Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
It is the marvel of God’s choice of man to be the chief revelation of Himself and His representative on earth that is the theme of this Psalm. Although God’s glory is so conspicuously stamped upon the heavens, He makes infants the defenders of His cause (Psalm 8:1-2). The infinite vastness of the heavens would seem to make a puny creature like man beneath God’s notice (Psalm 8:3-4). Not so, for He has made him in His own image, and appointed him His viceroy over creation (Psalm 8:5-6), in all its varied forms of life (Psalm 8:7-8).
Man then, not Nature, is the central thought in the poet’s mind. It is indeed the contemplation of the heavens with all their wealth of mystery and magnificence which by the law of contrast has turned his gaze to man. Nature is wonderful as the reflection of God’s glory, but man is more wonderful still. Mere atom as he seems to be compared with those starry depths (and what force modern astronomical discovery adds to the contrast), he is in truth more mysterious and wonderful than they, for he is by nature scarce less than God, and appointed to be His viceroy in the world. Man’s dignity is the true marvel of the universe.
The Psalmist looks away from the Fall with its heritage of woe, from the sin and failure and rebellion of mankind, to man’s nature and position and destiny in the original purpose of God. And was he not justified in doing so? The image of God in man is defaced but not destroyed (1 Corinthians 11:7; St James 3:9); the grant of dominion is not abrogated (Genesis 9:2 ff.), though its conditions are modified. Prophets and Apostles look steadily forward to the restoration of man’s destined relation to God and to creation (Isaiah 11:1-9; Romans 8:18-22). God’s purposes are not frustrated by man’s sin, and the Psalm is virtually a prophecy. It finds ‘fulfilment’ in the Incarnation.
The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Psalm 2:6 ff.) quotes Psalm 8:4-6, and contrasts man’s failure with this his lofty destiny. “We see not yet all things subjected to him.” “But,” as he goes on to say, applying the Psalmist’s words to the condescension of the Incarnation, “we behold him who hath been made a little lower than the angels, even Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour.” The Son of Man, the representative of the race, receives as the reward of His obedience unto death the honour designed for man, and in His exaltation we see “the pledge that the Divine counsel of love will not fail of fulfilment” (Bp. Westcott, Christus Consummalor, p. 21).
St Paul too quotes the last half of Psalm 8:6 as an assurance of the final triumph of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:27; cp. Ephesians 1:22). If all things were subjected to the first Adam who failed through sin, not less must they be subjected to the second Adam who triumphs through obedience, and fulfils the destiny of the race.
The title attributes the Psalm to David, and it may well be his. The fact that the author of the Book of Job was familiar with the Psalm (cp. Job 7:17 ff. with Psalm 8:4) would be a strong confirmation of the accuracy of the title, if that book could be assigned with certainty to the time of Solomon; but the uncertainty as to its date prevents any argument being drawn from the allusion. It has been suggested that David composed the Psalm as a shepherd on the plains of Bethlehem. With all its marvellous depth of meaning, it certainly possesses a striking freshness and simplicity; but would it not be more natural to regard it as the later fruit of seeds of thought sown then and gradually brought to maturity?
The appropriateness of this Psalm as one of the Proper Psalms for Ascension Day is obvious. It is in the Ascension of Christ that we see man, in the person of his perfect representative, “crowned with glory and honour.”
On the title, For the Chief Musician; set to the Gittith (R.V.), see Introd. p. xxv.
To the chief Musician upon Gittith, A Psalm of David. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.1. O Lord, our Lord] Jehovah, our Lord. Coverdale rightly felt the need of some audible distinction between Lord (= Jehovah) and Lord (= Adonai), when he rendered O Lorde oure Governoure. Cp. Jerome’s Domine dominator noster. How fitting is this acknowledgment of Jehovah’s sovereignty for the opening of a Psalm in which man’s delegated dominion over the world is brought into such prominence. Here, for the first time in the Psalter, the Psalmist associates others with himself in addressing Jehovah (“our Lord”). He speaks on behalf of the covenant people, hardly as yet (at any rate consciously) on behalf of all mankind. Cp. Nehemiah 10:29; Nehemiah 8:10; Psalm 135:5; Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 26:13.
how excellent] Or, majestic. The word is related to that rendered honour in Psalm 8:5, and majesty in Psalm 104:1. It suggests the ideas of amplitude, splendour, magnificence. Cp. Psalm 76:4; Psalm 93:4 (A.V. mighty).
thy name] That expression of Thyself in the works of Creation and Providence by which Thy character may be recognised. Cp. Psalm 5:11.
Who hast set] “The Hebrew,” as the margin of the R.V. candidly notes, “is obscure.” The word, as vocalised in the Massoretic Text, is imperative, ‘set thou’: but the construction would be unparalleled, and a prayer for the manifestation of God’s glory in the heavens would be out of place, for it is already manifested there. No satisfactory explanation can be offered without some alteration of the text. Changing the vowels we may render, ‘Thou whose glory is spread over the heavens,’ (cp. Habakkuk 3:3): or, ‘Thou whose glory is celebrated above the heavens.’ Cp. the LXX, ‘Thy magnificence is exalted above the heavens’ (ἐπήρθη ἡ μεγαλοπρεπία σου ὑπεράνω τῶν οὐρανῶν). But it seems best to make the slight change of consonants required for the rendering of the A.V., which gives an excellent sense, and is supported by the Targum, Syriac, Symmachus, and Jerome, among the ancient versions. Jehovah has set His glory upon the heavens (so R.V. rightly, though retaining above in the marg.), clothed them with a glory which is the reflection and manifestation of His own (Psalm 104:1). Cp. the uses of the phrase in Numbers 27:20; 1 Chronicles 29:25; Daniel 11:21; and a similar phrase in Psalm 21:5.
The connexion of the clause has still to be considered. It may be joined with the preceding invocation, and a full stop placed at the end of the verse as in A.V.: or it may be taken in close connexion with Psalm 8:2 :
Thou who hast set thy glory upon the heavens,
Out of the mouth of children and sucklings hast thou founded strength.
This construction seems preferable; for it leaves the opening invocation to stand by itself as it does at the close of the Psalm (Psalm 8:9): it emphasises the contrast between Jehovah’s revelation of Himself in the splendour of the heavens, and His revelation of Himself in the weakest specimens of humanity, which, paradox as it may seem, is not less but more significant and convincing; and thus it brings out the parallelism between the last clause of Psalm 8:1 and Psalm 8:3, and between Psalm 8:2 and Psalm 8:4 ff. But however we punctuate, Psalm 8:2 must not be disconnected from Psalm 8:1.
1, 2. The fundamental thought and motive of the Psalm:—the revelation of Jehovah’s majesty on earth.
Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.2. Render:
Out of the mouth of children and sucklings hast thou founded strength,
Because of thine adversaries,
To quell the enemy and the avenger.
Instead of founded strength, we might render, founded a stronghold, established a defence: but the more general sense is preferable. The LXX gives a free version, ‘Thou hast perfected praise,’ and in this form the words are quoted in Matthew 21:16.
The general sense is plain. Jehovah has ordained that even the feeblest representatives of humanity should be His champions to confound and silence those who oppose His kingdom and deny His goodness and providential government. The mystery of man, of a being made in the image of God to know God, is greater than the mystery of the heavens, with all their immensity and majesty, as truly as the spiritual and eternal is greater than the material and temporal. Man therefore, even in the weakness of childhood, is a witness of the existence and character of God. But how is the testimony uttered? The words must not be prosaically defined and limited. The inarticulate, unspoken testimony to its Creator borne by the mere existence of the infant with its wonderful instincts and capacities for development; the powers of reason and thought and speech; the exercise of these powers in the praise of God with the simple faith of childhood; all are included. Nor is it mere poetic fancy to say that
“Trailing clouds of glory do we come,
From God, who is our home,”
“Heaven lies about us in our infancy.”
This truth was illustrated in the Hosannas of the children who welcomed the Lord on His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, while the chief priests and scribes hardened their hearts in contemptuous hostility, (Matthew 21:15 ff.); but it has a wider scope than that particular instance.
The interpretation of ‘children and sucklings’ as ‘weak and humble believers’ (Matthew 11:25), does not take account of the context. It may be a justifiable application of the words, but there is no hint that they are used figuratively, and it is of man as man that the Psalmist speaks here not less than in Psalm 8:4 ff. Nor again must the words be understood in a general sense as the equivalent of 1 Corinthians 1:26 ff., though a part of the truth they contain illustrates the principle of divine economy there asserted.
‘Thine adversaries’ … ‘the enemy and avenger’ must not be limited to the enemies of the nation by a reference to Psalm 44:5; Psalm 44:16. These no doubt are among the enemies of Jehovah; but all within the nation who oppose God’s purposes or question His Providence, the ‘wicked,’ the ‘scorners,’ (Psalm 1:1) the ‘fools’ (Psalm 14:1) are equally included. The ‘avenger’ in particular is one who usurps, in his own selfish interests, a judicial function which belongs to God alone (Deuteronomy 32:35; Nahum 1:2).
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;3. thy heavens] The heavens as created by God and manifesting His glory. Cp. Psalm 89:11; Job 36:29; Job 38:33; Isaiah 40:26.
It is of the sky at night that the Psalmist is thinking, for he does not mention the sun; and unquestionably the star-lit sky, especially in the transparent clearness of an Eastern atmosphere, is more suggestive of the vastness and variety and mystery of the universe. See the eloquent passage from Whewell’s Astronomy, Book iii. ch. 3, quoted by Bp. Perowne.
the work of thy fingers] The deft workmanship of a skilful artificer supplies a figure for the creative operations of God. Cp. Psalm 19:1; Psalm 102:25.
3, 4. The contemplation of the heavens in all their splendour forces the Psalmist to wonder that God should choose so insignificant a thing as man for the object of His special regard.
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?4. Then (so the ellipse may be filled up), the thought is forced upon me
What is frail man that thou shouldest be mindful of him?
And the son of man, that thou shouldest visit him?
The words for man are chosen to emphasise his weakness in contrast to the vast and (apparently) unchanging structure of the heavens. Enosh denotes man in his frailty, impotence, mortality (Psalm 103:15); hence it is used with special frequency in Job, where man is contrasted with God (e.g. Job 4:17, where A.V. renders mortal man). Ben-âdâm (son of man) denotes man according to his earthly origin. Cp. Job’s ‘man that is born of a woman’ (Psalm 14:1).
God’s ‘visitation’ of man is His constant, loving, providential, regard (Job 10:12). It is to God’s present and continuous care that the verse refers. It is not until Psalm 8:5 that the Psalmist looks back to man’s original creation.
There is an echo of these words in Psalm 144:3, and Jeremiah 15:15; and Job parodies them, when he asks in the bitterness of his soul how man can be of such importance to God that He should think it worth while to persecute him (Psalm 7:17 ff.).
On the quotation of Psalm 8:4-6 in Hebrews 2:6 ff., see above.
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.5. Render as R.V.:
For thou hast made him but little lower than God,
And crownest him with glory and honour.
In rendering than the angels the A.V. follows the LXX, Vulg., Targ. and Syriac. The later Greek versions (Aquila, Symmachus and Theodotion) and Jerome, rightly render than God. For though in some cases Elohim (God or gods) is applied to supernatural beings generally (1 Samuel 28:13), angels are rather called ‘sons of God;’ and moreover there is a clear reference to the creation of man in the image of God, after His likeness (Genesis 1:26-27).
‘Glory’ and ‘honour’ (or, majesty: worship in P.B.V. is an archaism for honour) are the attributes of royalty: of God Himself (Psalm 145:5; Psalm 145:12), and of kings who are His representatives (Psalm 21:5; Psalm 45:3). Man is crowned king of creation.
5, 6. The Psalmist looks back to man’s creation. God’s regard was exhibited in the nature with which man was endowed, and the position of sovereignty in which he was placed.
Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:6. Again a reference to Genesis 1:26; Genesis 1:28. ‘Thou hast put all things under his feet’ reads like a paraphrase of the word there rendered ‘let them have dominion,’ which means primarily ‘to tread under foot,’ and thence ‘to rule.’ On St Paul’s application of the words in 1 Corinthians 15:27 see above.
All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;7, 8. Man’s subjects are as it were mustered and passed in review: domestic animals, and even the wild creatures that roam at large over the open country; the birds of the air (lit. heaven, as Psalm 104:12), and the fish of the sea, and all the manifold inhabitants of the mysterious depths of ocean. See Genesis 1:21; Genesis 9:2. Cp. Homer’s ὑγρὰ κέλευθα (Il. i. 312); “the wet sea-paths,” as Milton calls them in his version of the Psalm.
The living creatures here enumerated are only mentioned by way of example and illustration of “all things.” In the Psalmist’s day the dominion of man over nature was most strikingly exercised in his mastery over the animal creation, which he tamed or caught and turned to his own use. “Man has become,” says Darwin, “even in his rudest state, the most dominant animal that has ever appeared on this earth.” In our own day it is by the investigation of the great laws of nature, and by the utilisation of the great forces of nature, that man asserts and extends his sovereignty.
The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.
O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!9. How can the Psalmist better close than with the same exclamation of reverent wonder with which he began; repeated now with fuller significance, after meditation on the way in which the truth it asserts is most signally declared!