The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
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.Psalms 8
[Note.—One critic has called this a lyric echo of the first chapter of Genesis. The best critics do not doubt the Davidic authorship. The word "Gittith" in the title is rendered by the LXX. and Vulgate "for the winepresses." Another derivation makes it a kind of flute. Other critics think that the most probable explanation connects it with Gath, the Philistine town. According to a Talmudic paraphrase, "upon Gittith" should be read, "on the kinnor which was brought from Gath," thus making it a kind of Philistine lute, as there was an Egyptian flute and a Doric lyre. It is not supposed that the title has any reference to the subject. We learn here what is nature, and what is law; what is degeneracy and breach of law; and that God has ordained for himself, in the unconscious praise of their Creator from the mouths of babes and sucklings, a stronghold against the noisy clamour of apostate men, who rebel against the divine order, and lay upon God the blame of their own aberration from his order.]
1. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.
2. 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.
3. When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
4. What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?
5. For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
6. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:
7. All sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field;
8. The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.
9. O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!
God's Glory In the Heavens
The object of this psalm is to magnify the name of God. Whatever else is in the psalm is pictorial and of the nature of detail. The one great object of the utterance is to praise and magnify the name of the Lord. The name is the Lord. We have debased names. We have used them arbitrarily. They express our fancy, or they connect us in some way with family history; but they do not incarnate the soul's innermost quality and thought. They ought to do so. Names ought not to be lightly bestowed; the name should be the man. Beware, therefore, how names are attached to children, which names have been stigmatised in history; for suggestion is very subtle in its operation. Beware, too, how great names are thrown away upon possibly unworthy objects. Great names are not to be bandied about, thrown from one to another, until all their glory is emptied out and all their power is wasted. Names are realities in the Scriptures, in many places. Here and again there have been great misapplications of names, but the meaning was that the name should be the man. The name of God, therefore, is God himself. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain." You cannot touch the name, and leave the God untouched. What exercise can be more edifying, more spiritually expanding and comforting, than to praise or magnify the name of the Lord? Let us watch the process in the psalm. It is full of simple beauty, partly astronomical, partly pastoral.
It does us good to go to nature. The Psalmist considered the "heavens," "the moon, and the stars." Good nature! sweet mother! What medicine is like her smile, or her breath, or her benediction! What a sanctuary is on the top of her mountains; what altars are in the sighs of her winds; what immortality, as it were, breathes across her seas! "Lift up thine eyes," said God to a dejected one, "and behold." It does us good to look upward: there is a healing influence in space—its vastness, its purity, its solemnity. What: can they be who have never seen the sky? There are millions of men who have never seen it, because they have never looked at it; it seems to be no business of theirs; they seem to have no relation to it; they forget that if there were no sky, there could be no earth; if there were no sun, there could be no food to eat. But men do not connect things; they are not logical; they do not perceive sequences, and trace results to origins. And many are so shut up that they cannot see the sky, only little blue strips of it, with space enough for a star or two; but the great city of stars—the infinite metropolis of light, they have never seen. If they could see—really see it—they would lose all their care and fear, and their tears would be but part of the common rain that makes the earth glad. But men will not look up; they live with inclined heads; and who ever saw anything in the earth but a grave? The earth is not worth thinking about, except as a part of something else. It is the tiniest little place you can imagine; it is a mere button of a thing—a little whirling speck which never would be missed, they tell us, were it to go spark out. What have we to do with the earth? It gives us a foothold, and supplies us with certain means of bodily living; but it is when we "consider" the "heavens," and "the moon and the stars," and the whole host of night, that we are lifted up into new dignity and restfulness. We should think more of nature. The green field should be more precious to us—not because it is one acre and a half in extent, but because it is verdant, fresh, living, throbbing with ten thousand pulses, waiting to be cultivated, waiting to help our needy life. Who ever brought sorrow back from the mountain-top? Many a man has carried sorrow up the hill; we have watched him, and seen his bent form, and said: How heavy is the burden he carries! Do not speak to him, for the mere answering of a question will only add to the weight he sustains. He has no breath to spare; let him alone. Mark how he toils, trudges, stoops, sighs! Still, let him alone. He goes higher and higher, and great mother-nature says, "Ten more steps, and you are at the top;" and when he reaches the summit, and looks round and sees what a wide sky it is, and how pure and how musical, he stretches himself; he is being transformed; he has thrown off ten years now, presently ten more, and he says: I will take heart again; things are not so gloomy as they looked down at the foot of the hill. Behold, God is here, and I knew it not! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven! Now see how he comes down—leaping, singing, as young as ever. He thought to die on the mountain-top, and lo! God has sent him back to take hold of the plough with both hands, to go into the field of war and fight like a man. Why brood? Why gather your knees into the fire and warm yourself in patches, instead of going out and making yourself warm by the motion of the whole frame and drinking in fire from the sun of the heavens? Many persons have come to me in religious dejection, and I have always ordered them—they thought, perhaps, imperiously—to the mountains, to the green fields; and have sent them maying and daisy-gathering, and they have come back from the buttercup-field as glad as I was, and sometimes twice as strong. We have despised nature. She is God's minister, apostle, the medium through which he pours infinite gospels, if we had ears to hear them.
The Psalmist would be unjustly treated if we abandoned him, as it were, here. David makes a religious use of nature: "Thy heavens... thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained." It does look as if they might have been made by God. In truth, now we think about it, there is nothing startling in the suggestion. Could we have lifted up any one of these planets into its place? Have we span enough in our little arms to stretch out the heavens like a tent? Now that some one says, in the night season, when all the stars are out, "God made them," it seems rational to believe it; the making of them would seem to be worthy of a God. How harmonic in movement! how calm! Always giving away their light, and never keeping a single gleam of it for themselves; never coming into collision one with the other, but whirling, circling, coursing, never ceasing—millions of them. When one says, in a period of contemplation, "My Father made them all," he does not seem to be much of a fanatic, or an enthusiast, or a word-rhyming poet, but a man of sense and gravity, and responsible thoughtfulness. "An undevout astronomer is mad," said the author of the "Night Thoughts," and that sentiment has never been disproved. We are not called upon to look at the heavens furtively, for a moment only, but we are called upon to "consider thy heavens," to measure them, weigh them, traverse them, so far as we can, and put together, as it may be revealed, their purpose, their design, their issue.
It is very notable what use is made of the same heavens and moon and stars by men who have been in the company of Jesus Christ. In David we have wonder. Peter, the rude fisherman, who has been with Christ, comes and looks at them, and he says, "The heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat." This is the teaching of great David's greater Son. He, too, would have us consider the fowls of the air, and the flowers of the field, and all the handiwork of God; but not to rest there, not to be mere naturalists, flower-gatherers, and star-gazers: he would have us reason upward. If God can do this, he can do more; this is a worthy intermediate revelation, but not a worthy final disclosure of God. If this, the beginning, be so beautiful, who can forecast the culmination, when the true idea stands revealed?
David founds an argument upon his contemplation of nature:—
"What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?" (Psalm 8:4).
"For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels" [R.V. "God"], "and hast crowned him with glory and honour." (Psalm 8:5)
Man is the second name on the register; God signs first, and, passing the pen to man, he signs second. "Thou hast made him a little lower than God." Sometimes he seems to be almost God. His face reddens with an inward light, and his voice trembles under an emotion which expresses things infinite. He contemplates nature to no purpose who looks upon it until he begins to feel his own littleness only. That is not the right method of reasoning about nature. There is nothing in all the heavens that can compare, so far as it is material, with the tiniest babe that coos in its mother's arms. We must reason upward from nature to man, not downward from outward and material frameworks to man. Man is greater than all he sees. Picture an observer looking at a great hill. He looks at it and says, "What is man?" Why, there is nothing in all that hill that man cannot grind to powder and throw away, scatter in the wind or sink in the sea. Man does look little in stature when he stands against the Andes or the great Himalayan group. He feels physically small. But suddenly he says: After all, what is that hill? I will climb it, stand upon the top of it, plant a banner there, and call myself conqueror. So he may. There is no hill in all the world that man cannot climb, or cast down, and thus humiliate.
All things shall contribute towards securing a realisation of his greatness as meant by God. Man was meant to have "dominion":—
"Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet" (Psalm 8:6).
Now the Psalmist puts the right view of the case. Everything is under the foot of man. "Thou madest him to have dominion." "Dominion" is a far-reaching word; we have not yet thrown our measuring-line upon it and realised all its suggestion and inspiration. Is there not a stirring sometimes in the heart, which means: I was meant to be king; I was meant to be master; I was meant to exercise dominion—dominion over the enticements of matter; it was intended that I should be able to say to the most fascinating spectacles that could appeal to me—Stand back! Man was meant to have dominion over the satisfactions of sense. Say, is it not quite heroic, in some small way at least, that a man shall be able to say to a habit: I have done with thee; you do not leave this day fortnight—you leave now! That is what God means man to be and to do in regard to everything that is not of the nature of God himself. It is useless, and worse than useless, even pitiful and weak, for a man to say that some habit has got such a hold of him that he cannot shake it oft. That doctrine must never be allowed. Such a man must go to his friends?, and say: I cannot do it alone, but you must help me: lock me up; build walls seven feet thick all round me, and help me, for the devil is hard upon me. A man who is so habit-ridden must not trust the case to himself or to his own handling; he must say: I have uncrowned myself, I have lost the charter by which I hold my manhood and my life: take pity upon me, take care of me; do not consider that I have any will in this matter—oh, save me! And to others a word of caution should be spoken to this effect: Before the habit gets such hold upon you, be sure that you secure the upper hand over the habit. Man was made to have "dominion," in the largest sense. It is well to put our very habits through a process of discipline, supposing the habit to be not altogether wicked. It is well for every man to say to it: I am going to have nothing to do with you for one whole month; stand back until I call you. Habits take liberties. They are weaving webs around the life when the life is not suspecting the operation. It is well for a man to say about his eating and drinking and sleeping: I am going to alter all of you; a new bill of directions shall guide my life for a month; every hour shall be changed, and every habit shall be driven out until I ask it to resume its place. Thus the man is exercising his right; he is realising the domination which God meant him to exercise over all things—"all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field; the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas" (Psalm 8:7-8). Is it worth while that we should be able to hold all these things in dominion if we cannot hold ourselves in check? The great aim of every life should be self-control. A man should say: I will not speak today, nor eat, nor go abroad; I will keep myself in subjection, lest after having preached to others, I myself should be a castaway. Bitter word, humbling word! A "castaway"—something thrown off, without the thrower heeding where it goes; it may have been here or there, or over the brink into the great abyss; the man who threw it knows not, cares not, where it is: the thing thrown is a "castaway."
Is there not in all this musical reasoning of the Psalmist a suggestion of man's immortality? Do we not feel, after reading such a contemplation and taking part in it, that the man who could do all this could do more? Is there not something within us which says: This cannot be the end of a man who can consider God's heavens, the moon and the stars; this cannot be the end of a creature a little lower than God, crowned with glory and honour? God does not make such crowns to throw them away; he does not bestow such honours to follow them with contempt Immortality is here by implication. The very greatness of the man is a proof that he was not meant for extinction. An awful irony it would be that God should create such a being, and, after all his poetry and reasoning and prayer, should allow that same being to fall away into nothingness! This cannot be. The high religiousness of this psalm is no loss to man in any aspect. Religiousness does not disqualify for business. A man is not a whit the less keen in mental penetration because he has been lost in religious awe and meditation and worship. He will come back from the altar a stronger man, being able to see further than he ever saw before, and to speak with an authority which he never could claim under other circumstances; having sought first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, he will be master. There can be no master but the good man in the long run. There will be semi-masteries, miniature dominations, temporary successes—men who wear the clothes of success and honour, men who may make in tinsel the crowns of gold; but they will go down, and at the last there shall only one man stand upon the earth, crowned and honoured—the good man, the upright in heart, the believer in Jesus Christ, the man who has been crucified with the Son of God. All others shall be lost, burned by the lightning, when God flingeth its flash over the whole heaven.
SEʾLAH (םֶלָה). This word, which is only found in the poetical books of the Old Testament, occurs seventy-one times in the Psalms, and three times in Habakkuk. In sixteen Psalms it is found once, in fifteen twice, in seven three times, and in one four times—always at the end of a verse, except in Psalm 55:19 , Psalm 57:3 , and Habakkuk 3:3, Habakkuk 3:9, where it is in the middle, though at the end of a clause. All the Psalms in which it occurs, except eleven (Psalms 3, Psalms 7, Psalms 24, Psalms 32, Psalms 48, Psalms 50, Psalms 82, Psalms 83, Psalms 87, Psalms 89, Psalms 143), have also the musical direction, "to the Chief Musician" (comp. also Habakkuk 3:19); and in these exceptions we find the words םִזְםֹד mizmôr (A.V. "Psalm"), Shiggaion, or Maschil, which sufficiently indicate that they were intended for music. Besides these, in the titles of the Psalms in which Selah occurs, we meet with the musical terms Alamoth (Psalms 46), Altaschith (Psalms 57, Psalms 59, Psalms 75), Gittith (Psalms 81, Psalms 84), Mahalath Leannoth (Psalms 88), Michtam (Psalms 57, Psalms 59, Psalms 60), Neginah (Psalms 61), Neginoth (Psalms 4, Psalms 54, Psalms 55, Psalms 67, Psalms 76; comp. Habakkuk 3:19), and Shushan-eduth (60); and on this association alone might be formed a strong presumption that, like these, Selah itself is a term which had a meaning in the musical nomenclature of the Hebrews. What that meaning may have been is now a matter of pure conjecture.
A few opinions may be noticed as belonging to the history of the subject. Michaelis, in despair at being unable to assign any meaning to the word, regarded it as an abbreviation, formed by taking the first or other letters of three other words (Suppl. ad Lex. Hebr.), though he declines to conjecture what these may have been, and rejects at once the guess of Meibomius, who extracts the meaning da capo from the three words which he suggests. For other conjectures of this kind, see Eichhorn's Bibliothek, v. 545. Mattheson was of opinion that the passages where Selah occurred were repeated either by the instruments or by another choir: hence he took it as equal to ritornello. Herder regarded it as marking a change of key; while Paulus Burgensis and Schindler assigned to it no meaning, but looked upon it as an enclitic word used to fill up the verse. Buxtorf (Lex. Hebr.) derived it from םָלָה sâlâh, to spread, lay low: hence used as a sign to lower the voice, like piano. Augusti (Pract. Einl. in d. Ps. p. 125) thought it was an exclamation, like hallelujah! and the same view was taken by the late Prof. Lee (Heb. Gr. §243, 2) who classes it among the interjections, and renders it praise! "For my own part," he says, "I believe it to be descended from the root 'he blessed,' etc., and used not unlike the word amen, or the doxology, among ourselves."—Smith's Dictionary of the Bible.
This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven! Thou dost surprise us by thy presence, even though we know the whole earth is thine, thou Father of all. We appear to come suddenly upon thee, and to find thy throne where we did not expect it. Thou art able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think. Even in thine house thou canst be greater than our imagination: it is not only our Father's house, but it is our Father's command that the best robe be brought forth and a ring of heaven, and that the feast of love be spread. We cannot follow thee in all the way of thy love. Thou art always doing more than our imagination led us to expect. We are always in the presence of thy great care and tender mercy; yet now and again it surprises us by some new beauty, some deeper pathos, some profounder assurance of fatherly regard. We are glad to be in thy house, for it is as a chamber of banqueting. Thy banner over us is Love: thine invitation is, Eat and drink abundantly O beloved: at thy feast there is more at the end than there was at the beginning. This is a miracle of love, a marvel—not to be comprehended—of compassion and bounteousness. Thou hast always been patient with us: thou mightest have crushed our infirmity; thou mightest have carried us away as with a flood; in the nighttime thou mightest have caused our little life to disappear, so that in the morning it could no more be found: but like as a father pitieth his children so thou hast pitied us in our feebleness and in our low estate; thou hast counted nothing belonging to us unworthy of thy notice—the very hairs of our head are all numbered. As for thy patience, thy longsuffering, thy watching at the door of the heart, and thine attendance upon us—what words can express our conception of these? We are lost in wonder, love, and praise! We cannot keep pace with God. Behold, there is no number that can set forth his mercy; neither is there any reckoning that can represent his compassion; the sand upon the seashore and all the stars in the brightest nighttime are as nothing compared with the infinite loving-kindness of God. We think of the Cross, and remember thy love: by the Cross we are saved; by the Cross we find pardon, peace, and a sure expectation of heaven. The blood of Jesus Christ thy Son cleanseth from all sin. We pray for one another. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. May every righteous man pray not only for himself, but for all the household of God and all the household of humanity. Give grace unto them who specially need some ministry from heaven, because of manifold temptation, or great perplexity, or intolerable sorrow. Grant unto those who need direction in the wilderness a voice that shall say to them, This is the way; walk in it, and be assured of the presence of God; his rod and his staff will comfort you. To those who have been bereaved or are in circumstances of special distress, send angels from heaven, who shall speak of thy care, love, and wisdom, and the meaning of all the chastening providences of life. Be with those who have left us for a season to go afar, that they may renew their friendships, or pursue their business, or inquire into interests covered by their love. Be with all who are in peril on the sea: make the sea as solid land, and the great winds do thou calm into healthful and peaceful breezes, and bring all travellers to their desired haven. Accept the thanksgiving of those who remember thy care with love and praise this day; thou hast raised up some from the bed of affliction; thou hast re-kindled the lamp of hope in some houses; thou hast given joy to some lives that were fast despairing,—these are thy gifts, Parent of good, Father of all spirits. We take them as from God; we bless the hand that gives them, and we ask to show our gratitude by renewed and ever-enlarging service. Let thy peace be upon us. Hover over us, O Spirit of purity, Spirit of peace. Take all fear away; make us glad in the sanctuary of God, and give us to feel that here is the shining of the bright and morning Star, here is the fruit of the tree of life, here we find God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, in all the plentitude of grace. Amen.