Expositor's Bible Commentary
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.Psalm 8:1-9THE exclamation which begins and ends this psalm, enclosing it as a jewel in a setting, determines its theme as being neither the nightly heaven with all its stars, nor the dignity of man, but the name of the Lord as proclaimed by both. The Biblical contemplation of nature and man starts from and ends in God. The main thought of the psalm is the superiority of the revelation in man’s nature and place to that in the vault of heaven. The very smallness of man makes the revelation of God in His dealings with him great. In his insignificance is lodged a Divine spark, and, lowly as is his head as he stands beneath the midnight sky blazing with inaccessible lights, it is crowned with a halo which reflects God’s glory more brightly than does their lustre. That one idea is the theme of both parts of the psalm. In the former (Psalm 8:1-2) it is briefly stated; in the latter (Psalm 8:3-8) it is wrought out in detail. The movement of thought is by expansion rather than progress.
The name of the Lord is His character as made known. The psalmist looks beyond Israel, the recipient of a fuller manifestation, and, with adoring wonder, sees far flashing through all the earth, as if written in light, the splendour of that name. The universal revelation in the depths of the sparkling heavens and the special one by which Israel can say, "our Lord," are both recognised. The very abruptness of the exclamation in Psalm 8:1 tells that it is the end of long, silent contemplation, which overflows at last in speech. The remainder of Psalm 8:1 and Psalm 8:2 present the two forms of Divine manifestation which it is the main purpose of the psalm to contrast, and which effect the world wide diffusion of the glory of the Name. These are the apocalypse in the nightly heavens and the witness from the mouth of babes and sucklings. As to the former, there is some difficulty in the text as it stands; and there may be a question also as to the connection with the preceding burst of praise. The word rendered "hast set" is an imperative, which introduces an incongruous thought, since the psalm proceeds on the conviction that God has already done what such a reading would be asking him to do. The simplest solution is to suppose a textual corruption, and to make the slight change required for the rendering of the A.V and R.V God’s name is glorious in all the earth, first, because He has set His glory upon the heavens, which stretch their solemn magnificence above every land. It is His glory of which theirs is the shimmering reflection, visible to every eye upturned from "this dim spot which men call earth." May we attach significance to the difference between "Thy name" and "Thy glory"? Possibly there is a hint of the relative inferiority even of the heavenly proclamation, inasmuch as, while it rays out "glory," the lustre of power and infinitude, it is only on earth that that revelation becomes the utterance of the Name, since here are hearts and minds to interpret.
The relative at the beginning of the last clause of Psalm 8:1 seems to require that the initial exclamation should not be isolated, as it is in the last verse; but, in any case, the two methods of revelation must be taken in the closest connection and brought into line as parallel media of revelation.
Psalm 8:2 gives the second of these. The sudden drop from the glories of the heavens to the babble and prattle of infancy and childhood is most impressive, and gives extraordinary force to the paradox that the latter’s witness is more powerful to silence gainsayers than that of the former. This conviction is expressed in a noble metaphor, which is blurred by the rendering "strength." The word here rather means a strength in the old use of the term-that is, a stronghold or fortress-and the image, somewhat more daring than colder Western taste finds permissible, is that, out of such frail material as children’s speech, God builds a tower of strength, which, like some border castle, will bridle and still the restless enemy. There seems no sufficient reason for taking "children and sucklings" in any but its natural meaning, however the reference to lowly believers may accord with the spirit of the psalm. The children’s voices are taken as a type of feeble instruments, which are yet strong enough to silence the enemy. Childhood, "with no language but a cry," is, if rightly regarded in its source, its budding possibilities, its dependence, its growth, a more potent witness to a more wondrous name than are all the stars. In like manner, man is man’s clearest revelation of God. The more lowly he is, the more lofty his testimony. What are all His servants’ words but the babbling of children who "do not know half the deep things they speak"? God’s strongest fortress is built of weakest stones. The rendering of the LXX, which is that used by our Lord in the Temple when He claimed the children’s shrill hosannas as perfected praise, is an explanation rather than a translation, and as such is quite in the line of the psalmist’s meaning. To find in the "children and sucklings" a reference either to the humble believers in Israel or to the nation as a whole, and in the "enemy and the vengeful man" hostile nations, introduces thoughts alien to the universality of the psalm, which deals with humanity as a whole and with the great revelations wide as humanity. If the two parts of the psalm are to be kept together, the theme of the compendious first portion must be the same as that of the second, namely, the glory of God as revealed by nature and man, but most chiefly by the latter, notwithstanding and even by his comparative feebleness.
The second part (Psalm 8:3-8) expands the theme of the first. The nightly sky is more overwhelming than the bare blue vault of day. Light conceals and darkness unveils the solemn glories. The silent depths, the inaccessible splendours, spoke to this psalmist, as they do to all sensitive souls, of man’s relative insignificance, but they spoke also of the God whose hand had fashioned them, and the thought of Him carried with it the assurance of His care for so small a creature, and therefore changed the aspect of his insignificance. To an ear deaf to the witness of the heavens to their Maker, the only voice which sounds from their crushing magnificence is one which counsels unmitigated despair, insists on man’s nothingness, and mocks his aspirations. If we stop with "What is man?" the answer is, A fleeting nothing. The magnitude, the duration, the multitudes of these awful suns and stars dwarf him. Modern astronomy has so far increased the impression that it has landed many minds in blank unbelief that God has visited so small a speck as earth, and abundant ridicule has been poured on the arrogance which dreams that such stupendous events, as the Christian revelation asserts, have been transacted on earth for man. If we begin with man, certainly his insignificance makes it supremely absurd to suppose him thus distinguished; but if we begin at the other end, the supposition takes a new appearance of probability. If there is a God, and men are His creatures, it is supremely unlikely that He should not have a care of them. Nothing can be more absurd than the supposition of a dumb God, who has never spoken to such a being as man. The psalmist gives full weight to man’s smallness, his frailty, and his lowly origin, for his exclamation, "What is man?" means, "How little is he!" and he uses the words which connote frailty and mortality, and emphasise the fact of birth as if in contrast with "the work of Thy fingers"; but all these points only enhance the wonderfulness of what is to the poet an axiom-that God has personal relations with His creature. "Thou art mindful of him" refers to God’s thought, "Thou visitest him" to His acts of loving care; and both point to God’s universal beneficence, not to His special revelation. The bitter parody in Job 7:17-18 takes the truth by the other handle, and makes the personal relations those of a rigid inspector on the one hand and a creature not worth being so strict with on the other. Mindfulness is only watchfulness for slips and visiting means penal visitation. So the same fact may be the source of thankful wonder or of almost blasphemous murmuring.
Psalm 8:5-8 draw out the consequences of God’s loving regard which has made the insignificance of man the medium of a nobler manifestation of the Divine name than streams from all the stars. There is no allusion here to sin; and its absence has led to the assertion that this psalmist knew nothing of a fall, and was not in harmony with the prevalent Old Testament tone as to the condition of humanity. But surely the contemplation of the ideal manhood, as it came from God’s hand, does not need to be darkened by the shadows of the actual. The picture of man as God made him is the only theme which concerns the psalmist; and he paints it with colours drawn from the Genesis account, which tells of the fall as well as the creation of man.
The picture contains three elements: man is Deiform, crowned with glory and honour, and lord of the creatures on earth. The rendering "than the angels" in the A.V comes from the LXX, but though defensible, is less probable than the more lofty conception contained in "than God," which is vindicated, not only by lexical considerations, but as embodying an allusion to the original creation "in the image of God." What then is the "little" which marks man’s inferiority? It is mainly that the spirit, which is God’s image, is confined in and limited by flesh, and subject to death. The distance from the apex of creation to the Creator must ever be infinite; but man is so far above the non-sentient, though mighty, stars and the creatures which share earth with him, by reason of his being made in the Divine image-i.e., having consciousness, will, and reason-that the distance is foreshortened. The gulf between man and matter is greater than that between man and God. The moral separation caused by sin is not in the psalmist’s mind. Thus man is invested with some reflection of God’s glory, and wears this as a crown. He is king on earth.
The enumeration of his subjects follows, in language reminding again of the Genesis narrative. The catalogue begins with those nearest to him, the long-tamed domestic animals, and of these the most submissive (sheep) first; it then passes to the untamed animals, whose home is "the field" or uncultivated land, and from them goes to the heights and depths, where the free fowls of the air and fish of the sea and all the mysterious monsters that may roam the hidden ways of that unknown ocean dwell. The power of taming and disciplining some, the right to use all, belong to man, but his subjects have their rights and their king his limits of power and his duties.
Such then is man, as God meant him to be. Such a being is a more glorious revelation of the Name than all stars and systems. Looked at in regard to his duration, his years are a hand-breadth before these shining ancients of days that have seen his generations fret their little hour and sink into silence; looked at in contrast with their magnitude and numbers numberless, he is but an atom, and his dwelling place a speck. Science increases the knowledge of his insignificance, but perhaps not the impression of it made on a quiet heart by the simple sight of the heavens. But besides the merely scientific view, and the merely poetic, and the grimly Agnostic, there is the other, the religious, and it is as valid today as ever. To it the heavens are the work of God’s finger, and their glories are His, set there by Him. That being so, man’s littleness magnifies the name, because it enhances the condescending love of God, which has greatened the littleness by such nearness of care and such gifts of dignity. The reflection of His glory which blazes in the heavens is less bright than that which gleams in the crown of glory and honour on man’s lowly yet lofty head. The "babe and suckling" of creation has a mouth from which the strength of perfected praise issues and makes a bulwark against all gainsayers.
The use made of this psalm in the Epistle to the Hebrews proceeds on the understanding that it describes ideal humanity. Where, then, says the writer of the epistle, shall we look for the realisation of that ideal? Do not the grand words sound liker irony than truth? Is this poor creature that crawls about the world, its slave, discrowned and sure to die, the Man whom the psalmist saw? No. Then was the fair vision a baseless fabric, and is there nothing to be looked for but a dreary continuance of such abortions dragging out their futile being through hopeless generations? No; the promise shall be fulfilled for humanity, because it has been fulfilled in one Man: the Man Christ Jesus. He is the realised ideal, and in Him is a life which will be communicated to all who trust and obey Him, and they, too, will become all that God meant man to be. The psalm was not intended as a prophecy, but every clear vision of God’s purpose is a prophecy, for none of His purposes remain unfulfilled. It was not intended as a picture of the Christ, but it is so; for He, and He alone, is the Man who answers to that fair Divine Ideal, and He will make all His people partakers of His royalty and perfect manhood.
So the psalm ends, as it began, with adoring wonder, and proclaims this as the result of the twofold witness which it has so nobly set forth: that God’s name shines glorious through all the earth, and every eye may see its lustre.