Psalms Week 2
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Old Testament
Psalm 8 — a Davidic psalm — begins and ends with a refrain that accents the majestic name of YHWH in all the earth (8:1, 9). Indeed, God’s name is perforce majestic because God’s very being is glorious. The name matches the glory. Glory of this sort is, inexplicably and mysteriously, chanted by those not yet able to speak: nursing babies (8:2).
We might expect children who have learned to talk and certainly adults to sing God’s praises, but it is a different matter entirely when those not yet capable of language somehow exalt the divine. How can this be? It is not to be explained; it is only to be experienced. In ways that pass understanding, those who cannot articulate extol God’s greatness and those who have not yet acquired language, let alone musical ability, intone notes that laud the deity.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus uses this section of the Psalm in its Greek version (the Septuagint) to justify the children’s praise in response to his healing of the blind and the lame in the temple: “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matthew 21:14–16). Jesus argues that honoring God and God’s work comes from the unlikeliest sources.
Equally strange, these infantile utterances have been used by the Lord to found a fortress before which God’s enemies ironically can only stand mute (Psalm 8:2). Again, how can this be? How can babies in any sense of the word be used by God to erect barriers against foes of the divine? In this case, not only does God use infants for this purpose, God uses their voices, their songs, for this special task. Once more this passes understanding. The kind of divine strength being spoken of by the psalmist here cannot be expressed with conventional language or technical terminology. This is language that transcends normal utterance. In a sense, it is the language of prayer. How powerless must be an enemy of God whose nefarious purposes are thwarted by what babies, of all creatures, say and sing about God?
The psalmist’s extravagant declaration of God’s glory is primarily a response to the surrounding created order (8:3), most especially the skies or heavens, inhabited as they are by physical bodies — the moon and the stars — which God has effortlessly made (“the work of Your fingers”). Anyone who believes that the physical universe has been brought into being by God could not help but respond as the psalmist does. It is all but impossible not to be overwhelmed by God’s creative handiwork. If we are stunned by the creative works of human genius — whether Mozart’s music or Monet’s art or Wren’s architecture — how much more likely are we to stand in awe before the unparalleled beauty of the natural world that God has produced?
Yet this reality produces a conundrum in the psalmist’s mind. Given the beauty, complexity, vastness, intricacy, and sheer immensity of the created order, how is it that God has paid special attention to mere mortals? The psalmist’s rhetorical question is nothing short of startling:
What is man that you remember him,
or the son of man, that you pay attention to him? (8:4, author’s translation).
Man and son of man in this context are both generic terms, referring to humanity in general, including, therefore, both women and men. One could easily translate using humanity and ordinary folk, which would be technically more accurate, though perhaps a little less poetic (see the NRSV: human beings and mortals, respectively). Both terms are being used to convey the idea of humanity as almost a mundane, if not relatively insignificant, feature of God’s created realm.
Yet it is precisely the ordinariness of the human species that has the psalmist baffled. Even though mortals pale in comparison to “the moon and the stars,” God has, incredibly, made them only “a little less than God” and “crowned [them] with glory and honor,” terms we would usually use in reference exclusively to the divine (8:5). In addition, notwithstanding the incomparable greatness of God’s creation, this same creator God has put humanity in charge of it. In short, God has given human beings rule over everything God has made, including the whole animal kingdom (8:6–8). This sentiment echoes that found in Genesis 1:26–28. The psalmist is in good biblical company.
In a sense, the psalmist here is being pensive and reflective. That is, there is no particular context in mind. The psalmist takes a tandem look at the created order and humanity in general, and then expresses amazement that God has an especially keen interest in people. No explanation for this is offered, unlike the Genesis 1 passage, which attributes humanity’s role to having been made in the image and likeness of God. In Psalm 8, the poet is content simply to acknowledge divine favoritism toward human beings. Somehow, explication would be superfluous.
The general tenor of this psalm is read in a Christological fashion by the author of the New Testament book of Hebrews. This author also uses the Greek version. [Author’s Note 1] The line of thought seems to be as follows. If Psalm 8 celebrates the extraordinary attention God has paid to mere mortals and the role assigned to them in God’s grand creative scheme, then how much more should we be awed at the prospect of the ultimate mortal — Jesus the Son of Man — being put in charge of the created order (Hebrews 2:5–9). That is, Psalm 8 indicates not only that God had placed ordinary people on a pedestal, but that God placed the Mortal One on the ultimate pedestal. For the writer of Hebrews, then, this Psalm was not only profound in its original context, but even more profound when read prophetically and therefore Christologically.
Though in a slightly different register, Psalm 33 echoes aspects of Psalm 8. This untitled psalm begins in a straightforward manner by calling on the righteous and upright to rejoice in and praise the Lord (Psalm 33:1). This wonderful activity should be carried out with musical instruments and the singing of a “new song” (33:2–3). Such human activity makes perfect sense, given that the Lord is upright, acts faithfully, loves righteousness and justice, and fills the earth with love (33:4–5). Why would one not rejoice?
At this point the psalm moves to the motif of creation. The heavens and all their host came about via the Lord’s utterance: God’s word and breath (33:6; see Genesis 1). Indicating the ease of God’s creation with another metaphor, the psalmist notes that the Lord gathered the seas in a bottle and put the deeps into storage (33:7). Creation is not taxing for this powerful deity.
In light of this incredible image, the people are again enjoined not so much to praise — as in 33:1 — but to “stand in awe” (33:8). As the people in effect stand awestruck, the psalmist continues to emphasize divine greatness. Once again, divine speech resulted in all existence (33:9). The wisdom and plans of the world’s nations are as nothing compared to God’s wisdom and deliberations (33:10–11). Those who may boast a God of this ilk are truly blessed (33:12).
Akin to Psalm 8, at this point in the poem we discover that the Lord has taken a heavens-eye view of the human family (33:13–14). Of course, as part of God’s creative activity, God has made people, fashioning their hearts and therefore observing their deeds (33:15). From this divine perspective, it is important to realize that what may seem important to mortals — such as kings, armies, warriors, and conventional power (33:16–17) — is not what is important to God. God looks at those who fear God, who hope in God’s love, and who see their deliverance in divine rather than human strength (33:18–19).
Thus, the psalmist concludes by affirming these realities. In a sort of creedal doxology the psalmist declares that “our souls wait for the Lord” — for the Lord is our help and shield (33:20). Indeed, “our heart is glad in God,” precisely because we trust in the holy name of God (33:21). Finally, the psalmist yearns for God’s love even as collective hope in God is expressed (33:22). This human attitude is what makes it possible for God to entrust human beings with one task or another.
Psalm 144, another Davidic Psalm, has a slightly different feel, even though virtually the same rhetorical question regarding God’s attentiveness to humanity is present as was the case in Psalm 8 (8:3). This psalm is more intensely personal, as emphasized by the pronouns: “my rock” (144:1, 2); “my hands” (144:1); “my fingers” (144:1); “my fortress” (144:2); “my stronghold” (144:2); “my deliverer” (144:2); “my shield” (144:2); “in whom I take refuge” (144:2); “rescue me” (144:7, 11); “deliver me” (144:7, 11); “I will sing” (144:9); “I will play” (144:9). Also, the context is not the splendor of the created order as it is in Psalm 8. Instead, the psalmist speaks as a king who relies on YHWH in the face of enemies (144:10).
The introduction to the psalm accents God’s protection of the psalmist in two ways. One, the Lord is a rock, fortress, stronghold, shield, and refuge (144:1–2). Two, the Lord trains the psalmist as a warrior, delivers him, and subdues peoples who are enemies. The context is general rather than specific. No particular enemies are mentioned, the people who are foes remain unknown, the victories are unspecified, and no battles are named. Rather, the psalmist is content to praise God for support in any and all difficult circumstances.
Then the rhetorical question appears, which mimics that found in Psalm 8:
O YHWH, what is man that you are aware of him,
the son of man that you consider him? (144:3)
In addition to a slight difference of vocabulary, there is also another nuance. Humanity is brought up not in contrast to the Lord’s vaunted created order, but as a way of calling attention to the ephemeral nature of human life. Human beings in terms of longevity are little more than a breath, hardly around longer than a shadow (144:4). The psalmist seems to be saying that at best human life is painfully short. It is all the more fleeting when one is assaulted by those bent on destruction. If everything goes right, we are around only for a relatively short time. In the context of violence and war, an already temporary existence becomes even more abbreviated. A king whose enemies are at the gates would keenly feel this grim reality.
Such a realization prompts the psalmist to covet the divine presence. But God is sought less for comfort than for action. Using military metaphors, the psalmist calls on YHWH to “come down” (144:5). By God’s touching the mountains to make them smoke, by flashing lightning, by stretching forth the divine hand from on high, God will in effect shoot arrows, scatter the alien foes, and deliver the petitioner (144:5–7). Again, the enemies are unspecified, though we learn that they are collective liars (144:8, 11). Even this military imagery is connected to God as creator. Only a creator God is sovereign over heavens/skies, has mastery over mountains and lightning, and is therefore able to rescue when formidable attackers are at hand.
Ultimately, it is God who gives victory to kings in general and to David — here perhaps a figure for kingship in general in Israel — in particular (144:10). But this imagery should be seen in something besides a military or political context. Israel as God’s elect people is in view here. This means that the ultimate victory is manifested in the blessings that accrue to being God’s specially chosen. Israel’s sons and daughters are to have a future — for God’s people have a future (144:12). Part of Israel’s blessing is abundance and prosperity and economic boon — life to its fullest (144:13–14). Folks who experience these blessings are happy that the Lord is their God.
These three psalms together accent humanity and God’s willingness, not to mention ability, to work through humanity. God has chosen mere mortals to deal with those who refuse to see that they live in God’s created order and who fail to realize the task that God has put forward for the elect. From a pan-canonical point of view, the ultimate mere mortal through whom God works out God’s purposes is the Son of Man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Though this one, too, was made “a little less” than God/the angels in the Incarnation, He was crowned with glory and honor by finally subjecting all enemies of God to His power.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Psalm 8 highlights praise that comes from an unlikely source. What is this source, and why do you think the psalmist chose to feature it? In your own journey of faith, where have you witnessed or experienced worship that came from a seemingly unlikely source?
- Re-read 8:3-6. What is striking to you from these verses? What impact do these realities have on your day to day life? More specifically, your attitudes, actions, or purpose?
- What characteristics or acts of God are lifted-up in Psalm 33? If you were to write a psalm about God’s work in your life, what attributes or action would you choose to highlight to demonstrate God’s glory and majesty?
- Re-read 33:20-22. What sort of postures do we see demonstrated in the Psalmist’s language? Consider focusing on one of these postures or attitudes in the coming days and weeks. How could you cultivate a spirit that embodies these attributes in a more robust way?
- Psalm 144 continues in a similar vein as Psalms 8 & 33 in regard to their understanding of humanity, yet introduces a particular nuance. What is this nuance? (Hint: Check out 144:4 if you get stuck). How does this reality challenge contemporary culture? How does it challenge your understanding of your own life?
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