mind the insignificance of the humans. On the other hand, the fact that they have been crowned with almost the status of their creator (‘a little lower than God’), and have been granted dominion, sets humans in a place above all other creatures. The symbols of God’s dominion in creation may belittle humans in the span of all things, but the divine gift of dominion raises those same insignificant creatures to new heights and new responsibilities.

There is a natural tendency to read this psalm from a human centered perspective. But as we have seen in relation to vv. 1 and 9, all statements about and assessments of humans need to be seen first and foremost in relation to God. We should note here, too, that while the vision of the cosmos gives rise to an awareness of the insignificance of humans, that is not itself the focus. Rather, it is God’s concern for humans that is at the heart of things. The wonder that the psalmist experiences is not focused in humans themselves so much as in God’s grace toward them.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

The beginning of the psalm (vv. 1-2) can be used as a responsive call to worship:

O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is your name throughout the earth,
    you who have covered the heavens with your splendor!
From the mouths of infants and babes
you have founded strength on account of your foes,
    to put an end to enemy and avenger.
Alternatively the whole psalm can be used as a responsive prayer of adoration:
O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is your name throughout the earth,
you who have covered the heavens with your splendor!
    From the mouths of infants and babes
    you have founded strength on account of your foes,
    to put an end to enemy and avenger.
When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and stars that you set in place,
what are human beings that you have been mindful of them,
mortals that you have taken note of them,
    that you have made them little less than divine,
    and adorned them with glory and majesty;
you have given them dominion over your handiwork,
laying the world at their feet,
    sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too;
    the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea,
    whatever travels the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name throughout the earth!
The translation of Psalm 8 here is an adaptation of the Jewish Publication Society, 1985.

Old Testament Reading: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

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