Connections 06.16.2019: Great Responsibility

Psalm 8

“With great power comes great responsibility.” In Stan Lee’s original 1962 comic book Amazing Fantasy #15, a slightly varied form of this sentence appears as a caption below the last panel. In the 2002 Spider-Man film, Peter Parker hears these words from his beloved Uncle Ben.

The implications are obvious: a rather awkward young man who is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains superhuman powers needs an enormous moral compass to stay humble and serve others in the best ways. As a devoted fan of Marvel films, I would say that this mantra belongs at the forefront of any action taken by our favorite superheroes, from Iron Man to Star-Lord to Captain Marvel. Aside from Thor, the Norse Thunder God, most of the Marvel heroes were once ordinary human beings. Through a stroke of luck or sometimes genius, they were given extraordinary strength, senses, or other abilities. Over and over again, what they choose to do with these gifts makes all the difference for humanity—and for all of creation in general. Sometimes they make selfish choices that have devastating consequences for other people and the world around them. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

In Psalm 8, the psalmist is speaking directly to God, marveling over “the work of [God’s] fingers” (v. 3). He seems to feel the way I do when I stand before the ocean, look up into a starry night sky, hike a mountain trail, or pet my adorable dog: awed by the wonder of God’s creation. In his awe, he asks, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them” (v. 4)?

He goes on to talk about how God not only cares for humans but also gives us “dominion” over creation. God has “put all things under [our] feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (vv. 6-8). Essentially, God has given human beings the privilege of power over all created things. What does this mean for us? Well, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

How have we used this dominion, this position of power, over creation? In some cases, beautifully. In many other cases, detrimentally. I believe we are called again and again to assess our position of power and evaluate how we’re using it. There is no excuse for abusing this power, and we can be assured that we will continue to suffer the consequences when we do. While big corporations bear a huge amount responsibility for environmental and human suffering, individuals like you and me are also responsible for how we treat God’s gift. May we think about what we do with our “dominion over the works of [God’s] hands,” and may we constantly find ways to be better. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Discussion

• If you’re a superhero fan, who is your favorite? How well does this person use their gift of power? What struggles does the person face in making choices about this power?

• Who has the most power in your part of the world? How do these leaders use or abuse their power? What are the consequences for the earth and for vulnerable people?

• When you read Psalm 8:6-8, how do you feel about the power God has given you? What do you think is your responsibility in using this power?

• Think about how you personally use the gift of dominion over God’s creation. What are some ways you can be more responsible with this great privilege?

Reference Shelf

Psalm 8

This is a hymn of praise that glorifies God the Creator whose handiwork is visible both in the heavens and in humanity. The major emphasis is not on the acts of creation themselves, but rather on the lordship of Yahweh over creation. It is God’s “name” that is majestic in all the earth; it is God’s glory that is “chanted” (RSV) above the heavens; it is the work of God’s “hands” (fingers) that has been given over to the dominion of human beings.

There are problems in the translation of the invocation (vv. 1-2) that cannot yet be solved with assurance. The “chanted” of the RSV is uncertain, but it is possible that it should be understood in the sense of “recite in antiphonal song,” referring to praise being sung by celestial beings (cf. Isa 6:3; 1 Kgs 22:19; Job 1:6; 38:7). A change of vowels (and reading the first two words in the Hebrew text as one) yields the translation: “O let me chant your glory above the heavens, with a mouth of babes and infants.” The meaning, then, would be that the worshiper wishes to join in the heavenly chorus of praise even though his or her own voice would be like the babble of an infant in such exalted company. Although such a reading is attractive, however, it is conjecture.

The NRSV (also NIV; cf. NAB) You have set your glory above the heavens (v. 1c), is linked to v. 2, which seems awkward. The RSV of v. 2 assumes that the chanting of Yahweh’s glory is done “by the mouth of babes and infants” (i.e., by the weakest members of humanity). Commentators have noted that a child has the capacity (often lacking in adults) to surrender to the great and glorious without repressive inhibitions. Childlike language may voice the praise of God in a manner worthy of the celestial chorus.

I prefer to treat v. 2 as a separate sentence with a period at the end of v. 1 (NRSV’s two sentences in v. 1 seems less likely to me). The recitation (not set) of the heavenly glory is done by celestial beings (v. 1c). The meaning of v. 2 is pointed toward an earthly context. The praise of weak and mortal human beings is used by God to construct a bulwark against dangerous foes (cf. 1 Cor 1:27; 29; Matt 21:16). The weakness of human beings who trust in Yahweh is used as a fortress of strength against evil foes. Founded a bulwark (or “strength”) seems strange; the NIV reflects the Greek text (cited in Matt 21:16) that reads “perfected (or prepared) praise.” This eases the expression in v. 2: “From the mouth of babes and infants you have ordained praise.” However, the Greek text is probably an interpretation of the Hebrew and indicates that the meaning is a “bulwark of praise”: that is, foes and avengers cannot break through the praise of God that flows forth both in heaven and on earth.

There may be a thought pattern in the psalm, beginning above the heavens (v. 1) and moving to the earth (v. 2). Again, there is an upward look to the heavens (v. 3) followed by a consideration of humanity (v. 4). The pattern continues in the following verses. The exalted status of humanity is declared in v. 5 while the earthly role of humanity is established in vv. 6-8. The psalm opens in the plural person but a solo voice begins in v. 3. Verse 9 is a repetition of v. 1a.

The solo voice marvels at the wonders of the heavens, which are the work of [Yahweh’s] fingers (v. 3). A night scene is indicated since there is no mention of the sun. There is no praise of the heavens as such; it is your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established. The Creator, not the creation, is glorified. In v. 4, the comparison is not between humanity and the creation, but between humanity and the Creator. What are finite human beings in comparison with the glorious One whose praise is sung in the heavens and on earth and whose handiwork the moon and the stars show forth? Both terms for humanity in v. 4 point to a mortal and earthbound status. Human beings are mundane creatures, afflicted by transience and death. Yet, they have been the object of the concern of God, who is mindful of them and visits them both in salvation and in judgment.

Yahweh’s care for humanity is grounded in creation itself (v. 5). Humanity has been made by Yahweh to be a little lower than God, that is, a “little less” than divine (Heb. elohim; “angels” in lxx). This is the place for humans in the universe, their “slot” in the cosmic order. Human beings do not belong among the celestial beings of the heavenly court, but they are given an exalted status and crowned with the glory and honor that belongs to God (cf. Pss 29:1; 104:1). The same terms are also used of kings (cf. Ps 21:5), and the role of humanity in creation is expressed in terms of royal ideology (cf. Gen 1).

The verses that follow (vv. 6-8) expound the status of humanity in the arena of human action in the world. Humanity has been given dominion over the works of God’s hands, and all things have been put under his feet placed under human power. No other animal threatens human dominion (vv. 7-8), because all other classes of animal life are subordinate to humanity.

The psalm closes with a repetition of the doxology of v. 1a, because it is the glory of Yahweh that is praised. Modern readers may miss the point. The exalted status of humanity in vv. 3-8 is often seen as separate from the glory of God. Such is not the case with the psalmist. The glory of Yahweh overshadows all other beings and things. Both the world and humanity are subordinate to the Creator. The real significance of human beings consists in their relationship to God’s majesty and to God’s mindfulness of them. The true glory of humanity is to live as God’s creatures whose status is a given one.

Marvin E. Tate, “Psalms,” Mercer Commentary on the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills and Richard E. Wilson et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1995).

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (14) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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