From Learning to Love the Psalms
Psalm 8 is another song of David, but it is very different from Psalm 3. Psalm 8 is one of the small number of psalms in Book One that do not express distress on the part of God’s people. Instead, it represents a psalm that celebrates the great creative work of God. The psalmist uses this celebration of the glory and power of God as a way to build confidence in God.
The focus in the psalm is very much on God and his splendor. Again, the form of the psalm makes that point clear. The first and the last declarations of the psalm are the repeated praise of God: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the Earth!” In this verse, we hear an echo of Genesis 1. Genesis 1:2 tells us about the Earth: “The Earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Into this dark, watery, empty world, God brought light, land, and plants as well as animals and man to change and fill it. The Earth is the particular concern of God in creation, and all of that creation ought to resound with praise to its great God.
This praise of the Lord recognizes a glory that transcends not only Earth, but also Heaven (v. 1). He is the One who in the beginning created the heavens and the Earth. But his glory is not confined to that arena of creation. He is the eternal God, and his glory is infinite.
The psalmist reflects on the wonders of the works of God displayed in the heavens as further demonstration of the power and splendor of God. The great Heavenly bodies – specifically, the moon and the stars – are seen as the work of his fingers. He did not need his shoulders or arms in great labor to bring them forth. They are simple works of his fingers, fashioned like a small lump of clay in the hands of a potter.
This celebration of the surpassing power and greatness of God leads naturally to the question, If the moon and stars are small things in his hands, what is man in God’s sight? If the stars are small, how puny and insignificant must man be? Why would God even give man any thought?
The answer is the astounding assertion found throughout the Bible: man is the crown of creation. God gave man glory and honor, even splendor and majesty. Genesis 1 shows that man is the culmination of God’s creative work and that man alone has the amazing title of the image bearer of God. As man is the center of this psalm (see vv. 4-5), so he is the center of God’s creation. The importance of man to God in creation sets the stage for God’s remarkable work to redeem man after the fall. He cares for us.
In verse 5, we have a question of translation. Normally, the Hebrew here would be translated, “You made him a little lower than God.” That would seem to reinforce the closeness of man to God as his image bearer. But the Hebrew can alternatively be translated, “You made him a little lower than the gods [or Heavenly beings].” The New Testament follows the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament: “You made him a little lower than the angels,” (see Hebrews 2:7). This rendering focuses on man as the ruler of the Earth (rather than the heavens), which is also a theme of this psalm. While these differences in translation are interesting, they do not really affect the message here, which is that man is the crown of God’s creation, and that, as God’s image bearer, man has been given dominion on Earth.
Man as the crown of creation rules over the world that God has made. Everything belongs to him on this Earth, particularly the animals, birds, and fish. He has the responsibility of the good king, to rule for the sake of his subjects’ good. Here is a great calling indeed for mankind.
As we think of the exalted state of man at creation, we cannot help but think of how far he has fallen in sin and rebellion against God. The sinfulness of man leads us on to reflect on the salvation of man through Christ, the true man and true image of God. This psalm, like all psalms, draws our minds to Christ. Christ is the image of God since he is God come in the flesh. But he is also the image of God as the true man, the man who truly fulfilled what man had been created to be. The holy rule that man should have exercised is given to Jesus “to unite all things in him, things in Heaven and things on Earth,” (Ephesians 1:10). In this sense, Jesus is indeed the firstborn of creation, (Colossians 1:15).
In general, Psalm 8 is very symmetrical. It begins and ends with praise to God. Just after the beginning, it recounts the work of God in creation (vv.1b, 3), and just before the end, it looks at the rule of man in that creation (vv.6-8) as reflecting the image of the God who made him. At the center is the man whom God made the center and culmination of creation.
But this symmetry is broken by verse 2, which stand out like a large Victorian turret on a Colonial house: “Out of the mouth of babes and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.” This verse introduces a provocative subordinate element to the dominant themes of God as the King of creation and of man as the crown of creation. We can call this element the chorus of creation.
This chorus of creation reminds us that the praise offered to the Creator in this psalm arises from a fallen world. God has enemies even in the midst of the splendor of his beautifully ordered creation. These enemies seem strong, bent on vengeance against God and his people. But they will be silenced. They are silenced not directly by God’s coming in judgment. Rather, the triumph of God in silencing his enemies comes through children, the very weakest of his agents. The cause of God succeeds even when children and infants are his champions. And their weapons of victory are not arms or bullets, but praises offered to God. The chorus of praise raised by creation silences all the voices of wickedness: “You are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel,” (Psalm 22:3). Here we see the power and importance of praise. Here we see why God has given us a Book of Praises.
The New Testament shows us how this psalm was fulfilled in the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem ahead of his crucifixion. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the children sang his praises, recognizing him as the son of David, their king. But the chief priests and teachers of the law were angry and complained to Jesus, saying that he should silence them. He responded by citing part of Psalm 8:2: “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise,” (Matthew 21:16). But both he and they knew the rest of the verse: “Because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.” Those chief priests and teachers of the law knew that Jesus was criticizing them by citing Psalm 8:2. They were the enemies of God’s king and his work. They would plot his death, (Matthew 26:3-5). But the chorus of praise that has sounded from Christ’s people through the centuries has drowned out the efforts of his enemies to stop his work of redemption.
This psalm calls us as God’s people to remember and rejoice in God’s magnificent and beautiful work of creation. It calls us to remember our intended role in that creation. It leads us to ponder the way in which Christ became the true image for us and that our response to him is praise. We are to offer the sacrifice of praise: “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name,” (Hebrews 13:15). We may be as weak as infants in our praise, but we can say with Paul, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong,” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What examples does this psalm give to celebrate the creative work of God and his splendor? With such power and greatness attributed to God, what is mankind in his sight and why does he give us any thought whatsoever?
- How does this psalm draw our minds to Christ? How does the New Testament show us how this psalm was fulfilled?
- What makes Psalm 8 symmetrical? What is meant by the element called the “chorus of creation,” and what is its significance? What is our intended role in God’s work of creation?