Large hand in heaven touching smaller hand

Psalm 8 – What a Piece of Work is Man!

 January 30, 2018

What a piece of work is 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?   Hamlet, Act. II, Scene II

What a piece of work is man, indeed! Shakespeare is not only a great writer, but also to my mind, well versed in Scripture, especially the psalms as I hear echoes of Old Testament poetry in Shakespeare’s poetry.

“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, mortals that you care for then? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” (3-5)

This sense of wonder at man, humankind’s place in God’s creation found in Psalm 8 is also present in this passage from Shakespeare as Hamlet struggles with depression and his place in this world. We are a little lower than the angels, crowned with honor and glory, given dominion over the creatures of the earth and yet – dust. Out of dust we were formed and to dust we will return.

Psalm 8 is a pretty straight forward hymn of praise—praise of God in nature. The author is stirred to praise God through contemplating the glory of God manifested in the wonders of heaven, which in turn leads to reflection on the place of man in creation. He says, “O Lord, how majestic/excellent/awesome is your name in all the earth!” (1)  He recognizes that our God truly is an awesome God. Even babies proclaim God’s greatness (2).

God’s praise is engrained into the human psyche from birth. You might say we are hard-wired for God, to recognize God’s wonder as infants. As we grow older, we can lose this sense of wonder. In his depression, Hamlet had. Sometimes we need to rediscover this as adults through experiencing God in nature as the psalmist does. There are no words to express God’s glory – the noblest hymns that we can invent in praise of God are like the babblings of babies and infants.

Looking at the moon and stars at night, the work of God’s hand, God’s finger, excites awe and wonder in the author at God’s majesty, as well as a sense of his own insignificance. God has more power in his finger than all of the weapons humans have created over time piled together. This image of God’s finger is found in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s masterpiece reflecting God’s creation of the world. This psalm is closely tied to the creation story from Genesis, where God made the heavens and the earth, all of creation, plants and animals and then created mankind and gave us dominion over the earth. All of this is found in psalm 8 in poetic form, a reworking of the creation story just as Michelangelo told the story in painting.

Chances are that many of us at one time or another have done precisely what the author of this psalm did. Gazing up at a starry night, or a beautiful harvest moon, the Grand Canyon, magnificent snow covered mountains, rushing waterfalls, we can feel very small and insignificant. This can help us recognize what is truly important in this life. So many of the worries and concerns that plague our days and nights are as nothing in the wider scheme of life, in the face of God’s majesty.

And yet we, too, are a part of that creation. We are a focal point of God’s creation – little less than the angels. Hard to believe, yet true. Not only that, God made this great world and entrusted it to us, fallible humans that we are – imagine that!

“You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under feet.” (6)

With all of the ways we have messed up, it can be hard to believe that God would trust us which such a great gift.

What does it mean to have dominion over God’s creation? Does it mean we have authority to run roughshod over the animals of the earth, slaughtering them without thought, forcing them to live in crowded breeding grounds and pumping them with antibiotics and human growth hormones? Does it mean it’s okay to use the resources of this earth with no thought to future generations? Polluting the air and water, depleting the world of natural resources, strip mining coal? Or does it mean that we respect the earth and the goodness that is part of this world, treasure it in order to be able to pass it on to the next generation?

Native Americans, before they make any decision, ask:  How will this affect seven generations from now? They treat earth as Mother. They respect the life force of the animals that give up their life that we may have meat to eat. Francis of Assisi referred to the moon as brother, the sun as sister. All of creation, including the animals, were brother and sister to him, radically extending Christ-like love and respect not only to people, but to all of creation.

And so, what are we to do, we humans caught between heaven and earth and given charge over God’s work?

We are to care for each other and this world, loving God and loving neighbor, as Jesus tells us.  We are to be as gentle and nurturing as a mother, caring for her children.

What a piece of work is humanity! We need to work at being worthy of all our God has given us, treating each other, and this world with love and respect, treasuring all creation into the next generation and sharing in God’s own experience of delight.

How might you live this psalm today? How are you caring for God’s creation?


This post is part of a series on the Psalms.   click here to follow blog

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