Psalm 8

Who do you think you are?

Psalm 8 has long been thought to be linked to the creation account in Genesis 1.1-2.4a.  However, there is little in common, other than the idea of human dominion in v.6. In v.3, the heavens are the work of God’s fingers, rather than of God’s word as in Genesis 1. Even the language of making in v.5 is more to do with ordering than with bringing into being. But the idea of dominion is equally problematic in both passages.

Who do we think we are? “What are human beings that you are mindful of them?” asks v.4. The same question is asked elsewhere in the bible. In Job 7.17-21, Job complains about God’s attention. He feels that God never lets him alone, even just to swallow his spit. He longs for a break, for God to look away. It’s a similar idea, in a way, to the sentiment of Psalm 139. But while Job feels that God’s mindfulness of him has brought about his suffering, and Ps 139 could be read in a similarly negative way, the sense in Ps 8 is more positive, alluding to the love of God in the parallel question in v.4: “[What are] mortals, that you care for them?” This question of v.4 is asked in an almost-identical couplet in Psalm 144.3. In that psalm, the answer is full of humility: “They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.” Under the open sky at night, with the moon, planets and stars stretching into infinity above you, humility might be a natural response: ‘Why would the God whose glory is set over all this think about little me?’ But who can cope with such insignificance? Perhaps that is why the answer in Psalm 8 takes a different path in verses 5-8 and asserts humanity’s importance.

The danger is that one moves on too easily from a sense of God’s care and love for little me, into the realm of hubris and pride. V.6 uses the language of power and authority. It uses the strong word ‘dominion’, defined in the parallel of v.6b as “you have put all things under their feet.” This is dangerous stuff and feels very uncomfortable in the light of the enormous amount of damage done over the last hundred years or so under the tramping feet of human beings, whether the slaughter of industrialized warfare, or the huge number of species lost to extinction in the past few decades, or the harm being done through warming the earth by burning far too much carbon. Who do we think we are that we can take this kind of dominion over creation and trample it under our feet?

The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins lamented industrial damage in his sonnet, The Grandeur Of God. In it, he complains that, “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; / and all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; / and wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil / is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.” Shod feet cannot feel the earth beneath them and they can do a lot more damage. When on retreat recently at St Beuno’s in North Wales, which had been the college where Hopkins trained as a Jesuit priest, I spent an afternoon barefoot. It’s an interesting exercise to do – why not give it a go now? This will still be here when you get back, and then I’ll tell you how I experienced it.

My feet in the sea

I love the feel of the earth beneath my feet. I feel it connects me much more strongly to the planet. Mown grass is super and a sandy beach is good, as is mud. However, the gravel paths at St Beuno’s were painful and on a walk through a little wood in the grounds I had to go very carefully indeed because of the holly leaves, larch twigs, nettles and thistles. Walking the same route in shoes the day before, I hadn’t even noticed that there was holly in the wood, and I had thought I was being attentive. Walking barefoot is slow but heightens your attention (your mindfulness, in the language of Psalm 8) of the world around you. There are many things I would not like to have under my feet. It made me mindful of the impact of my footprint on the earth, i.e. the impact of my life, so much of which is careless and indifferent – the very opposite of mindful – as I tramp around consuming stuff.

Unless I walk barefoot much more until the soles of my feet have turned to leather, I have to go shod. Even with hardened soles, I would risk picking up parasites and infections through my feet. I think Hopkins was a great romantic and while I share some of his sense of dismay at the industrialized world, I recognize that I have to be realistic about life, too, and look for a way of godly living in the world as it is. We cannot afford to be romantic about nature any more than we can afford to be indifferent towards it or willfully ignorant of it. We must be realistic and mindful of the power of industrial humanity for good and bad, as well as realistic and mindful of the plants and animals (and people) and the planet itself, especially where there is pain and suffering.

Perhaps Psalm 8 is being realistic about human power and authority. That power, and its impact, is much greater now than three thousand years ago (or whenever the psalm was written) so it is all the more urgent to consider its challenging question: “What are humans?”

One possibility is that the psalm simply shows us how hard we find it to embrace insignificance, and how easily we can move from humility to hubris, even to the point of claiming a status only a little lower than God (v.5) (or, better translated, “the gods” or “heavenly beings”). We would be wise to listen to any discomfort this hubristic assertion causes us, and reflect on the refrain that opens and closes, and so wraps around, the psalm: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

Another possibility, suggested by Walter Brueggemann, is that the psalm holds in tension human authority and praise for God’s glory. In this understanding, both are needed. Simply praising God would be abdicating human responsibility. God is sovereign over creation, so does that mean that we can blame God for all that is wrong in the world and insist that God sorts it out? On the other hand, asserting human power without giving praise to God is precisely to move beyond our place in the divine ordering of creation and usurp God. What may be envisaged in the psalm is a kind of partnership where humans act as God’s agents on earth, acting on God’s behalf and in God’s way: paying attention to, caring for and serving the creatures over whom we can be so powerful. That is why the psalm wraps humanity’s status with God’s greater glory. In acknowledging our power and role (ministry?), we don’t assert our status in any hubristic way but humbly give glory to God in all things.

Psalm 8 is quoted in the New Testament in Hebrews 2.6-9, in which the psalm is applied to Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection. In this Christological reading, the question is not so much, “What are human beings, the sons and daughters of Adam,” (v.4) but “What is the human, the Son of Man?” The answer comes in Jesus, who laid glory aside to take the form of a servant and humbled himself to the point of death, to be raised to life in glory (Philippians 2.5-9). If we read the psalm in this way, dominion is understood as obedience to God, power is the ability to choose to serve, and the feet under which all things are placed are nailed to a cross. If you want less of the supplement (i.e. New Testament), something of this kind of reading could be deduced from the somewhat obscure v.2, where praise comes from the mouths of “babes and infants” – those who are least powerful and least articulate. This praise from the least is what defeats God’s enemies (perhaps an allusion to creation myths involving a divine struggle against a chaos monster, out of which the world emerged). As Jesus pointed out, those who want to enter the kingdom of heaven must become like little children (Matthew 18.3). Perhaps it is in this attitude of simple delight (or praise) and humble love that human power within creation takes its truest, most godly, form, wrapped around in the glory of God.

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