The responsorial psalm for Pentecost is from Psalm 8, a hymn that marvels at the smallness of human beings in creation and the royal dignity and power that God has graciously bestowed upon them.
When I behold your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you set in place — what is man that you should be mindful of him, or the son of man that you should care for him?
The psalmist is depicted as gazing at the night sky, spellbound by its magnificence, marveling first at the wonders of the universe and then at the extraordinary role humankind plays within it.
The splendor of the moon and the stars, once thought to be celestial deities themselves, brings the psalmist to stand in wonder of God’s plan for women and men on earth.
A close look at the language reveals two characterizations that underscore the comparison of the scope of the heavens with the frailty of human life:
- “Man” is ĕnôsh, a word that emphasizes human weakness, particularly human mortality.
- In parallel construction with ĕnôsh is ben-’ādām, “son of man,” a secondary characterization of human weakness.
There is no comparison between the magnificent and radiant bodies in the night sky and the puny, short-lived human beings, yet God is mindful of them and cares for them.
This provident attention would be enough to glorify the goodness of God, but there is much more that causes the psalmist to stand in wonder.
You have made him little less than the angels, and crowned him with glory and honor.
What is often translated as “angels” is actually the Hebrew plural for “gods” (’ĕlōhîm). The psalmist here claims that human beings have been created just a little less than supernatural beings, and in that capacity they are given authority to rule over creation (Genesis 1:26-28).
The language used paints a picture of royalty. Human beings are crowned, as royalty is crowned. They are endowed with honor and glory, two characteristics closely associated with ancient near Eastern monarchy.
You have given him rule over the works of your hands, putting all things under his feet: all sheep and oxen, yes, and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fishes of the sea, and whatever swims the paths of the seas.
The other creatures are put under their feet, an image that might imply conquest, but also suggests the fealty subjects owe their rulers. The depiction in this psalm is most likely one of royal rule, not military victory.
This royal imagery is presumably patterned after the royal rule that existed in Israel. As comprehensive as the control of ancient Israel’s monarchy might have been, it was all delegated. The kings and queens were merely vice-regents, agents of God’s will, exercising dominion in God’s stead, according to God’s plan as set forth in the law.
Similarly, the weak and fragile human beings, who were given control over the creatures of the earth, do not rule autonomously. The realm that was put in their charge is not theirs; it’s God’s. While their choice by God is an incalculable honor, it is also a tremendous responsibility.