One of my favourite Psalms is the eighth. I’m using it – very briefly – for a baptism sermon this Sunday, which will have absolutely no room to even begin to extol the kind of technical beauties this gem has.
First of all, there’s the structure. Check this out:
A Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth,
B who has set your splendor above the heavens;
C from mouths of babes you ordained strength, to stop the foe & avenger.
D When I consider the works of your hands the stars you’ve ordained,
E what is man that you think of him, or a son of man that you visit him?
E You made him a little lower than angels & crowned him w/ glory & honour
D gave him dominion over the works of your hands & put all under his feet
C all sheep and oxen, yes the beasts of field
B birds of the heavens, fish of sea, all that swim in paths of sea
A Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth!
That’s a bit of chiastic beauty right there. The widest frame of God’s glory, and within that the contrasts of the heavenly and the earthly ‘works of your hands'; all leading up to and from the middle, the intersection of heaven and earth: humans. Someone once said that, when it comes to what we have capacity to measure, from the estimated ‘size’ of the known universe, to the ‘planck length’, humans are in the direct middle. True or not, that’s a cool thought.
Like the two triangles in the star of David, this Psalm is about the profound tension of being human. Long before any old or new atheist ever protested the idea of humans being the centre of the world, we have ‘the baffled king’ David, who is flabbergasted at the thought of God thinking about humans. And yet. How inspiring is the irony that humans alone (so far as we know!) have the combination of sapience and science to grasp and be grasped by their small size in relation to ‘the rest’? Psalm 104, by the way, speaks of purpose in creation beyond the comfort of humans. Rock badgers, the land, the trees, the sun and moon and others all benefit. Had David known about bosons, black holes, quarks and dark energy, he’d have found a way to speak of their delight in the provision of the Creator.
Which leads to what I like to call the ‘Psalm 8 balance’. If to be human is to be “under the creator, and over creation” (as I recall hearing N.T. Wright say), then (as humans primarily sin when they either fail to live up to their calling of being ‘over’ the works of God’s hands, or when they fail to submit to being ‘a little lower than God. (My understanding is that ‘elohim’ here should, as elsewhere, be translated ‘God’, not ‘angels’) As Mark Biddle writes in Missing the Mark (p. 75),
“Authentic human existence involves living in and for the image of God while fully aware that one comes from the dust. When this polarity becomes imbalanced in either direction, one falls into sin.”
Or Bruggemann, on this Psalm, writes,
Human power is always bounded and surrounded by divine praise. Doxology and dominion its context and legitimacy.
Apathy is the enemy of the wonder that simultaneously makes worship godly and makes our ‘dominion’ humane. And that is tension indeed.
And finally, there’s the way this Psalm just patient sits and quietly asks to be picked up and used to speak about Christ. The one in whom heaven and earth met. The ‘man from heaven’ Paul would say. The one who dared utter the words ‘before Abraham was, I AM’. The incomparable God-Man. The Only Begotten son, called both the son of God and son of Man, who didn’t leave his glory ‘set’ above the heavens, or just to the Father and himself ‘before the world began’ (as in John’s gospel), but who took flesh and let that glory be seen.