Psalm 8 "How Majestic!"
The poet of Psalm 8 stared into the night sky and was properly dazzled at what he saw. But to put it mildly, what he did not see was a lot! Had this psalmist been able to spend a scant ten minutes looking through a telescope he would doubtless have fainted in wonderment. Ancient astronomers were quite skilled at mapping out the night sky, even to the point of being able to predict star movements. What puzzled these early scientists, however, was a handful of stars that refused to behave.
There were about a half-dozen stars that did not march in lock-step with the others, but instead meandered all over the place. The Greeks finally called these mystery stars "wanderers," believing them to be errant stars that had somehow lost their way in the universe. The Greek word for "wandering" is planeo, from which we derive the English word "planet." For we now know that the reason those wandering stars behaved so funny is that they are not stars at all but other worlds all their own.
We've now seen up-close pictures of Venus and Jupiter, of Saturn and Mars. And their beauty is stunning. But the poet of Psalm 8 didn't know any of that. He saw pin-pricks of light twinkling in the night sky and was overjoyed. How much more cause for joy we have! Last week the Hubble Space Telescope actually recorded the birth of a new star. The photo shows a cloud of gas 170,000 light years away from here. That means that if you could travel the speed of light (which is around 186,000 miles per second or six trillion miles per year) it would take you 170,000 years to arrive at this cloud. In other words a journey of 102,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles (102 quintillion)! The cloud itself is 150 light years wide and is the nursery for stars ten times bigger than our own sun.
It is estimated that there are at least 10 billion galaxies in the universe, with each galaxy containing perhaps 100 billion stars. In other words, not only are the stars we see in the night sky far away, they are a mere fraction of what's really out there.
Now you can take all of that mind-numbing data and do with it what you will. Recently Time magazine published some of the Hubble telescope's magnificent photos of luminous, gorgeous, enormous pillars of clouds and gas. A few weeks later someone wrote a letter to the editor stating that these photos should finally put an end to the religious idea that humanity amounts to anything. Not only are we clearly not the center of the universe, this person wrote, we don't even register.
Even Psalm 8 admits that the wonders of the universe are humbling. Of course, you don't need to go into space to see such wonders. Scoop up a teaspoon-full of topsoil from the forest floor and, with the help of a microscope, you could probably find upwards of 1,400 beetles and springtails, not to mention about two billion fungi, algae, and protozoa. Or look at the birds of the air. Arctic Terns fly a 10,000 mile round trip each year from their winter home in the Antarctic to their summer home in Asia. Meanwhile the Northern Fulmar spends its entire life out on the ocean, having a wondrous ability to drink seawater. The Fulmar has an entire desalinization factory in its beak, removing the salt from the water, excreting it through a tube on the top of its beak, and then drinking the now-fresh water!
The universe is clotted with wonder. On both the macro and micro levels, in both human and non-human creatures, the cosmos teems with life, with complexity, with music, and with movement. It is all finally every bit as humbling as Psalm 8 claims.
But Psalm 8 is not designed to make us feel like nothing. Instead, in a remarkably brief compass of only 70 Hebrew words, Psalm 8 directs us how to think about God, creation, and their relation. In other words, this psalm could be properly seen as the touchstone for human life in the cosmos. We do well to pay attention to it this morning.
Psalm 8 is the first psalm of praise in the Book of Psalms. It is also the only one of the 150 psalms that is a direct address to God throughout the entire poem. And how very curious and instructive it is that the first psalm of praise in the Bible is about creation. As recently as fifty to seventy years ago, biblical scholars were convinced that the ancient Israelites did not much care about creation. Many scholars thought that Israel was far more interested in redemption--the covenant with Abraham, the exodus from Egypt, and the like.
Psalm 8 is one of a bevy of texts that proves those sentiments wrong. Creation mattered enormously to the Israelites. The cosmos is the handiwork of God, is the target of redemption, so much so that the Israelites could not even conceive of salvation apart from the promise of a good land flowing with milk and honey. Throughout the Old Testament, as Larry Rasmussen once pointed out, it's difficult to distinguish salvation from good highlands agriculture. God's plans, purposes, and promises are again and again tied together with things like soil and fruit, flocks and meadows, wine and wheat. Indeed, as Rasmussen said, perhaps the ultimate reason why we will one day beat swords into plowshares--or maybe we'd have to say beat armored Howitzer tanks into John Deere tractors!--is not only so that warfare will cease but also so that we can return to our proper vocation of earthkeeping, of tending and tilling the garden of God's good creation.
Creation matters because, as Psalm 8 makes clear, God himself loves it. These days many Christians are fearful of New Age pantheism which declares the earth to be a divine goddess. Unhappily, however, our desire to put daylight between ourselves and such heresies has caused us also steer clear of biblical ways by which to describe the cosmos.
In Psalm 8 the psalmist has no problem saying that the physical just is the glory of God. The stars, sun, moon, flocks, beasts, birds, and the rest declare the glory of God. This psalm begins and ends with a declaration that God's name is visible in all the earth. What that means is that it is proper to point to a star and say, "I see God there!" It is by no means pantheistic to see a field of wildflowers and then connect it to God. When an art expert comes across a painting and declares, "That's Picasso!" he does not mean that the artist and that oil-streaked canvas are the same thing. Instead it means that the artist's handiwork is so clearly on display that you can see the artist in his or her work.
So also with Psalm 8: God's presence in the cosmos runs the gamut from the gossamer threads of the moth's wings to globular clusters of stars in space. God made it all, remains active in its preservation, remains vitally interested in its flourishing. Psalm 8 authorizes us to look for and to find God in the beauties of the galaxy. Whether you're peering into a telescope or a microscope, watching a white-tail deer leap through a meadow or noticing the wondrous design of your own foot, what you're seeing is nothing less than the glory of God.
All of that, however, is just one-half of Psalm 8's larger purpose. The other half addresses what is sometimes called "the humanity question." Who are we? How do we fit? Again, without even knowing how vast space really is, the psalmist saw the moon and stars and felt like nothing by comparison. We have still more cause to feel that way today, and many thinkers do now proclaim that humanity is nothing--or at least nothing special.
Two factors have converged to bring about a certain degradation and demotion of the human race. One is our sense for how vast the cosmos is. The other factor is how badly we've treated this earth. We really have caused the extinction of untold species. We have razed and wantonly burned large patches of this earth. We have spilled oil that killed creatures of the sea. We have belched sulfurous fumes that cause birds to drop from the sky and people to develop lung cancer. In only the last 40 years the world has awakened to the unsavory side of the Industrial Revolution and what we're seeing is not pretty.
So many writers, including some Christian theologians, have been scrambling to find ways to clean up the world. As I'll say in a minute, that is a wholly proper goal given even what Psalm 8 tells us. However, not a few folks have concluded that the real problem in all of this is precisely something else Psalm 8 proclaims; namely, the idea that human beings are special. For too long now, some say, we've lived with the delusion humanity is distinct.
Well no more! It's time, many say, to knock humanity off its high pedestal so that we can look our fellow creatures in the eye at eye level. Human beings are part of the web of life on a par with amoebas and jaguars. Or as theologian Sallie McFague says, we need to promote "ecological egalitarianism." We recognize that we are but the ashes of dead stars, close cousins to elephants and angelfish, and so we care for them because they're family. The left-wing extreme of all this is Deep Ecology. Deep Ecologists sometimes put up display booths at conventions. In the center of the display is a full-length mirror. When you step in front of this mirror, you see not just your own reflection but you also read on the mirror the words, "You are now looking at the worst piece of pollution on the planet!" Like all pollution, the Deep Ecologists say, humanity needs to be cleaned up, eradicated like DDT. Once the human race goes extinct, the planet will at long last be able to flourish.
The Bible disagrees rather heartily. If there is anything more marvelous than the sheer scale and splendor of the universe, it is the revelation that in all of that vastness, we really do matter. We have been endowed with the image of God, or as Psalm 8 puts it, with a crown of glory and honor. Because of this gift so graciously doled out by God, we are put in charge of this cosmos to tend and keep and rule it on God's behalf.
It goes without saying that non-Christians don't buy that the same way they don't buy much else that is in the Bible. Still, if you pay attention, you can detect evidence of this image. After all, it is precisely our God-likeness that allows us to feel small in the first place. We have an ability which, so far as we can tell, no other critter on the planet has: namely, the ability to note, study, appreciate, catalog, photograph, record, and celebrate otherness.
The midnight parrotfish that swim around coral reefs don't do that. When my wife and I snorkel, we are attentive to details and keep careful track of all the many different fish we see. Upon returning to the shore, we consult our Caribbean Reef Fish Identification book and carefully check off what we've seen on our life-list of fish species. But the fish don't do that. They don't keep track of one another nor, upon seeing us visiting them on the reef, do they check us off on a list somewhere. Fish don't say to themselves, "Oh, there's a blonde Caucasian human female. Great! So far I've only seen brunettes!" No, only human beings seem capable of noticing and enjoying the variety of God's creation.
Sometime back the folks at Coca-Cola made a TV commercial showing polar bears sitting around oohing and ahhing over a display of the northern lights. But, of course, real polar bears don't pause to observe that colorful spectacle. We do. When once in a while you can see the northern lights from here, we pile out of our houses to watch and gasp.
Curiously, some people take the fruits of our observations and use them as the occasion to claim that we just are the same as polar bears and parrotfish. The Deep Ecologists are so enamored by the creatures they have studied they fail to celebrate their own unique ability to make such studies in the first place!
As Simone Weil once noted, as curious as anything else in the Bible's account of creation is the revelation that God is not God-centered. God has the ability to transcend himself. If, as we Christians believe, God is himself glory defined, if God has within the resources of his own self inestimable power as he dwells in the splendor of light inaccessible, then isn't it particularly marvelous to know that even with all the glory he has within his own self, God still is able to get out of himself in order to gaze at and enjoy the spouting of whales?! God gets out of himself to get into others. Our ability to do that is God's gift--it's a major part of the glory and honor with which God has crowned us.
But it's not the only part. Another application of our God-likeness as Psalm 8 makes clear is that we are to take care of and rule over this planet on behalf of God. Psalm 8 may tell us that God has put everything under our feet, but that hardly means we're allowed to trample those things with our feet. Because, as verse 6 makes clear, what God has placed under our feet is the work of his hands. But you don't want to smash God's fingers!
All through the Bible we are given tasks and commands by God. But in every case the expectation is that we will carry out those mandates in a God-like way. When God in the Old Testament demands that his people pay attention to widows and orphans, when in the New Testament Jesus charges the disciples to pay attention to the poor, it is a given that we are to carry out those tasks in ways that glorify God. Only a fool would think that paying attention to widows would mean exploiting them. Only a fool would think that Jesus' command to be with the poor means no more than keeping track of their poverty in some well-kept ledger without ever lifting a finger to help change their situation.
So also anyone who thinks God's mandate that we rule this planet means ripping it to shreds or doing whatever we want is a moral fool. If a famous artist gifted you with one of his sculptures, you would not put it in a precarious place where the kids might knock it over and you surely would not let them color on it with their crayons. Nor would you place it into a closet somewhere and never look at it again. No, you will tend it, keep it, display it, appreciate it, show it off to guests, and protect it from harm.
So also with God's world: we rule it because God has given us the authority to do so. But we thus tend it in a way reminiscent of God so that we can protect, celebrate, display, appreciate, and love the gorgeous work of the Creator. If through either a gradual decimation or through a sudden atomic holocaust the day were ever to come when no one would be able to look up at the night sky or look down at the ocean depths and say, "O Lord our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth," if such a day comes, then it will be God whose glory will be diminished.
None of this means that we are not allowed to enjoy the fruits of creation. None of it means we may not use trees for wood or oil for cars or water for boating and fishing. But all of it does mean that as we do those things we always keep God in mind, thanking him for the bounties we can consume but also giving careful thought to how we can simultaneously keep alive the works of God's creative fingers. In a fallen world, that kind of balancing act is precarious and often hard.
Yet the Bible everywhere assumes that it is possible. It is possible to tend, keep, till and consume the fruits of Eden while still keeping it Eden. It is possible to care for this cosmos in a way that will keep the majesty of the Creator on display for all to see. It may not be easy, considering how all-encompassing this task is. But we can do it. Remember: we've been crowned with glory and honor by no less than the Creator himself! O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! In that holy Name, Amen.