Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
This psalm has been aptly called a lyric echo of the first chapter of Genesis. There is no reason to doubt the traditional ascription to David. This exquisite little poem is a record of his shepherd’s days, when, under the midnight sky of Palestine, brilliant with stars, he mused on things deep and high, on the mystery of the universe and man’s place in it, his relation to the Creator on the one hand, to the rest of creation on the other.
The form of the poem is perfect and yet simple. A spontaneous burst of praise to the Creator of the glorious world is followed by the inevitable feeling of the insignificance and weakness of man, compared with the majestic march of the shining worlds above him. But like a flash of light comes the claim of kinship with the Author of them all, and a twofold proof of this heavenly origin: the lisping tongues of infants, which can impose silence on those who impiously question it; and the sovereignty man asserts by his superior endowments over the rest of living creation.
Title.—Upon Gittith. (Comp. Psalms 81, 84) The LXX. and Vulg. render, “for the wine-presses,” as if the word were gittôth; and this has been explained to refer either to the festivities of the vintage time, or to the prophecies which describe how the nations would be trodden down as in a wine-press. Another derivation makes it a kind of flute, from a word meaning “to hollow out.” But the most probable and now generally accepted explanation connects it with Gath, the Philistine town. A Talmudic paraphrase for “upon Gittith” is “on the kinnor which was brought from Gath.” According to this, it was a Philistine lute, just as there was an Egyptian flute and a Doric lyre. Others think it refers to a particular tune, perhaps the march of the Gittite guard (2Samuel 15:18).
From a comparison of the three psalms so inscribed, it cannot be a title having any reference to the subject.
To the chief Musician upon Gittith, A Psalm of David. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth! who hast set thy glory above the heavens.(1) O Lord our Lord.—Jehovah our Lord. For the first time in the Book of Psalms the personal feeling is consciously lost sight of in a larger, a national, or possibly human feeling. The poet recognises God’s relation to the whole of mankind as to the whole material creation. Thus the hymn appropriately lent itself to the use of the congregation in public worship, though it does not follow that this was the object of its composition.
Excellent.—The LXX. and Vulg., “wonderful.” Better, great or exalted.
Who hast set . . .—The. translation of this clause is uncertain. It must be determined by the parallelism, and by the fact that the poet, in Psalm 8:4, merely expands the thought he had before expressed. There is plainly some error in the text since it is ungrammatical. The proposed emendations vary considerably. The ancient versions also disagree. The Authorised Version may be retained, since it meets all the requirements of the context, and is etymologically correct; though, grammatically, Ewald’s correction, which also agrees with the Vulg., is preferable, “Thou whose splendour is raised above the heavens.” The precise thought in the poet’s mind has also been the subject of contention. Some take the clause to refer to the praises raised in Jehovah’s honour higher than the heavens, a thought parallel to the preceding clause; others, to the visible glory spread over the sky. Others see an antithesis. God’s glory is displayed on earth in His name, His real glory is above the heavens. Probably only a general sense of the majesty of Him “that is higher than the highest” (Ecclesiastes 5:8), and “whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain” (1Kings 8:27), occupied the poet’s mind.
Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou ordained strength because of thine enemies, that thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.(2) Babes and sucklings.—Better, young children and sucklings. A regular phrase to describe children from one to three years old (1Samuel 15:3; 1Samuel 22:19). The yonek, or suckling, denotes an earlier stage of the nursing period (which, with Hebrew mothers, sometimes extended over three years, 2 Maccabees 7:27, and on Talmudic authority could not be less than two years) than the ôlel, which is applied to children able to play about on the streets (Jeremiah 9:21; Lamentations 4:4). (See Dr. Ginsburg on Eastern Manners and Customs: Bible Educator, i. 29.)
Ordained strength . . .—At the first glance, the LXX. translation, as quoted in Matthew 21:16 (see Note, New Testament Commentary), “Thou hast perfected praise,” seems to be correct, from a comparison with Psalm 29:1, where strength translates the same Hebrew word, and plainly means homage. This expresses, doubtless, part of the thought of the poet, that in a child’s simple and innocent wonder lies the truest worship; that God accomplishes the greatest things and reveals His glory by means of the weakest instruments—a thought which was seized upon by our Lord to condemn the want of spirituality in the scribes and Pharisees. But the context, speaking the language of war, seems to demand the primitive meaning, stronghold or defence. The truth which the Bible proclaims of the innate divinity of man, his essential likeness to God, is the principal subject of the poet; and in the princely heart of innocence of an unspoilt child he sees, as Wordsworth saw, its confirmation. “Trailing clouds of glory do we come, From God who is our home.” Such a proof is strong even against the noisy clamour of apostate men, who rebel against the Divine government, and lay upon God the blame of their aberration from His order. “His merry babbling mouth provides a defence of the Creator against all the calumnies of the foe” (Ewald). Others think rather of the faculty of speech, and the wonder and glory of it.
The avenger.—Properly, him who avenges himself.
When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;(3) When I consider.—Literally, see, scan.
Ordained.—Or, as in margin, founded—i.e., created, formed; but the English word aptly introduces the idea of order in the kosmos. Comp.:—
“Know the cause why music was ordained?
In our humid climate we can hardly imagine the brilliance of an Eastern night. “There,” writes one of a night in Palestine, “it seems so, bearing down upon our heads with power are the steadfast splendours of that midnight sky;” but, on the other hand, the fuller revelations of astronomy do more than supply the place of this splendour, in filling us with amazement and admiration at the vast spaces the stars fill, and their mighty movements in their measured orbits.
What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?(4) Man . . . son of man . . .—The first, possibly, with suggestion of frailty; the second to his life derived from human ancestry. The answer to this question must always touch the two poles, of human frailty on the one hand, and the glory of human destiny on the other. “O the grandeur and the littleness, the excellence and the corruption, the majesty and the meanness, of man.”—Pascal.
The insignificance of man compared to the stars is a common theme of poetry; but how different the feeling of the Hebrew from that of the modern poet, who regrets the culture by which he had been
“Brought to understand
A sad astrology, the boundless plan
That makes you tyrants in your iron skies,
Innumerable, pitiless, passionless eyes,
Cold fires, yet with power to burn and brand
His nothingness into man.”—TENNYSON: Maud.
And yet, again, how far removed from the other pole of modern feeling, which draws inanimate nature into close sympathy with human joy or sorrow, expressed in the following words:—“When I have gazed into these stars, have they not looked down upon me as if with pity from their serene spaces, like eyes glistening with heavenly tears over the little lot of man?”—Carlyle.
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.(5) The Hebrew poet dwells on neither of these aspects, but at once passes on to the essential greatness of man and his superiority in creation, by reason of his moral sense and his spiritual likeness to God. Another English poet sings to the stars:—
“’Tis to be forgiven
That, in our aspirations to be great,
Our destinies o’erleap their mortal state,
And claim a kindred with you.”
—BYRON: Childe Harold.
But the psalmist looks beyond the bright worlds to a higher kinship with God Himself.
For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels.—Literally, thou makest him want but a little from God: i.e., hast made him little less than Divine. We should read, however, instead of “for thou,” “and thou hast made,” &c. The Authorised Version follows the LXX. in a translation suggested doubtlessly by the desire to tone down an expression about the Deity that seemed too bold. That version was adopted in his quotation by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Hebrews 2:6-7). (See Note in New Testament Commentary.) Undoubtedly the word Elohim, being used to express a class of supernatural beings, includes angels as well as the Divine being (1Samuel 28:13; Zechariah 12:8). But here there is nothing in the context to suggest limitation to one part of that class.
Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:(6) The poet continues, in a rapturous strain, to complete the cycle of animated nature, and to describe man’s kingship over all other created beings. For St. Paul’s expansion of the thought, and elevation of it into yet a higher sphere, see 1Corinthians 15:27.
The fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.(8) And whatsoever passeth.—This is more poetical than to render “the fish of the sea who pass,” &c.
Paths of the seas.—Comp. Homer’s ὑγρὰ κέλευθα. The repetition of the first thought of the poem, binding’ the contents together as in a wreath, is the one touch of art it displays.