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The Son of Man: A study on the author of Hebrews’ messianic interpretation of Psalm 8

 “For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere, ‘What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.’ Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

— Hebrews 2:5-9 —

Introduction

There are few things in Biblical Hermeneutics that prove to be as challenging as interpreting the New Testament writers’ use of Old Testament passages. Certainly, there are times when a New Testament writer references an Old Testament passage and it appears clear as to why the text was utilized. Often times, however, the New Testament reader can fall into a state of confusion because of the perceived obscurity and murkiness surrounding the connection between the context of the New Testament and the Old Testament passage being employed.

To this point, many would consider the book of Hebrews as being one of the most difficult to interpret due to its large volume of Old Testament references and quotations. There are many assumed reasons as to why the unknown author considered so many Old Testament passages in the development of his argument for the supremacy of Christ and the call for perseverance in the saints. Taking each reason into consideration will be the objective of another day. The purpose of this article is to analyze the writer of Hebrews’ use of Psalm 8:4-6 in Hebrews 2:6-8. May the Lord grant the reader eyes, ears, and affections to see what can be seen, to hear what can be heard, and to love what can be found.

The Original Design and Purpose of Man

Psalm 8, a well-known Davidic Psalm, served its original audience with the distinct purpose of elevating in their minds the role that image bearing humans were intended to play in God’s created order. Humanity was intended to possess a glory and honor that spawned from their having received the positional role of vice-regents before God and over the created order. The Lord would be mindful of his image bearers while they carried out his edicts. The Hebrew word used to communicate God’s care for the man is pakad, which carries the idea of a physician carefully serving the needs of a patient. So it was God’s intention to care for his vice-regents with intentionality and attention while they served his purposes in his world.

Psalm 8 functions as poetic commentary for Genesis 1 and 2, so far as it is inspired Scripture providing insight into the telos behind the creation of the human race. One is permitted then to read Genesis 1 and 2 while wearing the lens of Psalm 8, which will inevitably render a more complete understanding than if the texts were to function in isolation from one another. According to Genesis 1:28, Adam was commanded with the task and responsibility of being fruitful and multiplying through procreation, while subduing the world in which he had been placed. In Psalm 8:5-6, David echoes and expands the purpose behind God’s command on Adam by detailing man’s position and privilege. Man was “crowned with glory and honor”, which is why YHWH “put all things under his feet.”

For the sake of clarity, one must understand that in Genesis 1:28, man is created to function as a chosen vice-regent to his maker. David then serves to increase the value that his reader places upon the man’s vice-regency by stating that the man (Adam) has been adorned with a crown of glory and honor. In Genesis 1:28, man, from the vice-regent position, is called to subdue the earth. Adam was commanded to make the earth subordinate to him. David expands his reader’s understanding as to how Adam could possibly accomplish such a task as this by referencing that YHWH has placed all things under the feet of the man (Adam).

Genesis 2:19-20 serves this line of reasoning by providing a case example of the man’s vice-regency functioning under the observation of his maker. In this text, God brings lesser elements of creation to the man in order that the man may determine what they are to be called. The man’s activity in the process is definitive as seen in Genesis 2:19b, “and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” The man is well within his capacity and jurisdiction to perform the task of naming the animals as a part of his role to subdue and rule over the earth. This is clearly an example of the man, as a vice-regent before God, subduing the earth because YHWH had distinctively placed him over every other created element.

The Great Divorce

A great tragedy awaits the reader of Genesis 1 and 2. It comes in the form of a divorce between man and his maker, which is presented in Genesis 3. The grounds for divorce are justified and clearly established on the basis of man’s desire to rid himself of the one being who he was made subject to. In the created order, man was the crown jewel, the ruler, and the image-bearer. He had been given the glory, honor, and authority to make the earth subordinate to himself. Tragically, however, he viewed the one being, his maker who ruled over him, as a stumbling block to his own personal greatness. Being deceived by the enemy, Adam fell to his desire to become like God in a way that God had not permitted.

While man was intended, according to David in Psalm 8, to be the peculiar and cared for possession of YHWH who would rule over the created order, he became a fallen, depraved, sickly, shell of himself. While glory was his possession, condemnation became his choice. He was supposed to rule with joy under YHWH, but after the fall, relationship with YHWH as it was once known was a clear impossibility. Contrary to his original design, death became his destiny. Adam’s temporal world was never again the same. In considering the difference in Adam’s personal experience post-fall, John Calvin writes,

“I indeed allow that man was at first put in possession of the world, that he might rule over all the works of God; but by his own defection he deserved the loss of his dominion, for it was a just punishment for ingratitude as to one thus favoured, that the Lord, whom he refused to acknowledge and faithfully to worship, should have deprived him of a right previously granted to him. As soon, then, as Adam alienated himself from God through sin, he was justly deprived of the good things which he had received; not that he was denied the use of them, but that he could have had no right to them after he had forsaken God.”[1]

Adam was stripped of the privileges he once possessed. While it would be false to assume that he became exactly like a beast as far as his relation to YHWH is concerned, it would equally egregious to hold to the view that nothing changed as the result of his rebellion. His image-bearing status was not annihilated, but it was certainly devastated.

To make matters worse, the tragic effects of Adam’s fall were not limited to his own person and his spouse, Eve. Adam and Eve did participate in procreation, but they passed their guilt-laden fallen status on to their offspring, who passed the status along to their offspring, and so on and so forth. Paul writes in Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.” The human race is marked by their representative, Adam, and with every sin they cast their vote for his continued headship. The race is broken and far from the original design.

In addition to Adam, Eve, and the entire human race after them, because every element of creation was under Adam’s feet at the time of the fall, every element fell with him. The earth was subjected to tyranny and chaos when its ruler and his offspring were penetrated with sin. The effects of this catastrophe can be observed at every level of creation and, were it the purpose of this paper to consider each level of corruption, it is the supposition of this writer that this work would never be brought to conclusion.

The Second Adam

The sickness of the human race hangs like thick smoke in the mind of the one who considers its condition, until the sickness and smoke are pierced with the hope of a new man, a new representative, a new Adam. This is the end to which the writer of Hebrews drives his readers. The writer of Hebrews presents a new Adam who successfully seeks the restoration of a people from the race lost in the first Adam. The new Adam’s name is Jesus. His role was to wage war against the sin and death of the human race in order that he may adopt a people into his favor and bounty once again.

The first chapter of Hebrews is dedicated to presenting Jesus as the supreme, eternal Son, who serves as the final revelation to the world from God through his effective efforts to make purification for sin. In order to ground Jesus in the minds of the presumably Jewish original audience, the writer sought for his recipients to recognize Jesus as greater than angelic beings, who were understood by many Jews in the first century as having a vital role in providing the law to the people of God.

This theme carries into Hebrews 2 where it is expanded by the use of Psalm 8:4-6. The use of Psalm 8 is interesting, to say the least, for the original audience would not have considered this psalm Messianic in nature. The original context is man in his ideal state not yet perverted by sin. At creation man was given dominion over every other created thing, but ever since the fall that authority has been lacking. The psalm is only perfectly fulfilled, therefore, in the ideal man, Jesus Christ, who alone possesses the authority and ability to succeed where Adam failed. The writer of Hebrews sees a fulfillment of this psalm in a way that the Jews never foresaw; through Jesus, the Second Adam, that which was lost will be restored.

Restoration begins when the most worthy Son from eternity became a man and dwelt amongst his creation (Jn. 1:14). Jesus had to become like those he intended to save if he was to serve as their representative in the place of Adam. It can also be understood that Jesus had to become like Adam in order to accomplish what Adam failed to accomplish. Through the representation of the Second Adam, image-bearers find the means to become what they were designed to be.

The writer of Hebrews is not alone in his associating Psalm 8 with Jesus, the Messiah. Psalm 8 is also cited by Jesus (Matt. 2:16) and Paul (1 Cor. 15:27). Fulfillment of this psalm in Jesus is the focus of both of these citations. Therefore, it is on solid grounds that the New Testament reader ought interpret Psalm 8 as Messianic in nature.

The citing of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2:6-8 begins with the question, “What is man?” This question becomes quite probing and dramatic when considered in its original context. The psalmist views the man against the backdrop of the glory of the created order. The stature of man in its true perspective is understood to be the special concern on his creator. This does not, however, turn full attention to the man, as though he were an end to himself. Rather, his greatness is overshadowed by the glory of God in the created universe.

The next question draws the reader into the Messianic root of the Psalm by asking, “What is the son of man?” This term, of course, is a favorite self-ascribed title for Jesus, which makes for an admirable introduction to Jesus by the writer of Hebrews. Identifying Jesus as the son of man serves to begin the development of the idea in the author’s following assertions. The author of Hebrews is not interested in using this term as the chief pillar in his argument. Rather, he engages the interest of his reader with this term only to flex that interest for a bigger point.

Hebrews 2:7-8 continues quoting Psalm 8 with the statement, “You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” In the psalm, this statement serves to emphasize the dignity of the man, for he is distinctly superior to all created things and beings other than angels. The psalmist and the writer of Hebrews are concerned with the present status of the man, while the crowning with glory and honor and the subjecting of all things are clearly seen ideally rather than actually. The ideal becomes the actual, however, in Jesus Christ. It was for a short time that God subjected the Son to a lower status than the angels, and this for the sake of the mission. In commenting on Hebrews 2:7 Martin Luther stated,

“Thou madest him to be forsaken and deserted by God or the angels, and not for a long time but for a little while, yes, less than a little while, that is, for a very short time, namely, for three days, because thou didst deliver Him over into the hands of sinners.”[2]

The Hebrews interpretation of Psalm 8 corresponds quite suitably with Paul’s argument in Philippians 2:5-11, which views the ground on which Jesus is glorified as his willingness to humble himself to this lower status and make himself a servant. In Philippians 2:6 Paul depicts Jesus as “not considering equality with God a thing to be grasped”. This leads Jesus to empty himself, presenting himself in such a state of humility that he did not consider it necessary to flex the worth of his divine person for immediate gratification; rather, he carried himself as a servant. To clarify this point, one commentator writes, “He bore Himself as if He were empty.”[3] Jesus was a humble servant in both his demeanor and disposition. Paul caps his presentation of a humbled Jesus in Philippians 2:8 by writing, “he [Jesus] humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

An intriguing connection can be found between Philippians 2:8 and Hebrews 2:7a. Philippians 2:8 presents Jesus as the active agent who becomes obedient in death. In Hebrews 2:7a, God the Father is depicted as the active agent who makes Jesus lower than the angels for a little time. While the Father’s design, it was the Son who willingly accomplished the Father’s plan. The Son was below the angels for a little time, and was obedient to the point of death on the cross. Both the Father and the Son are active agents in effectively executing the divine mission according to the divine will.

These two passages continue to converge as they are expanded. Hebrews 2:7-8a and Philippians 2:9-11 both make clear that the humiliation of Jesus rendered for him a perpetual crowning of glory and honor. While for a little time Jesus was called to become lower than angels and serve mankind through an egregious yet divinely planned death, eternity is fixed on seeing Jesus glorified due the success of his mission. There is an exchange made in Hebrews 2:7-8a between his being lowered and his receiving a crown of glory and honor and receiving ultimate authority over all things. In the same way, Jesus exchanges the humility of Philippians 2:5-8 for the glory and honor on Philippians 2:9-11. While death was temporally inevitable, the glory and honor and authority are eternally perpetual and persisting.

The writer of Hebrews grants his reader extraordinary insight into his interpretation of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2:8b-9. As his quoting of Psalm 8 comes to a conclusion, the writer drives his point home in an unmistakable manner. In Hebrews 8b-9 he writes,

“Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Jesus in his incarnation, living, dying, and rising was thoroughly and completely successful. On the basis of his success, he is the rightful heir of the world. All things are found in subjection to him. According to the writer of Hebrews, there is “nothing outside of his control.” Jesus possesses the universal dominion that was lost in and to Adam’s race.

Some may be tempted to raise objection to the last sentence of vs. 8 due to the appearance of incompletion, but to do so would certainly be folly. It is by divine design that He allows the world to bolster heinous arrogance and ignorance before his authority. God permits that the world remain ignorant to their being subject to Jesus, but only for a season of time. This too will come to a proper conclusion according to the wisdom of God. Until that day, the one to whom all things are made subject continues to fight against the darkness while calling his people into his glorious light. Upon their calling, he refines and transforms them as he sees fit. Calvin answers this objection similarly by writing,

“As Christ carries on war continually with various enemies, it is doubtless evident that he has no quiet possession of his kingdom. He is not, however, under the necessity of waging war; but it happens through his will that his enemies are not to be subdued till the last day, in order that we may be tried and proved by fresh exercises.”[4]

Therefore, let the believer be filled with hope in the day where all things will surrender to Jesus, who currently and effectively possesses them.

The believer is not, however, deprived of an opportunity to be active between the present and future. The author of Hebrews writes in 2:9a, “But we see him…”, and that which we see involves all that is exhibited in the person of Christ. Hebrews presents to the believer’s meditations both the glory Jesus has received on the grounds of his humiliation in death, and the effectiveness of Jesus’ death for the believer in that “by the grace of God he (Jesus) might taste death for everyone.” His sufferings were intentionally directed towards his reception of glory, so that, according to Paul in Philippians 2:10-11, “every knee may bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”

Conclusion

The student of Scripture is rewarded with the opportunity to discover sweet and peculiar glory on every page of the Bible. Hebrews 2:5-9 will certainly not disappoint the one who has eyes to see, ears to hear, and affections to love this text. It is the hope and goal of this writer that the reader will be more full of delight in the glory of God than when he or she commenced upon this study. May the reader be exceedingly blessed in his or her efforts!

 

[1] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 56–57.

[2] David L. Allen, Hebrews, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2010), 207.

[3] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 363.

[4] John Calvin and John Owen, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 60.

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