Psalm 8: Entering the Psalm
Our Place Within Creation
Like Psalms 81 and 84, Psalm 8 opens with a direction to the chief musician to perform upon the gittith (Hebrew: גתית). The New King James Version calls it “the instrument of Gath.” It is said that the heavenly imagery of the Psalm is likened to the inspiration drawn from the psalmist meditating on God’s creation and the human being’s place in it.
Andrew Davis, PHD
That famous question expresses the main theme of Psalm 8, namely, wonder that the Creator of the heavens and the earth has taken special notice of humanity. The psalm’s structure reinforces this theme, as the question lies at the center of the psalm surrounded by descriptions of various creatures.
לַמְנַצֵּחַ עַל־הַגִּתִּית מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד׃
יְהֹוָה אֲדֹנֵינוּ מָה־אַדִּיר שִׁמְךָ בְּכׇל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תְּנָה הוֹדְךָ עַל־הַשָּׁמָיִם׃
מִפִּי עוֹלְלִים וְיֹנְקִים יִסַּדְתָּ־עֹז לְמַעַן צוֹרְרֶיךָ לְהַשְׁבִּית אוֹיֵב וּמִתְנַקֵּם׃
כִּי־אֶרְאֶה שָׁמֶיךָ מַעֲשֵׂה אֶצְבְּעֹתֶיךָ יָרֵחַ וְכוֹכָבִים אֲשֶׁר כּוֹנָנְתָּה׃
מָה־אֱנוֹשׁ כִּי־תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ וּבֶן־אָדָם כִּי תִפְקְדֶנּוּ׃
וַתְּחַסְּרֵהוּ מְּעַט מֵאֱלֹהִים וְכָבוֹד וְהָדָר תְּעַטְּרֵהוּ׃
תַּמְשִׁילֵהוּ בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדֶיךָ כֹּל שַׁתָּה תַחַת־רַגְלָיו׃
צֹנֶה וַאֲלָפִים כֻּלָּם וְגַם בַּהֲמוֹת שָׂדָי׃
צִפּוֹר שָׁמַיִם וּדְגֵי הַיָּם עֹבֵר אׇרְחוֹת יַמִּים׃
יְהֹוָה אֲדֹנֵינוּ מָה־אַדִּיר שִׁמְךָ בְּכׇל־הָאָרֶץ׃
1 For the leader; on the gittith. A psalm of David.
2 O LORD, our Lord,
How majestic is Your name throughout the earth,
You who have covered the heavens with Your splendor!
3 From the mouths of infants and sucklings
You have founded strength on account of Your foes,
to put an end to enemy and avenger.
4 When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
the moon and stars that You set in place,
5 what is man that You have been mindful of him,
mortal man that You have taken note of him,
6 that You have made him little less than divine,
and adorned him with glory and majesty;
7 You have made him master over Your handiwork,
laying the world at his feet,
8 sheep and oxen, all of them,
and wild beasts, too;
9 the birds of the heavens, the fish of the sea,
whatever travels the paths of the seas.
10 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name throughout the earth!
1 For the leader; “upon the gittith.” A psalm of David.
2 O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth! I will sing of your majesty above the heavens
3 with the mouths of babes and infants. You have established a bulwark against your foes, to silence enemy and avenger.
4 When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place—
5 What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?
6 Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor.
7 You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet:
8 All sheep and oxen, even the beasts of the field,
9 The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatever swims the paths of the seas.
10 O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!
1 Oh Señor, Soberano nuestro,
¡qué imponente es tu nombre en toda la tierra!
¡Has puesto tu gloria sobre los cielos!
2 Con la alabanza que brota de los labios de los pequeñitos
y de los niños de pecho
has construido una fortaleza,
para silenciar al enemigo y al vengativo.
3 Cuando contemplo tus cielos,
obra de tus dedos,
la luna y las estrellas que allí fijaste,
4 me pregunto:
«¿Qué es el hombre para que en él pienses?
¿Qué es el hijo del hombre para que lo tomes en cuenta?».
5 Lo hiciste poco menor que los ángeles[b]
y lo coronaste de gloria y de honra.
6 Le diste dominio sobre la obra de tus manos;
todo lo pusiste bajo sus pies:
7 todas las ovejas, todos los bueyes,
todos los animales del campo,
8 las aves del cielo,
los peces del mar
y todo lo que surca los senderos del mar.
9 Oh Señor, Soberano nuestro,
¡qué imponente es tu nombre en toda la tierra!
Entering the Psalm
By Andrew Davis, PhD
If non-human intelligent life ever makes it to the moon, they may come across a small disc inscribed with goodwill messages from various nations of the earth, left there in 1969 by the Apollo 11 astronauts. If so, they will discover Psalm 8, a hymn of praise to the Creator and creation, which was the contribution of Pope Paul VI, representing Vatican City. One of those astronauts, Buzz Aldrin, also recited verses 4-5 of the psalm in a video transmission during Apollo’s return trip to earth. Those verses include the psalm’s most famous line: “What are humans that you are mindful of them?”
That famous question expresses the main theme of Psalm 8, namely, wonder that the Creator of the heavens and the earth has taken special notice of humanity. The psalm’s structure reinforces this theme, as the question lies at the center of the psalm surrounded by descriptions of various creatures. Further evidence of the psalm’s “ring structure” is the repetition of the first line at the end of the psalm. The theology and anthropology of Psalm 8 are reminiscent of Genesis 1, where humans are described as the climax of God’s creation. They are made in God’s image, and the day of their creation is not just good but “very good.” In both Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 this honor comes with commensurate responsibility; humans are called on to imitate God’s dominion by acting as stewards of the created world.
This responsibility is an important reminder when we feel helpless in the face of our present ecological crisis. The problems are so big, and each of us is so small. While acknowledging our smallness, Psalm 8 insists that it is no excuse for passivity. God has given us—humanity as a whole—the tools we need to carry out our vocation of stewardship. The next time you encounter a wonder of nature or stare into the starry night sky, let the words of Psalm 8 give voice to your feeling of awe but also inspire you to action on behalf of God’s creation.
Discussion Questions on Psalm 8
- How does this description of the relationship between God, humankind, and the rest of the created world strike you?
- Does the recent experience of the Covid-19 pandemic—in its various manifestations—impact your view of this text?
- What is one concrete action—small or large—you can take today as a steward of creation?
- If you were writing the psalm today, what, if anything, might you change (add, omit, rephrase)?
"How Great Thou Art" with Carrie Underwood and Elvis Presley
“How Great Thou Art” is a song with a surprising history. What started as a humble poem written by a Swedish editor, a poem that echoes the words of Psalm 8, ultimately became a worldwide musical sensation. Watch Carrie Underwood and Elvis Presley perform it and read the article, “Behind The Song.”Read and Listen
"Psalm 8: Tearing Down & Building Up" by ibrahim abdul matin
ibrahim abdul matin reflects on the glory of God, the majesty of God’s handywork, and our role as God’s “stewards” of all creation, themes resonant in Psalm 8.Read more
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Zen master and writer Norman Fischer here offers his own interpretation of Psalm 8, a selection from his 2002 volume Opening to You: Zen-Inspired Translations of the Psalms (Penguin). Drawing on his Jewish “roots” and Buddhist “wings,” he seeks to “make these towering and perplexing poems accessible and beautiful in English for contemporary readers” of different walks of life.
Your Unsayable Name: it covers all the earth
And your presence extends ever outward
From the furthest conceivable point
Out of the mouths of babes
Who speak only wordless wandering words
You fashion your incomprehensible power
That gathers into silence all opposition
All that pressure to get in and destroy
When I behold the night sky, the work of your fingers
The bright moon and the many-layered stars which you
A woman is so frail and you remember her
A man so small and you think of him
In you woman and man become as angels
Crowned with a luminous presence
And you have given them care for the works of your hands
Placed the solid growing earth under their feet
Flocks of birds and herds of deer
Oxen and sheep and goats and cows
Soaring birds and darting fishes
All that swims the paths of the sea
O you whom I am ever addressing
Your unsayable named covers heaven and earth
Questions for Reflection
- What imagery is present in Fischer’s interpretation that is not part of the original psalm? What do you think of these creative changes?
- Fischer describes God here as the One with an “Unsayable Name,” based on the longstanding tradition in Judaism of not attempting to vocalize the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of the Divine: YHWH. How does this poetic choice impact your reading of the psalm?
Norman Fischer is a poet, author, and Zen Buddhist priest. His most recent poetry titles are On a Train at Night (PURH, France, 2018) and Untitled Series: Life As It Is (Talisman House, 2018). His latest Buddhist titles are What Is Zen? (Shambhala, 2016) and The World Could be Otherwise: Imagination and the Bodhisattva Path (Shambhala, 2019).
EveryPsalm is a three-year long musical journey consisting of simple, meditative songs based on the psalms. Our goal is to allow God to shape each song quickly, simply, and with meditation in mind. This means the songs are written relatively quickly, are structurally straightforward, and modestly produced.
By Jesse and Leah Roberts
Performed by Poor Bishop Hooper
oh lord our lord
how majestic is
your name in all the earth
who is man that you’d be mindful of him
son of man that you would take care of him
with honor and glory you crown him and give him
dominion over the works of your hands
Question for Reflection
- How do you feel about the musical composition in relation to the words of Psalm 8? What emotions does this creative interpretation evoke in you?
Poor Bishop Hooper
Both hailing from small towns in central Kansas, Jesse and Leah Roberts began writing, recording, and performing together after their marriage in 2013. What began as a duo, weaving together a patchwork of melodies atop an upright bass and a guitar, has since blossomed into numerous, multi-faceted expressions of the technicolor story they call life.
A monologue selected from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, spoken in the play by Prince Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act II, Scene II. Rather than appearing in blank verse, the typical mode of composition of Shakespeare’s plays, the speech appears in straight prose.
I will tell you why; so shall my anticipation prevent your discovery, and your secrecy to the King and queene: moult no feather. I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an Angel, In apprehension how like a god, The beauty of the world, The paragon of animals. And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.
Question for Reflection
- Shakespeare and the psalmist depict the natural world very differently. How would you describe each of these poetic visions? How do you respond to both?