Psalm 8 has the unique distinction of being the first biblical text to reach the moon. The crew of Apollo 11 left a silicon disc with messages from 73 nations, including the Vatican. The Vatican sent this psalm as its message – which both proclaims the cosmic sovereignty of God, and the value and role of human beings in the cosmos. Its message is helpful to us today as well.
Who are we?
Our understanding of ourselves in the context of the cosmos is something that human beings have pondered, perhaps for as long as people have looked at the stars. And too, we wonder what our relationship is to the author of Creation – with all its vastness and mystery.
Psalm 8 picks up this question.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, and mortals that you care for them? Psalm 8: 3-4
Our children might ask the question differently: “With all the people in the world, does God really know me – and care for me?” Sometimes our older saints ask it differently as they approach the mystery of death, “I will soon be dust. Looking back on my life and especially my mistakes, I wonder: can God still care for me?”
Carl Sagan, American astronomer, planetary scientist, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist and author said it this way:
“As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.
Who are we? “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, and mortals that you care for them?” This is a HUGE question! With billions and billions of galaxies, we wonder how the God who is responsible for the vastness of creation, for the care of such an immense universe, have time at attend to the needs of tiny human creatures? We live but for a moment compared to eternity (Heb. 12:16). We, even our whole planet, is such a tiny piece of the vastness of the cosmos. Can we truly believe that God pays attention to each one of us?
Psalm 8 says YES! God DOES choose to be “mindful” and to care for us. And further, WHO WE ARE cannot be understood apart from our relationship with God. THIS relationship is the basis of our significance, of our role in the universe.
Psalm 8 tell us that, small as we are, our status is just a little lower than the heavenly beings, the “Elohim” in the scriptures. The language in this psalm as it refers to human beings is language usually used to describe kings: “crowned,” “glory,” “glorious.” God has delegated responsibilities to us, bestowing some of God’s “sovereignty” on we merely human beings. (eecummings) WE represent God in the world. “Dominion” has a kingly function (mˉašal) as used here and also in Genesis 1:26-28 where the care of creation is delegated to human beings. We human beings are to be partners with God in the care of creation.
What is our relationship with the author of the vastness of creation? We are partners together with God, chosen for this purpose and given some of God’s authority to act as God’s agents, representatives, in the world.
Out of Balance
Human life is intended to be lived under the sovereignty, the Lordship, of God. While the middle of this psalm is about human beings and our place in the universe – the start and close are all about God. Our place in the universe is, structurally in this psalm -- and theologically, bounded by the authority and sovereignty of God. And when we forget that, focusing on our own authority and power, our lives get out of balance.
Idols. Part of the emphasis on the splendor of creation emphasizes that all of these things are “the works of God’s hands.” It is God, YHWH, who created the sun, moon, and stars. God creates – not “is created.” The gods of the people around Israel were created by human beings – but that is not our God, the psalmist says. The one we worship created all living things: the moon and stars; but also sheep, cattle, wild animals, birds in the sky, and fish and the creatures of the deep. Idols were made by human hands and can be unmade by human hands. Our God created.
National allegiances. Our allegiance is to God the creator. And we are God’s people. But that doesn’t mean that the people living in a particular nation are any better than any other nation. All nations are subject to God’s ethical judgment. This is implied with the cosmic sweep of the passage. Israel doesn’t get favored status in the sweep of creation – and neither do we.
Despite the portion of the psalm about human beings, the psalm overall is theocentric – God centered. The dominion that God delegates to us should be a ground for praising God, not insisting on our own authority. We’ve gotten things out of balance by leaving God out of the equation of our relationship with the world, with the natural order. “The use of human power without the praise of God is to exploit creation and corrupt the psalm’s hope.” Praise of God “flies in the face of our culture’s tendency to unrestrained exploitation.” Praise rebukes us, and reminds us that we have profaned our trusted position as God’s regents – which may be why we tend to move away from a faith center in our practices with the natural order, even if it means that we are moving away from a relationship with God. We have seen the impact on the created order by the practice of human autonomy, unbounded by a sense of God’s ultimate sovereignty. The effects of our selfishness and wickedness are all around us in the signs of ecological disaster: eroding soil, toxic streams, the depleting of the ozone layer. We have failed in our responsibility as co-caretakers of creation with God.
We need to re-gain balance – to hold together God’s sovereignty with our human sovereignty. “To fail to take seriously the central importance of humanity in God’s plan for the creation is to abdicate the God-given responsibility to be PARTNERS with God in caring for the earth.” But we must realize too that our sovereignty is subservient to God’s sovereignty.
Our place in the universe is bounded by the authority and sovereignty of God. And when we forget that, focusing on our own authority and power, our lives get out of balance.
For us to find wholeness as individuals and for creation, to begin the work of restoration, we need to fall into the beauty and wonder of God. Experiencing God’s beauty “draws us to a new sense of life – restoring something of our taste for right relationships.” Experiencing God’s beauty helps to again sense the beauty of God which draws us closer, offering us a different way of living in the world.
When was the last time you fell in love with the beauty of creation? Some of us have predictable moments: resting on the beach and watching and listening as the waves wash into the shore. The soothing sounds of ocean waves are one of the things on machines to help us relax and fall asleep. For others of us it is the mountains. An array of colors from a lush green to delicate lavender in layers of mountains can take our breath away. For others of us it is the lavish colors of a garden, decked out in spring and summer as if Monet imagined it. For some of us, it is the wonder of coral reefs. Perhaps it is the array of the night sky in a place where the stars can truly be seen. But take a minute and remember your time when the beauty of creation swept you away.
What happens in these moments is that we leave ourselves behind. We reawaken our sense in a way that carries us to a sense of the Divine. When our senses are dulled to beauty, we may lose some meaningful contact with the world of the senses, and our experience of God might also be a bit distant. We NEED experiences of beauty to restore our sense of wholeness as people. We don’t find renewed life in the spirit through depleted emotions!
American theologian, Jonathan Edwards, emphasized the need to be open to a spiritual awakening to the beauty of the Lord. Beauty for Edwards was an experience. Nature was a symbol, like a sacrament, of the beauty of God. Our spiritual wholeness comes through experiences of beauty that give us a taste of the holiness of God. In his personal writings, Edwards wrote of the role of nature in his spiritual development. To see and feel the world is to approach God and to find ourselves.
But beauty for Edwards wasn’t just a matter of aesthetics – moral beauty compelled him. Moral beauty invites us to a conscious choice. God’s moral beauty awakens us to the inner beauty of the Lord, and encourages us towards right relationships with God, with each other and with the created order, Edwards says. Edwards believed that “the real believer falls in love with the beauty of the Lord.”
Another way of understanding this falling in love with wonder or beauty is through music or dance. In an interview with Wendy Farley, Marcia McFee asks her about dance as a way of understanding what she means. Getting lost in the dance, they agree, is a point beyond thinking where your feet go and being swept up in the motion. That is true in music too – there are points when you don’t think about the notes or the words because you are caught up in the song. Or in poetry… we can get swept away by it – and if we analyze it we may take it apart and have lost the soul of it. For life is NOT a paragraph…
since feeling is first By: E. E. Cummings
since feeling is first who pays any attention to the syntax of things will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool while Spring is in the world
my blood approves, and kisses are a better fate than wisdom lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry – the best gesture of my brain is less than your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other; then laugh, leaning back in my arms for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
In Charles Wesley’s great hymn, “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling,” the last stanza expresses this sense as it imagines a time when we are caught up in the new creation.
Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.
Let us find ways to lose ourselves in wonder, love and praise! To fall into the beauty and wonder of God! For this will restore our souls, renew our relationship with God, and help us live as partners with God in the care of the natural order.
Psalm 8 will help us remember who we are, whose we are, and how God intends us to live in the world as co-caretakers with God. We can restore the balance of our lives by focusing on the sovereignty of God rather than our own derivative authority. Falling into wonder with help us rebalance and restore us – and maybe help creation too.
1 Carl Sagan, “Cosmos,” episode 7 . https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMJ9H3uBqZM
2 NIBC, Isaiah, 711.
3 NIBC, Isaiah, 712.
4 Walter Brueggeman and William Bellinger, Psalms, 60-61.
5 Walter Brueggeman and William Bellinger, Psalms, 61.
6 JC McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflection,” NIBC, Vol. 4 (1996) 712-13.
7 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 37-38.
8 NIBC, Isaiah, 712.
9 Richard Cartwright Austin, Beauty of the Lord, 128.
10 Austin, 91.
11 Austin, 40.
12 Austin, 145-6.
13 Austin, 160.
14 Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” 1747. #384 UMH.