Penitential Psalms: Psalm 8–Closing the Overture

Psalm 8 is in no way penitential. It is included here in this packet of penitential psalms because it is part of an unbreakable chain that stretches from psalm 6, which is considered penitential. In Psalms 6 the reader finds the intense struggle that is the Passion of the King, in Psalm 7 the tide begins to turn and hints of victory glimmer, and in Psalm 8, the victory celebration breaks out in peals of joyous song.

If the entire Psalter were a musical production or dramatic presentation, Psalms 1 through 8 would be the introduction, or overture, of the Psalter as a whole.

Psalms 1 and 2 are the overture proper. They introduce the theme of good versus evil, the main characters, and the final outcome. Psalms 3 and 4 present the protagonist and his antagonists in greater detail. Psalms 5 and 6 display the seriousness of the struggle. The audience sees the weakness of the protagonist and the very real dangers of death that confront him. In Psalm 7 the protagonist successfully fights back and hints of the final resolution are given, though not the climax itself. Psalm 8 bursts through as a celebratory resolution, though details of the climax are omitted.

Superimposing the Gospel narrative on top of this dramatic sequence, as a transparency or see-through photographic layer, early Christians could perceive the following:

  1. Psalm 1–the theme of God’s choosing goodness and destroying evil
  2. Psalm 2–the main characters: God, his Son the King, and the antagonistic rulers of the earth; the sovereign victory of God and his Son over the rebels; the opportunity of repentance God offers his enemies
  3. Psalms 3 and 4–the presence of the Son/King as a man on earth; his faith and confidence in the help and victory of God against his enemies
  4. Psalm 5–an earnest prayer by the Son for help from God and his faith that God will help him triumph over his enemies
  5. Psalm 6–a hard look at the weakness of the Son as his enemies, and perhaps God himself (how can this be?), attack him so fiercely that death draws near; his earnest prayer to God for help; an assurance that God heard and will turn back his enemies.
  6. Psalm 7–the Son/King faces and considers the issue squarely, “Have I sinned against my enemies or not?” That is, “Are my enemies justified in their persecution of me?” The answer is that the Son is innocent, and consequently, God will fight for him by turning the wickedness of the wicked against themselves, so that their own evil deeds fall upon their own heads.
  7. Psalm 8–a joyful song of praise to the victorious God of creation wonders whose original intention for creation is fulfilled

While the first eight psalms give a great introduction to the Gospel narrative as a whole, they do not give away spoilers of the details of the death and resurrection of the Son. These are all but spelled out as the Psalter progresses.

Details of Psalm 8

First, the celebratory and victorious nature of Psalm 8 can be appreciated without resolving the question, “Who is the speaker?” Is the speaker the singular Son/King addressing God? Is the speaker a chorus of righteous people addressing God about his Son? Could the speaker be a chorus addressing the Son? Could the speaker be a single person addressing God about the Son? Could there be a mixture of these possibilities? These are valid questions. But even if the context and words themselves cannot definitively provide answers, the reader can share in the joyful knowledge that God wins in the end and all is right with the world. For audiences situated in the historical time frame when the psalms were read or performed aloud in liturgical settings, the answer to the question, “Who is speaking?” may have been obvious through the use of costumes, face masks, or simply the physical presence and audible voices of the performer(s) themselves.

Secondly, this psalm enjoys extensive quotation in the New Testament.

In the following quotation, Jesus responds to the praise of the children for himself as “Son of David” with a quotation from Psalm 8:2 (Septuagint). The manner in which he uses the quotation implies that the “you” and “yourself” of the psalm make reference to him. That is, Jesus places himself as the subject of Psalm 8, either directly so, or as his being identifiable with God.

From the mouths of children and nursing babies you have ordained praise on account of your adversaries, so that you might put an end to the vindictive enemy. (Psalm 8:2 NET)

15 But when the chief priests and the experts in the law saw the wonderful things he did and heard the children crying out in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became indignant 16 and said to him, “Do you hear what they are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes. Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of children and nursing infants you have prepared praise for yourself’?” (Matthew 21:15-16 NET)

The New Testament quotes Psalm 8:6 in two locations. In both, the writers interpret the words of the psalm as referring directly to Christ, who is the Son/King of Psalm 2.

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5 Thou madest him a little less than angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour; 6 and thou hast set him over the works of thy hands: thou hast put all things under his feet: (Psalm 8:4-6 LXE)

It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? 7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, 8 putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. (Hebrews 2:6-8 ESV)

For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. (1Corinthians 15:27 ESV)

What About the “Penitential” Psalm 6? 

In the context provided for Psalm 6, as detailed above in this blog and in the past several blogs, does this psalm stand out as being noteworthy for a theme of confession, sorrow, and repentance for sin? Is it singularly “penitential” in nature? This author thinks not. Taken as a whole, certain psalms excepted, such as Psalm 51, the first person speaker of the Psalter is shown again and again to be righteously innocent. And yet, the Gospel tells us that the Son/King died as a sacrificial lamb for the sins of many. How would an Old Testament author poetically express the thoughts, feelings, and prayers of a sacrificial Lamb who was “made sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21) for us, yet was himself righteous and completely innocent? And yet Jesus after his resurrection told his disciples that the Psalms achieve just this (Luke 24). How they do so is what this blog explores. 

Link to the beginning of the chain, Psalms 6-8

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