When we think of the questions that we expect faith to answer for us, perhaps we assume that the most important ones are theological: Who is God? How do we build our relationship with God? But religion speaks to other profound issues as well. And before we begin to ask questions about God, perhaps we need to ask questions that we could characterize as anthropological: What can we say about human beings? What sense do we make of the human condition? Where do we fit in? What is our place in the divine order of things?
Psalm 8 balances questions of both types. As we read it and make its words our own, we give voice to a powerful wonder and exaltation of God for all that God has created. At the same time, embedded in this psalm is a profound reflection on the role that we humans play in God’s creation. What is our role in this vast cosmos that is the handiwork of God’s design? Psalm 8 raises profound questions for us and then, answering them, gives us a way to understand our place in the whole of creation. We finish reading it reoriented and seeing more clearly our place on the map of reality.
Verse 2 prepares our entry into the psalm with its invocation of heaven and earth. Of course, it is not just in these two spheres that God’s majesty is proclaimed. Rather, the invocation of heaven and earth serves to represent the whole of creation. Everything that exists attests to God’s greatness. Heaven and earth are not the skies and this planet alone, but representative of the totality of God’s creative work. The terms are meant not to make a separation, but to be inclusive. This sense of inclusiveness and wholeness is reflected in the very structure of the psalm. The first phrase is repeated at the conclusion of the poem; the psalm comes full circle. “O Lord our God how glorious is Thy name in all the earth!” And, of course, the emphasis is on the word “all.” We might say that verse 2 sets out the premise of the psalm. The ensuing verses demonstrate the case. And the final words reassert the fundamental message of the work—only now with deepened appreciation of the fullness of what that message means.
Verse 4, like so many others of the psalms, begins with the psalmist—and with us as we make the words our own—standing outside on a clear night looking up at the wonders of the skies. Perhaps to the polytheistic peoples who came before the emergence of the religion of Israel, each of those lights was a divinity to be worshiped. But to the psalmist and to all those who have taken for themselves the monotheistic lessons of the Hebrew Scriptures, the splendors of the heavens point beyond themselves and testify to the power of their Creator.
The prophet Isaiah understands the starry skies as testimony to God’s creative power—mute witnesses to God’s greatness:
The great theophany—the overwhelming appearance of God in the Book of Job—also reflects the understanding that the wonders of heaven are witnesses to the wisdom of God and of God’s infinite power. God demands of Job, “Where wast Thou...”:
In his inability to answer yes to any of these questions, Job underscores the distance between finite human beings and the infinite God who can and does do all of these wondrous deeds. So it is with us. As we look up at the stars we, too, can be overwhelmed by the glory of creation, and feel awe at the Creator of it all.
And yet even as we feel the greatness of God so deeply, we feel welling up within us—as Job must have felt—a sense of our own smallness and insignificance. It is in this frame of mind that we can ask, with the psalmist, “What are we that you are mindful of us, we human beings that you should care for us?”
At the very center of the psalm, in the midst of words of exultant praise, Psalm 8 poses the great question: What is the value of human life? Is God’s greatness so vast that it must mean that we are worthless? We might expect the psalm to dwell upon human insignificance. Truth be told, we often do when looking up at the infinite sky or contemplating the vastness of creation. Perhaps the psalm’s answer will come as a surprise to us. Rather than attesting to human insignificance, Psalm 8 affirms the infinite worth of human life. In verse 5 it acknowledges that we might imagine ourselves as unworthy of God’s attention. But then the tone shifts dramatically in verse 6. In a powerful phrase, we are reminded that we are “little lower than the angels.” In verses 7 through 9 we read a very tangible reminder that we occupy a place of supreme importance in the order of things. The psalm that starts out contemplating the starry skies now directs its attention downward to the earth—offering a veritable inventory of animal life. All things on the planet are turned over to us—not to exploit, but to protect. The imagery of these verses echoes words from the very first chapter of the Bible: "God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and master it; and rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and all the living things that make their way upon the earth’” (Gen 1:28).
This image of human beings as given “dominion” over all living creatures came to be understood in terms of an idea that is perhaps the most audacious assertion of the monotheistic traditions. It is the suggestion that we are “partners” with God with regard to life on the planet. Little lower than the angels, we have the privilege and responsibility of overseeing all that God has created.
God is great and wondrous. And yet we matter. We matter greatly. We are of the greatest possible significance to the order of God’s creation. This is hardly the response we might assume in the face of the first verses of the psalm, and yet it is not out of keeping with a sense of wonder at the splendor of creation. It is as if the message of the psalm is “among the wondrous things that God has fashioned...is me!” This idea is stated explicitly in Psalm 139: