Written by David, Psalm 8 extols the majesty of the Lord and reaffirms that man is expected to rule over God’s creation.
The first and last verse of the psalm both declare the greatness of God—“O Lord, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:1, 9). So God’s glory is at the forefront. But this psalm also declares the exalted position mankind has in God’s purposes concerning the earth. Psalm 8:4-8 states:
What is man that You take thought of him,
And the son of man that You care for him?
5 Yet You have made him a little lower than God,
And You crown him with glory and majesty!
6 You make him to rule over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet,
7 All sheep and oxen,
And also the beasts of the field,
8 The birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea,
Whatever passes through the paths of the seas.
Psalm 8 draws upon the truth of Genesis 1:26-28 that God created man to “rule” and “subdue” the world. In fact Psalm 8 functions much like a commentary on Genesis 1:26-28. Even in a fallen world man’s right to rule over creation has not been revoked, even though man in his sinful state is not able to fulfill it as he should (see Genesis 3).
Psalm 8 in the New Testament
Psalm 8 is explicitly quoted four times in the New Testament—Matthew 21:16; Hebrews 2:5-8; 1 Corinthians 15:27; and Ephesians 1:22. Thus, to understand the Bible’s storyline, accurately comprehending Psalm 8 and how the New Testament writers use this psalm are important.
The first reference to Psalm 8 occurs in Matthew 21:16. After Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem days before His death, the Pharisees were upset that some children in the temple were proclaiming, “Hosanna to the Son of David” (Matt. 21:15). Verse 16 then says:
and said to Him, “Do You hear what these children are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies You have prepared praise for Yourself’?”
Jesus quoted Psalm 8:2 to draw upon the principle that God will use the words of babies to speak truth and confound those who think they are wise. With Matthew 21 young children speak wisely against the skepticism of the religious leaders. So the use of Psalm 8 in Matthew 21:16 is contextual since Matthew 21:16 reaffirms a principle evident in Psalm 8:2.
The three other quotations of Psalm 8 in the New Testament focus upon Psalm 8:6.
We start with Hebrews 2 since this chapter involves the most significant quotation of Psalm 8. The writer of Hebrews quotes three verses of Psalm 8 (vv. 4-6), and offers commentary on when the conditions of Hebrews 8 will be fulfilled. Hebrews 2:5-8 reads:
For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. 6 But one has testified somewhere, saying,
“What is man, that You remember him?
Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him?
7 “You have made him for a little while lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
And have appointed him over the works of Your hands;
8 You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”
For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.
This Hebrews’ passage is consistent with the message of Psalm 8, namely that man possesses an exalted position that involves ruling over the creation. Yet the writer of Hebrews also offers inspired commentary concerning when Psalm 8 will be fulfilled. He makes clear that man’s rule over the world will occur in the future. It is not happening now. This is evident by the words “world to come” (Heb. 2:5), and by the fact that at the end of verse 8 he says, “We do not yet see all things subjected to him.” Even though man still possesses the right to rule creation, we do not yet see the successful rule of man over it. Man’s successful rule over creation awaits the future.
Hebrews 2:9 then brings up Jesus who suffered and is now exalted:
But we do see Him who was made for a little while lower than the angels, namely, Jesus, because of the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone.
Man’s successful reign over the earth cannot occur while he is estranged from God. But Jesus, the ultimate representative of mankind, suffered and “taste[d] death for everyone” so that the successful reign of man over the earth can occur. This shows that the cross is related to the coming kingdom. Without the cross there would be no kingdom.
In sum, the message of Hebrews 2:5-8 and its quotation of Psalm 8:4-6 is that mankind is still destined to rule the earth but this has not happened yet. But it will occur in the “world to come.” This fulfillment is tied to Jesus who tasted death for everyone so that man can one day fulfill his mandate to rule the earth successfully. The following two verses below show further how this relates to Jesus.
1 Corinthians 15:27
In 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 Paul explained God’s three-stage resurrection program and how this relates to the kingdom of God. First, there is Jesus’ resurrection. Second there will be a resurrection of believers with Jesus’ second coming. Then, third, there will be a resurrection associated with “the end” which comes after Jesus’ has reigned and defeated all His enemies (see Rev. 20:5). In verses 27-28 Paul focuses on the issue of “subjection.” He quotes Psalm 8:6:
For He has put all things in subjection under His feet. But when He says, “All things are put in subjection,” it is evident that He is excepted who put all things in subjection to Him. When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself also will be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.
Paul points out that Psalm 8:6 teaches that God “put all things in subjection” to man. The only exception to this “subjection” is God the Father. The Father is not subject to the Son but the Son is to the Father. And when the Son has ruled successfully He will hand His kingdom over to the Father “so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24, 28).
But there is an interesting development in verses 27-28. Whereas Psalm 8 and Hebrews 2:5-8 focus mostly on mankind’s right to rule, Paul ties Psalm 8:6 specifically to Jesus. So why does Paul take a passage about mankind in general and say it will be fulfilled with the individual person of Jesus? Did Paul misinterpret Psalm 8?
No. Paul is not using Psalm 8 in a non-contextual manner. The key here is understanding the biblical concept of “corporate headship” or “corporate representation” in which a single representative can act on behalf of the many. Back in Genesis 3:15 when the first man sinned, God said there would be a battle between the seed of the woman (righteous mankind) and the seed of the evil power behind the serpent (unrighteous mankind). Yet from the seed of the woman would come a “He” who would reverse the curse and defeat the power behind the serpent (Satan) one day. So Genesis 3:15 involves both mankind in general and a coming single deliverer from mankind. This deliverer is Jesus, the Last Adam (see 1 Cor. 15:45).
Since Jesus is the sinless and perfect representative who is able to restore mankind, Paul views Jesus as the one who will fulfill the Psalm 8 (and Genesis 1:26-28) expectation of a successful rule of man from and over the earth. Yet this does not leave out mankind. Other verses indicate that saved people in Jesus will also participate in Jesus’ rule upon the earth. For example, Revelation 5:10 states: “You have made them [believers in Jesus] to be a kingdom and they will reign upon the earth.” Revelation 2:26-27 and 3:21 also teach this idea of believers sharing in Jesus’ coming kingdom reign on the earth.
So does the fulfillment of Psalm 8 apply to mankind in general or Jesus? The answer is both. Jesus as the Last Adam and federal head of mankind will fulfill Psalm 8 and Genesis 1:26-28 and share His reign with those in union with Him.
In Ephesians 1:19 Paul says Christians have the power of God working in their lives, the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. He then said Jesus is now at the right hand of God “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (1:21). Then in verse 22, he says, “And He [God] put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church.” This draws upon Psalm 8:6.
Paul, with Ephesians 1:22, links Psalm 8:6 to Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate man who has been granted all authority at the right hand of the Father and will one day exercise this authority over the world (see Rev. 19:15; Matt. 19:28; 25:31). So like Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:27 and the writer of Hebrews in Hebrews 2:5-9, Jesus is linked with the fulfillment of the Psalm 8 expectation, even though the fulfillment of Psalm 8 awaits the future.
Psalm 8 is quoted four times in the New Testament showing that its message is important for understanding the Bible’s storyline. All uses of Psalm 8 in the New Testament are contextual and consistent with the meaning of this psalm. Jesus in Matthew 21:16 draws upon the Psalm 8:2 principle that God will use babies to speak the truth and confound the wise. The other three focus on Psalm 8:6. Hebrews 2:5-8; 1 Corinthians 15:27; and Ephesians 1:22 quote Psalm 8:6 contextually to affirm that mankind is destined for a successful reign upon the earth. Hebrews 2:5-8 declares that Psalm 8 has not been fulfilled yet, but it will be in “the world to come.” Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:27 and Ephesians 1:22 connects Psalm 8 with Jesus and in doing so reveals that the fulfillment of the Psalm 8 expectation will occur because of Jesus. Because of sin and the fall, man cannot fulfill the Psalm 8 expectation on his own. But mankind’s rule over creation will occur because of the ultimate man, the Last Adam—Jesus.
Reposted, with permission. (For more on Psalm 8 and the kingdom of God see Michael’s new book, He Will Reign Forever: A Biblical Theology of the Kingdom of God.) Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.
Michael J. Vlach, Ph.D. (Twitter: @mikevlach) is Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary where he has been teaching full time since 2006. Michael specializes in the areas of Systematic Theology, Historical Theology, Apologetics, and World Religions. Dr. Vlach was awarded the “Franz-Delitzsch Prize 2008” for his dissertation, “The Church as a Replacement of Israel: An Analysis of Supersessionism.” He blogs here.