Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 819
Line 1: The first and last verses of the psalm frame the rest, giving the congregation both a part to sing and a means of expressing the key ideas the psalm develops. Those ideas are God’s glory and man’s closeness to God. The latter is evident in the first line of the verse: The word “Lord” is from the Hebrew Yahweh, both a more sacred and a more intimate way of addressing God than Elohim (literally, “God”), which appears in other psalms. Though this may reflect the psalm’s authorship (some biblical writers consistently chose one name for God over the other), it also expresses the genuine sentiment of the poem. God here is not a distant being, but one with whom man feels an intimate devotion.
When applied to God in the Old Testament, the word “glory” usually refers to God’s visible manifestation to humans. The psalmist reflects on this idea in later verses of “Psalm 8,” beholding God’s creation (the “heavens” in verse 3) and perceiving God’s infinite power. But the relationship between God and creation is clear from the outset of the poem: God is “above” everything in nature— even the heavens themselves.
Line 2: The second verse expresses the belief that God’s power is evident in the least as well as in the greatest of his creations. It also predicts the relationship between man and God described in the third and fourth verses. Just as man perceives God with awe, so “babes” look upon adults. Yet as children are created in the image of adults, so man is in the image of God. Even though they cannot understand the nature of adults, children still possess the same “ordained strength” God has instilled in his creations. Further, that strength is especially apparent because children, like nature, are innocent, as yet uncorrupted by the evil of “the enemy and the avenger.” Adults’ strength, the psalmist implies later, exists in a similar type of innocence. By experiencing his own humility in the face of the vast universe, man throws himself before God the way a child submits to the authority of adults.
Lines 3-4: In the third and fourth verses the psalmist experiences what might be called in modern times an “existential crisis,” but the cosmic uncertainty inspired by the heavens is hardly limited to modern humans. One might be reminded of the French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s conclusion: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” Observing the night sky, the “moon and the stars,” the speaker is forced to ask himself, “What is man?” The question suggests its own answer, one at which most people have arrived while looking into the stars. In comparison with the vast order of the cosmos, man seems finite and insignificant— so insignificant, in fact, that the psalmist wonders why God would trifle with such a creature. While the question is never directly answered in the poem, the moment of potential despair resolves itself through other natural observations. Man might seem small compared with the heavens, but he is large compared with the other creatures of earth. In this the psalmist takes faith that God is indeed “mindful” of man. Thus the heavens, which are an indication of God’s “glory,” are not so much daunting as they are an indication of the grace granted by God to man.
Lines 5-8: The “glory” in verse 5 is a different type than that in verse 1, coming from a different Hebrew word. When applied to man in the Old Testament, glory usually means “importance,” and in verses 5 through 8 the psalmist contrasts man’s importance on earth with his seeming insignificance under the stars. Though he is “a little lower than the angels,” man is dominant over the other “works of [God’s] hands”: the domestic and wild animals, the fish and fowl, and the seas themselves. This arrangement recalls the biblical creation story in which God grants man dominion over nature because man is created in God’s likeness. In this psalm, man’s authority is symbolized by regal trappings: man is “crowned in glory and honor.” But importantly, this authority is derived specifically from God. Unlike classical Greek thought, which suggests that man has dignity and authority unto himself, the Hebrew philosophy holds that man’s value comes only through God. Why God has granted such value or even created man at all—“What is man?”—are questions the psalmist leaves unanswered.
Lines 19-20: Note that the refrain, though a repetition of the first verse of the psalm, lacks the line “who hast set thy glory above the heavens.” Some argue that this suggests the psalmist now puts earth above the heavens or considers the heavens less relevent. Another possibility is that the psalmist’s meditation has eased his fear of the vastness of the cosmos, that he now wishes to acknowledge God’s presence on earth and in man.
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