The majesty of God and the purpose of man - Psalm 8
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
When I was at theological college there was a fellow student from Nigeria-Adyamo. He was around 6 foot seven or 6 foot eight tall and very dark, as Nigerians are. He was a very colourful character too, he said he was the son of an African prince and had several wives. We never really managed to find out whether that was true or not. Once a year the college sent out students to different churches in order to engage in parish missions. Adyamo and my friend Will, who is quite small and very white Anglo-Saxon found themselves visiting an old folk’s home on one of those missions. And as Will was chatting with one of the residents, with Adyamo towering above him, the lady he was speaking to, looked up at Adyamo and said to Will, ‘Ee, he’s big isn’t he? Is he your Dad?’ To which Will replied quick as a flash, ‘No, my Dad is a little shorter’.
Don’t you think that it was interesting that the lady linked size to being a parent? There is this instinctive tendency we have to associate size with importance. This happened of course with the choosing of Israel’s first King, Saul, who literally stood head and shoulders above all the other men- just what you want in a King- a big man. It also works the other way around too, such that smallness can be taken as a sign of insignificance. President Franklin D Roosevelt used to have a little ritual with the famous naturalist, William Beebe. After an evening’s chat the two men would go outside and look into the night sky. Gazing into the stars, they would find the lower left hand corner of the great square of Pegasus. One of them would recite these words as part of the ritual: ‘That is a spiral galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is 750,000 light years away. It consists of 100 billion suns, each larger than our own sun.’ They would then pause, and Roosevelt would finally say, ‘Now I think we feel small enough. Let’s go to sleep!’
It is true that when we contemplate the immensity of the universe we certainly feel insignificant because we feel so small. But is that feeling justified? In one sense, yes it is- a healthy humility is no bad thing. On the other hand we must also realise that significance is a value which is often assigned because of the role something plays in the grand scheme of things, like a small cog in powerful engine for instance. And so something as tiny and as puny as human beings can be deemed to be of significance because of the role they have been given by the one who made them -God. And for many that appears to be all that Psalm 8 is saying. In addressing God, the psalmist exclaims in v3 ‘When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him or the son of man that you should care for him’ The expected answer: he is very small indeed- a nothing. But then David goes on to say with equal wonder in v5f : ‘You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour, you made him ruler over the works of your hands.’- i.e. he is very significant. But is that is all the psalm is about- a meditation on Genesis 1:26 where God says, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over all the earth’? If so, then what are we to make of v2: ‘Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.’? I guess that if you or I had been writing this psalm we would have missed that verse out completely and the psalm would still have hung together, perhaps flowing more smoothly by contrasting the greatness of God with the smallness of man.
Well, I want to suggest to you that v2 is the key to understanding the main message of the Psalm and how it ultimately points to Jesus Christ.
You see, the one who is speaking is King David. As such he is no ordinary King; he is God’s King, specially chosen by God to rule his people on his behalf. And the Hebrew word for anointed one is ‘Messiah’; the Greek is ‘Christ’. So, this is David the ‘Christ’ speaking. But not only is he speaking as God’s King, he speaks as a persecuted King, someone who has enemies, ‘foes and avengers’, that is, those who are out for themselves and will attack God’s appointed ruler in order to achieve it. In fact psalms 3-7 and 9-23 are all psalms which deal with this theme of God’s anointed being given grief by opponents and the call to God to deliver him. And so it is not unreasonable to expect that Psalm 8 should also deal with that theme. To be sure, David speaks of ‘your enemies’ that is God’s enemies, but the way in which people showed themselves up to be God’s enemies was by being the Christ’s enemies. To oppose God’s anointed ruler is to oppose God himself, as we see in Psalm 2. And of course the same is true today- to oppose Jesus Christ or to ignore him is to oppose or ignore God- a very foolish thing to do.
The question then raised is this, ‘How will God silence his enemies by putting them in their place?’ We told in v 2 ‘Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.’ The word translated ‘praise’ could be rendered ‘strength’ which is the way some Bible translations put it. This simply means that God’s ‘strength’, his ‘knock- out punch’ if you like, is delivered through something as seemingly ‘weak’ like praise, and even more than that, through the weakest of the weak- little children-infants. How that happens we shall see in a moment.
So here’s the question: what has led David to this conclusion that this is the way God normally acts, by turning on their head all our ideas about what is great and significant and instead using that which would appear of little value and stupid to achieve his great purposes of rescue and judgement?
The answer is that it is was by reading the book of nature on the one hand and the book of Scripture on the other, that is by looking up at the skies as they declare the glory of God- v1 and the book of Genesis which tells us about the glory of man- Gn 1:27. And by doing that David discovered that God has always worked according to this principle of displaying strength through weakness-just as the apostle Paul was to remark with such clarity many years later in 1 Corinthians 1:27, ‘God chose the foolish things in the world to shame the wise, and the weak things to shame the strong.’ That is what this psalm is about.
So from one perspective as we see it in vv 3-4 , against the backdrop of the infinity of space-who in their right mind could possibly think that the human race as a whole, let alone an individual, is of ultimate significance? And the conclusion that we are in fact freak nothings, thrown up and thrown about by a massive, cold impersonal universe is the conclusion many of the leading thinkers of the 20th century came to. Here is the philosopher Bertrand Russell: ‘Man is the product of causes which had no pretension of the end they were achieving; his origin, his growth, his hopes, his fears, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collections of atoms.’ All very bleak! But what other conclusion can you come to as you contemplate living in a vast, dark universe which comes from nowhere and is heading nowhere? But even thinking about the vastness of the universe with the conviction that there is a God, still leaves you feeling small and amazed at the thought that God should care for people as tiny as us-v4 ‘what is man that you are mindful of him?’ As if to say, ‘why should you, the great God who speaks the galaxies into being- all 100 million of them, should give us even a second thought? But the amazing thing is that he does just that- in fact we are not a second thought but a first thought. You see, that which from the standpoint of a dazzling universe measured in billions of light years are a ‘nothing’-human beings- are from the standpoint of the all-knowing, all-loving personal Creator God are very important somethings-v5 ‘You have made him a little lower than the angels and crowned him with glory and honour.’ And David knows that because the Scriptures teach it, it is all there in the first chapter of the Bible. And this is shown in the role God has assigned this seemingly unimportant creature- man- he is a ruler over all living things-whether on land, sea or air-the whole earth is his dominion-vv6-8. In other words God has always been in the business of taking ‘nothings’ and surprising everyone by making them into ‘somethings’-that is how he operates.
So who is this ‘man’ or ‘son of man’ who is crowned with glory and honour-which from the universe’s point of view appears so small and weak and yet from God’s point of view is brimming with dignity and worth? By the way, ‘man’ and ‘Son of man’ is a more accurate translation than what we have in the new NIV which is trying to be unnecessarily inclusive at this point. It actually obscures the point the Bible is making. Who is the son of man or man?
Well, in the first place it is Adam, the original head of the human race. Adam was made from the ‘dust of the earth’ an inauspicious beginning if ever there was one- humility. It is Adam who is placed in the royal park of Eden and told by God to care for it, to the name the animals, and to bring everything under subjection-that is, to order things on God’s behalf- to be a little King. So there is dignity. In this sense this psalm applies to all of us as descendants of Adam.
In the second place, this ‘man’ is David himself. He too began life as a ‘nothing’ a mere shepherd boy, the lowest of the low on the Israelite social scale. And yet God took him from the fields and literally crowned him with glory and honour, making him King David. And David could never get over the wonderful kindness of God in doing that. Within the nation of Israel, he was ruler over everything, and meant to show in his own kingship the righteous rule of God.
But in both of cases there was failure. Instead of exercising a caring use of power under God there has been an arrogant abuse of power acting as god. Adam rebelled and brought the whole show down with him. David might have been the best of the Israelite Kings but even he left a lot to be desired- spoiling his children rotten resulting in incestual rape, civil war and murder. And as we look out on our world can we claim that we have managed the earth’s resources any better? Hardly, we can barely manage our own impulses let alone a whole world.
But there is one who fulfils this psalm perfectly, someone who was also known as the Christ, who also went by the term ‘Son of Man’-and that was Jesus. He too began life as a ‘nothing’- born of poor Jewish stock; who for thirty years lived in complete obscurity, putting together tables and chairs, fixing broken farming implements in a hick northern town, in a rundown corner of the Roman Empire. And yet as he steps out in his public ministry, we see Jesus as the new Adam, the royal successor to David.
This is implicit in the opening of Mark’s Gospel. Following Jesus baptism we hear these words echoing Psalm 2 -the enthroning psalm, v11 ‘And a voice came from heaven “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased. At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert, and he was in the desert for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with wild animals, and angels attended him.’ Just as the first Adam was tempted in a garden and failed and so was thrown out of Eden by God, Jesus, the second Adam is literally thrown into the wilderness by God the Holy Spirit to be tempted and he triumphs. The wilderness represents the wasting, devastating effects of Adam’s rebellion, a garden made barren. As the first Adam was surrounded by animals over which he was to be master but lost control, here is Jesus the second Adam surrounded by wild animals, over which he is now master. As Adam having been defeated by Satan is excluded from the garden and prevented from reentry by angels-the flaming cherubim; Jesus the second Adam having triumphed over Satan is ministered to by angels. In other words he begins to fulfil Psalm 8
What is more Jesus takes this psalm and applies it to himself in quiet an astonishing way. Turn with me to Matthew 21:14.This follows on from what we call Palm Sunday, and this is what we read: ‘The blind and lame came to Jesus at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant. “Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked. “Yes” replied Jesus, “Have you never read (and here comes v2 of our psalm) “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have ordained praise.”’ Now let the full implications of that sink in for a moment, what Jesus has just said is pure dynamite.
First of all, in quoting v2 which originally speaks of children praising God and saying that those words legitimately apply to himself, Jesus is claiming divinity being worthy of worship.
Secondly, the ones who should have known their Scripture and acknowledged Jesus as the Christ are being shown up by those you would least expect to know the truth – little children. Praise in Scripture is often just another way of speaking about proclamation ‘praising God’s name in all the earth’. In other words, the weak, insignificant nobodies- toddlers, who were being told to keep quiet, are proclaiming the Gospel.
Thirdly, the implication is that the religious leaders are in fact God’s enemies because they were Jesus enemies; hence this word of Scripture is applied to them. And they would have picked up on that and have been none too pleased. In the original Psalm it is the words of the children -their testimony- which shames the Messiah’s enemies. Well, that is exactly what is happening here. The children acknowledge Jesus as King and adore him; the religious rulers do not and want to destroy him. So this too is a persecuted King, who has to suffer for his people, who for a while was made a little lower than the angels-not only by taking the form of man, but by submitting to a cross. And it is through the apparent weakness of the cross that God was to defeat the greatest enemy of all -death caused by our sin-so setting free all those who would put their trust in his Son. That is what the writer to the Hebrews is saying in chapter 2 of his book where he quotes this psalm and then writes in v 8, ‘In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by God’s grace he might taste death for everyone.’ At the moment we don’t see everything subject to King Jesus. There are still wars, crime, selfishness and unbelief. But because of his death and resurrection, God has raised him to be seated in heaven and by faith we ‘see’ that he is now directing all the affairs of this world and the course of history to the end that people will come to know him and be saved and those who reject him will be judged. And one day he will return to complete his work by creating a new heaven and a new earth which he will rule for ever-so bringing Psalm 8 to its complete fulfilment, which is what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:25 where he quotes this psalm. Speaking of Jesus he writes, ‘For he must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For (and here comes our psalm)’ he has put everything under his feet.’
The psalm begins and ends with the acclamation ‘LORD, our Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth’. How is that name, the name which embodies all that God is and all that God will do be seen to be majestic now in all the earth? Well, it is seen in the person and reign of the one whose name is Jesus and in people coming to trust him. That is why he said to his disciples after the resurrection, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me, go therefore and make disciples of all nations.’ This is how we fulfil v 2 in the meantime. Through apparently insignificant people like you and me, people politicians and the intelligentsia might treat with contempt, dismissing us as having beliefs which might be expected of children but not ‘grown up’ sophisticated people- God is set on building his eternal kingdom. And he does it through a most ridiculous method too -‘lips of praise’-Gospel proclamation-sharing our faith-at home, in the shop, at the university. Again as the Apostle Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 1:21 ‘God was pleased through the foolishness of what we preached to save those who believe’
Do you sometimes feel that you are not up to much as a Christian? That the world seems to be passing you by and you are but a tiny speck on a tiny rock which is hurtling through space, making no significant contribution to the great events which make history? Well, let me tell you something: when one of our little children in Climbers or Pathfinders speaks a word witnessing to the Lord Jesus Christ -they are influencing the world more than any King or Prime Minister ever could; for by that word souls are saved for ever. Now do you know of any ruler who has the power to do that? And as people are saved, people are changed, and as they are changed, families, towns, whole societies get changed too- slowly but lastingly. We live in a world who has little time for nobodies, but we worship a God who makes us into somebodies as we come to know the one who became a nobody, who for a while was made a little lower than the angels, but who is now crowned with glory and honour. And do you know what? He wants to share that glory with people like you and me- now that makes us very significant!
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