After progressing through the triumphal season of Easter and the Day Pentecost, it would not be a bad thing to remind ourselves of our insignificant, yet not unimportant, standing relative to God. What makes this psalm appropriate for the Sunday after Pentecost and not, say, during Lent, is its jubilant tone. The tone is both upbeat yet realistic about the insignificant nature of us mortals.
The psalmist begins by declaring the majesty of God’s name, shorthand for noting the totality of all that God has made and done. God’s glory dwells above the sun, moon, and stars, yet at the same time, God is mindful of the smallest babies. Indeed, our God is great, creating and sustaining all that is, yet ever aware of those who are insignificant in the eyes of the world.
It is in verse three that we get the inciting incident for this psalm: an encounter with the grand night sky. The psalmist has stepped outside (something you might find the time to do in preparation for preaching), looked up and was struck with the awe and wonder of the vast expanse of the moon and stars. You cannot get those kinds of views in a metropolitan area. You have to go relatively far out to avoid the light pollution that clouds our real picture of the stars. Only in a completely dark field can we experience the same sky that the psalmist must have seen.
This encounter with God’s grand night sky causes the psalmist to put a question to God: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Here, the personal nature of this hymn of praise comes through. The psalmist is suddenly aware of his finiteness. He is small, insignificant, and even mortal. He is dust, and to dust he will return. Why would God care so much for him? It is when we recognize, as the psalmist did, our place relative to our creator God that we can begin to understand his glory.
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 question. In the light of God’s great glory and majesty, in the view of the works of God’s hands, humanity is found to be small and insignificant. The psalmist confesses God cares for us. Indeed, God has made us a little lower than God. The NRSV translates this “God” with the capital G indicating the one true God. On the other hand, the NIV translates it “heavenly beings.” In either version, you will find a footnote that gives you the alternate translation. Either way, the sent image is the same: humanity occupies a significant 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 in royal terms and imagery regarding God, the second half does the same concerning humanity. We have been crowned. We have been given “dominion” over what God has created. We are not intended to understand this “dominion” in an exploitative way. Instead, the dominion that is ours should be understood in terms of creation sustaining stewardship. All things have been put under our feet (a symbolic act recognizing the authority a king has over something).
Notice, as you look back over the psalm, that a downward motion has developed. We begin by confessing God’s glory above the heavens; then we move a little lower to the heavenly bodies themselves. Next, we move to humanity, from the head, which is 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 on, the beasts of the field and finally the fish that swim in the sea. There is an order to things, and we have a particular 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 that he deemed was very good. Because God values us, we are given a role to play in God’s 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 either the longing to help or the reason for our helping. While it is true that we occupy 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 usually do not want to do it in the way that is best for it to be done. Part of our royal position is to learn how to reign in the same way as our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ now reigns.
The psalm ends with a repetition of verse 9. While the verse comprises the same words, we hear them differently as a result of 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!