‘Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings‘, according to Psalm 8, come not precocious wisdom and truth – as is the modern common usage of this phrase – but strength, or a bulwark ordained in heaven. The modern rather flippant saying recognises that children pick up and repeat what they hear, and sometimes that repetition is perceived as uncannily prescient or truthful. By 1906, Kipling has one of his characters Kadmiel laughingly declare: “Out of the mouths of babes do we learn.”1
Here, however, the psalmist offers much more weighty ideas; the inner child recognises the wonder of creation; and the very existence of each new child speaks of the power and wonder of human life. Then comes another expression of amazement, albeit one that implicitly acknowledges the reality of ‘feet of clay’. In the grand system of the universe and its myriad stars, as the psalmists sings:
What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than divine, and crowned them with glory and honour.Psalm 8:4, 5
In the cosmology of Psalm 8, as in many others, humankind is a jewel of creation, somewhat less than perfect, yet ‘adorned with glory and honour’ (v.5). Significantly, the creation is placed under our care (v. 6), a responsibility that is not absolved by the loss of the Garden of Eden, however one interprets that tale. As Prof. Tom Wright says:
Though the psalmists were aware as anyone of the darkness within the human heart, Psalm 8 can still gloriously remind us of the human vocation.2Prof. N T Wright
The fact that civilisations over the centuries have named natural phenomena from the constellations to the winds, building tales and myths around them, indicates our empathy and sense of symbiosis in a universal search for the Dreamtime. Ben Myers’ short summary tweet on Psalm 8 is worth repeating here:
The stars are a minor achievement (Your finger-painting). Humanity is Your masterwork; the stars gaze down admiringly.
This is the first psalm in the psalter in which an integral antiphon appears in the text, in the form of an opening and closing doxology that has little to do with the content of the song itself:
O God our sovereign, how great is your Name in all the earth. (1, 9)
Familiar composers including Hassler, Schütz, Gabrieli, Lassus, Purcell and Ravenscroft all line up with interesting classical settings; incentives for such great people must surely have been the fact that the psalm is a popular poem, manageable length, with good content for the composer. In more accessible and modern style:
- The Everett refrain for this psalm in TEP provides a good and easy choice. He notes in his comments that a goodwill message left on the moon in the 1969 landing included this psalm.
- PFAS 8E by Alfred V Fedak is another.3
- A nice Linnea Good chorus called The Height of Heaven fits very well also, with an antiphonal tone that follows a similar attractive chord pattern. Since both lyrics (loosely related to the original text of the psalm but nonetheless inspiring and appropriate) and music were composed by women, it sounds particularly well sung by women and girls.
- 1 Kipling, Rudyard. Puck of Pook’s Hill, ch. 10
- 2 Wright, NT, Finding God in the Psalms, SPCK London 2014, page 50
- 3 The third chord symbol in the refrain should probably be EbΔ (Ebmaj7) rather than Eb7; in the progression from Eb to Cm in bars 1 and 2, the bass note steps down from Eb to D natural to C. An alternative is to flatten the D to conform to the Eb7 symbol, an option encouraged by the fact that it is more unusual to find a semitone passing discord in the bass clef, the Eb note also being present.