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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Man’s Exaltation—Psalm 8 (Alastair Roberts)

Psalm 8’s presentation of human dominion and politics as a creation of God has significant ramifications for our posture towards the various forms of human rule and authority. The juxtaposition of divinely appointed power and human weakness humbles arrogant ambition, encouraging a spirit of meekness and modest service in our politics.

1O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Psalm 8 proclaims the sovereignty of YHWH in creation, and expresses the remarkable fact of the vicegerency of mortal man against the backdrop of the greatness of YHWH’s handiwork. The profile of this psalm within the wider scriptural canon is significant: it explores the creation themes of Genesis in the context of Israel’s kingship and reverberates into the New Testament as it is related to the ascension and Lordship of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:27; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:5-9).

Chiastically structured, the psalm is bookended by the exclamation, ‘O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’ While this statement frames the psalm as a declaration of YHWH’s lordship, the psalm itself focuses upon the power and rule that he has established through mankind. In this manner, divine and human rule are brought into direct relation with each other.

The psalmist highlights the weakness of the instruments that YHWH uses for the manifestation of his strength. By YHWH’s strength, he has established babes and infants as a means to silence the enemy and the avenger (verse 2), much as he established the land as a barricade against the tumult of the sea. Likewise, it is by means of the frailty of the ‘human being’ and the ‘mortal’ that YHWH establishes dominion over his works.

The psalmist lightly sketches the cosmology that we encounter in more detail in Genesis 1 as the background for his exploration of the crowning events of verses 26-28, within which the creation and establishment of humankind is narrated. From the ‘glory above the heavens’ to YHWH’s powerful bounding of the restive forces of creation, from the celestial bodies to the beasts, the birds, and the fish that teem in the oceans, the psalmist gives us a sense of the grandeur of YHWH’s works.

When viewed in relation to YHWH’s own exalted majesty and the splendour of his handiwork in creation, the elevated place given to humanity is all the more remarkable. The intent of the psalmist in emphasizing the frailty and neediness of man is not to make man appear insignificant, but to enable him to express more powerfully the astounding height to which man has been graciously exalted by his Maker.

Man has been made a little lower than God—or ‘the gods’—and all things have been placed under his feet. The dominion of man is a marvellous work of YHWH, both an expression of his power and a means by which he exercises his own rule. For the psalmist, humanity’s rule in the creation is not matter of vaunting self-assertion or independent achievement, but of gracious divine appointment and empowerment.

Although the statements concerning the dominion of the son of man can be read in relation to the more generic power of human persons in the creation, here they may enjoy peculiar salience on account of the context provided by Davidic kingship. In YHWH’s establishment of the throne of David, something of the divinely intended stature of Adam in the creation is revealed. The realities of the original creation, when subjected to the heat of YHWH’s work in Israel’s history, bubble and overflow in delighted praise. In David, we see a glimpse of YHWH’s intent in his creation of man in his image; man takes a junior place alongside the ‘gods’ or angelic figures who rule YHWH’s creation.

The New Testament writers develop these same themes, relating them to the exaltation of the Son of Man—and humanity in him—to sit at the right hand of God (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:27; Hebrews 2:5-9). Once again, creational themes are placed in a redemptive historical or eschatological frame and man’s place in the creation is refracted through the lens of the exalted place given to one specific representative man.

This psalm presents us with an embryonic account of human rule in the creation. Although the dominion of humanity is central to the psalm, it is situated within and established upon the sovereignty of YHWH. Human dominion is one of the Creator’s own mighty works, a means by which he establishes his intended order in his creation. As such, human rule is neither to be despotic nor a law unto itself, but a graciously given status and appointed means of fulfilling YHWH’s own good purpose for his manifold creatures.

Righteous human rule is part of, embodies, and, in YHWH’s providence, maintains the created order. As we see elsewhere in the Scriptures, human authority is an instrument of YHWH, either a blessed channel of his righteousness and justice or a rebellious tool to be judged. Such a creational vision of human rule humbles our aggrandizing political myths, overturning notions of politics as a product of pure human will and autonomous power.

Even as it arrests human pride, the recognition that mankind’s dominion is a reality established by the Creator for the service and the preservation of his works confers upon man’s rule an exalted dignity it could not otherwise enjoy. Mankind has been appointed as the chief servant in YHWH’s house and must exercise rule accordingly, as those ministering and thoroughly responsible to YHWH’s providential sovereignty. This creational sovereignty of mankind has been fulfilled in the rule of Jesus Christ, the Son over the house.

As we approach the task of contemporary politics, we need to follow the example of the psalmist in situating human rule firmly within the frame of God’s own sovereignty in his creation. God has determined to manifest his power through human weakness, through babes and infants, and even through judges and kings. Where we can so easily fall into the trap of regarding politics as a purely human endeavour undertaken for solely human ends and glory, Psalm 8 alerts us to God’s gracious providential establishment of human dominion for the good of his creation and the fulfilment of his purposes for mankind.

The claim that human dominion and politics is a creation of God has significant ramifications for our posture towards the various forms of human rule and authority. It deepens our sense of the weight and honour of our calling to exercise dominion in human society and the wider creation, while also heightening our apprehension of our profound responsibility to a higher sovereignty to which all our rule is subject and upon which it is dependent. The juxtaposition of divinely appointed power and human weakness humbles arrogant ambition, encouraging a spirit of meekness and modest service in our politics.

Alastair Roberts is the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture.

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