General Audience Meditation on Psalm 8

On Mankind´s Proper Sovereignty Over Creation

Share this Entry

VATICAN CITY, JUNE 26, 2002 ( Here is a translation of John Paul II´s address at today´s general audience, which he dedicated to a meditation on Psalm 8, in which God is asked: “What are humans that you are mindful of them?”

* * *

1. “Man …, at the heart of this enterprise, is revealed to us as gigantic. He seems to be divine, not in himself, but in his beginning and in his end. Honor, therefore, to man, honor to his dignity, to his spirit, to his life.” With these words, in July 1969, Paul VI entrusted to the American astronauts leaving for the moon the text of Psalm 8, which was just proclaimed, so that it would enter into the cosmic spaces (Insegnamenti VII [1969], pp. 493-494).

In fact, this hymn is a celebration of man, a minute creature when compared to the immensity of the universe, a fragile “reed” to use a famous image of the great philosopher Blaise Pascal (Pensieri, No. 264). And yet, he is a “thinking reed” who can understand creation, insofar as he is lord of creation, “crowned” by God himself (see Psalm 8:6). As is often the case with hymns exalting the Creator, Psalm 8 begins and ends with a solemn antiphon addressed to the Lord, whose magnificence is disseminated in the universe: “O Lord, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!” (see verses 2, 10).

2. The body of the canticle in and of itself seems to assume a nocturnal atmosphere, with the moon and stars that light up in the sky. The first strophe of the hymn (see verses 2-5) is dominated by the confrontation of God, man and the cosmos. First of all, the Lord appears on the scene, whose glory is sung by the heavens, but also by the lips of humanity. The praise that rises spontaneously on the lips of children cancels and confounds the presumptuous discourses of those who deny God (see verse 3). They are described as “foes, enemies, avengers,” because they delude themselves by challenging and opposing the Creator with their reason and actions (see Psalm 13[14]:1).

Then, immediately after, the impressive scene of a starry night opens. In face of such an infinite horizon the eternal question arises: “What are humans?” (Psalm 8:5). The first and immediate answer speaks of nullity, either in relation to the immensity of the heavens or, above all, with regard to the majesty of the Creator. In fact, the Psalmist says, the heavens are “yours,” the moon and the stars were “set” by you and are “the work of your fingers” (see verse 4). This last expression is beautiful, rather than the more common “works of your hands” (see verse 7): God has created this colossal reality with the ease and refinement of an embroidery or chisel, with the light touch of a harpist who glides his fingers on the chords.

3. The first reaction, therefore, is of dismay: how can God “remember” and be “mindful” of this creature who is so fragile and little (see verse 5)? But here is the great surprise: God has given man, a weak creature, a wonderful dignity: he has made him a little less than the angels or, as can also be translated from the Hebrew original, a little less than a god (see verse 6).

Thus we enter the second strophe of the Psalm (see verse 6-10). Man is seen as the royal lieutenant of the Creator himself. God, indeed, has “crowned” him as a viceroy, giving him a universal lordship: “You have … put all things at their feet” and the adjective “all” resounds while the various creatures file past (see verse 7-9). However, this dominion is not conquered by man´s capacity, fragile and limited reality, nor is it obtained either by a victory over God, as the Greek myth of Prometheus intended. It is a dominion given by God: to the fragile and often egotistic hands of man is entrusted the entire horizon of creatures, so that he will preserve them in harmony and beauty, use them but not abuse them, reveal their secrets and develop their potential.

As the pastoral constitution “Gaudium et Spes” of Vatican Council II states, “man was created ´to the image of God,´ is capable of knowing and loving his Creator, and was appointed by Him as master of all earthly creatures that he might subdue them and use them to God´s glory” (No. 12).

4. Unfortunately, the dominion of man, affirmed in Psalm 8, can be misunderstood and deformed by selfish man, who often has revealed himself to be a mad tyrant rather than a wise and intelligent ruler. The Book of Wisdom warns against deviations of this kind, when it specifies that God has “established man to rule the creatures produced by you, to govern the world in holiness and justice” (Wisdom 9:2-3). Although in a different context, Job also refers to our Psalm to recall in particular human weakness, which does not merit so much attention from God: “What is man, that you make much of him, or pay him any heed? You observe him with each new day” (Job 7:17-18). History documents the evil that human freedom disseminates in the world with environmental devastations and with the most terrible social injustices.

As opposed to human beings who humiliate their own kind and creation, Christ appears as the perfect man, “´crowned with glory and honor´ because he suffered death … that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). He reigns over the universe with that dominion of peace and love that prepares the new world, the new heavens and the new earth (see 2 Peter 3:13). What is more, his royal authority — as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews suggests, applying Psalm 8 to him — is exercised through the supreme donation of himself in death “for the good of all.”

Christ is not a sovereign who makes himself be served, but who serves and consecrates himself to others: “For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In this way, he recapitulates in himself “all things … in heaven and on earth” (Ephesians 1:10). In this Christological light, Psalm 8 reveals all the force of its message and of its hope, inviting us to exercise our sovereignty over creation not in dominion but in love.

[Translation by ZENIT]

* * *

At the end of the audience, the Pope gave the following summary in English.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Psalm 8 is a hymn praising God, the Creator of the universe, and giving thanks for the sublime dignity bestowed upon man, the guardian of creation. God entrusted the world to men and women, yet this trust has often been abused, through the damage done to the natural environment and through man´s injustice to man. It is Jesus Christ, the new Adam, who reveals the full measure of humanity´s vocation to govern the world. In Christ´s Kingdom all people are invited to exercise their royal dominion over creation, in justice, freedom and selfless love.

I am pleased to greet the Missionary Sisters Servants of the Holy Spirit on the occasion of their General Chapter. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. I also offer special greetings to the many pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Newark and to the students from Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present, especially those from Norway, Sweden, Japan and the United States of America, I cordially invoke joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation