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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 8

Psalms 8

The grand topic of this Psalm must, according to various expositors, be twofold,—the greatness of God, as the God of the world and nature, and His goodness toward man. But a more careful examination of it shows, that the latter topic alone is strictly the theme, to which the other is merely subordinate; that the greatness of the Lord in the creation of the world is only celebrated for the purpose of presenting in a more striking light His condescending goodness towards weak man.

God’s glory—this is the train of thought—is made known on earth by the splendour of the heavenly edifice, in so impressive, feeling, and palpable a manner, that even children apprehend it, and by the wondering delight which they experience, and the praise which they stammer forth to Him, put to shame the folly of His hardened blasphemers; Psalms 8:1-2.

When one considers this glory and greatness of God revealing themselves in the heavens, how must it fill with adoring wonder, with sincere gratitude, that such a God should have so taken notice of weak man, who appears unworthy of the least regard from Him, crowned him with honour, made him His vicegerent upon earth, and delivered into his hands the lordship thereof! Psalms 8:3-8. Great indeed is God, as well in the dignity which, in the fulness of His love and condescension, He has conferred on men, as in the glory of the heavens!

This, then, is the theme, The greatness of God in the greatness of man.

The Psalm needs no historical exposition, and bears none. It has been often said, that David was raised to the adoration of God by the sight of the starry sky. And in this way it has been commonly explained, why, in the third verse, amid the glorious works of God in the heavens, the sun is omitted, and the moon and the stars only are mentioned. Sun is this idea is not well-grounded, we shall see when we come to the exposition of the verse. That David composed this Psalm, not as a shepherd, as some have supposed, for the sake of their sentimentality, but as king, is probable from the familiar reference in the Psalm to the kingly glory; comp. Psalms 8:1 and Psalms 8:5. In his shepherd-days, David had not yet begun to indite Psalms; and in him also was verified the proverb, “The wine-press only presses out the wine;” and this, “Necessity teaches men to pray.” It was in the persecutions that he endured from Saul, that the springs of Divine song began to flow in him.

Passages from this Psalm are applied to Christ in the New Testament; and this has led many expositors to refer the whole Psalm to Him alone. Not only, however, do many internal grounds oppose this view, but it is not sufficiently confirmed by the authority of the New Testament. This will appear on an examination of the particular passages. In Matthew 21:16, Christ rebukes the Pharisees, who could not contain themselves because children were crying to him Hosanna, by bringing to their remembrance the ( Psalms 8:2) 2d verse of this Psalm: “Have ye never read, Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings Thou hast perfected praise?” From this quotation, it does not at all follow that the Lord explained the Psalm to refer to Himself. It is enough that the idea uttered in the Psalm,—viz. the high-minded, who proudly shut their heart to the impression of what is Divine, withstanding, and impiously blaspheming it, are put to shame by the cheerful acknowledgment thereof, uttered by the unsophisticated mind of childhood, here also exemplified. The stroke which the Lord here dealt to the Pharisees, was a completely silencing one; they must have felt it in their innermost conscience. The second quotation from this Psalm, in Hebrews 2:6-9, appears to favour more the Messianic interpretation. There Psalms 8:4-5, are applied to Christ’s glory, and His lordship over all creation. But neither are we necessitated by this passage to refer the Psalm, in its primary and proper sense, to Christ. Although David, in the first instance, speaks of the human race generally, the writer of the Epistle might still justly refer what is said to Christ, in its highest and fullest sense. For whereas the glory of human nature, here delineated, has been so dimmed through the fall, that only some few slight flashes of it are seen, and therefore what is here said refers rather to the idea than to the reality, it appeared anew in Christ in full splendour. The writer of the Epistle describes the dominion obtained for humanity in Christ over creation, whereby it was exalted above the angels, in the words of the ( Psalms 8:4) 4th and ( Psalms 8:5) 5th verse of this Psalm. The thoroughly incidental reference of the beginning of Psalms 8:5, as rendered in the LXX., to the humiliation of Christ, is not properly an exposition, but a popular adaptation. This is unquestionably the case also with the third quotation, in 1 Corinthians 15:27. Paul there refers the words of Psalms 8:6, “Thou hast put all things under His feet,” to Christ, because the power of humanity over the whole creation, lost and changed in Adam to a base servitude, was regained in Christ, and that, indeed, in a still higher and more perfect manner than it was possessed by Adam. The following remarks may contribute to a deeper insight into the ideal Messianic meaning of this Psalm. The Psalm stands in the closest connection with the first chapter of Genesis. What is written there of the dignity with which God invested man over the works of His hands, whom He placed as His representative on earth, and endowed with the lordship of creation, is here made the subject of thanks and praise. That passage in Genesis is here turned into a prayer for us. But how far man still really possesses that glory, what remains of it, how much of it has been lost, of this the Psalmist takes no note. His object was simply to praise the goodness of God, which still remained the same, as God, who does not repent Him of His gifts, had not arbitrarily withdrawn what He gave; but man, by his folly, has robbed himself of them. But, in consequence of his looking only to the goodness of God, which continues the same, the entire representation completely suits only the beginning and the end, and only very imperfectly suits the middle period, in which we, along with the Psalmist, now are. When this middle is considered, man is represented quite otherwise in the Old Testament than we find him in this Psalm,—as a sleep, a shadow, a falling leaf, a worm, as dust and ashes. And that for which God is here thanked, the prophets hoped and longed to see in the future: see especially Isaiah 11:6-9, where the same reference is made as here to Genesis 1, and where is expressed an expectation that the Messianic period will restore the original, but now disordered, relation of the earth to man. Accordingly, the matter of this Psalm can find its full verification only in the future; and for the present it applies to none but Christ, in whom human nature again possesses the dignity and power over creation, which it lost in Adam. By and by, when the moral consequences of the fall have been swept away, this also shall come to be the common inheritance of the human family.

על־הגתית , upon the harp of Gath, or in the Gathic style. As the termination ִ?י , except in the cases of adjectives which are derived from proper names, is rare, and as גִ?תּ?ִ?י in the sense of Gathic, of Gath, a city of the Philistines, occurs frequently (comp. Joshua 13:3; 2 Samuel 6:10-11, 2 Samuel 15:18), we must reject, as arbitrary, all other derivations, such as from גַ?ת , a “winepress,” and still more those from the purely imaginary גַ?ת cantus fidium. Now, the Gittith may be either an instrument invented in Gath, or a tune or air originated there, just as the Greeks speak of a Lydian or Phrygian air, and according to the analogy of the expression, “upon the Sheminith.” It is worthy of remark, that all the three Psalms distinguished by this name (besides this, Psalms 81, Psalms 84) are of a joyful, thanksgiving character; from which it may be inferred, that the Gittith was an instrument of cheerful sound, or a lively air.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. Jehovah, our Lord, how glorious is Thy name in all the earth! who hast crowned the heavens with Thy majesty. The “our Lord,” shows at once that the Psalmist speaks here, and throughout the Psalm, not in his own name, but in that of the whole human race. That the word שם is ever used as a mere periphrasis for the person, without any further reference, is just as erroneous as the opinion, that it is synonymous with renown. The name, in the language of the ancient world generally, and of the Hebrews in particular, is the image and expression of the being, the echo of its manifestation. God, as He is in Himself, is nameless. But a manifestation and a name are inseparable from each other. The name proceeds quite naturally out of it; and the more glorious the manifestation, so much more glorious also is the name, that is, it is the more full and significant. Now, the following words declare by what means the name of God has become glorious on the whole earth,—point to the manifestation, whose product is the glorious name. They are to be translated literally: “Thou, in respect to whom, giving is Thy glory, above the heavens.” This, according to most interpreters, is equivalent to: Thou, who hast not confined Thyself to overspread the earth with Thy glory, but who hast also crowned the heavens with it, hast set it upon these as a crown. But if we compare Psalms 8:3, where the heavens alone are spoken of, it will be seen that the glory of the name of God upon earth is here only in so far celebrated, as God is glorified upon it through the magnificence of the heavens. This is also implied in the אשר , which indicates in what respect, and by what means, God’s name is glorious upon the earth, or how He has acquired His glory upon earth. תנה is the inf. constr. in Kal of נתן . Those of the verbs פן , which form the Fut. upon Zere or Patach, commonly throw away in inf. constr. the נ pointed with Schwa; for the small word the feminal termination ֶ?ת , is commonly chosen; from נתן , תנת , contracted תֵ?ת . In place of this, we find here the fem. term. ָ?ה , just as along with the common inf. constr. of ירד , רדת , the form רְ?דָ?ה ; also occurs; see Ewald, p. 460. Now the inf. governs here, as usual, the case of the verb fin.: the giving Thy glory; Ew. p. 622. We must not translate, with Ewald and Winer: the giving of Thy glory; for the form of the inf. constr. with the appended ה fem. has precisely the nature of a noun in stat. absol. There is not a single instance to be found, where such a form should be directly connected with a following noun. It should then, of necessity, have been תֵ?ת , and not תנה .

The prep. על , instead of our rather expecting ב , is explicable from the fact, that הוד , glory, is considered as a crown, which the Lord sets upon the heavens; comp. Psalms 8:5.

The common exposition considers the inf. of נתן to be used here, instead of the preterite. But this cannot be admitted, for two reasons. First, the inf. constr. never stands in place of the pret., but only the inf. absol., which must have been נָ?תוֹ?נ because נ furnished with a long vowel is not to be dropt. And then, the inf. absol. also can stand for the pret. only when used simply of the action, expressed by the inf., but not when used of the acting person. This, however, is so far from being the case here, that the acting person is just what comes prominently into view. The attempt of Hitzig, and others, to derive the word from another verb than נתן is refuted alone by the parallel passages, 1 Chronicles 29:25, Numbers 27:20, Daniel 11:21, in which נתן הוד is found exactly as here, with על . We willingly omit other still more untenable explanations, such as that of Hoffmann, who would take the word as an imperative.—הוד is rendered by many expositors, renown; but this signification never belongs to it: it always means glory. God has clad the heavens with His glory, in that He has set in them the sun, moon, and stars, as monuments of His almighty power and greatness.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast prepared for thyself a power. עוללים , are children in general יונקים , children till the third year, up to which the Hebrew At women used to suckle their children. De Wette, without cause, stumbles at the circumstance, that praise to God is here ascribed to sucklings. Even a little child is conscious of pleasure, in looking upon the lovely scenes of nature, in particular, upon the starry heavens, which are here specifically mentioned, and this admiration of the works of God is a sort of silent praising of them. According to De Wette, and others, the sense must be “The child, his existence, his life, his advancement, &c., proclaim God as creator.” Or: “The child, even in his happy being in the fulness of his delight in life, is a witness of God’s renown, But the incorrectness of this view is evinced partly by its rendering the expression, “out of the mouth,” devoid of meaning,—for no one surely will agree with Hoffmann in thinking, that “the mouth” here is superfluous,—and partly because the allusion to children, in proof of the creative power of God, is here quite unsuitable, as in the following verse, which again takes up and resumes the subject of Psalms 8:1 and Psalms 8:2, it is God’s greatness in the framework of the world that is discoursed of. The beautiful structure and connection of the Psalm is entirely destroyed, if the children are made to praise God through their being, and not through their admiration of the glory of God, as displayed in heavens,—a reason which also disproves the view of Umbreit, who, artfully enough, seeks to get rid of the difficulty connect with “the mouth,” by referring it “to the living breath of the new-born child, to the first cry of the babe, and the first movement of the infant lips to pronounce words.” It is further to be noticed, that it would be quite unsuitable to bring forward children here, as proofs of the creative power of God, followed up, as it would presently be, by a declaration of the nothingness of man, for the purpose of magnifying the more the grace of God. If children were indeed viewed as proclaiming the glory of God, not less than the starry heavens, it might seem nothing wonderful or unexpected, that God should bestow so richly of his favour upon men. יסד commonly means, to lay the foundation of, and then also to prepare in general. עז most modern commentators take in the sense of praise, renown; but we must retain, with Calvin and others, the sense of might. strength; this seems the more suitable: God needs for his impotent and foolish adversaries, no other combatants than children, who are themselves in a condition to maintain his cause. And what is quite decisive, a more careful consideration of the passages, in which the word, according to grammarians and lexicographers, should signify praise, shows that such a meaning is quite imaginary. עז always signifies might or strength. By taking it in the sense of praise here, the meaning is disfigured. The marked contrast between the proud enemies of God, and the little children whom he sets up against them as his force of war, then completely disappears. But God obtains the victory over his rebellious subjects, by means of children, in so far as it is through their conscious or unconscious praise of his glory, as that is manifested in the splendour of his creation, especially of the starry firmament, that puts to shame the hardihood of the deniers of his being or his perfections. Even Koester, who otherwise egregiously errs in the right construction of the Psalm, returns here to the correct explanation: “In עז , there is contained a pointed irony, indicating that the lisping of infants forms a sort of tower of defence (?) against the violent assaults of the disowners of God, which is perfectly sufficient.”

In order to still the enemy and the revengeful, all those who, if they were visited by thee for their sins, would burn against thee with foolish rage and impotent revenge. The words are a farther extension of the preceding ones; because of thine adversaries. The enemy and the revengeful are united here together, just as in Psalms 44:16, where they have for their accompaniment the reproacher and blasphemer. How revenge might be spoken of in respect to God, is shown especially by the book of Job, where, for example, Elihu in Job 36:13, speaks of the lawless, “who heap up wrath, and cry not when he bindeth them;” that is, when God inflicts sufferings upon them, they flee not for pardon and grace, but kick against him, referring specially to Job, who, because punishment of sin was combined with want of acknowledgment of sin, turned his spirit against God, and cried out against him to the blood avenger of his wrong, existing not on earth but in heaven: “O earth, cover not thou my blood, and let my cry have no place.” In modern literature, nothing could be of more service to keep us from every attempt to force a foreign meaning upon מתנקם , than the journal of Carl von Hohenhausen, in the work: C. v. Hohen. Untergang eines Jünglings von achtzehn Jahren, Braunschw. 1836. What but the most burning revenge discovers itself there in such expressions as the following: “Lord of the heavens and the earth, what have I done to Thee, that Thou crushest me!” “No words of reproach are to big for me, they all vanish before the weight of my sufferings;” “Almighty! That when He is resolved on crushing me, crushes me to pieces so very slowly! were a man to do this, one would say, that it must proceed from the most miserable weakness, or the meanest malice.” We see everywhere, that he would rather have murdered God than himself.

Verse 3

Ver. 3. When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy hands—inasmuch as men can make nothing without fingers, and in expressive contrast to the poor works which they can make therewith— the moon and the stars, which Thou hast founded. If we would not account for the absence of the sun by supposing the Psalm was sung at night, we may conceive, with S. Schmidt among the older expositors (quando suscipio coelum, prout illud interdiu apparet cum sole suo, noctu autem lunam), and and Ewald among the more recent, that the Psalmist, in the first member, has his eye chiefly upon the sun, and then, in the second, specially describes the splendid appearance of the nightheavens; and this seems the more natural, particularly on account of the reference to Genesis 1, where, among the objects of creation, the sun holds so prominent a place. When the heavens are spoken of as proofs of the greatness of God, every one thinks first of the sun.

Verse 4

Ver. 4. What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? The designation אנוש , which, according to its etymology, is weak, frail, is here used intentionally. Calvin: “The prophet means, that God’s wonderful goodness is the more brightly displayed, in that He, the great Creator, whose omnipotence shines forth in the heavens, should crown so miserable and unworthy a creature with the highest honour, and enrich him with numberless treasures.” Contrasted with God, whose almightiness and greatness as Creator is manifested by the heavens with their shining stars, man appears nothing more than a worm in the dust, undeserving of the least regard. What a wonderful display of love is it, then, that he should still have done so much for him, as is set forth in the following verses?—פקד to visit. Every manifestation of God for blessing or for punishment.—which of the two must always be determined by the connection—appears as a visit by Him. So, for example, Ruth 1:6, “The Lord visited His people to give them bread.” In Genesis 18:13, the Lord promises, then personally present, that He would return about that time the following year to Abraham, and then would Sarah have a son. In Genesis 21:1, the fulfilment of the promise is thus recorded, “And the Lord visited Sarah, as He had said;” therewith are conjoined, as having the same force, the words, “and the Lord did unto Sarah as He had spoken.” The Lord appeared not personally, but invisibly in the fulfilment of His promise. From this and similar passages it is manifest, that the commonly received signification of פקד in such a connection: “to look on something or some one,” is inadmissible. The expression testifies to a great force of the religions consciousness, which apprehends God in every operation of His hand.

The commencement of David’s prayer in 2 Samuel 7:18 presents a striking resemblance to our verse: “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that Thou hast led me hitherto?” It is the same humility which here wonders at the greatness of God’s condescension to man in general and there at the greatness of His condescension to the son of Jesse. The words, “what is man, what am I,” expressed one of the deepest feelings of David’s soul. In vers. 5-8 he further enlarges on the way in which God has thought upon man, and visited him.

Verse 5

Ver. 5. Thou settest him a little beneath Divine rank, Thou crownest him with honour and glory. Various expositors follow the Chaldee and the LXX. in rendering אלהים by angels. But this exposition has manifestly sprung from doctrinal considerations. In support of this meaning, one can only appeal to certain passages in which it has been falsely so rendered either for doctrinal reasons, or others beside the mark; and in connection with, those passages, appeal is made again to the one before us. But, there is here a special ground for rejecting this exposition, which was first pointed out by Dereser. The grace of God is here celebrated, which led Him to give to man the sovereignty over the earth. But how could he be compared in this respect with angels, who possess no such sovereignty? Others expound: Thou hast made him only a little less than God. But there is a double objection to be made also to this exposition: 1. הסר in Pi., with מן , is taken in the sense of making less than, to make inferior to, which is against the usus loquendi. The verb signifies, in Piel, to make, or cause, to want; and the noun connected with it by Nm in marks the object, in regard to which there is the want. So in the only place besides, where it does occur. Ecclesiastes 4:8, מחסר את־נפשי מטובה , “Deprive my soul of good;” comp. the adj. חָ?סֵ?ר with מן of the thing in Ecclesiastes 6:2. Accordingly, the expression here,´תחסרהו מ , can only be rendered: Thou hast made him to want little of God. 2. It is not admissible to understand by אלהים here, precisely and exclusively the only true God. The passage would, in that case, be at variance with the view unfolded in Scripture, of the infinite distance between God and man, and so loftily expressed in this Psalm itself. The correct interpretation is the following: The Elohim expresses the abstract idea of Godhead. But where it is not made concrete by the article, it is not unfrequently used merely to designate something super-earthly. (See my Treatise on the names of God in the Pent. in 2d vol. of Beitr. zur Einl. ins A. T.) Important in this point of view is the passage, Zechariah 12:8, “The house of David shall be as Elohim, as the angel of the Lord,” where the transition from “Elohim” to “the angel of the Lord,” is put as an advance from the less to the greater. The idea of the Elohim sinks lowest in 1 Samuel 28:13, where the witch of Endor says to Saul, “I see Elohim ascending out of the earth.” Here there remains only the vague representation of a super-earthly, superhuman power, which the woman sees entering in the one apparition, into the world of sense. Now, applying this to the place before us, it shows that the words, “Thou makest him want little of God,” Thou makest him well-nigh possess God, is correctly expounded by Calvin: Parum abesse eum jussisti a divino et coelesti statu

Thou bestowest on him an almost super-earthly dignity.

There remains the inquiry, whether the comparison refers to all the privileges conferred by God on man, or only to something special. The latter is undoubtedly the right supposition. The discourse is of man’s dignity only, in so far as the lordship over the earth has been given him by God. This is clear from the parallelism alone. God is praised in the second member, because He has conferred royal dignity on man. But still more does it appear so from the following verses. These are only a further expansion of the present one. And in them, the subject handled throughout, is solely the lordship of man over the earth, as the deputy of God. In his representation, the Psalmist has manifestly before his eye the passage in Genesis, in which man is installed by God as lord of the earth. In what follows, there are, to some extent, verbal coincidences: comp. Genesis 1:26: “Let us make man in our image, and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, etc.;” ver. 28, and especially 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 . . . and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered;” which last passage has this in common with our verse, that its enumeration of the objects ruled, begins with the higher, and goes on to the lower; whereas in Genesis 1 the reverse order is observed. Our Psalm is properly the expression of the subjective feelings occasioned by this sovereign act on the part of God. But though the Psalm directly relates only to the supremacy of man over the earth, it does indeed indirectly lead farther. This particular dignity of man is but the result of his general endowment, of the general pre-eminence which he holds above all creatures of earth. In Genesis this is very obvious. It is because man bears God’s image, that there the lordship of creation is given him. But, whilst allowing that the Psalm inculcates indirectly the dignity of man in general, we do not justify those who would derive from the Psalm a proof that the moral dignity of man still continues after the fall, or rather a proof against the fall. We have already shown, that the Psalm simply and solely treats of God’s appointment and gift; and does not notice what man has squandered and destroyed thereof. If this holds true of the proper object, to wit, the lordship over the earth, it must also hold true of that which is considered only so far as it is presupposed by that object.

And with honour and glory Thou crownest him,—the common designations of kingly state and majesty; comp. Psalms 21:5, Psalms 45:3; Jeremiah 22:18; 1 Chronicles 29:25. God has set up man on earth as His deputy-king. It is self-evident, however, that not every individual man is represented here as God’s deputy and vicegerent, but humanity. The Fut. with vau conv. at the beginning, shows, that the “making him to want little” is a consequence of the remembrance and visitation. That we cannot grammatically translate: “Thou hast made him to want, but, Thou makest him to want, or, and so Thou makest him” (comp. Psalms 7:15), appears from the parallel תעטרהו , Thou crownest him. To the Psalmist, the action of God is not one limited to a period absolutely past, but one continued through all time, and independent of time. God daily crowns man anew. עִ?טּ?ֵ?ר , to crown, like all verbs of “covering,” with a double accusative.

Verse 6

Ver. 6. Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou puttest all under his feet. In Genesis, the corresponding phrase is רדה with ב ; prop. “to plant the foot on something,” “to tread,” then “to rule.”

Verse 7

Ver. 7. All sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field. צנה =צאן , a flock made up of sheep and goats. The choice of the rare form is to be referred here to the poetical dialect. The form midway between the two, occurs in Numbers 32:24. שדי , poetic form for שדה , field; Ewald, p. 298.

Verse 8

Ver. 8. But Thou hast not merely put land animals beneath his feet, or subjected them to his rule; Thou hast added also the tenants of the air, and of the water,— the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatsoever passes through the paths of the sea. The paths of the sea, as the Homer. ὑ?γρὰ? κέ?λευθα . עבר is not to be straightway referred to דגי , for then we should have expected the plural, but that which passeth through, whatsoever goes through; Eng. Trans.: And whatsoever passeth, beside fishes, the other inhabitants also of the sea; comp. Genesis 1:21. That what is here ascribed to man, is peculiar to him to a certain extent, even since the fall, as is implied in the frequent use of the Future denoting the Present, is shown, not only by Genesis 9:2, but also by daily experience. No creature is so strong, so savage, so alert, but that man, though relatively one of the weakest creatures, in process of time becomes its master; comp. James 3:7. Nevertheless, there is a vast difference in this respect between his condition before and since the fall. Before that event, the obedience of all creatures toward the appointed vicegerent of God was a spontaneous one; after it, his subjects revolted against him, as he against his Lord. He must maintain against them, as against the resisting earth, a hard conflict,—must on all hands employ art and cunning; and though, on the whole, he remains conqueror in this warfare, yet, in particulars, he has to suffer many defeats.

Verse 9

Ver. 9. Jehovah, our Lord, how glorious is Thy name in all the earth! These words are not a simple repetition of those in Psalms 8:1. There they contained a general expression of praise to God, on account of the glory accruing to Him on earth, by means of His manifestation in the heavens. Here they refer to the great proof of His glory, which God has given in His condescension and goodness toward man.

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Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 8". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-8.html.