Psalm 8:1 For the director of music. According to gittith. A psalm of David.
O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
4 what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?
5 You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour.
6 You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet:
7 all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas.
9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
This psalm is greatly beloved because it manages to combine the most sublime worship of God with answers to the most important questions anyone can ask.
i] Where are we? What is this world in which we live?
ii] What is man? What is the nature and task and purpose of our lives?
iii] How can we know for ourselves God the Creator? We see his power and glory night and day. We hear his voice in our consciences. When we read of Jesus Christ in the Bible we know that this is God the Son. How can we know him personally?
iv] What is wrong with us? Why do we all fail to find fulfillment in life?
v] How can things be put right? What is the remedy to this groaning world? How can this hindrance to personal fulfillment be removed? How do I find salvation?
I say, Psalm 8 has much to say in giving clear answers to these questions. So shouldn’t you listen? He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
- WHERE ARE WE?
What is this world in which we exist? We live in a universe inconceivably vaster than we can grasp. We live on a planet populated by billions of other living things besides ourselves, and many of them can do certain things far better than we are able to. Where are we? There’s more than one way to answer that question. One place to start might be to ask a famous astronomer. Carl Sagan spent much of his life gazing at stars and galaxies and thinking about human beings in light of the vastness of space. What was his conclusion? He said this, “As long as there have been humans we’ve searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? We discover this, that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.” That is what Carl Sagan said.
Doesn’t it sound depressing? Sagan used words like ‘insignificant,’ ‘humdrum,’ ‘forgotten.’ They’re not exactly uplifting or inspiring words are they, quite deliberately so. For Sagan a human being is not much when you compare him to all other living things in the vastness of the universe. However, his words aren’t exactly true, either. Sagan was right that we’re small – surely we are – but does that mean we’re insignificant? We’re limited, but does that make us humdrum? In terms of size, the earth is a tiny speck in the universe, but does that mean you dismiss it? Size isn’t everything. Do you dismiss a cancerous cell or a drop of cyanide – “that’s nothing’? Those tiny things can kill you. The Aberystwyth garbage dump is bigger than the diamond on your finger, but what is more valuable, a handful of diamonds or the rubbish dump?
Our planet earth is indeed tiny in a huge cosmos. The spacecraft Voyager II reached the planet Neptune on August 25 1989. Neptune is not even the outermost of the planets. Pluto is beyond it, however the radio waves sent back to earth from Neptune at the speed of light took four hours to get here. So a single set of communications from earth to the spacecraft and back to us took a third of a day. How small we are in this vast cosmic setting, and yet that is precisely how God designed the universe. If this universe is so vast, how infinitely great is the God who made it. And he has set this extraordinary world of ours at its heart, the focus of his love. The opening words of the Bible are grammatically these, “In the beginning God created the heavens . . . and especially the earth.” That is the emphasis of that memorable opening sentence. It is the very opposite of Sagan’s insistence on “an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe.” We know of no other world of living souls in the entire universe, and we are that not by accident but by the design of the Creator of the universe. So this world, and your life in it, is enormously significant. We men and women may be miniscule – but we’re also majestic beings. I’m not saying that in order that we’ll all feel better about ourselves. I’m saying it because God says, “Think of yourselves in this way.” You and I may not be as fast as a cheetah, or can jump as far as a kangaroo. We cannot fly; we cannot live under water. We are not as large as an elephant; our brains are smaller than the brain of a dolphin, but our majesty can’t be measured by a set of scales, or a tape-measure, or a stop-watch. It’s measured by who God is and by what he makes of us.
Our answer to the question, “Where are we?” depends on the assumpt
ions we start out with. People like Carl Sagan start by assuming that the cosmos is all that there’s been, or is, or ever will be. They see how tiny is the earth within a universe where everything is measured in light years and is counted in billions and trillions, and so they conclude that in the long history and vast immensity of the cosmos, “we ain’t much.” This psalm has a very different starting point. The heavens are the work of God’s fingers; in other words, he personally made them. He set the moon and the stars in place (v.3). That is how the Bible starts; “In the beginning God” a very different assumption – not that the cosmos is all that was or is or ever will be, but that there is an infinite God from eternity to eternity, one who exists above and beyond and before the cosmos. The Bible says that in the beginning, he alone created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). That is where we are; in God’s creation.
- WHAT IS MAN?
The Bible says that man is not the unplanned product of a mindless process but that God made humanity, male and female, in his own image and likeness. Man is uniquely made, “a little lower than the heavenly beings” (v.5).
Many men and women have been taught that man is just a tiny, accidental product of random evolution. As Professor George Gaylord Simpson put it, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” Writing in the Times ten days ago Matthew Parris referred to Tony Blair reading from the end of Thornton Wilder’s book The Bridge of San Luis Rey an quoting approvingly these words, ‘the meaning of everything that happens is love.’ But Matthew Parris disagreed with Blair, saying bleakly, “I say there is no meaning.” Life has no meaning, and atheists say it is wrong even to ask what is man’s chief end because no one can answer you.
Bertrand Russell, the high priest of humanism, described his unbelieving vision of the end of the world like this; “Man’s origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms. No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve individual life beyond the grave. All the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system. The whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins. All these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long.” Such despairing beliefs as those, so widespread in our day, produce depression, and there are many signs of its crippling influence all around us. Hope dies.
How different is David in this psalm. Man has hope and man has dignity because God has created him. “You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings” (v.5). A little lower . . . just a little. The Hebrew text actually says, “You made him a little lower than God” using Elohim – the Hebrew word for God. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek they used the word for ‘angels,’ partly because there are cases where Elohim does mean ‘spirits’ or ‘angels’. It is quite an honourable translation because in Hebrews 2:7 this verse is quoted in speaking about Jesus: “You made him a little lower than the angels.”
All men and women are a little lower than the holy angels bright. You consider that reality when you read of lap-dancers, or a man injecting his veins with heroin, or are told of a father murdering his children, or you read of a torturer. When you see on the news a group of young men kicking a policeman as he lies on the ground then who is perpetrating such foul actions? Men and women made a little lower than the heavenly beings! How total is the fall of man. Here is someone who bears God’s image behaving so badly, lying drunk in the gutter, or whipping a dumb animal. The trees and mountains, sun and moon are not God. Man is not God, but the worst of men, the unborn child and the most handicapped of people have something God-like in their natures. Who are we? God has placed something of himself in all men even the killer and the sadist. They too bear his image. We have minds endowed with reason and understanding, and in this we are different from the rest of creation; we are above the dolphin, and above the tiger. The beasts of the field, sheep and cows and pigs and goats and chickens and salmon and whelks are all under us. “You made man ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas” (vv. 6-8). We possess responsibility and power to exercise dominion under God. Who is man? He is God’s vice-gerent.
If our dignity comes from our relationship to God, no wonder we have so much degradation in our world today. God has been removed and man is now defined in animal terms, just a bit further along the evolutionary scale than the beasts. By denying God we have rejected our true dignity as God’s stewards in his creation, beings whose lives are worthy of being judged by God. Notice how David in this psalm places us between heaven and earth, but it is in terms of heaven that we receive our identity. It does not describe us as ‘a little above the beasts’, but ‘a little lower than God.’
People justify all kinds of depravity today on the basis of our animal ancestry. The result is a beastly human race. But Psalm 8 tells us that we are to look upward to God and not downward to the animals. We are made by God in his own image to govern God’s creation for his pleasure and glory. Our dignity, then, is only realized in our relationship to God, in our calling from God, and ultimately as we live according to God’s will in his world. Who are you? You are made a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned with glory and honour.
There is a moving scene in the Old Testament of the deathbed of king David, and just before he died he turned to
his son, Solomon. The last words of our loved ones are precious to us. I remember hearing Principal Ernest Kevin saying that his father’s last words to him were, “The great truths of the gospel I have believed all my life. I believe them yet.” Old king David said to his son Solomon, “I am about to go the way of all the earth, so be strong, show yourself a man” (1 Kings 2:2). How would a son today respond to that? How would he understand an exhortation to ‘show yourself a man’? Where would he find out? If he glanced at the cover of today’s men’s magazines (and a brief look is probably all they are worth) he would think that manhood involves an obsession with physical fitness, sexual promiscuity and the ownership of the latest gadgets. Is this what being a man is really all about? Solomon knew what David was speaking about because he was familiar with this psalm that his father wrote. He knew how Noah was a real man, and Abraham, and Joseph who became caught up in something much bigger than himself (God’s plan to redeem his people), and who demonstrated such character traits as a manly fear of God, a willingness to do the right thing instead of the easy thing, humility, responsibility, a commitment to family and magnanimity towards those who had wronged him. Of course these traits were not developed in him overnight. It wasn’t an easy road for Joseph to become the man God eventually made him to be It was the grace of God that taught Joseph to be a man, and grace can teach you to live God’s way and become the man God wants you to be.
The vastness of God’s creation and the variety of his creatures show us the power and majesty of the One who made all these things. Notice how David begins and ends this psalm with virtually an identical declaration of how great God is; “O LORD, our Lord.” David knew him as his own Lord. David stood in solidarity with all his fellow Old Testament Christians and they considered this God and they called him, “Our Lord.” They were bound to him and he was bound in covenant to them. “I will be their God and they will be my people.” David says that not only does this planet earth have a huge place in the plan of God but so do we tiny, weak people who believe in him. There are folk who think that because of what we learn from radio telescopes such as the one at Jodrell Bank and also from the Hubble telescope in space we have to take a lower view of the earth and human beings. But is it really a modern discovery to learn that the universe is vast and that humanity is tiny by comparison? Of course not! King David wrote Psalm 8 three thousand years ago. When he looked at the sky and the stars, he felt puny, certainly, but he also felt how great is the Lord who made all this.
Who is God? “God is a Spirit infinite, eternal, unchangeable in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.” God is the Creator and Sustainer of the whole universe. God is our Judge. God is the one who has made himself known to us by prophets and apostle but most lucidly of all in his beloved Son Jesus Christ. This world is in the grip of a good and kind God. If you have perceived who Jesus is then you have perceived who the Lord is, gracious, loving, welcoming, forgiving, willing to become our Saviour. It is not his will in the Bible that you should go to hell but that you should turn from your love of sin and entrust yourself to Jesus Christ the Saviour of all who believe. This is a God who has personal dealings with men and women.
There was once a king in Babylon whose name was Nebuchadnezzar, an absolute and all-conquering monarch. “At the height of his career, Nebuchadnezzar was filled with a sense of his own glory and might. Looking out over his fabulous city – one of the wonders of the world – he spoke words that typify the sinful attitude of all mankind in its pride. ‘Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?’ (Dan. 4:30). James Boice calls this ‘a classic statement of what we today call secular humanism, describing creation as of man, by man, and for man’s glory’. That is man in his pride, something we know all about today. But God resists the proud; he gives grace to the humble. The next verse tells us how God responded: ‘While the words were still in the king’s mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, “O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will”’” (Dan. 4:31-32).
“This was not some divine gut-reaction or some arbitrary judgment by an offended little god. By judging him with insanity, God gave his assessment of what the king had said while looking on the world in his pride. God was saying, ‘If you believe that, if you look on the wonders of this world and think that a puny human being like yourself is responsible for such greatness, then you must be out of your mind.’ God illustrated through Nebuchadnezzar’s experience that we only come to our right mind when we acknowledge ‘that the Most High rules the kingdom of me’‘ (Dan. 4:32), and that every good gift comes from God and is for the praise of his Name” Richard D. Philips, Walking with God, Banner of Truth, 2005, p.22). That is who God is.
- WHAT HAS GONE WRONG?
Why should so glorious and powerful a God have enemies? You say, “He has enemies?” Yes. We are told that he ordains that children should praise him with determination and joy because of his enemies (v.2). He has enemies and foes and avengers. Can’t you remember that even in the Garden of Eden before man ever sinned there was an enemy of God there who defied and hated him and sought to ruin this world? The devil who had one been a glorious angel and swept out of heaven when he rebelled against God is out for vengeance, and he came in the form of a serpent and seduced Adam and Eve encouraging them to defy God; Satan the great avenger. Men fell; this is a fallen world of sin and death. I watched a programme on TV this week about child prodigies. There was an Indian child, phenomenally good in mathematics, but sadly he also would make prophecies about the future. So the reporter asked him to make a predict
ion about this year ahead. He paused and then he said, “All of us are going to die one day.” What could the reporter say or anyone say about that? Since by one man sin entered the world and death by sin so death has passed upon all men for all have sinned.
That sinful nature of ours is at enmity against God. “Who is the Lord,” men say, “that we should obey him?” We consider the dangerous world we live in, and the threats to destruction – even the unspeakable so-called ‘dirty bombs’ that would make London uninhabitable for a hundred years. Why do men act like this? Is it because of poverty, or illiteracy, or insanity? Think of the violence on a smaller scale but everywhere, in all the big cities, the gang culture, the knifings and murders, where does it come from? The man who lived with our Lord for thirty years in Nazareth, his half-brother James, asks and answers that question, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3). You see what James says? The heart of the problem is the human heart. You speak to young people and tell them to pray. “Oh, we’ve tried that,” they say, “and it doesn’t work.” No, it didn’t work, that sort of praying, because you asked with wrong motives to satisfy your pleasures. You asked God for power to kill your enemy, and for money to buy drugs, and that you might have sex with someone you fancied. He didn’t answer you and he won’t answer those prayers. They are all centred on you and your own pleasures.
But if you ask God, “Be merciful to me a sinner. Save me. Show me how great you are. Show me what I am really like. Help me to live a pure and loving life,” then God would hear you pray those prayers. Here is a man whose wife has left him and he feels raw and and angry at what she has done. He feels guilty over his own flaws and led to her abandoning the marriage. He is despondent about the whole situation. He has grievously wounded pride. What he needs more than anything else is hope. If I should tell him that he will quickly agree. “How can I get some?” he says. I tell him as gently as possible that the good news is that he is a sinner. He is not a sick man at the mercy of illnesses. He is not a criminal who needs to see a lawyer. He is not a disturbed man who needs to see a psychiatrist. He does not need ‘to take control of his life.’ His greatest need is not ‘to really believe in himself.’ He is a sinner who has broken God’s commandments and his primary need is to go to the God of love and find forgiveness, mercy and divine grace to help him at this time of need. All his falls so far have been attempts to fill the inner void, and that is true for every one of us. There is a God-shaped hole in our lives and it cannot be filled with money or sex or drink or chemicals or relationships. It can only be filled with God, not any God but this God of David’s, the God of Psalm Eight, the Creator, the Sustainer, the Saviour. David faced up to the universe and the God who made it and he felt very very small, and yet the God who made it was prepared to deal with David, and that was the beginning of new life.
- WHAT IS THE REMEDY?
Where can I find peace and self-fulfilment? New life? What must we do to be saved? How can I overcome the restlessness and all these hindrances to being fulfilled? This psalm gives the most emphatic answers to this question. [Let me share with you some help I got from the admirable David Feddes.] In the New Testament in Hebrews chapter 2, written after the coming of Jesus, the writer quotes from Psalm 8 and he says, “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet.” Hebrews 2 then says, “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that was not subject to him.” What an astonishing statement!
Hebrews 2 then adds a strong dose of realism and says, “Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.” Isn’t that the truth! We don’t see humanity shining with God’s glory. We see sin and nastiness and people settling for their own comfort zone with no ambition to glorify God and be like him. We see puny people struggling against the vast universe around them and eventually losing as they die and return to dust. So are all these big ideas about our created splendour and our glorious destiny just an empty dream? Is it really true that God has left nothing that is not subject to man, when at present we don’t see everything subject to man?
Here’s how Hebrews 2 deals with these questions. It says, “God left nothing that is not subject to [man]. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:8-9). It is in Jesus that the riddle of our misery and our majesty is solved. It is in Jesus that our sin is removed and our bondage to death is reversed. It is in Jesus that we become majestic once again, renewed in the image of God, reigning with him.
In Psalm 8 David expressed amazement that the God of galaxies would care about puny people. But if that’s amazing, how about what happens in Jesus? How about the God of galaxies actually joining himself to humanity? A human like me – this tiny little creature called man who can’t dream of outrunning a cheetah or travelling to a star – the infinite Creator of cheetahs and stars has become one of us! Indeed, he became one of the least of us. The God who uses the praise of babies to silence his enemies – this God became a baby himself, lying in a manger. This baby grew up to be a penniless person of no fixed address, winning no medals, taking over no governments, and ending up despised and dead, nailed to a cross. But this crucified carpenter rose from the dead and returned to his rightful place above the angels and above all things.
Jesus has been crowned with glory and honour, and all who belong to him are crowned with glory and honour along with him. The Bible says that God has seated believers with Christ in the heavenly realms and that we will reign over the universe forever with him. At present we don’t see humanity as it ought to be, and we don’t see all things subject to humanity, as they ought to be. But we see Jesus, the majestic man whose majesty is one with God.
Do you see it all now? Do you see that you’re not just the smartest of the animals, but that you’re created to be the image of God? Do you see how unimportant so many of your activities are, compared to your calling to fellowship with the eternal God and to show forth his glory? Do you see how terribly you have fallen short of that glory? Do you see why it is so wrong and so tragic for you to ignore or dishonour the Almighty? And, most important, do you see Jesus? Do you see him as the One who died to pay for your sin? Do you see him as the One who conquered death and was crowned with glory and honour? Do you trust him as the one who crowns you with glory and honour?
Just before Jesus was nailed to the cross, the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate brought Jesus before the crowd that was calling for his crucifixion and said, “Behold, the man.” Pilate was saying more than he realized. “Behold, the man.” Jesus is the man, the perfect man, the proper man, the great archetypal man, great definition of what a man is, the express image of God, made lower than angels, brought lower than the lowest sinner, but now risen, crowned with glory and honour, and ruling over all things.
What is man? Jesus is man! Behold the man! Trust in him, and you will become truly human. Behold the man, and you’ll see how you can shine with the glory of the infinite God. Behold the man, and when you see Jesus for who he is and for what he can make of you, you will exclaim, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
Think of it. You once heard a man who told you from the Bible who you were, where you were, what was wrong with you, and how things could be put right. Wouldn’t you be in that man’s debt for the rest of your life? Wouldn’t you bless God for the providence that brought you to read these words and the grace he gave you to believe them to your soul’s salvation? Wouldn’t we sing together, “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth”?
1st February 2009 GEOFF THOMAS