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Penitential Psalms: Psalm 8–Closing the Overture

If the entire Psalter were a musical production or dramatic presentation, Psalms 1 through 8 would be the introduction, or overture, of the Psalter as a whole.

Psalms 1 and 2 are the overture proper. They introduce the theme of good versus evil, the main characters, and the final outcome. Psalms 3 and 4 present the protagonist and his antagonists in greater detail. Psalms 5 and 6 display the seriousness of the struggle. The audience sees the weakness of the protagonist and the very real dangers of death that confront him. In Psalm 7 the protagonist successfully fights back and hints of the final resolution are given, though not the climax itself. Psalm 8 bursts through as a celebratory resolution, though details of the climax are omitted.

Superimposing the Gospel narrative on top of this dramatic sequence, as a transparency or see-through photographic layer, early Christians could perceive the following:

  1. Psalm 1–the theme of God’s choosing goodness and destroying evil
  2. Psalm 2–the main characters: God, his Son the King, and the antagonistic rulers of the earth; the sovereign victory of God and his Son over the rebels; the opportunity of repentance God offers his enemies
  3. Psalms 3 and 4–the presence of the Son/King as a man on earth; his faith and confidence in the help and victory of God against his enemies
  4. Psalm 5–an earnest prayer by the Son for help from God and his faith that God will help him triumph over his enemies
  5. Psalm 6–a hard look at the weakness of the Son as his enemies, and perhaps God himself (how can this be?), attack him so fiercely that death draws near; his earnest prayer to God for help; an assurance that God heard and will turn back his enemies.
  6. Psalm 7–the Son/King faces and considers the issue squarely, “Have I sinned against my enemies or not?” That is, “Are my enemies justified in their persecution of me?” The answer is that the Son is innocent, and consequently, God will fight for him by turning the wickedness of the wicked against themselves, so that their own evil deeds fall upon their own heads.
  7. Psalm 8–a joyful song of praise to the victorious God of creation wonders whose original intention for creation is fulfilled

While the first eight psalms give a great introduction to the Gospel narrative as a whole, they do not give away spoilers of the details of the death and resurrection of the Son. These are all but spelled out as the Psalter progresses.

Details of Psalm 8

First, the celebratory and victorious nature of Psalm 8 can be appreciated without resolving the question, “Who is the speaker?” Is the speaker the singular Son/King addressing God? Is the speaker a chorus of righteous people addressing God about his Son? Could the speaker be a chorus addressing the Son? Could the speaker be a single person addressing God about the Son? Could there be a mixture of these possibilities? These are valid questions. But even if the context and words themselves cannot definitively provide answers, the reader can share in the joyful knowledge that God wins in the end and all is right with the world. For audiences situated in the historical time frame when the psalms were read or performed aloud in liturgical settings, the answer to the question, “Who is speaking?” may have been obvious through the use of costumes, face masks, or simply the physical presence and audible voices of the performer(s) themselves.

Secondly, this psalm enjoys extensive quotation in the New Testament.

In the following quotation, Jesus responds to the praise of the children for himself as “Son of David” with a quotation from Psalm 8:2 (Septuagint). The manner in which he uses the quotation implies that the “you” and “yourself” of the psalm make reference to him. That is, Jesus places himself as the subject of Psalm 8, either directly so, or as his being identifiable with God.

From the mouths of children and nursing babies you have ordained praise on account of your adversaries, so that you might put an end to the vindictive enemy. (Psalm 8:2 NET)

15 But when the chief priests and the experts in the law saw the wonderful things he did and heard the children crying out in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of children and nursing infants you have prepared praise for yourself’?” (Matthew 21:15-16 NET)

The New Testament quotes Psalm 8:6 in two locations. In both, the writers interpret the words of the psalm as referring directly to Christ, who is the Son/King of Psalm 2.

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5 Thou madest him a little less than angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour; 6 and thou hast set him over the works of thy hands: thou hast put all things under his feet: (Psalm 8:4-6 LXE)

It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? 7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, 8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. (Hebrews 2:6-8 ESV)

For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. (1Corinthians 15:27 ESV)

What About the “Penitential” Psalm 6? 

In the context provided for Psalm 6, as detailed above in this blog and in the past several blogs, does this psalm stand out as being noteworthy for a theme of confession, sorrow, and repentance for sin? Is it singularly “penitential” in nature? This author thinks not. Taken as a whole, certain psalms excepted, such as Psalm 51, the first person speaker of the Psalter is shown again and again to be righteously innocent. And yet, the Gospel tells us that the Son/King died as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of many. How would an Old Testament author poetically express the thoughts, feelings, and prayers of a sacrificial Lamb who was “made sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21) for us, yet was himself righteous and completely innocent? And yet Jesus after his resurrection told his disciples that the Psalms achieve just this (Luke 24). How they do so is what this blog explores. 

 

Psalm 8: Humanity in General or Christ in Particular?

 

As it breaks out with joyful praise, Psalm 8 is a first day of the new week kind of psalm. It voices neither petitions nor statements of personal need. It is a Sunday worship kind of psalm, the first of its kind in the Psalter.

The Orthodox Church uses Psalm 8 in its liturgy to celebrate the resurrection of Lazarus on Lazarus Saturday and the very next day in the morning prayer of Palm Sunday (The Orthodox Study Bible, 685). The connotations of Christ as King are apparent, as will be demonstrated below.

Psalm 8:1 To the choirmaster: according to The 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 Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength
[praise, NET] because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at 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, and the son of man that you care for him?
5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet,
7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (ESV)

Psalm 8 resembles Psalm 1 in its ambiguity concerning its subject, whether humankind in general or a specific person, one man, in particular. NET Bible editors interpret mankind as the subject of the psalm and translate the singular “man,” (enosh in Hebrew) of verse 4 as “the human race,” and “son of man,” also in verse 4, as “human beings.” In this they follow their similar interpretation of Psalm 1. Humankind in general and generic “men” are indeed often represented by this Hebrew noun in the Old Testament. The New Testament, on the other hand, in several places applies Psalm 8 specifically to Christ incarnated.

Matthew 21:15 But when the chief priests and the experts in the law saw the wonderful things he did and heard the children crying out in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of children and nursing infants you have prepared praise for yourself’?” (NET) (Matthew 21:16 quotes Psalm 8:2)

Note: The context of Matthew 21:16 relates how, on the occasion when Jesus triumphantly entered Jerusalem on what has come to be celebrated as Palm Sunday, the children cried out in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” This was equivalent to naming Jesus of Nazareth as the long-awaited Messiah of Old Testament prophecy. The chief priests and scribes became indignant and protested to Jesus, “Do you hear what they are saying?” In other words, How can you, a mere man, receive as true the adulation of these children as though you were Messiah, the anointed One of God? When Jesus answered their question, “Yes,” and quoted Psalm 8:2 to them, he was in effect agreeing with the children and accepting the title of Messiah. Jesus was in effect also claiming that Psalm 8:2 made specific reference to himself. The chief priests and scribes interpreted what was happening in the same way–hence their indignant objections.

1 Corinthians 15:27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. (ESV; quotation of Psalm 8:6)

Note: Paul, the writer of 1 Corinthians, quotes the literal translation of Psalm 8:6, “you have put all things under his [singular] feet” (as in the Hebrew Bible, ESV, NAU, Septuagint Greek and English, and KJV), as though it refers to the particular sense of a certain man, Christ. Contrary to Paul and to the versions just named, the NET and NIV interpret Psalm 8:6 in a plural sense (note that the plurality is not in the exact text) and assign the meaning of humankind in general. This is in fact defensible in view of other Old Testament verses that use the same word.

But here in the New Testament, the NET and NIV translate Psalm 8:6 exactly as Paul writes it. Paul in Corinthians accurately quotes Psalm 8:6 of the Old Testament, which is the same in Hebrew and in the Greek of the Septuagint (Archer and Chirichigno, 58-59). In the Old Testament, however, as mentioned above, both the NET and NIV depart from Paul and from both the actual Hebrew and Greek texts by substituting a plural, “their” feet, or “their” authority, for the singular “his,” in keeping with their interpretation of the generic nature of the word “man.” Yet it is clear from the context of 1 Corinthians 15:27, including verses 22-28, that Paul the inspired New Testament writer sees the singular Christ in view when he quotes from Psalm 8.

This places the reader in the awkward position of having to choose between a rock and a hard place. Did Paul misquote and/or misapply the referent of the Old Testament verse Psalm 8:6? Or, perhaps have the NET and NIV editors taken liberties in their translation of Psalm 8:6? Or, did God the Holy Spirit infuse Paul with correct inspiration through shoddy exegesis?

As it turns out, scholars fairly agree that Paul uses the Septuagint as his Bible (see for example, Timothy Michael Law, When God Spoke Greek). In spite of this, many evangelical scholars today take the strange stance that although many New Testament writers, early church fathers, and Jesus himself quoted from the Septuagint rather than from the Hebrew, we as modern exegetes or devotional readers should not. In those early days, most people did not know Hebrew, and the Old Testament canon in the early church was a collection of Greek Septuagint scriptures, rather than Hebrew (Law, When God Spoke Greek, 170). 

Law writes, “The canonical books of the Old Testament in the early church were Greek, not Hebrew. So if the Septuagint supported the theological expression of the New Testament writers and the theologians and exegetes who established early Christian thought, one may wonder why it has had no place in the modern church” (Ibid).

My intent is not to sound either boastful or non-intellectual when I say that my earliest and first experience with the Septuagint was devotional in nature and that the Holy Spirit indicated to me at that time that the first person speaker of Psalm 102 (LXX 101) was Jesus Christ and that he and his Father in that psalm were conversing back and forth in dialogue through Jesus’ prayer recorded there, very near the time of his Passion. I have loved the Septuagint ever since, and both through further devotions and through academic study, I have come to learn that I am not alone in my perception that Christ is the predominant first person speaker throughout the psalms, though clearly  this view is in the minority. Encouragingly, more and more scholars are turning to discover the Septuagint’s rightful place in academia, in church history, and in the church today. Law’s book, referenced above (and see Law, Annotated Bibliography), does a good job of tracing out the threads of impact of the Septuagint’s long history both before and after Christ. Because Law wrote for both academic students and lay readers, the text is mostly very readable.

Hebrews 2:5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking.
6 It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor,
8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.
9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (ESV)

Note: Hebrews 2:6-8 above quotes Psalm 8:4-6, clearly within the context of the writer’s demonstrating that Jesus of Nazareth is Messiah, Christ, who is superior to the angels, though for a little while during his incarnation he was made lower than they. The verses he quotes would not be applicable to this certain individual if Psalm 8 did not specifically point toward Christ, but solely to the human race in general. We know that the passage in Hebrews speaks specifically of Jesus the Christ by joining 1:3 (he made purification for sin and then sat down at the right hand of God–i.e., the cross followed by resurrection and ascension) and 2:9  (we see…Jesus) in the context of the whole.

I recognize that I would be obtuse if I did not acknowledge the possible presence of humankind in general within the context of Psalm 8 in addition to the specific person of Christ, especially since Genesis 1:26 and 28 recount how God subjected the animal kingdom to the rule of Adam and his progeny. How does the devout reader reconcile these two thoughts, both valid? Simply, Adam’s race, which is humanity, fell from grace when Adam and his wife disobeyed God. Jesus Christ is the new Adam, (1 Corinthians 15:45), the head of the new humanity (Ephesians 2:15), and in him, all believers are recreated anew. Christ is the new head of the human race, displacing Adam as such. In Christ, by participating in his kingdom rule, all people become once again lords (small “l”) of creation. In Christ, the prayers and proclamations of the Psalter become true for all believers.

 

 

 

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