Last Sunday, we heard the part of Psalm 104 that extols creation. This Sunday we will hear the beautiful first creation story in Genesis, followed by Psalm 8– and so the praise of creation continues on this coming Trinity Sunday.
This praise psalm is unusual because it doesn’t begin with some version of the “Praise the Lord” invitation but just goes directly into praise of God’s name. Remember that names are very powerful, in the culture that produced these psalms and even in our own day. As 1 Samuel 25:25 says, “Like his name, so is he.” Throughout scriptures, names are often very symbolic as a reflection of that: Adam means “man,” and also “from earth;” Abram (“exalted father”) becomes Abraham (“father of a multitude”); Jacob (“supplanter”) becomes Israel (“one who wrestled with God”); Naomi (“pleasantness”) asks to be called Mara (“bitter”) in her grief over her dead husband and sons; Simon (“listen”) becomes Cephas (“stone”); Saul (“prayed for”) becomes Paul (“humble”); and so on.
In our own time, the popularity of names come and go, but anyone who has ever had a child remembers poring over the baby name books and rejecting names based on their meanings. Adam had the right to name the animals as a sign of his power and dominion over them, as is alluded to in vv. 7-9 of Psalm 8.
Names not only tell who you are, but often where you are from, what you do, whose child you are. A Jewish Midrash states: “In life, you discover that people are called by three names: One is the name the person is called by his father and mother; one is the name people call him; and one is the name he acquires for himself. The best one is the one he acquires for himself.”
And even God is known by many names or descriptors. I have collected names for God from around the world, and there are some beautiful ones in translation. Hebrew alone gives us names such as Oseh Shalom, which means “Maker of Peace; Aleim (“The One Who Knows”), and Yotsehr ‘Or (“Fashioner of Light”). Islam gives us al-Ghafur (“The Ever Forgiving”) and an-Noor (“The Light”). The author of Caedmon’s Hymn called God “Guardian of Heaven,” while another hymn I happened upon referred to God as “Light of My Heart,” which is also used in Hinduism. There are times when I simply meditate on one of these names as part of my devotional time.
God is referred to by many names in scripture: Elohim, El Shaddai, Yahweh (sometimes rendered Jehovah), Adonai, or Hashem—which literally means “the Name.” God’s name is recognized as having such power that some Jewish people don’t write “God” but instead “G-d.”
That same reverence for names and their power runs throughout this Psalm. God is so mighty, as reflected through God’s works, that the psalmist underscores the absolute insignificance of humans (v. 5). Thus, God’s singling out of humanity is even more amazing and unmerited. The honor of God’s love for us places us just below the ranks of heaven (v. 6).
So we receive this important reminder: despite the importance of names, the last verse of Psalm 8 reminds us we are raised up only through the support and limits of God, not through our own efforts. In the end of Psalm 8, much like at the end of our lives, what is most important is humility and gratitude for all that we have received and been blessed with from the hand of God, the Almighty, the Merciful, the Creator of All That Is.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a writer, musician, and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.