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Passion and Awe in Psalm 8

When reading biblical poetry, one must learn to connect with the poem on more than one level. While it is important to carefully define the Hebrew words being employed in any passage, and to track a poem’s use of parallelism and word pairs, and to follow the overall message by observing major structural movements within it, this is not enough. Poetry is, by definition, meant to meet the reader on an emotional level as much as, if not more than, on an intellectual one.

(1) Therefore, when reading a poem, pay attention to the emotions associated with certain words and not just their definitions. Some words have particular uses in cultural context that give them “emotional content.”

A friend from Africa was preaching and, desiring to speak on human sexual interaction, reached for a word whose definition covered his needs, but whose emotional content was wholly unacceptable. The word was not part of his soul’s tongue so the emotional impact of an F-bomb in church was lost on him… but not on his gasping audience.

(2) Try to discover the emotional quality of the Hebrew grammar. Commentaries may help. Word order, ellipsis, and even rhythm and length of poetic lines can tip you off.

(3) Try to immerse yourself in the imagery of the poem. Think about the historical and cultural realities of those involved in the poem, and turn an educated imagination to what it might have been like to experience the things discussed. Learning as much about the biblical world as you can from Bible Dictionaries is a good way to cultivate an educated imagination.[1]

For example, Psalm 8 is a poetic sermon born out of the conflict inside the heart of the poet between what the night sky tells him about YHWH its maker, and what Genesis 1 tells him about YHWH’s relationship to man.[2]

He begins with a pronouncement of wonder at the effect that YHWH’s glorious (1) works have on those who behold it—awed declarations of majesty (1) [3] to its maker. (2) He moves to the instinctual amazement of children the world over, whose natural exuberance over its magnificence puts to shame those whose hearts have risen up against God. (3) Then he turns to his own wonder when he beholds it all, failing to even finish his declarations of YHWH’s greatness, or to make a clear segue to his next thought. (2) He simply falls mute… then explodes with overwhelmed shock at the inconsistency of it all. (2)  “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him?”  Yet this is what Genesis tells him about YHWH’s love for man—The God who made all of that heavenly beauty crowned (1) [4] man as His regent and put all of his earthly creation under his feet (3). Then the poet concludes with his opening line. “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” In his opening, this majesty is pronounced in response to YHWH’s glorious manifestation of himself through His visible creation in the night sky. In his closing, this majesty is pronounced by the poet himself in response to YHWH’s incomprehensible honoring of and care for human beings.

The in-tune reader sits with the poet before the blazing diamond-studded canopy of purest onyx that is the night; he feels the press of the words we translate glory & majesty; he partakes of the unashamed wonder of his own childhood gazes into eternity; he feels the shame of the adult who has long since lost all sense of awe, refusing to bow in humility even before the overwhelming crush of truest greatness; his own heart fails him as he considers the impossibility that he who created all of this, has settled his heart on a worm like man, crowning him with honor and giving him rule over his greatest treasures. Indeed, he takes the next step, and weeps, for this God of all majesty and wonder came to die to save those very souls who have risen up against Him.


[1] For starters I recommend The New Bible Dictionary. It has many articles. The articles are short but well written. Each article is signed by the scholar who wrote it so you know who you are reading. Each article has a bibliography to help you do further research on the subject if you like. http://www.amazon.com/New-Bible-Dictionary-Howard-Marshall/dp/0830814396/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1377112152&sr=8-1&keywords=new+bible+dictionary.

[2] I could establish the clear connections between the two texts in another environment, but for now, in this blog, let’s just pretend I’m right… which I am.

[3] These are powerful words that speak of the physical manifestation of substantive greatness. They carry the very essence of a confrontation with the great ones of the earth and with the Holy One, Himself.

[4] Again such a term carries with it the impress of royalty, power and greatness. The beauty of the greatest treasures afforded by lords in their splendid houses.

2 thoughts on “Passion and Awe in Psalm 8

  1. Praveen Hiwale says:

    I was blessed by your sharing of Psalm 8 at our church.

    1. I am glad. That was a good time.

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