Our God, Our Glory

Below is a commentary on Psalm 8 by James Boice. I’ve bolded some quotes that stood out to me.

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
above the heavens.
From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of you hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

verses 1-9

 

It would be difficult to say anything negative about any one of the psalms, since each is a part of sacred Scripture and is given to us by God for our benefit. Every psalm in the Psalter has undoubtedly been of great spiritual benefit to many millions of persons. Yet we cannot escape feeling that some of them stand out. This is true of Psalm 23, probably the most beloved psalm in the Psalter. It is true of the first psalm, which we have already studied, Psalm 19, Psalm 51, Psalm 100, and more. It is true of Psalm 8, to which we come now.

C.S. Lewis called Psalm 8 a “short, exquisite lyric.” Derek Kidner, in his excellent two-volume study of the psalms, says, “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.” He adds rightly, “The range of thought takes us not only ‘above the heavens’ (1) and back to the beginning (3, 6-8) but, as the New Testament points out, on to the very end.” The psalm’s theme is the greatness of God and the place of man within God’s universe.

I call it “our God, our glory.”

The hymn has four obvious parts: celebration of the surpassing majesty of God (vv. 1-2); confession of the insignificance of man (vv. 3-4); astonishment at the significance of man (vv. 5-8); and a concluding refrain that repeats the psalm’s first lines (v. 9).

“Jehovah, Our Adonai”

The most striking feature of Psalm 8 – and its dominant theme, if we count verses – is its description of man and his place in the created order. But the psalm does not begin by talking about man. It begins with a celebration of the surpassing majesty of God, and this places men and women within a cosmic framework. It is a way of saying from the outset that we will never understand human beings unless we see them as God’s creatures and recognize that they have special responsibilities to their Creator.

One responsibility is to praise God, of course, which is what David does. Indeed, he does it grandly, beginning the psalm with two great names for God: Jehovah (Yahweh) and Adonai (Lord), literally “O Jehovah, our Adonai.”

In later ages of Israel’s history, the Jewish people considered the name Jehovah to be so sacred that they would not pronounce it. So when they came to it in their reading of the ?Old Testament, as here, for example, they would say Adonai instead. In fact, when the Masoretes came in time to provide the vowel pointing for the consonantal Hebrew text, they wrote the vowels for Adonai whenever the name Jehovah occurred, as a reminder of what should be said. So when he read this verse, the pious Jew would say, “O Adoniah, our Adonai,” meaning “Lord, Lord.”

There is none of this belabored piety with David. Jehovah is his God. So he begins with that name, maintaining that Jehovah is so majestic and his glory so great that the latter is “above the heavens.” This means, as David’s son Solomon would say later in his great prayer at the dedication of the temple: “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27) The reason the creation, wonderful as it is, cannot exhaust the glory of God is that God is its maker. So although creation expresses his glory, revealing his existence, wisdom, and great power, as well as other attributes, it is only a partial revelation of the surpassingly greater God who stands behind it. If God has set his glory above the heavens, it is certain that nothing under the heavens can praise him adequately.

Yet this is what men and women have the privilege of doing. In fact, even infants and children can praise God, and do, according to verse 2.

Psalm 8 is quoted a number of times in the New Testament, on one occasion by Jesus. He had entered Jerusalem in triumph on what we call Palm Sunday. While he was in the temple are, healing the blind and lame who came to him, the children who had observed the triumphal entry continued to praise him, crying, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” This made the chief priests and teachers of the law indignant. But Jesus replied, referring to Psalm 8, “Have you never read, ‘From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise’?” (Matt. 21:16). If these leaders of the people had been indignant before, they must have become nearly catatonic now. For by identifying the praise of the children of Jerusalem with Psalm 8, Jesus not only validated their words, showing them to be proper. (He was, indeed, the “son of David,” the Messiah.) He also interpreted their praise as praise not of mere man, which a mere “son of David” would be, but of God, wince the psalm says that God has ordained praise for himself from children’s lips.

Jesus also placed the scribes and teachers, who resisted his claims to be the unique Son of God, in the category of “the foe and the avenger,” thereby identifying them as God’s enemies.

What Is Man?

The bulk of the psalm is about man, however. And the first thing that is asserted about man is his insignificance in the vast framework of creation. this grows out of the opening verses. For when the psalmist thinks of the glory of God exceeding the greatness of creation and thus thinks of creation, he is struck with how small man is by comparison.

I suppose this beautiful section of the psalm grew out of David’s memory of lying in the fields at night staring at the stars, in the days when he cared for his family’s sheep. Not many of us have this experience today. Most of us live where light from a city blocks out most of the stars’ light. But if you live in the country, you know how majestic the heavens really are. This was especially true for David. In the east the air is very clear, and, for those who look up at them, the stars seem to be almost overwhelming in number and to hang nearly within reach of the outstretched arm of the observer. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” asked David when he recalled the stars’ vast array.

Sometimes we experience this emotion too. True, we do not often have David’s opportunities to lie back and wonder at the heaven’s greatness. But we have our scientific knowledge and know, at least mathematically, much more than he. We know that the earth, which is vast enough, is only a small planet in a relatively small solar system toward the outer edge of one of the billions of solar systems in the universe. And we know something of the distances. We know that light coming to us from the most distant parts of the universe takes billions of years to get here. In fact, even within our solar system the distances are great. Recently our Voyager II spacecraft reached Neptune, the last of four planets it passed and photographed on its astonishing voyage to outer space. Neptune is not even the outermost of the planets. Pluto is beyond it. But the radio waves sent back to earth from Neptune at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) took four hours to get here. So a single set of communications from earth to the spacecraft and back to us took one third of a day.

How small we are in this vast cosmic setting! How astonishing that the God of this vast universe, the God who made it and orders it, should think of us and care for us!

Looking Up or Looking Down

Yet that is what God does. And not only that. Not only does God think of us and care for us, which is what verse 4 asserts, he has also crowned us with “glory and honor” (v. 5). This means that he has given human beings, mere specks in this vast universe, a significance and honor above everything else he has created.

David makes this point in two striking ways. First, he uses the word glory, which he first used of God, of mere man. Verse 1 says, “You have set your glory above the heavens” (italics added). This is a glory that surpasses even the great and overwhelming glory of the heavens. But then in verse 5 he says, speaking of men and women, “You . . . crowned him with glory and honor” (italics added). This is an effective way of identifying man with God and of saying that he has been made in God’s image, reflecting God’s glory in a way other parts of the creation do not.

The second day David emphasizes man’s special significance is by speaking of his role as “ruler” over the world and its creatures. Rule is something normally ascribed to God. He is the “blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords,” according to the apostle Paul (1 Tim. 6:15). Psalm 8 says that God shared this rule with man, making him ruler over creation, particularly in respect to intelligent life on earth.

In my opinion, the most interesting aspect of Psalm 8 is the way in which it places man in what has been called “a mediating position” in the universe. Thomas Aquinas, the great Roman Catholic theologian, was one of the first to tress this, saying that Psalm 8 places man midway between the angels, which are above him, and the beasts, which are below. Man is a spirit/body being, according to Aquinas. Angels have spirits but no bodies. Animals have bodies but no spirits. Man, however, has both a spirit and a body and so comes between. He is midway on the scale of intelligent creation. This is exactly what Psalm 8 describes. It begins and ends with God (“How majestic is your name in all the earth!”). It speaks of the heavens. Then it says, speaking of man,

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds,
and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air,
and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas (vv. 5-8).

In this section of the psalm the allusions to the first chapter of Genesis are inescapable, which shows that David was thoroughly acquainted with this book.

But here is the interesting thing. When the psalm gets around to describing man specifically, it describes him as being “a little lower than the heavenly beings” rather than “a little higher than the beasts.” It could have been written the other way around. If man really is a mediating being, as the psalm maintains, it would have been equally accurate to have described him as slightly higher than the beasts rather than as slightly lower than the angels. But it does not, and the reason it does not is that although men and women have been given a position midway between the angels and the beasts, it is nevertheless humanity’s special privilege and duty to look upward to the angels (and beyond the angels to God, in whose image women and men have been made), rather than downward to the beasts. The result is that they become increasingly like God rather than increasingly beast-like in their behavior.

The fact that human beings have been made in God’s image and are to become increasingly like God is even clearer in Hebrew than in our English versions. For in the Hebrew text the word in verse 5 translated “heavenly beings” is actually Elohim, the plural word for God.

This is an interesting fact. In some places elohim obviously does mean “spirit beings,” as in 1 Samuel 28:13, where the witch of Endor says that she sees “spirits” (elohim) emerging from the ground. Psalm 82 also uses the word in this way (cf. vv. 1,6). For this reason, and perhaps also for the sake of modesty, not wanting to say that men and women are only “a little lower than God,” the Septuagint translators of the Old Testament used the word for “angels” in Psalm 8. It was this translation that the author of Hebrews picked up when he referred the text to Jesus, saying that in the incarnation God made him a little lower than the angels for the purpose of achieving our salvation. This translation probably also influenced the New International Version in its similar rendering of Psalm 8:5.

“Nevertheless, the translation God is almost certainly correct,” as Craigie and other commentators maintain. This is because the allusions of verses 5-8 are drawn from Genesis 1. Not only is Elohim the word exclusively used for God there, the emphasis of the chapter (so far as man is concerned) is on his being made in God’s image. “Then God (Elohim) said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air'” (Gen. 1:26). In light of that chapter there there can be little doubt that David is linking men and women to God, being slightly less than him in whose image they are made.

But here is the sad thing. Although made in God’s image and ordained to become increasingly like the God to whom they look, men and women have turned their backs on God. And since they will not look upward to God, which is their privilege and duty, they actually look downward to the beasts and so become increasingly like them.

The great example here is King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, whose story is told in Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar turned his back on God, saying as he looked out over the great capital of his empire, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30). It was a classic statement of what we today call secular humanism, describing creation as of man, by man, and for man’s glory. The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven saying, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (vv. 31-32).

And so it was. Nebuchadnezzar became insane – it is insanity to take the glory of God for oneself, putting oneself in the place of God – and then was driven out to live and behave like the wild animals.

I have noticed that this is the way our society increasingly regards itself. Western society has lost sight of God. It no longer sees man as a creature made in God’s image, whose chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” It has eliminated God from its collective conscience. But then, because it no longer looks to God to derive its sense of identity and worth from him, it looks in the only other direction it can look. It looks downward to the beasts and derives its identity from the animal kingdom.

This is what evolution is all about. Eliminate God, and evolution is the only theory left. We are only slightly advanced beasts, according to the theory. Besides, since we see ourselves as beasts, we begin to behave like beasts. Indeed, we behave worse than beasts, for we end up doing things the animals would not even dream of doing.

“But We See Jesus”

So what does God do? We know what he does, because he has done it. God sends his own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to save us from our willful ignorance and rebellion, and to fulfill Psalm 8 as we have not. That is why the author of Hebrews uses the psalm as he does in chapter 2. He applies it to Jesus, saying that he was made a little lower than the angels (in order to die for us) and that, as a result, the Father has “crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet,” adding, “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him” (Heb. 2:7-8). It is a parallel statement to that great hymn of the church recorded for us by Paul in Philippians 2:

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death –
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (vv. 8-11).

The fullness of that great destiny is still future, as Hebrews notes: “At present we do not see everything subject to him” (2:8). But although we do not see everything subject to Jesus yet, there is one thing we do see. “We see Jesus . . . now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. . . . Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus” (Heb. 2:9; 3:1).

What happens when we do? The answer is obvious. At this point we are looking up again – by the grace of God – and the grace of God, which has saved us and redirected our affections, now begins the work of once again conforming us to his likeness. We end Psalm 8 where David himself ended it, crying, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

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