Where does human value come from? What makes us so special?
We assume the world belongs to us and is here for us to do with as we will. And so we eat whatever we want to eat, live wherever we want to live, go wherever we want to go, and do whatever we want to do with the stuff of this world. But what gives us the right to do these things? Who do we think we are?
Psalm 8 asks the question in another way:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him? (Ps. 8:3-4)
God’s work is stunning and permanent. My work is mediocre and as temporary as I am. So, why does God even pay attention to us? Why does he care?
Psalm 8 answers its own question by meditating on God making us in his image and thereby giving us a unique role within his creation. Even though the term “image of God” doesn’t appear in the psalm, it is very much a reflection on Gen. 1:26-28 —
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
In the ancient Near East, the term “image of God” wasn’t unique to the Hebrew people. Egyptians and others used the same term, generally applying it to kings but sometimes to priests as well. Unlike the verses above, it wasn’t applied to all of humanity, just to the select few and only to men.
The kingly and priestly applications of the term point to its two functions: rule and worship. As the image of a god, a king’s rule was really just an extension of the god’s rule; he was the human representative of the god’s kingship. Similarly, as the image of a god, a priest represented the glory and worship of the god, leading and focusing that worship.
In those two functions, Genesis agrees. We rule God’s world for him. And as we scatter around the world, we voice creation’s praise wherever we go. This is made clear in contrast by the Babel story: The people refuse to scatter so they can make a name for themselves instead of scattering to elevate God’s name wherever they went (Gen. 11:4).
We see these priestly and kingly functions prayed in Psalm 8 as well.
O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens. …
O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:1, 9)
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings [or, “than God”]
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas (Ps. 8:5-8).
Yahweh has put all things under our feet (v. 6). Every creature in every corner of creation bows to our rule as we in turn bow to God’s rule. This is illustrated briefly in the psalm as first land animals then the birds of the heavens and finally the sea creatures are named as human subjects (whenever earth, heavens, and seas are grouped together like this, the entirety of creation is in view).
Now, it’s a tricky business to be in charge of something that doesn’t belong to you. You get all of the rewards of being in charge, but there are certain responsibilities that come when it doesn’t belong to you. You can’t misuse or break it without consequence.
Worship reminds us that the creation isn’t ours. It belongs to God, not us. We use it at his pleasure and had best take care when we use it for our own pleasures.
Worship reminds us that even though we have been crowned with glory and honor, we didn’t crown ourselves. God did. And that crown can be taken away if he so chooses. Our glory and honor are gifts, not rights.
Worship reminds us that we are images of God, not gods ourselves and had better not think of ourselves as gods (even if my dog thinks of me as such).
These are all important thoughts which Psalm 8 brings to mind. But there’s another verse in the psalm which stands by itself and simply fascinates me.
Occasionally, a verse or passage in the Scriptures will stick out like a sore thumb and I’ll wonder what it’s doing there. Verse 2 is like that in Psalm 8. If you pulled it out, you’d never miss it. Never. In fact, it reads better without it than with it. Verse 1 ends with talking about the heavens and v. 3 picks right up with the heavens.
So, what gives? Does it even belong in Psalm 8? Did someone add it in at some point?
There are scholars who have tried to pull apart individual psalms and other parts of the Bible, ascribing different sources and authors to parts of what our Bibles present to us as a whole. And some would see a different hand at work in Ps. 8:2 than in the rest of Psalm 8.
But I see these seeming excursions as something else. They are detours that take me in different directions that I would normally go. As I’ve noted above, Psalm 8 isn’t original when it comes to the kingship and worship aspects of what it means to be image of God. We’ve seen those elements in Genesis 1 and the surrounding cultures of the ancient Near East. But Ps. 8:2 takes us into new territory not found elsewhere when considering image of God.
Here are two takes on it from two great translations, each one bringing out different nuances in the Hebrew. (By the way, you don’t need to know Hebrew or Greek to have a good feel for what the original languages communicate in the Scriptures. You just need a few good translations side by side and you’ll have all of the linguistic options available to the translators.)
Through the praise of children and infants
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger (Ps. 8:2 NIV).
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger (Ps. 8:2 ESV).
What is it that comes out of the mouths of babies and infants? Praise? Not really. Gurgling? Yes. Nonsense? Yep.
The gagas and googoos of babies is a stronghold against God’s enemies? Baby babblings silence the foe and the avenger? How is that?!
Both the foe and the avenger seek death. But the cooing and even the crying of a baby shuts them up, silencing their death work, because life just keeps on coming. Image of God life keeps winning as babies are born.
If you haven’t seen the Clive Owen movie Children of Men, watch it as soon as you’re done reading. If you have seen it or if you don’t mind a spoiler, watch this clip. In it, a battle stops because of a baby. Life triumphs over death.
What are we image-of-God people doing in the world?
We are ruling over creation as God’s lordly caretakers.
We are giving voice to creation’s praise of God as priestly worship leaders.
And we are shutting down the death dealers as we bring new babies into creation, their coos and cries praising God and proclaiming that his life and love will always win the day.