In 1977, California pastor Jack Hayford and his wife visited England during the Silver Jubilee — the twenty-fifth anniversary — of Queen Elizabeth’s 1952 accession to the throne. They were struck by the grandeur of the celebration and the manifest joy of the people in their monarch.
While there, they visited Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill and famous for the magnitude and stateliness some North Americans today know only through watching Downton Abbey.
Driving away from the palace, overcome with awe, Hayford found himself reaching for words — language that would transpose the weight of the earthly experience into the key of heaven. As he stretched, the word that seemed most fitting, both to describe the stunning magnificence of the palace and how it pointed to the superiority of the reigning Christ, was majesty.
According to a California newspaper’s retelling of the story,
As the Hayfords pulled themselves from that regal palace and drove away, Dr. Hayford asked his wife to take a notebook and write down some thoughts that were coming to him. He then began to dictate the lyrics, the key, and the timing to a song now being sung by Christians worldwide. (“Story Behind the Song: ‘Majesty,’” St. Augustine Record, August 13, 2015)
Hayford’s impulse to reach for the word majesty, however much he knew it at the time (perhaps influenced by Psalm 8?), was deeply biblical. Majesty is indeed a frequent and carefully chosen attribute in Scripture of the living God — a trait often overlooked in studies of the divine attributes, but an important witness of both the prophets and apostles. God’s majesty, a trait that sheds brilliant light on other well-rehearsed attributes. God’s majesty, a trait that is truly, deeply, wonderfully fit for worship, as Hayford intuited:
Majesty! Worship his majesty!
Unto Jesus be all glory, honor, and praise.
Majesty! Kingdom authority,
Flow from his throne, unto his own;
His anthem raise!
And God’s majesty is perhaps nowhere as highlighted as in the refrain of Psalm 8, both its first line and last: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
Purple Mountain Majesties
Those, like Hayford, who reach for the word majesty often find themselves standing before or remembering some natural or manmade wonder that is both imposing and, at the same time, attractive. In our language, as in biblical terms, the word captures not only greatness but also goodness, both bigness and beauty, awesome power together with pleasant admiration.
Mountains might be the quintessentially majestic natural feature. Psalm 76:4 declares in praise to God, “Glorious are you,” and then adds, “more majestic than the mountains.” Alongside the illustrious plain of Sharon, which had its own peculiar glory, Isaiah’s hope-filled prophecy of future flourishing for God’s people hails “the majesty of [Mount] Carmel” (Isaiah 35:2).
Yet alongside mountains, we also might attribute majesty to gold or some precious material or gem, one fit for a king, that dazzles the eye with its beauty, as Job 37:22 links God’s “awesome majesty” with “golden splendor.”
Not only natural phenomena, but also the work of human hands, when on a grand scale, might have us reaching for majestic. Lamentations 1:6 mourns the loss of such civic majesty after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, and not long after, Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon’s king, professes to have built his city “by [his] mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of [his] majesty” (Daniel 4:30) — this, just before his great humbling.
How, then, does the common use of majesty for mountains and mansions, gold and cities, relate to attributing majesty to God, as does the refrain of Psalm 8?
What Is Divine Majesty?
Majesty brings together both greatness and goodness, both strength and beauty (Psalm 96:6). So majesty is not only a fitting term for mountain majesties but a particularly appropriate descriptor of God, who is, above all, “the Majestic One” (Isaiah 10:34).
At a critical juncture in the history of God’s old-covenant people, as they assemble under the leadership of David to dedicate their offerings for the temple, the king prays in 1 Chronicles 29:10–13:
Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name.
“Majesty brings together both greatness and goodness, both strength and beauty.”
Again, verse 11: “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty.” So as we come to Psalm 8, first consider those three traits — greatness, power, and glory, which are often associated with majesty elsewhere — as revealing angles into the attribute of divine majesty.
His Is the Greatness
First and foremost is greatness.
The opening verse of Psalm 104 declares, “Bless the Lord, O my soul! O Lord my God, you are very great! You are clothed with splendor and majesty” (Psalm 104:1). Likewise, after their dramatic God-wrought exodus from Egypt, God’s people sing, “In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries” (Exodus 15:7).
Later in Babylon, as Nebuchadnezzar tells of his great humbling and restoration, he speaks of his “majesty” returning to him “and still more greatness was added to [him]” (Daniel 4:36; see also 5:18).
Micah’s famous Bethlehem prophecy tells of a majesty that is greatness in one coming who will “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:4).
Majesty often connotes some greatness in size, as with mountains and mansions: Ezekiel speaks of “majestic nations,” once numerous and powerful, but now humbled by God (Ezekiel 32:18). But that greatness also can include God’s divine right and prerogative, as God, to rule and do as he pleases. As David prayed, “Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours” (1 Chronicles 29:11). God has not only the might to rule, but also the right.
His Is the Power
Majesty also is tied to God’s power and strength. “Yours, O Lord, is . . . the power.”
Not only does Micah 5:4 connect God’s majesty with divine strength in shepherding his people, but Psalm 68:34 forges the bond even stronger:
Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel,
and whose power is in the skies.
“Awesome,” says David, “is God from his sanctuary.” He is majestic not only in the power he possesses, but also in the power he generously gives: “He is the one who gives power and strength to his people” (Psalm 68:35). So also in Psalm 29:4 we hear,
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
His Is the Glory
Third, as David prayed, “Yours, O Lord, is . . . the glory.”
Of greatness, power, and glory, ties are deepest with the third. Which brings us to Psalm 8, and Scripture’s signature celebration of the majesty of God. Psalm 8 manifestly sings of glory — God’s glory, set above the heavens (verse 1), and man’s glory, from God, as one he has “crowned . . . with glory and honor” (verse 5). And so that memorable opening line, reprised as the final note, hails the majesty of God’s name:
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Modes of Majesty in Psalm 8
Here, under the banner of God’s majesty and excellence as his glory, we find two levels, or modes, of his majesty. First is what we might call a natural mode: the heavens (verses 1 and 3), the moon and the stars (verse 3), and we might presume the quintessential natural majesties like mountains and seas, vast expanses that remind us of our smallness and the awe-inspiring bigness and power of the one who made such majesties.
But then, second, is what we might call a special mode of his majesty, which is the particular emphasis of Psalm 8: verse 2 mentions the mouths of babies and infants testifying to his strength in the face of foes, enemies, and avengers. And then, at the heart of the psalm, verses 3–8 marvel at his grace toward mankind. In view of such natural majesties as the heavens (“your heavens”!) and moon and stars, and mountains and oceans, “What is man that you are mindful of him?”
“Yet,” verse 5 — this is the “yet” of grace — God has made man “a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” In such a majestic creation, God has made man, in his smallness and limitation, in the divine image, and given man “dominion over the works of [God’s] hands.” The beasts of the field and birds of the heavens and fish of the sea are to be subject to man.
So, we might see here natural majesty and special majesty. And Psalm 8, while acknowledging the obvious majesty of God in the bigness and beauty of creation, emphasizes “the unexpectedness of God’s ways” (Kidner, Psalms 1–72, 66) which further demonstrates his majesty.
He shows his greatness and power not only through his heavens and moon and stars and mountains but also by answering his foes with the praises of the weak. God shows himself majestic through the heavens and through humans (and in particular the ones we might least expect, the humble, those who seem least majestic).
“The point is not how great is man, but how graced is man — and how great is God.”
The point of Psalm 8 is this: God’s grace toward man is to the glory of his majesty. The point is not how great is man, but how graced is man — and how great is God. He is our God: “O Lord, our Lord.” He is majestic in greatness, power, and glory — and majestic in grace toward us, so much so that he is our Lord.
Language for Worship
And in this striking dignifying of humanity in Psalm 8, if there is any doubt where the accent falls, come back to the refrain: the first word in Psalm 8, and the last word lest we forget: how majestic is God’s name. The primary emphasis, as confirmed by verse 8, is “God and his grace” (Kidner, 68). And while in Psalm 8, we do indeed glimpse God’s greatness and power. The accent is on his glory.
And it is not a coincidence that David takes up this word majestic in Psalm 8 in what is a song of praise, because divine majesty is so closely connected to divine glory that we might even see the word majesty as providing God’s people with further language for expressing, commending, and marveling at his glory and beauty. Along with the word splendor (frequently paired with majesty), the term expands our vocabulary for glory.
Our God is so great, so admirable, so wonderful, so awesome in the eyes of his people, and so fearsome to his enemies, that the Hebrew kavod, Greek doxa, and English glory will not suffice. That is, not for his worshipers. We need more terms. We press more words into the service of worship. As we seek to keep speaking of him in his beauty, his power, his greatness, his glory, we grope for language: dominion, authority, splendor, majesty. At times, we even pile words upon words, as Psalm 145:5 does with “the glorious splendor of your majesty.”
Majesty, in particular, is emotive, or affective. It indicates greatness in sight or sound that is also wonderful. Bigness that is beautiful. Imposing size that is viewed with delight, imposing power received as attractive. While having significant overlap with divine dominion or lordship, majesty does more. Dominion and lordship are more technical and prosaic; majesty rings more poetic, with the awe of worship.
Feel His Majesty
In the end, it may be majesty’s poetic ring that makes it such a precious word and fit for worship. As Jack Hayford groped for language to voice the wonder rising in his soul far beyond the legacy of English tradition and the largeness of its palaces — that is, reverence for the living God — majesty came not as a technical, functional, denotive term. It had a feel. It communicated soul-expanding awe. It was a mouthing of worship — out of the mouths of babes and infants.
The choice of the word majesty, then, says something about the speaker. Majesty attributes not only greatness, power, and glory to God, but signals awe and wonder in the one who chooses the word. God’s friends, not his foes, declare his majesty.
In Egyptian eyes, God was not majestic at the Red Sea but horrific. His striking size and strength were not for them but against them. But in the eyes of Israel, in the sight of his people, their God was indeed majestic in his greatness and power, and worthy of praise for terrifying and wiping out their enemies (Exodus 15:7, 11).
Yet the main emphasis, we said, in Psalm 8 is God’s grace.
No Majesty, Now Majestic
This brings us to what the prophet Isaiah said about the enigmatic suffering servant: He had “no form or majesty that we should look at him” (Isaiah 53:2). From beginning to end, the earthly life of Jesus magnified the majesty of his Father. He glorified his Father. He so spoke, and so acted, that as Luke 9:43 reports, “all were astonished at the majesty of God.”
Yet, even then, there was a greater majesty to come. Luke continues, “But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.’” That is, he would add special majesty to natural majesty.
To natural eyes, he had no form or majesty that we should look at him. Now, he became to the eyes of faith the supremely majestic one. After the resurrection, eyes now fully awake to grace, Peter testifies of being an eyewitness to his majesty (2 Peter 1:16–17). And now, the one who humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross, has been super-exalted and seated at the right hand of Majesty.
“God is not only big, imposing, indomitable, omnipotent; he is beautiful, attractive, compelling, glorious.”
Which might remind us what Hebrews 2:8 comments about man in Psalm 8: “At present, we do not yet see everything subject to him.” But then he adds in verse 9, “But we see him,” we see Jesus, who — by virtue of his becoming man, suffering, dying for us, rising in triumph, and ascending to sit at the right hand of Majesty — has become the first to fulfill the vision of Psalm 8 with all things under his feet.
Perhaps you find yourself in need of fresh language for attributing greatness, and power, and glory to the God whom you worship in Christ. He is not only great but good — good in his greatness and great in his goodness. He is not only big, strong, imposing, indomitable, omnipotent; he is beautiful, attractive, stunning, compelling, glorious. He is the Majestic One, who delivered Israel at the Sea and his church at the cross, and now reigns over the nations. And so, we say with the psalmist, “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate” (Psalm 145:5).
And we worship his majesty.