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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 8

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes


Section 1. “The author of the psalm.” This is another psalm purporting to have been written by David, and there is nothing in it that lead’s us to think otherwise.

Section 2. “The title to the psalm.” The psalm is addressed To the chief Musician upon Gittith. In regard to the meanin of the phrase “chief Musician,” see the notes at the introduction to Psalms 4:1-8. The word Gittith - גתית gittı̂yth - occurs but in two other places, also in the titles to the psalms, Psalms 81:1; Psalms 84:1. It is supposed to refer to a musical instrument so called, either as being common among the Gittites (from גתי gittı̂y), Gittites, or an inhabitant of Gath. See 2 Samuel 6:10-11; 2 Samuel 15:18), among whom David for some time resided; or as being derived from גת gath - a wine-press, as denoting an instrument that was used by those accustomed to tread the wine-vat, and intended to accompany the songs of the vintage. The former is the more probable derivation, as it is known that David dwelt for some time among that people, and it is not at all improbable that an instrument of music in use among them should have become common among the Hebrews. Nothing is known, however, as to whether it was a stringed instrument or a wind instrument. Compare, however, Ugolin, Thes. Sac. Ant. xxxii. 487. All that can be ascertained, with any degree of probability about this instrument, is, that as each of the psalms to which this title is prefixed is of a cheerful or joyous nature, would seem that this instrument was adapted to music of this kind, rather than to that which was pensive or serious. This idea also would agree well with the supposition that it denotes an instrument that was employed by those connected with the vintage. Compare Isaiah 16:10.

Section 3. “Occasion on which the psalm was composed.” Of this nothing is specified in the psalm itself, and it is impossible now to ascertain it. Aben Ezra, and some others, have supposed that it was written when David brought up the ark to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite, as mentioned in 1 Chronicles 13:12-14. But there is nothing in the psalm adapted to such an occasion. Rudinger supposes that it was composed in the joy of taking possession of Mount Zion. Others have supposed that it was on occasion of the victory of David over Goliath of Gath; but there is nothing in it adapted to the celebration of such a victory.

If we may judge from the psalm itself, it would seem probable that it was composed by night in the contemplation of the starry heavens - naturally suggesting, in view of the vastness and beauty of the celestial luminaries, the littleness of man. This also filled the mind of the psalmist with wonder that the God who marshals all these hosts should condescend to regard the condition and wants of a being so feeble and frail as man, and should have exalted him as he has done over his works. That it was composed or suggested in the night seems probable, from Psalms 8:3, where the psalmist represents himself as surveying or “considering” the “heavens, the work” of the divine “fingers,” and as making the “moon and the stars” the subject of his contemplation, but not mentioning the sun. In such contemplations, when looking on the vastness and grandeur, the beauty and order, of the heavenly hosts, it was not unnatural for the writer to think of his own comparative littleness, and then the comparative littleness of man everywhere. No time is more favorable for suggesting such thoughts than the still night, when the stars are shining clearly in the heavens, and when the moon is moving on in the silent majesty of its course. It would seem also, from Psalms 8:2, to be probable that the immediate occasion of this expression of admiration of the name and character of God was some act of condescension on his part in which he had bestowed signal favor on the writer - as if he had ordained strength out of the mouth of babes and sucklings - from even the most feeble and helpless. Perhaps it was in view of some favor bestowed on David himself; and his soul is overwhelmed with a sense of the condescension of God in noticing one so weak and feeble and helpless as he was. From the contemplation of this, the thought is naturally turned to the honor which God had everywhere bestowed upon man.

The psalm, though one part of it is applied by the apostle Paul to Christ Hebrews 2:6-7, does not appear originally to have had any designed reference to the Messiah, though the apostle shows that its language had a complete fulfillment in him, and in him alone. See the notes at that passage. The psalm is complete in itself, as applicable to man as he was originally created, and according to the purposes of his creation; though it is true that the original design will be carried out and completed only in the dominion which will be granted to the Messiah, who, as a man, has illustrated in the highest manner the original purpose of the creation of the race, and in whom alone the original design will be fully carried out.

Section 4. “Contents of the psalm.” The psalm embraces the following points:

I. An admiring recognition of the excellence of the name of God (that is, of God himself); of that excellence as manifested in all the earth, Psalms 8:1. The excellency referred to, as the subsequent part of the psalm shows, is in his great condescension, and in his conferring such honor on man - a being so feeble as compared with himself, and so unworthy as compared with the glory of the heavens.

II. The immediate occasion of this reflection, or the cause which suggested it, Psalms 8:2. This seems to have been some remarkable manifestation to one who was feeble and helpless, as if God had ordained strength out of the mouth of babes and sucklings. It is not improbable, as remarked above, that in this the psalmist refers to himself as having been, though conscious of weakness and helplessness, the means of overcoming the enemies of God, as if God had ordained strength through him, or had endowed him with strength not his own.

III. The psalmist is led into admiration of the condescension of God in bestowing such dignity and honor on man, Psalms 8:3-8. This admiration is founded on two things:

(1) That the God who had made the heavens, the moon and the stars, should condescend to notice man or creatures so insignificant and unworthy of notice, Psalms 8:3-4.

(2) The actual honor conferred on man, in the rank which God had given him in the dominion over his works here below; and in the wide extent of that dominion over the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air, and the inhabitants of the seas, Psalms 8:5-8.

IV. The psalm concludes with a repetition of the sentiment in the first verse - the reflection on the excellency of the divine name and majesty, Psalms 8:9.

Verse 1

O Lord - Hebrew, יהוה Yahweh. It is an address to God by his chosen and special title, Exodus 3:14. Compare the notes at Isaiah 1:2.

Our Lord - The word used here - אדני 'âdônay - means properly master, lord, ruler, owner, and is such a title as is given to an owner of land or of slaves, to kings, or to rulers, and is applied to God as being the ruler or governor of the universe. The meaning here is, that the psalmist acknowledged Yahweh to be the rightful ruler, king, or master of himself and of all others. He comes before him with the feeling that Yahweh is the universal ruler - the king and proprietor of all things.

How excellent is thy name - How excellent or exalted art thou - the name being often used to denote the person. The idea is,” How glorious art thou in thy manifested excellence or character.”

In all the earth - In all parts of the world. That is, the manifestation of his perfect character was not confined to any one country, but was seen in all lands, and among all people. In every place his true character was made known through His works; in every land there were evidences of his wisdom, his greatness, his goodness, his condescension.

Who hast set thy glory above the heavens - The word used here, and rendered “hast set,” is in the imperative mood - תנה tenâh - give; and it should probably have been so rendered here, “which thy glory give thou;” that is, “which glory of thine, or implied in thy name, give or place above the heavens.” In other words, let it he exalted in the highest degree, and to the highest place, even above the heavens on which he was gazing, and which were in themselves so grand, Psalms 8:3. It expresses the wish or prayer of the writer that the name or praise of God, so manifest in the earth, might be exalted in the highest possible degree - be more elevated than the moon and the stars - exalted and adored in all worlds. In His name there was such intrinsic grandeur that he desired that it might be regarded as the highest object in the universe, and might blaze forth above all worlds. On the grammatical construction of this word - תנה tenâh - see an article by Prof. Stuart, in the Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. ix. pp. 73-77. Prof. Stuart supposes that the word is not formed from נתן nâthan - to give, as is the common explanation, but from תנה tânâh - to give presents, to distribute gifts, Hosea 8:9-10, and that it should be rendered, Thou who diffusest abroad thy glory over the heavens.

Verse 2

Out of the mouth - This passage is quoted by the Saviour in Matthew 21:16, to vindicate the conduct of the children in the temple crying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” against the objections of the Pharisees and Scribes, and is perhaps alluded to by him in Matthew 11:25. It is not affirmed, however, in either place, that it had an original reference to the times of the Messiah, or that it was meant, as used by the psalmist, to denote that children would be employed in the praise of God. The language sufficiently expressed the idea which the Saviour meant to convey; and the princip e or great truth involved in the psalm was applicable to the use which he made of it. The language would, perhaps, most naturally denote that infant children would give utterance to the praises of God, as the word “mouth” is used; but still it is not quite certain that the psalmist meant to convey that idea. It is probable, as we shall see, that he meant to say, God had conferred great honor on men - men so humble and weak that they might be compared to infants - by making them the means of overthrowing his enemies, thus showing the greatness of the divine condescension.

Babes - The word used here - עולל ôlêl - means properly a boy or child, and is usually connected with the word rendered sucklings, Jeremiah 44:7; Lamentations 2:11. It is applied to a boy playing in the streets, Jeremiah 6:11; Jeremiah 9:21; asking for bread, Lamentations 4:4,; carried away captive, Lamentations 1:5; borne in the arms, Lamentations 2:20; and once to an unborn infant, Job 3:16. It refers here to a child, or to one who is like a child; and the idea is that those to whom it is applied were naturally unable to accomplish what was done by them, and that God had honored them, and had shown his own condescension, by making them the instruments of doing what they had done.

And sucklings - The word used here - יונק yôneq - means a suckling, or a suckling child, a babe, Deuteronomy 32:25. It may be used literally, or employed to denote one who, in respect to strength, may be compared with a babe. The latter is probably the use made of it here.

Hast thou ordained strength - The word rendered ordained - יסד yâsad - means to found, to lay the foundation of, as of a building, Ezra 3:12; Isaiah 54:11. Then it means to establish, appoint, ordain, constitute, etc. The meaning here is, that in what is referred to, there was, as it were, some basis or foundation for what is called “strength;” that is, that what is here meant by “strength” rested on that as a foundation - to wit, on what was done by babes and sucklings. The word “strength” is rendered by the Septuagint as “praise” - αἷνον ainon - and this is followed in the quotation in Matthew 21:16. The same rendering is adopted in the Latin Vulgate and in the Syriac. The Hebrew word - עז ôz - properly means strength, might; and the idea here would seem to be, that even from babes and sucklings - from those who were in themselves so feeble - God had taken occasion to accomplish a work requiring great power - to wit, in “stilling the enemy and the avenger;” that is, he had made those who were so feeble the instruments of accomplishing so great a work.

Because of thine enemies - In respect to thine enemies, or in order to accomplish something in regard to them, namely, in stilling them, as is immediately specified. The idea is, that there were those who rose up against God, and opposed his government and plans, and that God, in overcoming them, instead of putting forth his own power directly, had condescended to employ those who were weak and feeble like little children. Who these enemies were is not specified, but it is most natural to suppose that the reference is to some of the foes of the author of the psalm, who had been subdued by the prowess of his arm - by strength imparted to him, though in himself feeble as an infant.

That thou mightest still - Mightest cause to rest, or to cease. The original word - שׁבת shâbath - from which our word Sabbath is derived, means to rest; to lie by; to sit down; to sit still; and in the Hiphil, to cause to rest, or to cause to desist; to put an end to, Ezekiel 34:10; Joshua 22:25; Psalms 46:9; Proverbs 18:18. Here it means to bring to an end the purposes of the enemy and the avenger; or, to cause him to desist from his designs.

The enemy - The enemy of the writer, regarded also as the enemy of God.

And the avenger - One who was endeavoring to take revenge, or who was acting as if determined to avenge some imaginary or real wrong. This, too, may refer either to some one who was seeking to revenge himself on the author of the psalm, or who, with the spirit of revenge, stood up against God, and had set himself against him.

In regard to the meaning of this verse, which I apprehend is the key to the whole psalm, and which contains the original germ of the psalm, or the thought which suggested the train of reflection in it, the following remarks may be made:

(a) There is no evidence that it was designed to refer originally to infants, or to children of any age, as stating anything which they would do in contributing to the praise of God, or as defeating sceptics and cavillers by “their instinctive recognition of God’s being and glory,” as is supposed by Calvin, DeWette, Prof. Alexander, and others. What is said here to be done by “babes and sucklings” has reference to some mighty enemy that had been overcome, not to anything which had been effected by the influence of the recognition of God by little children. It may be doubted, also, whether there is any such “instinctive admiration of his works, even by the youngest children,” as would be “a strong defense against those who would question the being and glory” of God, as is supposed by Prof. Alexander and others; and, at all events, that is not the manifest thought in the passage.

(b) Nor does it refer merely to praise as proceeding from children, as being that by which the effect referred to is accomplished. It is true that this idea is in the translation by the Septuagint, and true that it is so quoted in Matthew 21:16, and true, also, that, as quoted by the Saviour, and as originally applied, it was adapted to the end which the Saviour had in view - to silence the chief priests and Scribes, who objected to the praises and hosannas of the children in the temple, for the psalm, on any interpretation, originally meant that God would accomplish good effects by those who were feeble and weak as children, and this principle was applicable to the praises of the children in the temple. But it does not appear that it originally referred to praise, either of children or others. It was to some manifested strength or prowess, by which some enemy, or some one who was seeking revenge, was overcome by the instrumentality of those who might be compared with children on account of their feebleness. From this the psalmist takes occasion to make his reflections on the exalted honor conferred in general on a creature so weak and feeble as man, especially in the wide dominion granted him over the inferior creation.

(c) This was, not improbably, some enemy of the author of the psalm; but who it was is not mentioned. David was often, however, in the course of his life, in such circumstances as are here supposed. Might it not refer to Goliath of Gath - a mighty giant, and a formidable enemy of the people of God, overcome by David, quite a stripling - a child? Would not the language of the psalm agree with that? Was it not true that he was an “enemy” and an “avenger,” or one socking revenge? and was it not true that God had, from one who was a mere child, “ordained strength” to subdue him?

(d) God had, then, condescended to honor one who was in himself weak and feeble as a child - who had no power of himself to accomplish what had been done.

(e) This was great condescension on the part of God; and especially was it to be so regarded when the eye looked out - as the author of the psalm appears to have done at the time of its composition - on the starry heavens, and contemplated their greatness and grandeur. What astonishing condescension was it that he who marshalled all those hosts should bestow such honor on man!

(f) It was not, therefore, unnatural to reflect on the greatness of the honor which God had actually bestowed on man, and the dignity to which God had exalted him; and the psalmist is thus, from a particular act of his condescension, led into the beautiful train of reflections on the exalted dominion of man with which the psalm concludes. Thus understood, the psalm has no orignal reference to the Messiah, but still it contains the principle on which the apostle reasons in Hebrews 2:0, for the dignity of man is most seen in the Redeemer, and the actual conferring of all the dignity and honor referred to in the psalm - the actual and entire subjugation of the earth to man - will be found only in the universal dominion conceded to Him. At the same time, however, there is a foundation for all that the psalmist says in respect to the honor originally conferred on man, and in his actual dominion over the inferior creation.

Verse 3

When I consider thy heavens - When I contemplate or look upon. They are called his heavens because he made them - because he is the proprietor of them - perhaps because they are his abode.

The work of thy fingers - Which thy fingers have made. The fingers are the instruments by which we construct a piece of work - perhaps indicating skill rather than strength; and hence so used in respect to God, as it is by his skill that the heavens have been made.

The moon and the stars - Showing, as remarked above, that probably this psalm, was composed at night, or that the train of thought was suggested by the contemplation of the starry worlds. It is not improbable that the thoughts occurred to the psalmist when meditating on the signal honor which God had conferred on him, a feeble man (see the notes at Psalms 8:2), and when his thoughts were at the same time directed to the goodness of God as the heavens were contemplated in their silent grandeur.

Which thou hast ordained - Prepared, fitted up, constituted, appointed. He had fixed them in their appropriate spheres, and they now silently showed forth his glory.

Verse 4

What is man - What claim has one so weak, and frail, and short-lived, to be remembered by time? What is there in man that entitles him to so much notice? Why has God conferred on him so signal honor? Why has he placed him over the works of his hands? Why has he made so many arrangements for his comfort? Why has he done so much to save him? He is so insignificant his life is so much like a vapor, he so soon disappears, he is so sinful and polluted, that the question may well be asked, why such honor has been conferred on him, and why such a dominion over the world has been given him. See these thoughts more fully expanded in the notes at Hebrews 2:6.

That thou art mindful of him - That thou dost remember him; that is, think of him, attend to him - that he does not pass away wholly from thy thoughts. Why should a God who is so vast and glorious, and who has all the starry worlds, so beautiful and grand, to claim his attention - why should he turn his thoughts on man? And especially why should he honor him as he has done by giving him dominion over the works of his hands?

And the son of man - Any descendant of man - any one of the race. What was man, as he was originally made, that such exalted honor should have been conferred on him; and what has any one of his descendants become, in virtue of his native faculties or acquired endowments, that he should be thus honored? The design is the same as in the former part of the verse, to express the idea that there was nothing in man, considered in any respect, that entitled him to this exalted honor. Nothing that man has done since the time when the question was asked by the psalmist has contributed to diminish the force of the inquiry.

That thou visitest him - As thou dost; that is, with the attention and care which thou dost bestow upon him; not forgetting him; not leaving him; not passing him by. The word used here - פקד pâqad - would properly express a visitation for any purpose - for inspection, for mercy; for friendship, for judgment, etc. Here it refers to the attention bestowed by God on man in conferring on him such marks of favor and honor as he had done - such attention that he never seemed to forget him, but was constantly coming to him with some new proof of favor. What God has done for man since the psalmist wrote this, has done nothing to weaken the force of this inquiry.

Verse 5

For thou hast made him - Thou hast made man as such; that is, he was such in the original design of his creation, in the rank given him, and in the dominion conceded to him. The object here is to show the honor conferred on man, or to show how God has regarded and honored him; and the thought is, that in his original creation, though so insignificant as compared with the vast worlds over which God presides, he had given him a rank but little inferior to that of the angels. See the notes at Hebrews 2:7.

A little lower - The Hebrew word used here - חסר châsêr, means to want, to lack - and then, to be in want, to be diminished. The meaming is, “Thou hast caused him to want but little;” that is, he was but little interior.

Than the angels - So this is rendered by the Aramaic Paraphrase: by the Septuagint; by the Latin Vulgate; by the Syriac and Arabic; and by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews Hebrews 2:7, who has literally quoted the fourth, fifth, and sixth verses from the Septuagint. The Hebrew, however, is - מאלהים mi'ĕlôhı̂ym - than God. So Gesenius renders it, “Thou hast caused him to want but little of God; that is, thou hast made him but little lower than God.” So DeWette, “nur wenig unter Gott.” So Tholuck renders it, “nur um wenig unter Gott.” This is the more natural construction, and this would convey an idea conformable to the course of thought in the psalm, though it has been usually supposed that the word used here - אלהים 'Elohiym - may be applied to angels, or even men, as in Psalms 82:1; Psalms 97:7; Psalms 138:1; Exodus 21:6; Exodus 22:8-9. Gesenius (Thesau. Ling. Heb., p. 95) maintains that the word never has this signification. The authority, however, of the Aramaic, the Septuagint, the Syriac, and the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, would seem sufficient to show that that meaning may be attached to the word here with propriety, and that somehow that idea was naturally suggested in the passage itself. Still, if it were not for these versions, the most natural interpretation would be that which takes the word in its usual sense, as referring to God, and as meaning that, in respect to his dominion over the earth, man had been placed in a condition comparatively but little inferior to God himself; he had made him almost equal to himself.

And hast crowned him with glory and honor - With exalted honor. See the notes at Hebrews 2:7.

Verse 6

Thou madest him to have dominion - Thou didst cause him to have, or didst give him this dominion. It does not mean that God made or created him for that end, but that he had conceded to him that dominion, thus conferring on him exalted honor. The allusion is to Genesis 1:26, Genesis 1:28.

Over the works of thy hands - His works upon the earth, for the dominion extends no further.

Thou hast put all things under his feet - Hast placed all things in subjection to him. Compare Psalms 47:3; Psalms 91:13; Lamentations 3:34; Romans 16:20; 1 Corinthians 15:25. The language is taken from the act of treading down enemies in battle; from putting the feet on the necks of captives, etc. The idea is that of complete and entire subjection. This dominion was originally given to man at his creation, and it still remains (though not so absolute and entire as this), for nothing is in itself more remarkable than the dominion which man, by nature so feeble, exercises over the inferior creation. it is impossible to account for this in any other way than as it is accounted for in the Bible, by the supposition that it was originally conceded to man by his Creator. On the question of the applicability of this to Christ, see the notes at Hebrews 2:6-9.

Verse 7

All sheep and oxen - Flocks and herds. Genesis 1:26, “over the cattle.” Nothing is more manifest than the control which man exercises over flocks and herds - making them subservient to his use, and obedient to his will.

And the beasts of the field - Those not included in the general phrase “sheep and oxen.” The word rendered “field,” שׂדה śâdeh - or the poetic form, as here - שׂדי śâday, means properly a plain; a level tract of country; then, a field, or a tilled farm, Genesis 23:17; Genesis 47:20-21,; and then the fields, the open country, as opposed to a city, a village, a camp Genesis 25:27; and hence, in this place the expression means the beasts that roam at large - wild beasts, Genesis 2:20; Genesis 3:14. Here the allusion is to the power which man has of subduing the wild beasts; of capturing them, and making them subservient to his purposes; of preventing their increase and their depredations; and of taming them so that they shall obey his will, and become his servants. Nothing is more remarkable than this, and nothing furnishcs a better illustration of Scripture than the conformity of this with the declaration Genesis 9:2, “And the fear of you, and the dread of you, shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air,” etc. Compare the notes at James 3:7. It is to be remembered that no small number of what are now domestic animals were originally wild, and that they have been subdued and tamed by the power anti skill of man. No animal has shown himself superior to this power and skill.

Verse 8

The fowl of the air - Genesis 1:26, “Over the fowl of the air.” Genesis 9:2, “upon every fowl of the air.” This dominion is the more remarkable because the birds of the air seem to be beyond the reach of man; and yet, equally with the beasts of the field, they are subject to his control. Man captures and destroys them; he prevents their multiplication and their ravages. Numerous as they are, and rapid as is their flight, and strong as many of them are, they have never succeeded in making man subject to them, or in disturbing the purposes of man. See the notes at James 3:7.

And the fish of the sea - Genesis 1:26, “Over the fish of the sea.” Genesis 9:2, “upon all the fishes of the sea.” This must be understood in a general sense, and this is perhaps still more remarkable than the dominion over the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, for the fishes that swim in the ocean seem to be placed still farther from the control of man. Yet, so far as is necessary for his use and for safety, they are, in fact, put under the control of man, and he makes them minister to his profit. Not a little of that which contributes to the support the comfort, and the luxury of man, comes from the ocean. From the mighty whale to the shellfish that furnished the Tyrian dye, or to that which furnishes the beautiful pearl, man has shown his power to make the dwellers in the deep subservient to his will.

And whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas - Everything, in general, that passes through the paths of the sea, as if the ocean was formed with paths or highways for them to pass over. Some have referred this to man, as passing over the sea and subduing its inhabitants; some, to the fishes before spoken of; but the most natural construction is that which is adotpted in our received version, as referring to everything which moves in the waters. The idea is that man has a wide and universal dominion - a dominion so wide as to excite amazement, wonder, and gratitude, that it has been conceded to one so feeble as he is.

Verse 9

O Lord our Lord, how excellent ... - Repeating the sentiment with which the psalm opens, as now fully illustrated, or as its propriety is now seen. The intermediate thoughts are simply an illustration of this; and now we see what occupied the attention of the psalmist when, in Psalms 8:1, he gave utterance to what seems there to be a somewhat abrupt sentiment. We now, at the close of the psalm, see clearly its beauty and truthfulness.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 8". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/psalms-8.html. 1870.
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