Psalm 8 is a hymn of praise in which the psalmist celebrates in worship, God’s majesty in creation and the dignity of every human being. In awe and amazement, the psalmist proclaims the majesty of God as the creator of the universe.
Impressed by the transcendence of the Creator, the psalmist becomes aware of the smallness and insignificance of every human being. The psalmist also recognizes that human beings have been favored by God.
Aware of the honor God has placed on human beings, in awe, the psalmist asks: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:4-5 KJV).
The words of the psalmist address the place of human beings in God’s creation. The crowning of human beings with honor reflects the idea of dominion over God’s creation, which is clearly present in Genesis 1:26-28, a text in which God places human beings over all created things.
The words of verse 5 have been translated in several different ways, causing some confusion in the minds of lay people who read Psalm 8 in different translations. The purpose of this essay is to look at the meaning of verse 5 and suggest which translation is a better reading of the Hebrew text.
The King James Version translates the Hebrew word elohim as “angels.” The following English translations also translate elohim as “angel”: the Complete Jewish Bible (CJB), the Darby Bible (DBY); the Douay-Rheims Bible (DRA), the Jewish Publication Society (JPS 1917), the New King James Version (NKJ), and the Revised Webster Bible (RWB).
The Bible in Basic English (BBE) translates as follows: “a little lower than the gods.”
The English Standard Version, the NET Bible (NET), the New International Version (NIV), and the Today’s New International Version (TNIV) translate as follows: “a little lower than the heavenly beings.”
The New American Bible (NAB) translates as follows: “a little lower than a god.”
The New Jerusalem Bible (NJB) translates as follows: “a little less than a god.”
The Jewish Publication Society (TANAK 1985) translates as follows: “A little less than divine.”
The Young Literal Translation (YLT) translates as follows: “[Thou] causest him to lack a little of Godhead.”
The American Standard Version (ASV), the English Revised Version (ERV), the Geneva Bible (GNV), the New American Standard Bible (NAS), the New Living Translation (NLT), and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translate as follow: “A little lower than God.”
The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) and the Revised Standard Version (RSV) translate as follow: “a little less than God.”
God’s Word Translation (GW) and the Contemporary English Version (CEV) translate: “a little lower than yourself.”
These different translations reflect the problem translators have in understanding what the psalmist is trying to convey to the readers. This problem was already present in the early versions.
For instance, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), the Peshitta (the Aramaic Version of the Old Testament), and the Vulgate (the Latin Version of the Bible) understood the word elohim to mean “angels” and through the Septuagint, this translation has entered many English versions.
Even in the New Testament, the author of Hebrews 2:7, when talking about the nature of Christ, did not quote from the Hebrew text of Psalm 8:5, but quoted from the Septuagint to describe the humiliation of Christ.
In order to ascertain which translation, reflects a better understanding of the Hebrew text, it becomes important to understand the words of the psalmist. In Psalm 8, the psalmist is writing about the role human beings play in God’s creation. The psalmist believes that human beings share in the nature of God. Men and women were created in the image and likeness of God, therefore, they are like God himself.
Thus, the psalmist used the word elohim to describe one aspect of human nature. The word elohim never appears in the Old Testament with the meaning of “angel.” The Septuagint translates elohim as “angels” in Psalm 97:7; 138:1. However, most English translations do not follow the Septuagint here.
The word elohim means “God” or “gods.” Thus, the psalmist is emphasizing that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God and by nature, they are a little less than God himself.
Peter C. Craigie, in his commentary Psalms 1-50 (Rev. Ed.; Waco: Word Books, Publisher, 2004), p. 108, wrote: “The translation angel may have been prompted by modesty, for it may have seemed rather extravagant to claim that mankind was only a little less than God. Nevertheless, the translation God is almost certainly correct, and the words probably contain an allusion to the image of God in mankind and the God-given role of dominion to be exercised by mankind within the created order.”
Thus, there is no doubt that the better translation should avoid the words “angels” or “divine beings.” Human beings were created “a little lower than God.” The psalmist is aware that human beings have a special relationship with God, because, in addition to being created in the image and likeness of God, human beings play a special role in God’s creation.
“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 honor” (Psalm 8:3-5).
Thus, I believe that the better translation should affirm that human beings were created “a little lower than God.”
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary