Lower Than the Angels: An Examination of Psalm 8

 

Psalm 8 is one of my favorite passages in scripture. Here’s a small sampling of it, as it is translated in the King James Version:

  1. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is Thy name in all the earth! who hast set Thy glory above the heavens.
  2. Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast Thou ordained strength because of Thine enemies, that Thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.
  3. When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained;
  4. What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?
  5. For Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
  6. Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of Thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet:
  7. All sheep and oxen, yeah, and the beasts of the field;
  8. The fowls of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.
  9. O LORD our Lord, how excellent is Thy name in all the earth!”

How awesome is that psalm? Devotees of Adonai cite this passage with reverence and joy in worship, prayer, and study, from devout Jews who recite this psalm during Simchat Torah services to Pope Saint Paul VI, who cited these verses in the Apollo 11 Goodwill Messages. Verse five is one of my favorite parts!

For Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels…

Let’s examine this verse for a moment. According to this verse, human beings are created to be lower than angelic beings — entities like Michael and Gabriel — in some kind of universal hierarchy of spiritual creatures from the heavenly to the hellish.

Is this verse translated correctly, though? From what we read of angels in scripture, this verse seems to be translated correctly. In terms of spiritual potency, humankind appears to be “a little lower than the angels.” Angels have supernatural abilities that we humans do not: they can move unseen1 or appear and act as other human beings2, they are ridiculously powerful3, and they can make wild animals obey them4, among other amazing powers they display in scripture.

The two English translations used by most Christian churches in America5 — the Renaissance era King James Version and the more modern New International Version — translate the phrase in question as “a little lower than the angels”, and many other English Bible translations6 agree with them. Some popular Jewish translations7 also render the verse this way, so this understanding of the verse transcends Christianity’s perspective.8 However, many other versions render this verse quite differently, and how they translate this phrase reveals so much about the beliefs of the translators.

Many, many modern English translations9 render Psalm 8:5 as “a little lower than God or some variation of this phrase. This represents a jarring theological distinction between the beliefs of translators10 and reveals how complicated and controversial11 translating scripture can be.

Which versions are translated correctly, then? Is it “lower than the angels” or “lower than God”?

Check out that same verse in the Masoretic Hebrew text: וַתְּחַסְּרֵהוּ מְּעַט מֵאֱלֹהִים.
(The word in light blue text is the word commonly translated as either “angels” or “God”, depending on the version you’re reading.)

The word commonly used for “angels” in the Masoretic text12 of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible, commonly known as the so-called “Old” Testament) is מלאך or “malach”, meaning “messenger”. (It’s where we get the name “Malachi” from.) Is that word,  the word used in Psalm 8:5? No! Read that Hebrew phrase again: וַתְּחַסְּרֵהוּ מְּעַט מֵאֱלֹהִים. In the Hebrew, the word some English Bible versions translate as “angels” is the word אלהים or “Elohim”, a word usually reserved for God Himself!13

Why do almost all the English translations of the Bible – Jewish or Christian – translate that term as “angels”? Are priests, rabbis and ministers afraid of the idea that mankind may be above the angels in the heavenly hierarchy, only lower on the ladder than God Himself?

I’m not trying to be prideful here – pride was Satan’s great sin, after all – but when they aren’t building themselves up too much, human beings excel at tearing themselves down. We are so afraid of pride that we belittle ourselves to prevent ourselves from being proud. What silly creatures we are!

Let’s look at Psalm 8:5, with that word properly translated:

For Thou hast made him [mankind] a little lower than God…

Whoa. A mind-blowing statement, isn’t that? It’s almost too powerful in its implications, and possibly too threatening to mankind’s religious institutions. Mankind may be above the angels in God’s spiritual hierarchy in some way… Maybe that is why Satan and the other fallen angels hate mankind so? We frail beings of dirt and water were created to rule over them (if not now, then in the future, anyway), and they didn’t approve, so they rebelled. (That’s one theory, anyway.)

Could this be what the showdown at the Garden of Eden was about? A celestial being created to be a servant14 – Satan – wanted to rule instead, so he tricked those created to eventually rule over him – us – into giving him their kingdom…

That’s an interesting concept!15

“Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? and if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?
Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?”
~ I Corinthians 6:2,3 KJV

At the very least, whenever you’re feeling insignificant, think about Psalm 8:5 with this possible interpretation in mind. God created us — as flawed and messy as we can be — to be so close to Him that we will one day govern angels.16

If this interpretation is true, then no one is insignificant.

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;
What is man, that thou art mindful of him?
And the son of man, that thou visitest him?
For thou hast made him but little lower than God,
And crownest him with glory and honor.
~Hebrews 8:3-5 ASV

 

 

Preview image courtesy of Enrique Meseguer of Pixabay.

Footnotes

  1.  Numbers 22 (NIV)

  2.  Genesis 18; Mark 16:5-6; Luke 24:4; Hebrews 13:2 (NIV)

  3.  Psalm 103:20 states “Praise the LORD, you his angels, you mighty ones” in the commonly-used New International Version, though the older King James Version renders the phrase in descriptive terms: “ye His angels, that excel in strength“. Isaiah 37:36 gives us an idea of how strong angels are when one angel (specifically “the angel of the LORD”) slays an army of 185,000 Assyrian warriors! In II Samuel 24:15-16, another angel eliminates 70,000 people and is described as being capable of destroying the city of Jerusalem (the ancient capital city of Israel).

  4.  Daniel 6:19-22 (NIV)

  5.  Wikipedia cites a 2012 study by the Christian Booksellers Association that states that the NIV and KJV respectively are the most purchased English Bible translations in America. A 2014 study by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University and Purdue University lists the KJV as the most read translation (enjoyed by 55% of surveyed Bible readers) while the NIV is the second-most read translation (at 19% readership).

  6.  The Complete Jewish Bible, Darby Translation, Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition, International Children’s Version, Jubilee Bible 2000, Living Bible, New Century Version (and its derivative Expanded Bible), New International Reader’s Version, New Life Version, Tree of Life Version, and the Wycliffe Bible all render the phrase-in-focus in this verse as “lower than the angels”. Naturally, the Bible translations derived from the King James Version (the 21st Century King James Version, the Blue/Red/Gold Letter Edition, the New King James Version, and the Modern English Version) do as well.

  7.  The Isaac Leeser, 1917 Jewish Publication Society, and Chabad.org/Judaica Press translations also use the “lower than the angels” translation of Psalm 8:5.

  8.  Even the apostle Paul (5 – 67 C.E./A.D.) is familiar with the “lower than the angels” interpretation, as he refers to it in Hebrews 2:9.

  9.  The American Standard Version, Amplified Bible, Christian Standard Bible, 1599 Geneva Bible, Holman Christian Standard Bible, New American Standard Bible, New Jerusalem Bible, New Living Translation, Revised Standard Version (and all its derivatives), and World English Bible all render this phrase as “lower than God”. Abraham Benisch‘s Jewish School and Family Bible and the Jewish Publication Society‘s 1985 translation agree with this translation. The Contemporary English Version, GOD’S WORD Translation, and the Names of God Bible render this phrase as “lower than yourself” (referring to God, of course) while the Good News Translation renders it similarly as “inferior only to yourself”. The Common English Bible and the International Standard Version use the phrase “less than divine”, while Young’s Literal Translation used the phrase “lack a little of the Godhead”. While not referring specifically to God, some versions render the verse in a manner similar to “less than gods”, giving the text an almost pagan flair: the revised New American Bible uses the phrase “less than a god”, while the Easy-to-Read Version uses the phrase “almost like gods”. The Message Bible even restates the verse entirely: “Yet we’ve so narrowly missed being gods…”

  10.  One can easily discern what earlier translation was used by modern translators as a base text in rendering their translations by examining the syntax of the verse and comparing it to how the translators of other versions rendered their texts.

  11.  Some Bible translators have attempted to avoid the translation controversy inherent in Psalm 8:5 when rendering this verse, while other translators have attempted to stick to the original meaning as closely as possible or have accidentally created their own controversies. The English Standard Version, the Lexham English Bible, and the New English Translation (or “NET Bible”) attempt to include all potential theological interpretations of the verse by rendering this phrase as “lower than heavenly beings,” a phrase that could easily include both God and angels.
    Meanwhile, the Orthodox Jewish Bible and The Passion Translation — both translations greatly inspired by Jewish thought and by the Hebrew language — render the word being translated as either “angels”, “God, or “gods” — the word elohim, as mentioned in the article above — in as straightforward a way as possible by rendering the verse as “a little lower than elohim”.
    Finally, the Evangelical Heritage Version renders this verse as “you [God] make him [mankind] suffer need, apart from God for a while, but you crown him with glory and honor,” which sounds utterly confusing to anyone who reads the verse or attempts to compare it to how all other translations render this verse. Likewise, The Voice translation renders this verse as “You placed the son of man just beneath God… and crowned him with glory and honor.” The original verse as other translations render it refers to the preceding verse — “what is man that you are mindful of him [some translators render this as “him”], or the son of man that you care for them?” — and its potential connections to Jesus the Messiah hinted at by the phrase “son of man”, as well as the similarities between the Messiah and the human beings He came to save, according to Christian interpretations of this verse. However, such interpretations are on a preconceived idea — that Jesus the Messiah is the only individual referred to as “son of man” in scripture, and that every reference to the “son of man must refer to Him in some prophetic way. A straightforward reading of some verses that include the phrase “son of man” (such as any verse where God or an angel calls one of the prophets by the phrase “son of man” — “ben adam” in the original Hebrew, or “son of Adam”), however, reveals this interpretation as the preconceived notion that it is. While a prophetic connection to the Messiah may have been part of this verse as it was initially written by King David, that doesn’t mean that this verse definitely holds such a connection. Indeed, the Evangelical Heritage Version and The Voice — both Christian-authored translations with evangelical theological leanings — are the only two translations that render the verse in such a manner.

  12.  The Masoretic text, as defined by Wikipedia, is “the authoritative Hebrew and Aramaic text of the [twenty-four] books of Tanakh for Rabbinic Judaism… [that was] primarily copied, edited and distributed by a group of Jews known as the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries of the Common Era (C.E. [A.D.]).”

  13.  For some, the use of the word “Elohim” (אלהים) does not necessarily refer to God Himself, but to His abilities and to His domains, His powers and what He has authority over. This is why the word “Elohim” ends in the plural ~hiym (ים-) form. Though the word “Elohim” developed naturally from its pagan use to describe multiple deities to its modern theological use describing one Deity possessing a plurality of powers and sensory abilities beyond those of all other beings (or one Deity with multiple aspects or facets to their personality/spiritual nature; it’s also used as an “honorific plural” meant to magnify the object being described), Christian apologists often use the innate plurality of this word to support the Trinity doctrine, though they do so out of an ancient doctrinal misunderstanding of the history of the term’s usage. In Jewish thought (and in the theological models developed by non-Trinitarian Christians), “Elohim” is one of few plural-form Hebrew words used in singular form numerous times throughout the Tanakh. The English language has similar concepts: majestic plural, for example, often in the form of “the royal ‘we’“.

  14.  Hebrews 1:14 (NIV)

  15.  Of course, this interpretation potentially contends with Paul’s interpretation in Hebrews 2:9. Was Jesus temporarily made “lower than the angels”, or “lower than God”? If it’s the latter, what are the potential implications of this interpretation?

  16.  I first heard of this interpretation of Psalm 8:5 when a Hebrew instructor I once worked with, the late Uri Harel (may his memory be for a blessing), made mention of it in a televised scripture study filmed on 28 September 2011 — the date I first mentioned Uri’s lesson on my old Facebook page and first posted about it on an older, now-defunct version of this site. Unfortunately, sometime in the years since his passing in 2012, that episode and several others disappeared from the Internet. (If you are able to find that lesson somewhere online, please let me know and I’ll post a link to it in this footnote.)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.