Psalm 8: "When I look at your heavens"

A Lesson Set from the Rotation.org Writing Team

Bible Background and Lesson Objectives




Psalm8-SetLogoScripture for the Set

Psalm 8

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 them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
(verses 3-5 shown)

Memory Verse: The entire Psalm!

Psalm 8's "Secret"

It is traditional to interpret Psalm 8 as a Psalm of "Creation," extolling God's majestic Creation and our place in it, and it certainly does that. But Psalm 8 has a secret.  And it's a secret you already know -if you've ever looked up to see the stars surrounding you at night.

small-sky
A time-exposure photo of the Milky Way.

In Psalm 8, the Psalmist is making a visual comparison between how the heavens surround and shine on the earth, and how God surrounds and shines on us.  

In other words, the Psalmist see's the nighttime sky as a metaphor, a children's sermon, ...an object lesson!  To unlock this secret, one only has to do a little word study and visualization.

The Hebrew word we translate as "crowned," as in, "crowned us with glory...." actually means "surrounded." The Psalmist is in awe of the heavens that "surround" him, and makes the connection with how God's awesome glory surrounds us, even, "embraces" us. Throughout the lessons in this set we're going to make that point to help your students visualize this important insight. 

Psalm 8 isn't the only scripture to make this connection. Psalm 104 imagines the heavens as a "garment of light," and a tent that covers the earth. Proverbs 8 describes them as a "circle" God drew "on the face of the deep."  All of these images remind us that "This is My Father's World." And while we're referencing great songs, "What a wonderful world" it is and could be.

One of the wonderful things about helping our kids "see" Psalm 8's "secret" is that it is a lesson about God, and about us, that's reinforced every time our children look up at the majestic night sky

Lesson Objectives for the Set

  1. Students will develop an age-appropriate memory of Psalm 8.
  2. Students will learn what some of its key words and phrases mean.
  3. Students will appreciate that Creation is designed to make us wonder about God and our place in the world.
  4. Students will learn by studying the psalmist's words, that the psalmist is making a comparison. —That we are "crowned (surrounded) with glory and honor" by God —just like the heavens surround and shine down upon the earth.


Why memorize Psalm 8?

♥ Psalm 8  concisely and poetically speaks to a universal human experience and question: "When I look into the nighttime sky, I wonder about it's vastness, its origin, and my place in it all."  

♥ Psalm 8 teaches us two powerful words that describe both God's essential nature and our own: "Majestic" and "honored." 

♥ Psalm 8 answers the "existential" question children and star-gazers have asked for millenia: "Who am I?  ...I am made and honored by God. I am made to be a steward of Creation."   Children especially need to hear this message, as they are sometimes overlooked and undervalued, or worse. The feeling of worthlessness and the devaluing of others is at the root of many problems they will encounter throughout their life.  And staring into the vastness of space, and the face of our own mortality, we can easily feel insignificant. But as the Psalmist declares and nighttime sky reminds us, God surrounds us, and his glory shines down upon us like the moon and the stars. We are not alone. We are not forgotten. 

Psalm 8 also beautifully and memorably summarizes an important theme in the Book of Psalms:  our purpose in Creation.  We are to look up and declare God's glory, and to look around and take care of all that God has placed at our feet.  "Have Dominion" is the gift God has given us. And like God we rule with grace and love, protecting and nurturing.

childstar

Unlocking Psalm 8's Visual Meaning through Word Study

There are many translations of the Bible precisely because we often have interesting choices when translating from Hebrew to another language. This is especially true and challenging when attempting to translate a poem, which all psalms essentially are. It's one thing to make a literal translation, but when translating poetry, you also have to consider the poet's intentions!

So keep this in mind:  One Hebrew word can have many English synonyms (choices), and each choice can suggest a different insight. The challenge is to understand what the original intent was, and in the following word studies, we take the Psalmist at his word:  he is looking at the nighttime sky.

For example, take the most famous "translation issue" in Psalm 8:4 about which translators have been arguing over for hundreds of years (and about which even some of the very oldest Bible manuscripts don't agree). If you grew up with the King James Bible, you probably remember verse 4 as "you have made us a little lower than angels." But many modern English translations, such as the American and NRSV, translate it as,  "you have made us a little lower than God."  We are certainly "lower" than God, but angels? What's that about?

The problem is that the Hebrew word for God (Elohim) is identical to the Hebrew word for "heavenly beings" (elohim).  Notice that the KJV translates "heavenly beings" as "angels." Some scholars, however, believe the psalmist is ACTUALLY and poetically referring to the stars and moon as "heavenly beings." And indeed, in Hebrew cosmology, stars were sometimes imagined to be angels.  This means that the "angels" we are "lower than" could also be a poetic reference to the STARS. And thus, "lower" could be a "double entendre," -a fliteral but poetic reference to our LOCATION in Creation "beneath" the stars, rather than an issue of "status" (i.e. that we are "less than" angels). Put these viable word studies back into Psalm 8, reading them in the starlight, and it is quite possible to hear the Psalmist saying we were made to live "below" the stars, not among them, but that this is a place of "glory and honor."  We are not made "less" but lower in order to be able to look up and see.

Yet you have made us to live beneath the stars,
and crowned* us with glory and honor.

*In a moment we're going to look at the meaning of "crowned" too, which cements this point of view.

You should teach both translations, "angels," and "God," because your students will hear both during their lives. You should also teach them "lower than" can mean "beneath" and that the Hebrew word for "angels" can be translated as "heavenly beings" -which can also mean "stars." Most importantly, you should teach your children to compare translations, and dive deeper into the synonyms, visuals, and double-meanings words can have, especially in poetry like the Psalms. 

surrounded

More Word Studies that Reveal New Insights into Psalm 8

The "little lower than angels (or God)" translation issue is not the only surprise in the Psalm. There are several other Hebrew words in the text, which when translated with a different English word suddenly reveal what the psalmist was drawing us to see.  

Are we crowned? or surrounded?
"Crowned with glory and honor" suggests a position of authority. It suggests WE have the glory and honor. And our kids will think "crown" means "like a King."  But the word for "crowned" is also a VISUAL reference in Hebrew which can mean "surrounded," or "encircled."   The Psalmist is looking up at the nighttime sky and seeing how the sky "crowns" –embraces the earth.  (This "surrounding" or "covering" idea is found in other psalms as well.) 

"When I look at your heavens, I see that you have surrounded us with (your) glory and honor."  

surrounded-byJimMayzik

Perhaps the word "embraced" is even better. As God embraces the heavens and us, so to we embrace God and all Creation.

"Glory" is another great Hebrew word to discuss.  "Glory" suggests "importance," but in Hebrew, "glory" is often described as the shining light of God's presence. And God's presence is certainly something you want to bask in. God's light shines in the darkness, is a light unto thy path, etc etc etc.

"When I look into your heavens, and see the moon and the stars shining down, they are like your LIGHT (glory) shining down on me in the darkness."

The word "Honor" in Psalm 8 reveals another interesting insight into the Psalm. It's not uncommon for psalmists to play with the SOUND of words (like rhyming does in modern poems), which are no longer clear to us in English. "Honor" in Hebrew is pronounced "haw-dawr." "Majesty" is pronounced "ad-deer."  Do you hear the similarity?  They also mean similar things!  Could this be the Psalmist treating us to "play on words" to reveal yet another surprising meaning in the Psalm?

O Lord, your name is "ad-deer" –majestic, honor
O Lord, you crown us with "haw-dawr"  –honor, majesty. 

Heavens surround. God surrounds.
God's name is honor. We are honored.
Stars shine, glory shines.

It makes you want to re-translate the whole Psalm in an attempt to re-capture "What the Psalmist saw and FELT that night" as he stood under the stars and looked up...

When I look at the nighttime sky,

   it reminds me that God surrounds me

   —like the heavens surround the earth,

 When I see the light of the moon and the stars,

   it reminds me of God's light shining down upon me,

Who am I standing here below you?  Beneath your heavens?

   I am the one you embrace and honor with your shining presence.

O Lord, our Sovereign, who you are, and that you care for me,

   are written in the nighttime sky.

You could write this a dozen different ways based on the Hebrew word studies and visual images the Psalm evokes. 

The rest of the psalm repeats lines from the Creation story regarding the animals we have "dominion" (rule) over.  They don't tell us anything we didn't already learn from Genesis 1, and in that sense, the last verses are a bit of a distraction for those who don't "get" where the psalmist is trying to focus our attention in the most majestic and meditative part of the psalm.  THAT SAID ! ...Check out the Drama lesson in this set.  In it we include an interesting reflection on these "creatures" we are to care for, "Even if it has fur or scales. hisses or honks. Love those who fly, and those who can only crawl."

O Lord, My Light, let your majestic name shine on me and through me.
To all the earth. Amen!


Word Study Resources!

The handout in the Memory Workshop digs into the Hebrew words of Psalm 8 to help students appreciate their powerful imagery. It is a good resource for other workshops as well.  

To see where the Hebrew meanings/synonyms for the words of Psalm 8, and to do your own study on the words, consult Strong's Concordance. Here's an online version that's very easy to use: http://www.godrules.net/librar...s/kjvstrongspsa8.htm.

Psalm 8 beautifully summarize a familiar theme in The Book of Psalms, the purpose of the heavens and Creation. More than just an "abode" for God, Creation reveals God's character and steadfastness. Here are a few scriptures which pick up on Psalm 8's theme.

  • Psalm 19:1 "The heavens are telling the glory of God."  
  • Psalm 89:5  "Let the heavens praise your wonders,"
  • Psalm 97:6 "The heavens proclaim his righteousness; and all the peoples behold his glory."
  • Psalm 104:2 "...wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent,"



Written for the Rotation.org Writing Team
by the Rev. Neil MacQueen
Copyright Rotation.org

Embracing God illustration by Jim Mazirk, used with permission. 
All others in the public domain.




I hope you enjoy the following video meditation I put together. It features one of my favorite songs. ~Neil

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