While the superscription notes this psalm is for the use of the Chief Musician or choirmaster, the psalm itself is addressed to Yahweh. It is a hymn of praise throughout, expressing wonder that Yahweh has made people “a little lower than God” (v. 5) and “ruler over the works of your hands” (v. 6). It begins and ends by pronouncing Yahweh’s majestic nature.
For the Chief Musician (Hebrew: menasseah from nasah); on an instrument of Gath (Hebrew: gittit). A Psalm by David.
“For the Chief Musician” (Hebrew: nasah). The verb nasah means to lead, and is used for leaders in various fields. In the psalms, the word is used often to mean the temple music leader or choir director.
“On an instrument of Gath” (Hebrew: gittit). The word Gath is a mistranslation. Gath was a Philistine city (mentioned numerous times in Joshua, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Amos, and Micah.
The NRSV translates this “according to the Gittith,” which will mean nothing to most readers––but the Hebrew word gittit or gittith has to do with a musical instrument or a tune.
PSALM 8:1-2. HOW MAJESTIC IS YOUR NAME
1 Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth,
who has set your glory above the heavens!
2 From the lips of babes and infants you have established strength,
because of your adversaries, that you might silence the enemy and the avenger.
“Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name (Hebrew: sem) in all the earth, who has set your glory above the heavens!” (v. 1). The noun sem means name or fame. In this instance, reputation would be a good translation. In that culture, as today, a person’s name referred to the essential character of the person––in this case, Yahweh.
Yahweh’s name is majestic/glorious both in earth and above the heavens. The earth reveals his majesty in the seas and mountains, the trees and flowers, the flora and fauna, which he created. The heavens reveal his glory in the sun, moon and stars, which he also created.
That might have been easier for people of a more primitive world to appreciate than it is today. Now we are more likely to marvel over technological innovations and medical progress––human achievements––more than God’s creation. At least that is true for many of us.
But any sensitive observer must marvel at the vastness and intricacy of God’s creation with each expansion of human knowledge. Scientists peel back the layers of human knowledge only to find new layers lying beneath. Whether observing the created order atomically (infinitely small) or astronomically (infinitely large), we make new discoveries with great regularity. But we need to remember that it is the discovery that is new. What we have discovered has been there (or has been in motion) since the beginning.
“From the lips of babes and infants you have established strength, because of your adversaries, that you might silence the enemy and the avenger” (v. 2). Yahweh has established strength through the agency of people with no power––babes and infants. Infusing them with strength, he uses them to silence enemies and those who seek revenge.
God often chooses unlikely candidates to further his purposes. He chose:
- Little Israel rather than mighty Egypt or Rome.
- Little David to slay the giant Goliath.
- Gideon and his little band of soldiers to defeat the Midianite army.
Jesus also said:
“Allow the little children to come to me!
Don’t forbid them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Most certainly I tell you,
whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child,
he will in no way enter into it.” (10:14-15).
PSALM 8:3-8. WHAT IS THE SON OF MAN
3 When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have ordained;
4 what is man, that you think of him?
What is the son of man, that you care for him?
5 For you have made him a little lower than God,
and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You make him ruler over the works of your hands.
You have put all things under his feet:
7 All sheep and cattle,
yes, and the animals of the field,
8 The birds of the sky, the fish of the sea,
and whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained; (Hebrew: kun) what is man (Hebrew: ‘enos), that you think of him? What is the son of man (Hebrew: ben ‘adam), that you care for (Hebrew: paqad) him?” (vv. 3-4). The point of these verses is the contrast between the majesty of the God-created heavens with the ordinariness of God-created humans.
The verb kun (ordained) means to establish or prepare. God established the heavens, which the psalmist identifies as “the work of your fingers,” but when reading these verses we should not lose sight of the fact that God also created humans, who are also the work of his fingers. Verse 5-8 will make the significance of that clear.
The noun ‘enos (man) means human rather than male. As used here, it suggests insignificance (see also Job 7:17). It is also used to suggest frailty or mortality (Psalm 90:3). The noun ‘adam is another word for a human, but it can also mean a male.
The psalmist uses these two Hebrew words (‘enos and ‘adam) more for poetic symmetry than for different shades of meaning. A favorite Hebrew poetic form is called parallelism, which is used here and throughout the psalms. In parallelism, two lines (occasionally more than two) repeat the same idea in different words. That is what is happening here.
“that you care for (Hebrew: paqad) him?” (v. 4b). The verb paqad (care for) means to pay attention or visit or search out. Regardless of which meaning we assign to paqad in this verse, Yahweh takes the initiative to interact with humans. The only explanation for his proactive stance toward humans is that he cares for us––loves us––acts as a loving parent would act: Guiding, nurturing, rewarding, punishing––always helping us to be all that we can be.
“For you have made him a little lower than God” (Hebrew: elohim) (v. 5a). The noun elohim means a god or gods (Note the small g). When used in in the plural to refer to Yahweh, it means that Yahweh sums up all that is godly.
That might be the intent here––elohim as an understated reference to Yahweh. If so, it means that Yahweh created humans just a bit inferior to himself. That Yahweh created man in his own image (Genesis 1:26-27) appears to confirm this idea.
The King James Version translates this, “For thou hast made him a little lower than the ANGELS,” so that is how many people understand it. “For you have made him a little lower than GOD” is more faithful to the Hebrew.
“and crowned (Hebrew ‘atar) him with glory (Hebrew: kabod) and honor” (Hebrew: hadar) (v. 5b). The verb crown (‘atar) confirms the high place to which Yahweh has elevated humankind. We were created in his image, and he has crowned us as rulers over the universe that he has created.
The word “glory” (kabod) is used in the Bible to speak of God’s glory––an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans. The psalmist says that the saints (hasid––those who are kind, merciful, and pious) will proclaim the glory of Yahweh’s kingdom (Psalm 145:11)––a thought that fits nicely with this verse from Psalm 8.
The noun hadar means glory or majesty, and is often used to describe God (1 Chronicles 16:27; Psalm 29:4; 96:6; 145:5; Isaiah 2:10). It is also used to describe the glory of kings (Psalm 21:5; 45:3).
The affirmation that Yahweh has crowned humankind with glory and honor further confirms that the correct translation for verse 5a (above) is “For you have made him a little lower than God”––not “a little lower than the angels.”
“You make him ruler (Hebrew: masal) over the works of your hands. You have put all things under his feet” (v. 6). The word masal means to rule or to exercise dominion.
The sense we get here is much like that of the servant appointed to act as a steward over the landlord’s property until the landlord’s return (Matthew 25:14-30). In like manner, Pharaoh appointed Joseph steward over the financial affairs of Egypt (Genesis 41).
In these examples, the stewards exercised great power, but were answerable to the landlord or the Pharaoh and were expected to manage wisely. Likewise, Yahweh has appointed us to exercise dominion over the created order, but along with the privilege comes responsibility for wise and caring management.
“All sheep and cattle, yes, and the animals of the field, the birds of the sky, the fish of the sea, and whatever passes through the paths of the seas” (vv. 7-8). This is not a comprehensive list, but simply serves to illustrate the kinds of responsibilities that God has delegated to humans. Animals, birds, and sea creatures constitute only a small portion of our portfolio. We are also responsible for trees and flowers––for things that exist in the skies above and the soil beneath our feet.
PSALM 8:9. HOW MAJESTIC IS YOUR NAME
9 Yahweh, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
“Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (v. 9). The psalm ends as it began––rhapsodizing about the name of Yahweh––declaring its majesty––noting that, though Yahweh is the God of the little nation of Israel, his reputation and majesty permeate the entire earth.
This last point is worthy of consideration. Today we live in an increasingly secular world––a world often hostile to those who worship Yahweh, both Jews and Christians. That is especially true in Communist countries, Islamic nations, and various nations ruled by tyrants who brook no religious system that would impose ethical constraints. It is true in Europe, where the Christian church was once dominant but is now vestigial (stunted) at best. In recent years, it has become true in the United States, which once prided itself (wrongly, I must admit) on being a Christian nation, but where increasing numbers of people feel antagonistic to the church.
So, as in the days of the psalmist, while the people who pledge allegiance to Yahweh constitute a decided minority, nevertheless people in all the earth can see the majesty of the Lord revealed in every facet of creation––if they will permit the Lord to cause the scales to drop from their eyes so that they might see.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 1-72 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Craigie, Peter C., Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50, Vol. 19 (Dallas: Word Books, 1983)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 1-72, Vol. 14a (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 1-41, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
Copyright 2018, Richard Niell Donovan