Humanity is small and insignificant in the light of God’s great majesty. Yet, in God’s love for us, he has given us a royal job to do: to act as royal stewards of his creation.
Through this lesson, students should:
Recognize the glory and majesty of our creator God.
Recognize our own insignificance in the light of God’s glory.
Seek to exercise our royal stewardship in appropriate ways.
Catching up on the Story
Psalm 8 is attributed to King David. We do not know about the situation which gave rise to this particular psalm, which we can characterize as a psalm of praise. Specifically, this psalm finds its inspiration in the creative power of Israel’s God. It might be helpful if we were to quickly review the two accounts of creation found in Genesis 1 and 2; when we do that, we find that God is the sole agent of creation. Everything that is or ever was came to be because of God’s will: from the celestial bodies to the smallest microbe. In the midst of all of that is humanity. Why, the Psalmist wonders, does God pay any attention to us? That’s the main question in Psalm 8.
Psalm 8 is the first psalm of praise we encounter when reading through the book. Remarkably, it does not begin with a call to the congregation to lavish praise on God; rather, it starts with an exclamation of praise. The structure of the psalm is simple. It is composed of an introductory line, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
This introductory line will be repeated at the end of the psalm to form what is technically known as an inclusio, or statement that brackets the main body and serves to contain everything within the psalm in a tidy fashion. It also brings us back to the beginning, causing us to think again and differently about the statement offered at the beginning.
Following the opening line, we find two equal stanzas. The first is composed of verses 1b-4, while the second is composed of verses 5-8. In the first stanza, we will be introduced to the occasion of the psalm as well as the main question of the psalm. The second stanza will give us the answer to the main question posed in verse 4. Let’s look at each movement in turn.
The Introduction: Verse 1
In the Hebrew text, the first word out of the psalmist’s mouth is God or Yahweh. Of course, ancient Israelites would never have spoken the name God gave them; instead, they would have used Adonai as a substitute. Whenever you see the word “LORD” with capitalized letters, it refers to God’s proper name, Yahweh—using the name of God first in a psalm is often the normal format for beginning a prayer. While prayers usually start with a passionate cry to God for help, this psalm begins not with a cry for help but with a passionate shout of praise. No other psalm will begin this way (deClaisse-Walford, Jacobson, & Tanner, 122).
The second phrase in the introduction is possessive, “our Sovereign.” The psalm is addressed not just to a generic God, as we have already indicated, but to Israel’s specific almighty God. The grammar is possessive, not in a way that claims ownership for Israel, but in a way that clearly states that the God being praised is the one who claims ownership of Israel and all of creation. This beginning is important not just because it sets the tone of the psalm as a song of praise to and about God but because it is a song of praise about God and us in relationship with God (deClaisse-Walford, Jacobson, & Tanner, 122).
The introduction ends with a rhetorical question simultaneously declaring, “how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Here, “name” is synonymous with the works of God’s hands. One of the primary ways we know about God is because of what God has made and done. For the psalmist, what God has done is the work of creation itself. In all of its grandeur, the night sky testifies to God’s great power and splendor.
Stanza #1: Verses 1b-4
The first stanza begins with what is above the heavens. Many cultures surrounding Israel believed that celestial bodies, such as the sun, moon, and stars, were divine. The psalmist begins by asserting that God’s glory rests above those heavenly bodies. The sun, moon, and stars are nothing but created beings whose existence serves to bring glory to the one who made them.
This first line begins the creation motif that will permeate the entire psalm. Many of the terms used throughout the psalm, including “glory,” are royal terms. The one being addressed is, no doubt, the royal creator God. Verse two can be difficult to translate, and there is no shortage of opinions about its meaning. The likely meaning is that from the very beginning, God established a “bulwark,” or a strong wall of defense against the powers of evil, specifically for the most vulnerable. Even toddlers and nursing infants fall under the protection of the God whose glory rests above all creation. Because of this fact, they can speak (if they could!) with such confidence that it would silence God’s enemies.
The Old Testament often testifies that God’s activity in the beginning, at creation, is continued through events like the Exodus and Israel’s life in general. From the beginning, God’s sovereignty in the world is part of God’s ongoing assertion of sovereignty over the powers of disorder and evil even now (Goldingay, 158). Then, in verse three, we get the inciting incident for this psalm: an encounter with the grand night sky. The psalmist stepped outside, looked up, and was struck with awe and wonder at the vast expanse of moon and stars. You’ve likely experienced what the psalmist is talking about.
This encounter with God’s grand night sky causes the psalmist to question God, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
The personal nature of this hymn of praise begins to come through. The psalmist is suddenly aware of his own finiteness. He is small, insignificant, and even mortal. He is dust, and to dust, he will return. Why would God care so greatly for him? It is only when we recognize our place in relation to our creator God, as the psalmist did, that we can begin to understand his glory.
Stanza #2: Verses 5-8
The question at the end of verse four is the pivot point of the psalm. A new stanza begins in verse 5, and the psalmist begins to answer his own question. In the light of God’s great glory and majesty, in the light of the works of God’s hands, humanity is found to be small and insignificant. Yet, the psalmist confesses that God cares for us. Indeed, God has made us a little lower than God.
The NRSV translates this as “God,” with the capital G indicating the one true God. On the other hand, the NIV translates it as “heavenly beings.” In either version, you will find a footnote that gives you the alternate translation. Either way, the image is the same: humanity occupies an important place in the order of things. We have been made a little lower than the heavenly beings, and as such, we have been crowned with glory and honor.
While the first part of the psalm deals heavily with royal terms and imagery regarding God, the second half does the same regarding humanity. We have been crowned. We have been given “dominion” over what God has created. “Dominion” is not meant to be understood in an exploitative way. Rather, the dominion we have been given should be understood as working toward the flourishing and fruitfulness of creation. All things have been put under our feet (a symbolic act recognizing a king’s authority over something). The sheep, the oxen, the beasts of the field, and even the things that swim in paths of the seas.
As you look back over the psalm, a downward motion has developed. We begin by confessing God’s glory above the heavens, then move a little lower to the heavenly bodies themselves. Next, we move to humanity, from the head crowned to our hands which have dominion, and then to that which has been placed under our feet.
Finally, the movement of the psalm proceeds to the sheep and oxen, the beasts of the field, and the fish that swim in the sea. There is an order to things, and we have a very specific place in it. God cares for us because he has placed us in a position to reign with him as co-creators and caretakers for the creation, which he deemed was very good. Because God values us, we are given a role to play in his creation.
Like children, who long to be loved but who also long to be helpful and contribute to the functioning of the house, we too long to participate in God’s care for creation. Unfortunately, sometimes we misplace the longing to help or the reason for helping. While it is true that we have been given a royal position within creation, we must exercise our royalty in a way that brings glory to the one who is above us.
My children, especially when they were toddlers, have often wanted to help with things around the house, but they often do not want to do it in the best way. Part of our royal position is to learn how to reign like our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, now reigns.
The Inclusio: Verse 9
The psalm ends with a repetition of verse 1. While the verse is comprised of the same words, we hear them differently due to what has gone before.
We have asked and answered a question. We know now who we are. More importantly, we know who God is as the one who has loved and valued us enough to place us in a position of stewardship over his creation. May our actions add to the glory and majesty of God’s name!
We do not believe that humanity’s disobedience has removed us from the position that God has given us. Sin has not completely undone God’s plans. Yet, it takes only a little time observing our world to recognize that we have done a very poor job of exercising our royal mandate. The world can be a very dangerous place in which to live because of our poor stewardship of it. Violence, crime, wars, and even environmental disasters result from the failure of our royal mandate. Of course, all is not lost. We are an Easter people; we are a Pentecost people. We have the power of the resurrected Son of God and his Holy Spirit to guide us in our regency.
Perhaps, however, what we often need to do is to recognize the glory of our creator God. We can only know who we are and how we are to live in this world that God has given us when we can first say, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” and, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them?”
As one commentator said, “We can only learn to say ‘human being’ after we have learned to say ‘God.’” (Goldingay, 161).
Let us rejoice in the knowledge that the God who created the universe has made us and desires to place us in a significant leadership role, but let us never lose sight of who we are in relation to this God. Let us constantly ponder the wonder, majesty, and glory of our God. Let us continuously consider our own insignificances so that we might exercise our royal mandate in a manner befitting our place in this world.
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
What does it mean that God set his “glory above the heavens?”
The psalm seems to respond to an encounter with God’s splendid night sky. Have you ever been in a remote place at night and gazed up at the sky? What did you see? How did it make you feel? Discuss a time when you glimpsed God’s glory as a result of being in creation.
The psalmist confesses that the stars and the moon are the work of God’s fingers. Why is this significant?
Why does the psalmist ask the question he asks in verse 4, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” What is the psalmist’s answer to that question?
God loves us enough to give us a significant job in caring for and stewarding his creation. As a species, how have we done? If we’ve done a good job, why? If we haven’t, why not?
What must we do to exercise our royal mandate well?
How might we, as a church, prepare ourselves for properly exercising dominion over the works of God’s hands?
How does our call to be stewards of God’s creation compare to discussions in our culture about “green” living?
Goldingay, John. Psalms, Vol. 1: Psalms 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman III. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2006.
deClaisse-Walford, Nancy L.., Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth LaNeel Tanner, The Book of Psalms. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2014.