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Shakespeare, King James, and the Majesty of God 
By Dr. Todd B. Jones

JUNE 19, 2011

Shakespeare, King James and the Majesty of God
Psalm 8
Matthew 28:16-20

Today's lesson from the Bible, Psalm 8, is the first text from scripture to reach the moon. The Apollo 11 mission left a silicon disc containing messages from seventy-three nations, including the Vatican. The Vatican contributed Psalm 8, and today it inhabits not only this earth, but also the moon. "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic (or how excellent, as the King James Bible puts it) is Thy name in all the earth!" It was doubtless the wonder and grandeur of a nighttime sky, filled with the moon and stars, the galaxies and the vast expanses of darkness, that led the Psalmist to praise God for His majesty and sovereign grace. "When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast established, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that Thou dost care for him?"

Note first that this Psalm is not written about God. It is all addressed to God, using "I-thou" language, the most personal, intimate, yet reverent language of which English was capable in the early 1600's, the end of the Elizabethan era. The translators of the King James Version, forty-seven in number whose names we actually know, decided intentionally to use "thee's" and "thou's" to address the Deity, even though such language had fallen out of use in England fifty years earlier. They reasoned that contemporary language would soon be out-of-date language, and they sought wisely to reach for language that would be at once personal, but full of the majesty and the reverence due to the Lord God. King James, newly crowned James I of England after serving his first thirty-plus years as James VI of Scotland, asked the translators that the words of this new translation be "sett forth gorgeouslie." The King James Bible surely did this. It is as graceful and beautiful as Rory McIlroy's golf swing! For all James' many flaws and weaknesses, the brilliant young king understood that the Bible needed to convey above all the majesty of the Sovereign God. Psalm 8 begins and ends by so doing. "O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth!"

Psalm 8 is first and foremost a psalm that speaks to us of the greatness and grandeur of the Creator God. The heavens above that the Psalmist beheld were but "the work of Thy fingers." Indeed, God's majesty is so all-encompassing that the Lord's glory is chanted even in the babbling, the pre-language of babies and infants. God's fullness is made known even in the mouths of the most vulnerable, infants, whom God protects by divine providence. We sing about this in the children's song and spiritual, He's Got the Whole World in His Hands. "He's got you and me, sister, in His hands," we sing.

But secondly, and I should add derivatively, the Psalmist then turns to the proper place and stature of humanity. The Psalmist, gazing upon the heavens, asks, "What is man, that Thou art mindful of him, and the son of man, that Thou dost care for him?"

Having begun and ended his Psalm with praise for the greatness of God, the Psalmist then turns to the place of humankind in this world of God's making. Listen to what the Psalmist concludes: "Yet Thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor." Human beings are the crowning glory of God's creation, and a Biblical view of human life always calls us to reverence for life. We are to see in every person something of the image of God, the "imago dei," that the opening chapters of Genesis affirm explicitly: "In the image of God He created them, male and female He created them." But human glory is always derivative glory, flowing only and intentionally from God. Apart from God we have no glory of our own. Aquinas said simply, "We were made for friendship with God."

At this point, it seems well to mention William Shakespeare, given our sermon title. The Bard of Avon was just shy of forty when James was crowned King of England. At that time, the favorite Bible of England was the Geneva Bible, as the Bishop's Bible was lacking in majesty and beauty, yet the Bishop's Bible was the Bible read in church. That this young king inspired Shakespeare cannot be denied. Shakespeare wrote a series of his finest plays in the years from 1603 to 1611, the very years the King James Bible was being translated by Lancelot Andrewes and his large, gifted committee of linguists. King Lear, Othello, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Macbeth, all tragedies, all written about noble yet flawed royalty, were written in these earliest and best years of James' reign. After 1611, Shakespeare never wrote another truly great play.

This was what one historian called the perfect storm for such a grand translation as the King James Bible to emerge. Not just Shakespeare, but John Donne and Ben Johnson, Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh all inhabited and shaped this period. David Teems writes, "The times were alive, effervescent. English was in the throes of discovering itself." It was an age of "linguistic sizzle. Its echo has been long and powerful."

And it was this perfect storm that gave us a Bible that conveyed first and foremost the majesty, the sheer beauty of God. Then secondly, the King James Version was a Bible that shared with us the crowning glory this God had given to humankind. If you read the Bible rightly, you come away with a sense of awe and wonder at the majesty of God, and a certain God-given reverence for every human being you ever encounter. Remember C.S. Lewis' observation? "I have never encountered an ordinary human being." Lewis had a scripture-shaped view of humankind.

But back to Shakespeare, who can doubt his influence upon the translators? As they sought to translate the Hebrew of Psalm 8, and especially these words about humankind, surely Shakespeare's own words from Hamlet were familiar to them:

"What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And, yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"

Surely the beauty of Shakespeare's Biblically-formed Elizabethan language inspired the beauty and majesty found so wonderfully in the King James Bible. If you doubt Shakespeare's influence, consider this most suggestive and delicious of King James Bible facts: Shakespeare was forty-six years old in 1610, the year the Psalms were finalized by public readings before a committee of twelve "hearers." If you read Psalm 46 in the King James Bible, and count forty-six words in from the beginning of the actual Psalm, you come to the word "shake." If you start at the end, and count forty-six words back, you come to the word "speare." (I've tried this also with the Revised Standard Version, and it works with it as well!)

This is no accident, just as human glory and honor is no accident! Lancelot Andrewes was at least as brilliant as Shakespeare. Beside six ancient languages, he knew fifteen modern languages. (They used to joke that Andrewes could have served as a translator at the Tower of Babel!) No one knows who or how these translators stayed true to the original Hebrew and yet encoded this tribute to Shakespeare's influence upon them, but my guess would be that it was the genius of Lancelot Andrewes, if only because he was the only one with the authority to allow such a playful, ingenious act!

Finally, the Psalm speaks not only of the glory of God and the derivative glory and honor with which God has crowned humankind. It also speaks of the high trust God has placed in humanity. God has given us "dominion" over all the works of creation. God has put all things "under our feet." "All sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatsoever passes along the paths of the sea." This is not just a Psalm about theology and anthropology. It is also a Psalm about ecology. God has "crowned us with glory and honor" in order that we might take care of this earth, "our island home," that reflects the beauty and glory, the majesty of God.

Today we baptized Patrick Martin Thompson III. When meeting with parents in counseling before baptisms, I always say something like, "This child is an expression of God's immense confidence in you." "God has entrusted to you this incredible bundle of glory and honor, of exquisite potential, to you, to your care and nurture, because God believes in you."

God sees us as partners in this stewardship, this reverent handling of all of life. That is why baptism is so rich, so full of meaning. And it is why we baptize children using their full names, and the full name of God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. We baptize all of them in the name of all of God. And all of it is done to the glory of this God. In case you haven't noticed lately, life is beautiful. It is so stunningly beautiful that really to see it for what it is can make you weep. And it is beautiful because the Lord our God is beautiful.

"O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Thy name in all the earth!"

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