The Messianic Psalms - Psalm 8
This brief but magnificent Psalm is a revelation of the majesty of God and, at the same time, a celebration of the unique dignity and responsibilities He conferred on His creature, man. Whilst the fall and man’s disobedience have delayed the full attainment of that purpose, the New Testament points us to a triumphant fulfilment in Jesus Christ the second Man and last Adam.
Despite its brevity, the Psalm is magnificent in the sweep of its contents. The range of thought takes us not only from ‘the heavens’, v. 1, and back to the beginning, vv. 3, 6-8, but, as the New Testament reveals, on to the future triumphant fulfilment.
Kidner comments, ‘This psalm is an unsurpassed example of what a hymn should be, celebrating as it does the glory and grace of God, rehearsing who He is and what He has done, and relating us and our world to Him; all with a masterly economy of words, and in a spirit of mingled joy and awe’. 1
In the modern age where proud unbelief tends to diminish the significance of humanity, this Psalm powerfully proclaims the Creator’s endowment of human beings with unique nobility and responsibilities, and therefore has important messages for our present values and behaviour, as we await the future consummation.
A closer look
The Psalm is framed by the exclamation, ‘O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth’, vv. 1, 9. Although God’s glory is displayed so emphatically in the heavens, the most vulnerable representative of humanity, the infant, is singled out in order to silence the proud opponents of God, vv. 1, 2.
The mind-boggling immensity of the universe seems to render puny mortal man unworthy of the Creator’s notice, vv. 3, 4, yet, on the contrary, mankind is of far greater significance than even the unspeakable vastness and mystery of the starry heavens, and is found to be the object of God’s providential care. Man is God’s special creation, vv. 5, 6. Moreover, He has appointed him as His ruler and representative in relation to all the lower creatures, whether those on land, in the air, or even in the depths of the sea, vv. 7, 8.
The opening words identify Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel, as sovereign of the entire universe, v. 1. Through creation, both celestial and terrestrial, His name is majestic in all the earth. The ‘name’ of God denotes the comprehensive expression of His character and attributes as revealed to mankind.
‘All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea’ – R. Heber.
Similarly, the New Testament proclaims that ‘his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made’, Rom. 1. 20 ESV.
The majesty of God the creator is glimpsed in the stunning vastness of stellar space, yet also paradoxically in the feeblest representative of humanity, v. 1, cp. v. 2. The human baby is awe-inspiring with its potential for growth, development, contemplation of the purpose of its existence, and, in time through grace, fellowship with its Creator. God in His wisdom appoints and evokes the utterance of a child to establish a bulwark (‘strength’, KJV) against the mounting opposition of proud scorners, variously described as ‘adversaries’, ‘enemy’, ‘avenger’, Ps. 8. 2 RV. ‘The avenger in particular is one who usurps, in his own selfish interest, a judicial function which belongs to God alone’. 2
A notable demonstration of this was when ‘the blind and the lame came to [Christ] in the temple; and he healed them. And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David; they were sore displeased, and said unto him, Hearest thou what these say? And Jesus saith unto them, Yea; have ye never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast perfected praise?’ Matt. 21. 14-16. 3
Urban light pollution has robbed millions of the stunning panorama of the starry sky familiar to country dwellers. On the other hand, images from powerful telescopes reveal the amazing beauty of distant galaxies. David had plenty of opportunity to contemplate the night sky during his shepherd days. ‘Thy heavens, the work of thy fingers’, Ps. 8. 3, points to the universe as God’s creation, His ‘fingers’ suggest miraculous power and deft workmanship in its details notwithstanding its vast extent. 4 The pressing question arises, ‘What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?’ v. 4. 5 The Hebrew word for man is enosh, pointing to frailty and mortality; the term ‘son of man’ suggests his lowly earthly origin. 6 Yet amazingly, the two verbs ‘being mindful of’, and ‘visiting’ man denote God’s characteristic providential activity, His loving and continuous care. How far removed this is from atheistic naturalism which reduces man to a mere animal alone in the universe, tending to despair!
Verse 5 locates man in the hierarchy of created beings. ‘You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour’, v. 5 ESV. Heavenly beings (‘angels’ KJV) translates the Hebrew word elohim, but is rendered ‘angels’ in the Greek Septuagint Old Testament which is quoted in Hebrews chapter 2. 7
Man may be lower than the angelic orders, but God conferred royal status upon him in relation to the earth, Gen. 1. 26-30. ‘Crowned with glory and honour’, are terms which mark him out as God’s vice-regent, appointed to rule with all the lower created orders under his authority. This has been compromised by the fall, yet man in his fallen state remains God’s image-bearer, and the mandate remains, albeit in qualified form, cp. Gen. 9. 1.
The man Christ Jesus demonstrated His unique sovereignty in ‘the days of His flesh’. He rode into Jerusalem on an unbroken colt. He directed miraculous catches of fish, and He sent Peter to obtain a coin from a fish’s mouth. No wonder they exclaimed, ‘What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ 8 But when it came to leaving indelible wounds in His body, these were caused not by wild animals, but by the responsible beings He had come to save. And, fitly, when He hung upon the cross, creation mourned; the sun was darkened, and the rocks rent.
Psalm 8 is pregnant with prophecy. When investing the high calling of man, God had in view the enabling of the incarnation, and all the liberation and ennoblement that would flow from the conflict and triumph of the ‘Second Man’, His beloved Son, the Seed of the woman.
New Testament usage of the Psalm
We have already noticed our Lord’s use of the Psalm to refute those who criticized the children’s praise.
The Psalm is also quoted by Paul, 1 Cor. 15. 27, ‘For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith, all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him’. This quotation of Psalm 8 verse 6 is linked with Psalm 110 verse 1 by the expression ‘all things under his feet’. Here Paul applies the language of the Psalm to Christ the ‘son of man’ who came to the rescue when Adam failed. Bruce comments, ‘Adam’s place could be taken only by one who was competent to undo the mortal effect of Adam’s disobedience and become the founder and representative of a new humanity’. 9 Fitly, therefore, and finally ‘all things are put in subjection to him’. In this chapter of resurrection, even ‘the last enemy’, death, will yield to the triumphant Christ. Covering similar ground, Paul quotes the same scripture, Eph. 1. 22, where the context refers to the comprehensive exaltation of Christ over every power, both benign and hostile.
The writer to the Hebrews quotes verses 4 to 6 stressing the true humanity of Jesus, the Son of God. Man’s failure in sin is contrasted with his high destiny. ‘For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honour, putting everything in subjection under his feet”’, Heb. 2. 5-8 ESV. Yet despite the fall, he goes on to speak of the second Man, ‘But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone’, v. 9 ESV. The present tense ‘we see’ points to the crowning of Christ following His death, not prior to it. His exaltation signals God’s acceptance of His sacrifice, and seals its efficacy for our salvation.
As regards the stewardship of creation, the Bible knows no aversion to the created order, nor is man’s position a charter for the reckless plundering of the earth. God’s sympathies are over all His creatures, Jonah 4. 11. Man’s rule over creation is not absolute or independent of God; it is His gracious appointment as a gift, not a right. The Christian is aware that the environment and its limited resources are God’s, to be respected, and treated wisely and considerately as part of a broader stewardship.
The God-ordained dignity of humankind contrasts sharply with the increasingly prevalent atheistic philosophy, which paves the way for the cheapening of human life in matters such as abortion and euthanasia.
As we recognize the majesty of the Creator, and the wonder of His concerns for mortal humanity, may we be moved to wonder and worship, cp. Ps. 8, 1, 9. How divinely satisfying will be the ultimate fulfilment in Christ, as Isaac Watts wrote:
‘Where He displays His healing power,?
Death and the curse are known no more;?
In Him the tribes of Adam boast?
More blessings than their father lost’.
1 D. Kidner, Psalms 1-72, IVP, pp. 65, 66.
2 A. F. Kirkpatrick, Psalms, Cambridge Bible for School and Colleges. See Deut. 32. 35; Nah. 1. 2.
3 Cp. Matt. 18. 1-6.
4 See Exod. 8. 19; 31. 18; Luke 11. 20.
5 The same question arises in other contexts: Job. 7. 17; 25. 6; Ps. 144. 3f.
6 Cp. Job. 14. 1.
7 Hence RV rendering: ‘but little lower than God’, cp. Gen. 1. 26-28.
8 Mark 4. 41.
9 F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, New Century Bible, pp. 147, 148.