Theme: Looking Up or Looking Down
In this week’s lessons we look at how mankind is described in relationship to God, and note how the Lord Jesus Christ fulfills this psalm.
Scripture: Psalm 8:1-9
But here is the interesting thing. When the psalm gets around to describing man specifically, it describes him as being “a little lower than the heavenly beings” rather than “a little higher than the beasts.” It could have been written the other way around. If man really is a mediating being, as the psalm maintains, it would have been equally accurate to have described him as slightly higher than the beasts rather than as slightly lower than the angels. But it does not, and the reason it does not is that, although men and women have been given a position midway between the angels and the beasts, it is nevertheless man’s special privilege and duty to look upward to the angels (and beyond the angels to God, in whose image women and men have been made), and so become increasingly like God, rather than downward to the beasts, with the result that they become increasingly beast-like in their behavior.
The fact that human beings have been made in God’s image and are to become increasingly like God is even clearer in Hebrew than in our English versions. For in the Hebrew text the word in verse 5 translated “heavenly beings” is actually Elohim, the plural word for God.
This is an interesting fact. In some places Elohim obviously does mean “spirit beings,” as in 1 Samuel 29:13, where the witch of Endor says that she sees “spirits” (elohim) emerging from the ground. Psalm 82 also uses the word in this way (cf. vv. 1, 6). For this reason, and perhaps also for the sake of modesty, not wanting to say that men and women are only “a little lower than God,” the Septuagint translators of the Old Testament used the Greek word for “angels” in Psalm 8. It was this translation that the author of Hebrews picked up when he referred the text to Jesus, saying that in the incarnation God made him a little lower than the angels for the purpose of achieving our salvation. This translation probably influenced the New International Version in its similar rendering of Psalm 8:5.3
“Nevertheless, the translation God is almost certainly correct,” as Craigie and other commentators maintain.4 This is because the allusions of verses 5-8 are drawn from Genesis 1, and in that chapter, not only is Elohim the word exclusively used for God, the emphasis of the chapter (so far as man is concerned) is on his being made in God’s image. “Then God (Elohim) said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air” (Gen. 1:26). In light of that chapter there can be little doubt that David is linking men and women to God, being slightly less than him in whose image they are made.
But here is the sad thing. Although made in God’s image and ordained to become increasingly like the God to whom they look, men and women have turned their backs on God. And since they will not look upward to God, which is their privilege and duty, they actually look downward to the beasts and so become increasingly like them.
The great example here is King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, whose story is told in Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar turned his back on God, saying as he looked out over the great capital of his empire, “Is this not the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty” (Dan. 4:30)? It was a classical statement of what we today call secular humanism, describing creation as of man, by man and for man’s glory. The words were still on his lips when a voice came from heaven saying, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like cattle. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes” (vv. 31, 32).
And so it was. Nebuchadnezzar became insane–it is always insanity to take the glory of God for oneself, putting oneself in the place of God–and he was driven out to live with and behave like the wild animals.
Why is it significant that man is described as “a little lower than the heavenly beings”?
How does Nebuchadnezzar serve as an illustration for how people look down rather than up?
Reflection: Make a list of ways you have recently noticed men and women behaving more like the creatures of the earth rather than like God.
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3See the note, however, in which the translators also suggest the words “than God.”
4Peter C. Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 19, Psalms 1-50 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), p. 108. So also H. C. Leupold, Exposition of the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969), p. 107.