Ps. 8: Entering Psalm 8

 

If non-human intelligent life ever makes it to the moon, they may come across a small disc inscribed with goodwill messages from various nations of the earth, left there in 1969 by the Apollo 11 astronauts. If so, they will discover Psalm 8, a hymn of praise to the Creator and creation, which was the contribution of Pope Paul VI, representing Vatican City. One of those astronauts, Buzz Aldrin, also recited verses 4-5 of the psalm in a video transmission during Apollo’s return trip to earth. Those verses include the psalm’s most famous line: “What are humans that you are mindful of them?”

That famous question expresses the main theme of Psalm 8, namely, wonder that the Creator of the heavens and the earth has taken special notice of humanity. The psalm’s structure reinforces this theme, as the question lies at the center of the psalm surrounded by descriptions of various creatures. Further evidence of the psalm’s ring structure is the repetition of the first line at the end of the psalm. The theology and anthropology of Psalm 8 are reminiscent of Genesis 1, where humans are described as the climax of God’s creation. They are made in God’s image, and the day of their creation is not just good but “very good.” In both Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 this honor comes with commensurate responsibility; humans are called on to imitate God’s dominion by acting as stewards of the created world.

This responsibility is an important reminder when we feel helpless in the face of our present ecological crisis. The problems are so big, and each of us is so small. While acknowledging our smallness, Psalm 8 insists that it is no excuse for passivity. God has given us the tools we need to carry out our vocation of stewardship. The next time you encounter a wonder of nature or stare into the starry night sky, let the words of Psalm 8 give voice to your feeling of awe, but also inspire you to action on behalf of God’s creation.

Some words and phrases to note as you compare English translations:

  • tĕnâ (verse 2b), translated “covered” in the NJPS, is uncertain.  The verb’s root may be ntn (to give), ytn (to be constant), or tnh (to recount/recite). Despite the uncertainty, the basic meaning is clear: YHWH’s glory is manifest in the heavens.

 

  • mippî ‘ôlĕlîm wĕyōnĕqîm (verse 3a), traditionally, “out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,” is a translational dilemma.  Does it go with the preceding phrase, such that even the babble of infants exalts YHWH?  Or, does it go with the following phrase, thus correlating infants’ babble with divine strength?  

 

  • ṣôrĕreykā…’ôyēb ûmitnaqqēm (verse 3b), literally, “your oppressors…enemy and avenger,” may refer to YHWH’s battle against primordial enemies, whose defeat precipitated YHWH’s creation (see Psalms 74; 89; 93). Who else could be considered YHWH’s “oppressor”? Accordingly, the psalm unfolds in an orderly way: after defeating the mythic enemies (verse 3) YHWH creates the heavens (verse 4), human beings (verses 5-6), and other earthly creatures (verses 8-9).

 

  • sheep and oxen…birds…fish (verses 8-9) represent land, air, and sea. Such trios are a common way for ancient Near Eastern authors to indicate all creatures.

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Are there particular words, phrases, or images that call to you as you read this psalm today?
  2. How does this description of the relationship between God, humankind, and the rest of the created world strike you?
  3. Does the pandemic—in its various manifestations—or the more recent social uprising affect your view of this text?
  4. If you were writing the psalm today, what, if anything, might you change (add, omit, rephrase)?

 

לַמְנַצֵּ֥חַ עַֽל־הַגִּתִּ֗ית מִזְמ֥וֹר לְדָוִֽד׃

יְהוָ֤ה אֲדֹנֵ֗ינוּ מָֽה־אַדִּ֣יר שִׁ֭מְךָ בְּכָל־הָאָ֑רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּנָ֥ה ה֝וֹדְךָ֗ עַל־הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

מִפִּ֤י עֽוֹלְלִ֨ים ׀ וְֽיֹנְקִים֮ יִסַּ֪דְתָּ֫ עֹ֥ז לְמַ֥עַן צוֹרְרֶ֑יךָ לְהַשְׁבִּ֥ית א֝וֹיֵ֗ב וּמִתְנַקֵּֽם׃

כִּֽי־אֶרְאֶ֣ה שָׁ֭מֶיךָ מַעֲשֵׂ֣י אֶצְבְּעֹתֶ֑יךָ יָרֵ֥חַ וְ֝כוֹכָבִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר כּוֹנָֽנְתָּה׃

מָֽה־אֱנ֥וֹשׁ כִּֽי־תִזְכְּרֶ֑נּוּ וּבֶן־אָ֝דָ֗ם כִּ֣י תִפְקְדֶֽנּוּ׃

וַתְּחַסְּרֵ֣הוּ מְּ֭עַט מֵאֱלֹהִ֑ים וְכָב֖וֹד וְהָדָ֣ר תְּעַטְּרֵֽהוּ׃

תַּ֭מְשִׁילֵהוּ בְּמַעֲשֵׂ֣י יָדֶ֑יךָ כֹּ֝ל שַׁ֣תָּה תַֽחַת־רַגְלָֽיו׃

צֹנֶ֣ה וַאֲלָפִ֣ים כֻּלָּ֑ם וְ֝גַ֗ם בַּהֲמ֥וֹת שָׂדָֽי׃

צִפּ֣וֹר שָׁ֭מַיִם וּדְגֵ֣י הַיָּ֑ם עֹ֝בֵ֗ר אָרְח֥וֹת יַמִּֽים׃

יְהוָ֥ה אֲדֹנֵ֑ינוּ מָֽה־אַדִּ֥יר שִׁ֝מְךָ֗ בְּכָל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

New Jewish Publication Society (NJPS)

1 For the leader; on the gittith. A psalm of David.

2 O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is Your name throughout the earth,  You who have covered the heavens with Your splendor!

3 From the mouths of infants and sucklings You have founded strength on account of Your foes, to put an end to enemy and avenger.

4 When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place,

5 what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him,

6 that You have made him little less than divine, and adorned him with glory and majesty;

7 You have made him master over Your handiwork, laying the world at his feet,

8 sheep and oxen, all of them, and wild beasts, too;

9 the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea, whatever travels the paths of the seas.

10 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name throughout the earth!

 

New International Reader's Version (NIRV)

For the director of music. According to gittith. A psalm of David.

1 Lord, our Lord,

    how majestic is your name in the whole earth!

You have set your glory

    in the heavens.

2 You have made sure that children

    and infants praise you.

Their praise is a wall

    that stops the talk of your enemies.

3 I think about the heavens.

    I think about what your fingers have created.

I think about the moon and stars

    that you have set in place.

4 What are human beings that you think about them?

    What is a son of man that you take care of him?

5 You have made them a little lower than the angels.

    You placed on them a crown of glory and honor.

6 You made human beings rule over everything your hands created.

    You put everything under their control.

7 They rule over all flocks and herds

    and over the wild animals.

8 They rule over the birds in the sky

    and over the fish in the ocean.

    They rule over everything that swims in the oceans.

9 Lord, our Lord,

    how majestic is your name in the whole earth!

 

 

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