A Note on Psalm 8:4–6


The verses in Psalm 8:4–6 as they appear in the King James Version of the Bible are often quoted to emphasize man’s dignity and his close relationship to God. Unfortunately, they do not do full justice, beautiful as they are, to the Hebrew original because of verse 5, which contains an apparent mistranslation of the text.

Here are the verses as they appear in our common version:

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.

I shall not comment on verse 6; it is sufficiently close to the original as it stands. The first half of verse 4 may be translated somewhat more literally (not more beautifully) in this way: “What is man, that thou dost remember him?”

Our real concern is with verse 5, where we are told that man was made “a little lower than the angels.” The Hebrew text does not contain the word angels but reads as follows: “For thou hast made him a little less than the gods [Elohim].”

The recent Revised Standard Version translates: “Yet thou hast made him little less than God.”

Now the question arises, How did the word angels get into the English text? Various explanations, linguistic and theological, have been suggested, but mine is this: The translation “angels” seems first to have appeared in the Septuagint (Greek) Version of the Psalms, which was completed sometime between 250 and 150 B.C. Apparently the Septuagint translators couldn’t stomach theologically the bold Hebrew doctrine that man was made a “little less than the gods” and so they proceeded to water it down by substituting “angels” for “gods.”

The Septuagint rendition was used by the early Christians, as is evident in Hebrews 2:6–9 [Heb. 2:6–9] where the writer made use of it in his discussion of Jesus. And in time the word “angels” passed into Latin versions of Psalm 8:5 [Ps. 8:5] and thence into the King James Version. The King James translators were very partial to the Latin editions of both the Old and New Testaments.

Some authorities have thought that the King James translators, not to mention others, retained the reading “angels” in the interest of monotheism. And still others have suggested in times past that the Hebrew word Elohim includes not only God but the angels as well, hence the use of the latter. We are on safer ground to assume that “gods” or “god” is meant in Psalm 8:5 [Ps. 8:5].

Dr. Sperry, former dean of the College of Religion at Brigham Young University, is well known in the Church for his many books and articles on religion. He lives in the University Ward, Utah Stake.