Sermon given as part of seminary Preaching course (College Mennonite Church, Goshen). Also preached at Lombard Mennonite, Lombard, IL & Rockway Mennonite, Kitchener, Ontario
The 8th Psalm that we engage today appears in the ‘praise-thanksgiving’ category. Psalms also express lament and retell history. Many combine shorter segments. The total book comprises five earlier collections. Instruments usually accompanied the singing of psalms. We could well have stringed instruments, tambourines, symbols, horns or flutes repeatedly break into our worship service today.
Some people presume that David the musician king wrote many of the psalms. They have been influenced by rhymes like the following:
King Solomon and King David lived very wicked lives,
with half a hundred concubines and quite too many wives.
But when old age came creeping on, they both were filled with qualms,
so Solomon wrote the Proverbs and David wrote the Psalms.
The likelihood of David’s having written many psalms remains hard to document. But he, a musician and poet, likely shaped Israel’s singing and cultic worship. The heading “Psalm of David” might have multiple meanings: by David, belonging to, on behalf of, or for the Davidic ruler. Through centuries, the latter category continued functions that were once exercised by David.
The eighth psalm draws us in gratitude to our majestic God. While the setting might be more authentic if we were located under a vast, starry sky, be imaginative, yet attached to our world, our world known for postal strikes, building collapses, prisoners, and weather change. Let’s examine the psalmist’s thought to test whether we too move toward thanks.
Central to finding or declaring purpose is a sense of God’s being with us. Early singers of psalms trusted in God’s active presence. Praise followed, praise based in belief that God is, that God has been, that God will always be. At the same time, Hebrew thought emphasized a sense of being overpowered by the world’s forces. Fears of hunger and thirst persisted. People doubted their strength to survive. Numerous psalms portray the human struggle to maintain faith through recurring danger. With perilous faith came doubt in human ability and worth. Conviction that a task depended on them came with threat. Psalm 8 spoke to such vital issues. It firmly declared God to be majestic and in control. After initial questions, it credits humanity within the Divine plan. We today benefit from exploring it.
Our approach often begins by crediting human achievements. We conquer disease—though cancer, MS, and depression stymie researchers. Test tube babies may appear but cautious questions surface: How far can science assist? We computerize extensive data, but systems fail and planes collide. Reflecting on human achievements, we pause between giving thanks and risking cocky attitudes. Grateful for talents, we may ask ‘Why not use them to the limit?’ A follow-up expression may haunt: ‘What need have we for God?’ Or we may fail to credit the moon and stars that orbit without our technical systems.
We might note the human but overlook the Divine. By contrast, the psalmist here responds to the night’s moon and stars and asks, “What is mere humanity?” Awestruck or overpowered by Divine creation, the writer wonders about human value. The focus of praise is God, not nature or self. Our sermon title “Our Majestic God” finds God’s being addressed throughout the psalm. Attention turns to God’s name or presence, to God’s excellence. Two dimensions of that greatness surface: created order and Divine purpose for people. As with the psalmist, we respond to God’s presence, to God’s control of the universe, to God’s design for including people within the created world. We too express honest gratitude: for on-going creative acts and Presence; for strength plus surprise in weakness; for birds and fish, sheep and oxen. Further, the privilege is ours to convey to the latter God’s care, the meaning of dominion.
God’s Name or Presence
Psalm 8 begins with personal address Two different words appear, first Yahweh. After that proper name for Israel’s God appears a title of honor, Lord. The phrase states: O Yahweh (name) our Lord (position). Between Yahweh and Lord is sandwiched the personal pronoun our. The psalmist associates with people whose common interest credits the Sovereign One. To name the Divine involves what? How does naming each other differ? Naming is germane to relating—for the one named, for those expressing the name. If I called out your particular name, your reflex would be distinct. Your name separates you from others. Yet, our attention comes together. So also, the psalmist expects to meet when naming God.
In some contexts, to name a person or thing suggests to have power over it, to limit it. Genesis 2 records the first earth creature’s calling and giving names to the animals. To name them called them into existence. Whoever names shapes their existence, in part. Or, shortly after delivering a baby a physician might ask: ‘What will this child’s name be?’ Most parents have thought about options in advance. Naming then adds to an infant’s coming into being.
What, however, did the Israelites mean with the name Yahweh? What did the psalmist mean with: “How majestic is your name in all the earth!” For Israelites, name determined something of the nature and character of God. More than a mere class, name and person firmly linked. To praise the name meant to glorify the person. The Hebrew composite of four letters—YHWH translated Yahweh—basically affirms existence. The Divine One causes to be. Ex. 3:14 records Moses’ asking how the people’s god should be identified. By what name? You may recall God’s reply: I AM WHO I AM or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. Simply stated the name means: I AM PRESENT. Connection between name and essence matter. In ancient Hebrew thought, God’s name indicated the Divine’s living nature. The glory of such presence extended without limit. Sung or chanted even above the heavens, majesty or name could not be contained. So today, with the psalmist we claim: “Oh Yahweh, our Lord, with what excellence your Presence exudes the earth!”
Excellence marks created order. Excellence may also surprise. Out of babes and infants’ mouths comes strength capable of quieting an enemy. Those who oppose or defy God can be caught off guard by those supposedly weak. God may choose what appears to be weak to overcome what looks strong. A personal illustration of this quality comes to mind. Years ago while I worked to create a paper on “the Church” five year old daughter, who knew what I was doing, kept busy at the other end of the same table. With a picture drawn she asked me to spell words for the title of her work. It stated: “Church is Where Your Heart Is.” Hearing that insight, I paused. I, the presumed seminary student, knew surprise. “Out of the song or mouth of a child . . . “ Does that example not reflect God’s design or excellence?
Think further of surprise as strength. An acorn can fall from a tree and, without human help, strike a root and become a sapling. A newborn calf can stand, stagger, and even walk on its first day. By comparison a human infant depends mostly on others. Yet, we helpless creatures become those duty bound to care for plants and animals stronger at their beginning. A profound interdependence evolves: people care for that which in turn provides sustenance for human beings. Positive credit given to infants also surprises. Although Hebrew scripture called children “gift of God,” it seldom valued them for personal quality. Their purpose served as simply extension to the kin or clan, as progeny. This psalm surprises us with worth in children.
Early singers of this song likely considered other images too. From Canaanite myths known to Israelites came views that a sovereign God had a dwelling—suggested here in words like strength or fortress. Construction of a dwelling followed destruction of adversaries. To remain without a dwelling or palace after defeating an enemy invited insults from other gods. The psalmist here stresses that in creation Yahweh-God had subdued the powers of chaos, the enemy. Hebrew people claimed as central the fact that order had been established. Twenty-six different psalms refer to checking or halting waters. In the nineteen psalms that refer to creation, eleven speak of controlling the waters.
One occasion for praising this sign of God’s excellence over the waters was the Feast of Tabernacles. At that yearly, seven-day event in autumn, water serves as an important symbol. Following the long, dry season, people welcomed the rains of autumn. They flocked to Jerusalem where for a week of festivity they lived in hastily-built booths or tents. They imitated their semi-nomadic ancestors in the desert after escaping from Egypt. In procession they brought water to pour on the altar. This gesture reinforced faith in their dependable Yahweh-God who would soon provide long-for rain.
Such ideas seem removed from our experience. We rarely encounter raging, uncontrollable waters. We as rarely experience more than a month without rainfall. But might we with gratitude renew several convictions? Do we celebrate that God’s excellence molded the heavens, gained control of created forces? Do we notice when God’s majesty conveys surprise? Will we rejoice when God’s Wisdom makes of weakness, strength? Will we thank God’s sure insight into our babbling attempts to praise?
God’s majesty recurs also with clear purpose for people. To credit God’s bringing order out of chaos and God’s creating with majesty heaven’s expanses, what, pray tell, did Yahweh-God foresee with humanity the psalmist wonders. Why recall or pay attention to mere people? Why show distinct favor to them? Why act on their behalf? The psalmist seems truly boggled. Simply astonished. For what seems trivial to be granted amazing worth. Having recently spent several days at a church conference, I too wonder why God persists. Perhaps the sheep and oxen could make decisions through less polarized issues. Perhaps birds and fish would express greater equality.
Even so, Psalm 8 suggests that woman and man, crowned with royal attributes or glory and honor, were created little less than, or little short of God! The Hebrew word for God here, Elohim, refers to the multiple, Divine court. Little less than divine beings like angels—those who compose and surround God’s heavenly throne—we know dignity and intrinsic worth. Only slightly diminished from God, we count as spiritual. We understand and will or choose. Circled with authority, we image God as no other aspect in created order. Pondering that privilege, does your perception of God decrease, of humanity increase, or your thanks for both reach new depth?
Psalm 8 refers to the later creation account in chapter 1 of Genesis: “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion over the fish . . . birds . . . cattle . . .. all the earth.” God bestows self-reflection. As we share dominion or assume responsible care over the works of God’s hands, we take on God’s reign. We have purpose. Such bestowal does not allow for human arrogance. For God to share dominion glorifies Yahweh. Our greater stance prompts more depth of gratitude toward the Creator. Divinity that exudes greatness exceeds in the quality. Our care for other creatures calls us to recall the Creator who purposefully remembered us in creation. To care means to be present. To care means to enter into another’s experience. To care means to protect and preserve created life—ecology.
Our thanks to God is expressed more tangibly as we gratefully serve as God’s caretakers. Part of God’s excellence in creation knows perfection through diversity. Moons differ from stars. Domestic sheep and oxen differ from wild beasts. Fowl and fish explore different settings. To an unnamed psalmist we remain indebted for keen seeing, for a hymn most mindful. As we return to the broader world, let’s pray together Psalm 8
O Yahweh, our Lord,
How excellent is your presence in all the earth!
We will adore your majesty above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and those that suck have you ordained strength because of your enemies, that you might still the enemy and avenger.
When we see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars which you created: What is humanity that you should remember us?
or children of ours that you should care for them? For you have made us a little less than the gods, with honor and glory you crowned us.
You gave us dominion over the works of your hands, put all things under our care . . . Whatever crosses the routes of the seas.
O, Yahweh, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth! Amen.