Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 22, 2016
Psalm 8 Commentary
Throughout the Christian church this is the Sunday to celebrate the Trinity. Our other readings for today are richly Trinitarian (John 16:12-15 and Romans 5:1-5) or at least suggestive of the Trinity (Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31). Psalm 8? Not so much. In Year A of the lectionary cycle Psalm 8 is paired with Matthew 28, and we could conceivably connect the Commission to go into all the world and make disciples with the commission to have dominion over all the works of God’s hands. But here in Year C, there doesn’t seem to be any logical or theological connection between the Trinity and Psalm 8, unless we treat it as a hymn of praise to the as-yet unrevealed Trinity.
However, it would be a shame to ignore Psalm 8, for it is a whopping good hymn. Indeed, it is the first hymn of praise in the entire Psalter. After pleading with God for various kinds of deliverance in Psalms 2-7, Psalm 8 praises the God to whom we pray for salvation and reveals something surprising God. It is not technically a call to praise. Unlike so many of the Psalms of praise there is no exhortation. It is simply and purely praise addressed directly to the covenant God of Israel for his sovereignty. That theme of sovereignty is suggested by the two names of God in the opening verse. “O Lord (Yahweh), our Lord (Adonai), how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
To be specific, God’s majestic sovereignty is revealed in two very different ways: in the heights of heaven and in the dust of the earth. God’s glory is set above the heavens, and it is seen in the heavenly bodies created by the fingers of God. As he gazes up at God’s high glory, the Psalmist feels very low and insignificant. But, to his and our surprise, God has crowned puny humankind with glory and honor. Indeed, the children of Adam (the one made from the dust of the earth) have been made little lower than the heavenly beings. And Yahweh has given human beings the role of ruler over all of God’s earthly creation. The sovereign Lord has made us sovereign lords.
A statement like the last one will raise all kinds of red flags for those who are concerned about the way humans have misused their sovereignty in relation to the environment. I’ll say much more about that soon; in fact, this Psalm puts some very important safeguards around that whole environmental discussion.
For now, the Psalmist’s high words about the glorious place of humans in God’s creation reminded me of the often misquoted saying of the early church father, Iranaeus. “The glory of God is man fully alive….” What follows those ellipses is even more important. Like Psalm 8, Iranaeus centered the glory of man in the wider context of the glory of God: “the life of man is the vision of God.”
If you decide to preach on Psalm 8 today, you will need to deal with some meaty problems in the text. For example, you will find verses 1b-2 to be, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “obscure and problematic.” The first part (“You have set your glory above the heavens”) is not the problem; the problem is the connection between that high glory and the praise of children and the defeat of God’s enemies.
Some scholars see a covert reference here to the first Gospel promise in Genesis 3:15, where God promises that the seed of the woman will finally crush the head of the seed of the serpent. Others detect an occurrence of a frequent biblical theme, the idea that God uses weakness to defeat his enemies. Indeed, Jesus uses Psalm 8:2 to silence his critics after his Triumphal Entry and the cleansing of the Temple. God shows his glory by using the praise of the smallest children to defeat his loudest critics.
Still others want to rearrange the lines so that they read something like this: “Your splendor above the heavens is praised from the mouths of children and infants. You have established power because of your foes, to quell the enemy and the avenger.” In other words, God’s sovereign power, displayed in the heavens, defeats his enemies. For that victory even children praise God. Given the difficulty of discerning the meaning of those few words, you probably won’t focus on them.
You almost certainly will zero in on verses 3 and 4, because they raise what philosophers call “the man question.” As he lay out under the stars, possibly keeping watch over his father’s sheep, David gazes up at the Milky Way and is overwhelmed by his own insignificance in the total scheme of things. The “stargazer” asks the great question about the worth and purpose of the human race. “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”
As a member of God’s covenant people, the Psalmist has experienced both “mindful” and “care.” “Mindful” means that God remembers his people and “care” means that he visits them in their historical situations. Both words speak about the fact that the God whose glory is set above the heavens pays attention to, remembers in mercy, and visits his children, in spite of their finitude and fallibility. The Psalmist might have asked, “How is it that you do that, O God.” But that would have required a different Hebrew interrogative word and it would have focused on God. Instead, he asks “What is man…,” and that focuses the question on us. In that focus we can find rich ground for preaching.
I mean, this “man question” can be and has been asked by a wide variety of people. An evolutionary biologist may ask it and conclude that man is simply an animal, an advanced animal to be sure, but merely an animal nevertheless. An economist would answer the question very differently. Man is a consumer of goods and products. If the economist were a Marxist, that would be the end of the answer. That’s all we are, mere consumers driven by dialectical materialism. A political philosopher like Thomas Jefferson would give the Deist answer to the question. God is so high and lifted up that he does not, in fact, pay much attention to us at all and certainly doesn’t visit us in any special way.
It is fascinating that the “man question” is asked and answered in a very different way elsewhere in Scripture. In Job 7:17-21 Job complains that God pays too much attention to man (particularly Job himself) and unfairly examines him and even makes him a target. Job can’t understand why God has visited his little speck of dust with such terrible suffering. Many a child of God has asked the “man question” with just such despair.
But David gives a doxological answer to his own question. Rather than focusing on unfair suffering, David celebrates the fact that God has given us glory and honor beyond our deserving. “You made him little lower than the heavenly beings….” Note the “made.” Our exalted status is not something innate. It’s not that humans are inherently more exalted than the rest of creation; we truly are part of the animal world. But in his grace, God has given us special status in his world, just a little lower than the “heavenly beings.” The Hebrew there is elohim, which is the common name for God. But it probably means angelic beings here.
Not only have humans been given an exalted status, but we have also been assigned a special task. “You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet.” Then the Psalmist lists all the creatures under mankind’s feet. Using representative words, it amounts to everything. In his sovereignty God has given us sovereignty over his creation on the earth. We are, in effect, a stand in for God. In typically striking fashion, Brueggemann puts it this way. We have glory and honor in relation to angels, not unlike God. We have dominion over other creatures, not unlike God. Humans are not unlike God.
But we are not God. Only God is God. This powerful claim about human sovereignty occurs within the context of even more powerful claims about the sovereignty of God. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth.” “Doxology gives dominion its context and legitimacy,” says Brueggemann. This placement of human sovereignty in the context of God’s sovereignty is the proper response to the legitimate alarm of environmentalists over man’s dominion. This is our Father’s world, not ours. He put us in charge, not to abuse it, but to care for it, to protect it, and to make the most of it, that is, to civilize it in the best sense of that word.
We can only exercise our dominion properly when we call Yahweh “our Adonai,” our Sovereign. We are accountable to God for how we rule this world. When we turn “dominion” into “domination,” “rule” into “ruin,” and “subordination to the divine purpose” into “subjection to human sinfulness,” we will have to answer not to the EPA or the Sierra Club, but to our covenant God. “The glory of God is man fully alive” as the God ordained ruler of this earth. But the purpose of life cannot be restricted to this earth; “the life of man is the vision of God.” “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
No, we can’t preach a Trinitarian sermon on this Psalm, but we could certainly preach a Christ-centered one, given the way Hebrews 2 uses verses 4-6 as a reference to Christ. In fact, that would be the very best way to end this Psalm with its earth-keeping implications. Hebrews 2:8 admits that not everything is subject to “him” at the present time. Does that “him” mean “the son of man” in the sense of humanity? We have not exercised our dominion properly, so the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. Or does the writer refer to Jesus when he says not everything is subject to “him” at the present time? Death is still roaming the earth apparently out of control.
Whatever “him” means in Hebrews 2:8, the writer’s intention is clearly to hold up the eschatological vision of that day when all things are subject to the Son of Man, Jesus Christ. For a little while, God made him a little lower than the angels. In that lower state, he did battle with the forces of evil that have ruined the world, especially death. Right now, things are still in a bad way in many places. But God will bring many sons and daughters to their God-ordained glory, on that day when the risen and reigning Christ returns in all his glory.
In the meantime, we must live up to our exalted status and fulfill our God given task, for the sake of Christ the true King who “took the form of a servant whose governance was in the form of obedience.” (Brueggemann, again)
In my comments above I interpreted Psalm 8 in the light of Genesis 1 and 2. We have been put in charge to “protect and serve.” In many American cities those very words are imprinted on police cars and badges. But as Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities have experienced, authority can be abused. Pictures of dead bodies and angry mobs remind us that things can go terribly wrong when those appointed to “protect and serve” use their power in a dominating way.
“The man question” not only occupies serious thinkers, but also surfaces in all kinds of popular culture. Think of the classic song by Kansas, “All We Are is Dust in the Wind,” or the movie, “Less than Nothing.” On a positive front, I just finished my yearly quota of young adult books with two marvelous stories about disabled kids who demonstrate that they, too, are crowned with glory and honor. Soar is about a boy whose heart issues keep him from playing his beloved baseball, but not from coaching his peers to new heights. And Out of My Mind tells the story about a fifth grade girl who is unable to speak or control her body because of cerebral palsy. But behind her spastic movements and drooling grunts is a brilliant mind. When she is finally given a Stephen Hawking speech machine, her classmates experience her glorious mind. But they can’t see past her disability. Both are worth a read in and of themselves, but they will help you think about the royalty that resides in every human being.
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