[This is the manuscript to a sermon I preached a couple of years ago and forgot all about.]
Exposition of Psalm 8
Psalm 8 begins with praise. It starts off talking to God, and that’s something to like about the Psalms. While we need all kinds of stuff in Scripture, the Psalms are really beneficial for us in that we can take them and simply return them to God. The inspiration of the Psalms means that God has called for praise from us, and that He has in fact provided the very praise which we owe to Him. It’s sola gratia all the way down.
But I digress a bit. The Psalm starts with “O Lord, our Lord.” This sounds redundant in most English translations, but a few (like the Holman) will explain it better. The small-capital LORD means Yahweh, the covenant name of God. The second Lord in normal case is just Lord, or Sovereign Ruler. So we start with an acknowledgement that Israel’s God, their covenant God, is Lord. He is master and ruler. Now, back in these days, someone would probably think that this only means Yahweh is ruler of Israel. But then the rest of the verse says otherwise.
According to the Psalmist, Yahweh’s name is majestic throughout the whole earth. It follows that He is Lord of the whole earth. Likewise, God has set His glory above the heavens. This puts Him on top of anything and everything else. His authority is universal; His glory is not limited to Israel, or Israel’s capital, but stands over all things.
We should stop, though, to take a look about the relationship between these two lines about God’s name and glory. They’re an example of the most common device in Hebrew poetry, namely parallelism, where you say something one way and then in the next line say it again in a slightly different way with a different emphasis. So in a sense both of these lines say the same thing: the reputation of the God of Israel, and the authority that goes with it, goes across the whole world. But each line gives a different angle. In the first line, God’s name is majestic. This word for majestic carries connotations of power and fame, or even famous power. There can even be a subtext of fear. Israel’s God isn’t just powerful, and He isn’t just famous. Instead, like Rahab said about her friends in Jericho, everyone has heard about the mighty power of God, and they, to some degree or another, fear Him. His majesty is like a terrible mushroom cloud, or like Queen Galadriel in the Lord of the Rings when she does her whole, “I would be beautiful and terrible as the dawn” speech. God is revealed to the world as terrifyingly beautiful, and that is His majesty.
But again, the second line adds its own significance. The word “glory” has more an inner sense to it, unlike the more outward sense of “majestic.” God’s majesty focuses on His reputation, on how He is seen by men, but God’s glory in this context focuses on His being, the gravity and immensity of just who He is. In and of Himself, God is high and mighty and above all the heavens. He is the utterly transcendent one, the First and the Last who came before and will remain forever after all things. From this totally superior place, all the earth is beneath Him and all people must look up to Him as their source and ruler.
So then, after painting an image of the famously awesome God who is, by the strange particularity that is election, Israel’s God, the psalmist makes a weird shift to talk about something utterly opposite: babies. Basically, the psalmist uses the contrast of human dependence to highlight God’s power. God is so strong that He can create a stronghold out of the babbling of babies, like someone who somehow creates an impenetrable fortress from Q-tips. He is the one who calls forth praise from tiny creatures, weaklings like infants but really including all of us, and lets this praise be enough to destroy all enemies. Those who scorn Israel’s God are rebuked even by nursing infants.
From here the psalmist prepares to move into the center of the psalm by returning the large and magnificent. He gazes up at the night sky to see blazing stars, distant galaxies, and the looming moon. These were impressive enough for him, and in our days they’re even more so. David didn’t know that stars were giant balls of nuclear explosions, or that his camel would take at least 170 trillion years to take him to the nearest galaxy, or that the land on the bright moon is almost 2 thousand times the size of Israel. He saw the heavens and marveled. We ought to see it and be floored. Compared to us men, the world beyond the sky is infinity.
Which leads to David’s question in wonder to God, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” See, for David, the expanse of space isn’t so impressive in itself as much as it is a signpost to an impressive God. It’s not really the universe that makes man look tiny, but ultimately the God who made and owns it. If God is Lord of even the heavens, then why would He concern Himself with ants like us?
This mystery, God’s favor on humanity, is the real focus of the psalm. David has to ask, “If you are so great a God, what is so great about us? Why would you waste your time and attention on mere mortal men?” Indeed, the word for “man” here isn’t one of the more common ones, and it particularly indicates humanity as a race in their weakness and limitation. The sons of men are specks, but dust, compared to the God of the heavens, and yet, as we saw before, this God has chosen to be their God, even Israel’s God.
David moves on from there to describe just how much God has honored mankind. He starts by going back to creation itself. From the beginning, man has been favored. He was made only a little lower than the heavenly beings. Now, depending on your translation, you may see different words here. Some says less than God, some say angels, and some say something like mine, heavenly beings. This is because the word is Elohim, the plural word used for God in the Old Testament, and depending on the context it can mean a variety of exalted things. But in this context the specific meaning isn’t as important as the contrast it makes. Man, although by nature an earthly creature, has been exalted beyond all other earthly creatures by being placed only a little lower than heavenly beings, whether God or angels or anything else. And this is God’s doing. Man could never be anything more than an animal on his own. Only by grace does he touch heaven at all.
From this point, it is added that God crowned humanity with glory and honor. This wording connects back to the beginning of the psalm, which highlights God’s majesty and glory. It hints at what the next couple verses also say: God has given man a share in His divine glory and authority. Humanity alone bears the image of God as a royal crown on his head. In between the earth and God there is man, a steward race who represents God to creation and accounts for creation to God. God has created a whole universe as, to use Calvin’s phrase, a theater of His glory, and then He gave it to us, puny human beings, and said, “I leave you in charge. Rule wisely.” This includes everything, especially all living things. As David says, we have been given dominion over sheep, oxen, beasts, birds, fish, and everything else in the seas. That’s pretty bizarre, though it is also qualified. While man rules over all, God rules over man, so whatever authority and glory we have over creation remains always by grace, a gift, and we are thus responsible for it and limited in derived our authority. Whatever rule we have, we have under God, and so we must remember our place. But even so, it is still all things which God has put under human feet.
This is all rather mystifying for two reasons. One the one hand, man is simply puny and finite. What are we compared to God? Why should the God who made black holes and quasars with literally nothing but a word concern Himself with people who can’t even feed themselves without His providence? And on the other hand, man is sinful. The gracious election by which God chose humanity to be image-bearers and stewards over the world, the covenant which He has made with this race, is something we’ve rejected from the beginning. As soon as we had the chance to share God’s glory and authority, we threw it away so that we could set up our own glory on the ground of our own authority. Yet God’s blessing has not been revoked. The creation mandate where God put us over all the world still stands, because it was by grace and not works. So we can only marvel in gratitude.
And marvel is in fact exactly what David does to conclude this psalm. He isn’t about to answer the “why.” He can’t explain how and why God looks upon us in such a kind way, why He continues to uphold us as the co-rulers of His world. He simply repeats what He said at the beginning: the Sovereign Lord of Israel is majestic. But now the meaning has shifted. It started out as a praise for God’s power and rule over the world as its Creator and Lord, but now it also includes the elements of grace and election. The majestic name which fills the earth is the name of the God who has undeservedly given humanity grace upon grace.
Christology of Psalm 8
And as great as that is, it does leave some things hanging. Even if we had a reason why God would love and honor the human race the way that He has, it’s still questionable how He could do that while being faithful to His own covenant terms. After all, if we’ve broken and spurned everything God has given us, shouldn’t God condemn us and abandon us? This is the mystery which lurks behind the 8th psalm. It’s not just amazing that God has been so kind to us, but it’s also perplexing, bizarre, and even seems somewhat unjust in light of our rebellion. So this mystery can only lead us to one place, the place where God always reveals Himself, namely Jesus Christ, the Word of God. And in fact we don’t have to speculate and connect the dots from Psalm 8 to Christ on our own, because the New Testament already gives us a Christological exegesis of the psalm in—and you can turn there because we’ll be there for as little bit—Hebrews chapter 2, specifically in verses 5-9 and a bit in the rest of the chapter.
So, first the context. Hebrews was written to proclaim the superiority of Christ to the Old Covenant and to warn Jewish Christians not to return to their old ways of Torah and sacrifice. In that sense it is similar to Galatians, but the theological concepts the author of Hebrews uses are different from Paul. In Galatians Paul focuses on justification and adoption, but Hebrews is mostly concerned with priestly concepts like purity, sanctification, consecration, and mediation. But anyway, in chapter 1 Jesus is presented as, by virtue of His being the divine Son of God, superior to the angels. In chapter 2, the focus moves from Jesus’ divine identity to His human identity, and particularly His relationship to the rest of the human race. So I’ll go ahead and read it:
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 honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
So, the author of Hebrews is using Psalm 8 here, but how? Basically, he takes the human race in Psalm 8 and concentrates it in the person of Jesus. He reveals just who true humanity is: not the race in general, but the Man Jesus of Nazareth.
See, it is not the angels to whom God has given the world to come, but humanity. This fits with what was said in Psalm 8 that all things, even things to come, God has put under our feet. But the problem is that we don’t actually see everything under our feet. Humanity is as much slave as ruler, enslaved to fleshly lusts, to the superior forces in nature, and to demonic powers especially. This is, of course, the result of sin, the same sin that made Psalm 8 so perplexing to begin with. God has put all things under our feet even though we don’t deserve it, and yet these things are still in a certain sense on the loose, not under our feet but often on top of us! But, even though we don’t yet see all things under humanity’s feet, we do see Jesus. He was made like us, human, a little lower than the angels, for a short time. But now He has been crowned with glory and honor in His Resurrection and Ascension as the Lord of the world. The Lordship of Christ means that Psalm 8 was right after all: the world is ruled by a human being, and His name is Jesus. And what Hebrews 2 reveals to us is that the destiny Jesus has accomplished is actually the destiny of the wider human race, because Jesus earned this right by suffering death—not for Himself—but for everyone.
This all means that Psalm 8 is fulfilled in Christ. Jesus rules the world as God, sure, but also as a human being, and His human Lordship is for us all. We don’t see all things subjected to us, but by faith we see all things subjected to the resurrected Christ. God’s plan for humanity at large has already been fulfilled in the humanity of Jesus, and that is the promise that it will be fulfilled for us all. Because the truth is that humanity is defined by Jesus, not the other way around. In a certain sense, there is no human race beyond Jesus of Nazareth. He is the true Human. All the rest of us are only truly human by our union with Him, and without that union we are less than human, more like the animals put under human rule than the ruling human race which is exalted above even the angels in Jesus Christ.
This, then, solves the problem of Psalm 8. God is just and reasonable in exalting humanity because the only humanity that counts to Him is Jesus. Jesus on the Cross already suffered our due for our rebellion, so before God the human race is purified and glorified as represented by our High Priest. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection He freed humanity from the enslaving powers of the flesh and the devil so that in Him we could march on toward the glory we see God has planned for us in Psalm 8. Because Jesus rules as a man, the rest of us will share in His rule over the world to come. We will be crowned with His glory and His honor, which are ultimately God’s glory and honor. And even while it solves the problem of Psalm 8, it does leave the mystery of worship: that God would love mere men enough to become one of us and exalt us like this. And for this, we are called to praise. This is actually precisely the depth of the praise at the end of the psalm. The majestic name of God will fills the earth is actually the majestic name of Jesus, who is God and man united. So God names Himself across the globe as the one who suffered for us. And of course, the reputation you make for yourself says the most about who you are. How you glorify yourself says everything about you. And in Christ we see that God has chosen to glorify Himself by suffering to share His glory with us. That’s the Gospel hidden in Psalm 8 but revealed in Jesus.
With this Gospel in mind, then, let’s look at what it means for our lived lives. If God has put everything under our feet in Christ, how ought we to live? I think there are four things which come to mind.
First, we have hope. A lot of times you see people, maybe on Facebook or Twitter, who complain about how there’s no hope for humanity. But the problem is: they’re not thinking through Jesus. What Psalm 8 shows us is that God promises everything to us, and what Jesus shows us is that this promise has been and will be fulfilled. However bad, however bleak, our human situation gets, no matter what wars we start or presidents we elect or disasters we can’t stop, there is hope for humanity because we have already seen the end of the story in the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. So we can never despair. Our life is hidden with Christ in God now, and it will one day be revealed to our salvation.
Second, we are called to humility. This is the paradox and irony in God exalting us. Even though we share in the glory of God through Jesus, and even though we stand even higher than all creation, even the angels, this is by grace alone. Nothing in man deserves this. Nothing in us could ever earn this position or even kind of qualify for it. Apart from God’s sovereign choice to enter our race and bind us to Himself in Jesus, we really would just be advanced animals and would remain far, far below the angels. Apart from God’s forgiveness and mercy, we would be more hopeless than all other creatures. So it may be true that man has glory, but it is more important that God has gifted that glory to us. Man has no glory at all but the glory of God freely given to him in Jesus Christ. This should keep us humble. This should remind us that when no matter what we do or accomplish, if we are not doing it in Christ it is really no more significant than what the show animals at the zoo do. All of our own attempts to make to a name for ourselves by human strength, talent, or cleverness are worthless dung, to apply Paul’s image, outside of a right relationship to the God who has created, blessed, and sanctified our human lives. No winning arguments, attractive appearances, popular blogs, good reputations, moral stringencies, hipster identity, well-raised children, high social status, standing ovation performances, hefty promotions, or any awards or credentials can raise us over the heavens. Only Jesus can do that. So when we waste our time and energy trying to make ourselves look good, to ourselves or anyone else, we’re actually degrading ourselves. Our only possible glory is the glory of Christ, so when we try to make our own glory we necessarily become less than we ever could be by selflessly submitting to Jesus.
This is actually something I want to address very directly and practically, too, since pride really is at the source of so much of our daily sinfulness. I know it’s the case for me. I feel it all the time. Whether it’s self-consciousness around other people, trying to prove all my arguments right, or defending myself hysterically against any criticism at all, I give pride too much daily space. And whatever space I give for pride is space I lose for the glory of Jesus living in and through me. So I specifically want to challenge all of you to make this specific and personal: where does pride rear its ugly head in your own daily life? Do you have to win all the debates? Do you have to keep up a certain image with your friends? Do you pretend to be more spiritually put-together than you really are, or maybe on the flip side of that, do you wear your flaws as a badge of pride in being “authentic”? Do you defend yourself against anything negative anyone might say? Are you really self-conscious, more concerned with how people see you than how you can bless them? Are you critical and judgmental? Do you get most of your kicks out of belittling other people? All of these are deadly poison that pulls us away from our only source of real and lasting glory. They promise the fulfill us, but instead they enslave us. So think about it, find the pride in your daily life, confess it to God, and kill it.
A third application I want to highlight briefly is the responsibility which comes from being in charge of God’s creation. Even though we don’t yet see all things under humanity’s feet, God has put them there, and we already have a lot of sway over the creation around us. This means on the one hand that we are called to use this power, particularly in a way that glorifies God. Our physical space, time, and matter are a gracious stewardship from God, and He has charged us with being in a certain sense co-creators with Him. We have the job of taking the works of God’s hands and using our hands to accentuate their testimony to God’s glory. And that’s a job that can take many forms. We can use basic matter, just stuff, to make things, whether buildings or art or technology. We can use our brains to investigate creation and testify to the brilliant and comprehensive order God has given it through scientific study. We can glorify God through the animals He has made, maybe training them to do the most amazing things God has made possible, or preparing them as the food God kindly provides every day. There’s almost no limit. So in a certain sense, by reminding us of our position over creation, Psalm 8 tells us to get a job, a hobby, and a life! Doing these things, whether we do it in a way that spells out Jesus’ name or not, we glorify the God who made the world and gave it to us. But of course, the fact that ultimately it is God who rules, and that we only have a part by grace, means that we are responsible to Him, too. Creation is ours, sure, but kind of like my first car was “mine.” They may have let me use it, with few restrictions at all, but their name was still on it and I was accountable to them for how I used it. So the space, time, and matter that we use in this world are still ultimately God’s before they are ours, and this means we are not allowed to waste them, abuse them, or use them against Him. We are responsible to treat creation respectfully in its every part, whether rock, deer, spider, forest, or even space and time. We are rulers in Christ alone, so when we try to act like rulers without Christ we invite disaster on ourselves.
And so, the fourth and final application I want to mention is our job of proclaiming God’s praise. The psalm begins and ends with praise about God’s universal majesty, and for good reason. A God so powerful and so gracious to all of us deserves our praise. God has exalted us even though we don’t deserve it, so it’s only fitting that we exalt Him who does deserve it. And I don’t just mean personally. I’m not just saying sing songs in church or praise God in private prayer. I’m talking publicly. The majestic name of Jesus resounds throughout the earth, but many people will never hear the sound unless it comes through the voices of His people. So the final application here, as almost always really, to tell others. If the only glory humanity can have is the glory of God in Jesus, then a world full of people who try to find some other glory on its own terms is killing itself and needs to hear the truth. So again, I offer the challenge of being specific: in the next week or so, how can you, and I, tell someone specific about the majestic God of love and the glory He has prepared for us? My hope and goal, though I know I may be reaching, is for us all to have a story about this very soon.