“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth; you have set your glory above the heavens!”
The poet writes these words of Psalm 8 while reflecting on the night sky. Have you ever done that? Have you left city lights behind and marvelled at the stars?
For a couple of years after we were married, Jon and I lived in Cranberry Portage, a small town in northern Manitoba. That first winter we often found ourselves walking through the town long after other lights had gone out. As the community slept, the sky would come alive with northern lights. Ribbons of green or blue or sometimes red light would flow and fold from one horizon to the other. In the bitter cold, we would hold mittened hands and look up and feel like tiny silhouettes against the brilliant lights.
Canadian poet Robert Service was lured to the Yukon in the early 1900s, in the wake of the gold rush. He became famous for poems that captured the essence of life in the north.
His Ballad of the Northern Lights describes the quest of three down-and-out gold diggers whose goal was to stake a claim on the grandest treasure of them all, the source of the northern lights. Like the author of Psalm 8, Service reflected on the night sky’s majesty and lights.
In eager, pulsing violet their wheeling chariots came,
Or they poised above the Polar rim like a coronal of flame.
Whether shivering under the northern lights, scanning a warm California sky, or watching the moon with restless sheep on a Palestinian plain, when you consider the heavens, the work of God’s fingers, you know they are big, they are complex, they are beautiful.
The glorious night sky is the context for the ageless question, “What difference do I make anyways? Do I really matter?”
The King James Bible translates verses 3 and 4: “What is man that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man that thou visitest him?” And even in the asking, the answer is provided. The psalmist knows that the God who places the vast glory in the heavens is the same God who visits people and is mindful of them.
In this psalm, then, first, the big picture: God sets his glory above the heavens. Second, the personal perspective: God is mindful of the details of our lives. And third, the purpose, or, how the first two points fit together: God says of his glorious creation, “It’s all yours.”
In Service’s ballad, the three gold-seekers risk everything for their quest, travelling on tundra and ice, and against all odds, finding a magical frozen crater in the far north. The northern lights radiate into the sky from the depths of that crater.
Like the psalmist, these three miners hear God say, “It’s all yours.”
So, as gold miners do, they stake a claim on the northern lights because in gold rush mentality, ownership is for personal profit. More adventures follow, and eventually one of the three is able to stumble back to civilization, declaring,
And it’s mine, all mine – and say! If you have a hundred plunks to spare, I’ll let you have the chance of your life, I’ll sell you a quarter share.
Psalm 8 understands the purpose of ownership quite differently. In Psalm 8, God shows us his immense creation and says, “It’s all yours. Now, care for my world as my representative. It’s all yours. And I crown you with glory and honour, kings and queens over creation.”
God made us not simply to care for us, but so we could help God care for the world, so we could work with God to bring creation to completion. Psalm 8 challenges us to take this risky, royal mandate to heart, not for personal profit, but to make a difference in this world.
“O Lord our God,” we declare, “you have crowned each one of us with glory and honour. You have given us dominion over the works of your hands; You have put all things under our feet. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
—Mary Anne Isaak is a pastor at College Community Church, Mennonite Brethren, in Clovis, Cal.
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens…. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 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 God, and crowned them with glory and honour. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet… O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! (NRSV)