Thursday, January 23, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 8

The first psalm of Tuesday Prime, Psalm 7, ends with a promise on the part of the psalmist ‘to sing a song to the name of the Lord the most high’.  Psalm 8 provides the first instalment on this (Psalm 9, the third psalm of Prime on Tuesday also references this commitment).

Psalm 8 is relatively short, but it is theologically very rich, with three main, and closely interrelated, levels of meaning.   First, the psalm represents some of the key ideas of the story of the creation from Genesis 1 in poetic form.  Secondly, it tells of the process by which, through Christ’s Incarnation, death and resurrection, the universe is renewed or recreated, and the dignity of man is restored. For this reason, it features at most of the feasts of Our Lord, as well as Our Lady.  Thirdly, it is a call to the praise and worship of God.

Psalm 8: Domine Dominus Noster
In finem pro torcularibus, Psalmus David.
In finem pro torcularibus, Psalmus David.
1. Dómine, Dóminus noster, * quam admirábile est nomen tuum in univérsa terra!

O Lord, our Lord, how admirable is thy name in the whole earth!
2  Quóniam eleváta est magnificéntia tua, * super cælos.
For thy magnificence is elevated above the heavens.
3  Ex ore infántium et lacténtium perfecísti laudem propter inimícos tuos, * ut déstruas inimícum et ultórem.
Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings thou hast perfected praise, because of thy enemies, that thou mayst destroy the enemy and
the avenger.
4  Quóniam vidébo cælos tuos, ópera digitórum tuórum: * lunam et stellas, quæ tu fundásti.
For I will behold thy heavens, the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast founded.
5  Quid est homo quod memor es ejus? * aut fílius hóminis, quóniam vísitas eum?
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him?
6  Minuísti eum paulo minus ab Angelis, glória et honóre coronásti eum: * et constituísti eum super ópera mánuum tuárum.
Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour:
And hast set him over the works of thy hands.
7  Omnia subjecísti sub pédibus ejus, * oves et boves univérsas : ínsuper et pécora campi.

Thou hast subjected all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen: moreover, the beasts also of the fields.
8  Vólucres cæli, et pisces maris, * qui perámbulant sémitas maris.
The birds of the air, and the fishes of the sea, that pass through the paths of the sea.
9  Dómine, Dóminus noster, * quam admirábile est nomen tuum in univérsa terra!
O Lord, our Lord, how admirable is thy name in the whole earth!

The wonder of creation

A key theme of the psalm is God’s creation of the universe.

The psalm reminds that God stands outside (poetically “above”) his creation (verses 1-2).

Then, it describes creation itself, which includes heaven and earth, and all that is therein: poetically described as the work of his fingers (verses 4 – 8).

Most importantly it focuses on God’s special and ongoing attention (mindfulness) of man, created in God’s image with free will and intellect, and granted dominion over “the fish of the seas, over the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth…” (Genesis 1:26).

The idea of creation as the work of God’s fingers (which we also have) perhaps alludes also to the idea that through the gift of our intellect and stewardship, God makes us ‘co-creators’ in his ongoing work.

God in the midst of us

The work of creation is put here, I think, in the context of the work of recreation through Christ.  One of the key focuses of Tuesday in the Benedictine Office, I have suggested, is Our Lord's public ministry.  At Matins the first psalm of the day proclaims that 'God is in the midst of us', and this psalm too is strongly centred on the person of Christ, as Hebrews 2 makes clear:

"5 We are speaking of a world that is to come; to whom has God entrusted the ordering of that world? Not to angels.6 We are assured of that, in a passage where the writer says, What is man, that thou shouldst remember him? What is the son of man, that thou shouldst care for him? 7 Man, whom thou hast made a little lower than the angels, whom thou hast crowned with glory and honour, setting him in authority over the works of thy hands?8 Thou hast made all things subject at his feet. Observe, he has subjected all things to him, left nothing unsubdued. And what do we see now? Not all things subject to him as yet. 9 But we can see this; we can see one who was made a little lower than the angels, I mean Jesus, crowned, now, with glory and honour because of the death he underwent; in God’s gracious design he was to taste death, and taste it on behalf of all. 10 God is the last end of all things, the first beginning of all things; and it befitted his majesty that, in summoning all those sons of his to glory, he should crown with suffering the life of that Prince who was to lead them into salvation.11 The Son who sanctifies and the sons who are sanctified have a common origin, all of them; he is not ashamed, then, to own them as his brethren..." (Knox translation)

At his birth, God took the form of a human (verses 5-6), a nature lower in the order of things than the angels (though in his divine nature of course he always remains above them).  But through his Resurrection, he is ‘crowned with glory and honour’, elevating his human nature above all God’s works, and ushering in the possibility of man reaching heaven, from which he was previously barred.  
The praise of God’s name in the opening and closing verses of the psalm is also pertinent to this theme. In Jewish culture, God’s name is regarded so holy that it is never spoken aloud, and reflecting this, the Church substitutes ‘the Lord’ for the ‘tetragammaton’ (‘Yahweh’).  In the New Testament, however, God manifests his holiness by revealing and giving his name, in the form of Jesus: and his name terrorizes demons.

The importance of worship

Indeed, Our Lord quoted verse 3 of this psalm to the Pharisees when they tried to quiet the crowds at his entry to Jerusalem:

"Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings thou hast perfected praise, because of thy enemies, that thou mayst destroy the enemy and the avenger."

The verse serves as a reminder that while studying the psalms, as we are doing here is good, it is far more important to perform this work of praise then to worry too much about how much we know or don’t know about theology, for what is required above all is attention on God and a pure heart.

More importantly still, the psalm conveys a sense of reverence and awe at God's workings that show why he is always 'worthy to be praised.  On this Pope Benedict XVI commented that:

“ a monastery of Benedictine spirit, the praise of God, which the monks sing as a solemn choral prayer, always has priority. Monks are certainly – thank God! – not the only people who pray; others also pray: children, the young and the old, men and women, the married and the single – all Christians pray, or at least, they should!  In the life of monks, however, prayer takes on a particular importance: it is the heart of their calling…Monks pray first and foremost not for any specific intention, but simply because God is worthy of being praised….Such prayer for its own sake, intended as pure divine service, is rightly called officium. It is “service” par excellence, the “sacred service” of monks. It is offered to the triune God who, above all else, is worthy “to receive glory, honour and power” (Rev 4:11), because he wondrously created the world and even more wondrously renewed it.”

You can also find some short summaries of Psalm 8 by various authors here.

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