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How excellent is Thy name in all the earth!
David’s poetical sensitiveness
In all probability this Psalm is the first, or at all events one of the very first, David ever wrote.
It breathes the spirit of those lonely nights which he must so often have passed keeping watch over his father’s sheep on the wild hills of Bethlehem. To a lad of his strong poetical temperament, the glory of the Syrian sunset, the gradual assembling of the stars, as of an innumerable flock in the silent pastures overhead; the moon, “like a fair shepherdess,” walking in her beauty; and, as night began to wane, “the bright and morning star,” flashing over the hills of Moab, must have spoken in a language which he was inspired to understand of the excellence of the great Creator of all--of the nothingness, yet at the same time the dignity, of man. In after life how often had he to “tune his harp to notes of woe”? but its first recorded strains are those of adoring praise. David appears to me to stand out eminently from other men, as hearing a voice in the phenomena of nature. I account him as the first of the prophets of nature, of whom, in some sense, Wordsworth was the last. The lessons once learned have become obvious; but to utter them for the first time required inspiration. (Henry Housman.)
The excellence of the Divine name and nature universal
Joshua Reynolds closing his lecture on art said, “And now, gentlemen, there is but one name which I bring to your attention, it is the name of Michael Angelo.” And so in all the spheres of art, science, and discovery, there are names which rise peerless above all others. But names which are known in one land are unknown in another, or their right to distinction is often disputed. You would not get universal unanimity about any one celebrity, however worthy. Only concerning Christ can it be said, “How excellent is Thy name in all the earth.”
The glory of God in His works
The glory of God in His creatures, rightly considered, should, for the excellency of the work, strike an astonishment into us on the one side, and enforce us on the other to be thankful unto Him, that maketh His power and providence appear so clearly in them, and that not only for His glory, but for our good. God’s power and providence seen in His creatures serveth for a double end--the comfort of His children, and the terror and confusion of the wicked. Verse 4 serveth to humble man, and to beat him down; for if he be compared with other creatures, there is no such excellency and durableness in him as in them; neither yet such as he himself imagineth to be in himself. Verses 5-8 set forth the graces and blessings that God hath bestowed upon man, not to the end that man thereby should wax proud, and swell above measure, but to enforce him--
1. To thankfulness to the giver;
2. To a right use of them in himself and for others;
3. The more and more to humble him.
Let man consider what excellency he hath lost through Adam’s fall, and bewail his misery; and let him, on the other side, well weigh the grace bestowed on him in Christ, and be joyful and thankful for mercy: knowing this, that if the creatures be not now subject to us, it is by reason of the body and relies of sin which yet remain in us; and that therefore, if we would have a conquest over the creatures, we must begin first to get a victory upon sin, or else we shall never profit or prevail that way. If any man will object and say that many creatures are subdued to many people that are without a God in the world, and which notwithstanding remain in their sin, I answer, that God’s dispensing in mercy with our iniquity, or other men’s, is no impeachment of the truth of this doctrine; nay rather, it should the more further us, not only in thankfulness to Him for His goodness, but in valiancy and courage to combat against iniquity, and that unto blood, because we already have half a victory, and may be sure of all needful supply in order to complete the victory. (Thomas Wilcocks.)
The supremely excellent name
Was “Gittith” a tune or instrument brought from Gath? (1 Samuel 27:2) This exquisite ode, which can only reach its fulfilment in Christ (Hebrews 2:6-9), was evidently composed at night. It probably dates from the early shepherd days, when wild creatures crept around the fold, and night birds screamed, reminding the singer of the animal world, as constituting the human kingdom.
I. The inscription (Psalms 8:1). Jehovah our Lord. Our Lord Jesus is here.
II. The ascription (Psalms 8:1-2). His name excellent, and so mighty that His strength communicated to babes is mere than enough to vanquish and silence His foes (1 Corinthians 1:25; Matthew 21:16).
III. The comparison (Psalms 8:3-4). At first sight there is a great descent from the glory of the heavens to frail man. But we may not confound size and greatness. There are as many worlds of wonder too minute for our vision as there are which are too great for our understanding.
IV. The compensation (Psalms 8:5-8). Man, though so seemingly insignificant, was only a little lower than the angels, and is invested with the vicegerency of the lower orders of creation (Genesis 1:26). As yet the Psalm is fulfilled only in Jesus. But it shall be restored to man (Isaiah 11:6-9). (F. B. Meyer, B. A.)
Good reasons for praising God
I. As filling the universe with his glory:--
1. His excellence fills the earth--in its natural constitution, in its human history, and in its redemptive economy.
2. His excellency is above the heavens. How high are the heavens!
II. As honouring the feeblest instrumentality. He does not depend, like human sovereigns, on the great and mighty. History abounds with examples of God accomplishing great ends by feeble means--such as, the exodus of the Jews by Moses, the redemption of the world by Christ, the propagation of the gospel by feeble men. This truth serves to cheek an unholy humility, and also an unholy pride.
III. As creating the wonders of the stellar heavens. Here is a figurative mode of representing the skill and delicacy of the work--“the work of Thy fingers. How does the study of the heavens impress man with the glory of God!
IV. As regarding mankind with His special favour. The Psalmist seems to be impressed with God’s infinite goodness to man in three respects.
1. In the greatness of the attention He pays him.
2. In the greatness of the nature He has given him.
3. In the greatness of the authority He entrusts to him. This Psalm reminds us of our heavenly origin, wonderful natures, and sublime destinies. (Homilist.)
The excellency of the Divine name
How affecting to the mind is the traditional and immemorial suppression of the name “Jehovah.” Though false in principle and destitute of Scripture authority, it cannot be denied that this reticence has something almost sublime about it, and is far better than the frivolous levity with which God’s holy name is tossed from mouth to mouth, not only in profane discussion, but even in courts of justice, not to say in the pulpit and in ordinary religious speech. Religious awe was no doubt indicated by the suppression of this name, and could not have been associated with a more legitimate or worthy object than that pregnant tetragrammaton, in the four characters of which, as in a sacramental symbol, is wrapped up the germ, or rather the quintessence, of that wonderful preparatory system which excited and sustained the expectation of the Saviour until He came. We cannot tell all the reasons for the use of the two principal Divine names by the sacred writers in specific cases, but there can be little doubt that Jehovah is distinguished in the Hebrew Scriptures from all other names of the Godhead as the name of the God of Israel, His Church, His chosen people. Elohim was a generic name which was common to the true God with all others, but Jehovah was the name of God as in especial covenant with His people. It suggested no vague idea of divinity, but was a much warmer name, telling of God as making Himself known to and dwelling in the midst of them. But the name itself does not signify anything of this singular relation, it suggests nothing of a local or national kind, but only tells of God as the self-existent, independent, and eternal essence, “I am what I am.” This may have been in order to remind Israel that He was not a God distinct from the Creator of the universe, but the one sole self-existent one. And there was need for such precaution, for never was a people more prone to arrogate to themselves exclusive possession in God. They would not allow that He was the God of the Gentiles also, and from this the fatal step was almost unavoidable to the conclusion that their God was not the God of nature or the universe, but either the antagonistic principle in some monstrous scheme of dualism, or an inferior Deity restricted to the Holy Land. And so the Greeks and Romans learned to sneer at the provincial God of Palestine. The Scriptures contain the clearest exposition of the true sense of the name Jehovah, and declare His name glorious in all the earth. They describe the heavens as the work of His fingers. Hence, as men saw His glory they saw too their own littleness, and wondered that God should remember man. It is not, however, before their material works that man is called to bow, for matter is no more above mind on a largo scale than on a smaller one, no more in the earth than in a clod, in a sea than in a drop. Mind is ever superior to matter. Hence the Psalm boldly declares of man, “Thou hast made him to lack little of divinity”--for so the words affirm,--“Thou hast crowned him with glory and honour.” And yet more because of man’s moral resemblance to God. But though unfallen man might have triumphed in this blessed likeness, how can we who have fallen away from it so terribly? How, then, could David so speak of man? He could not had he deemed that likeness irrevocably lost. He contemplates man as saved in Christ, not only reinstated, but exalted higher--“The first man is of the earth earthy, the second man is the Lord from heaven.” Contemplate, then, the glorious face of nature, and remember what man once was, what he is, and what he yet shall be. Then shall we, as Stephen, exclaim, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” Read, then, the name of God our King and Saviour traced in letters of light upon the whole material universe. (J. Addison Alexander, D. D.)
Religious affections in their objective ground
Gracious affections spring from the beauty and excellence of Divine things. “Christian love is the fountain of all gracious affections. The Divine excellency and glory of God and of Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the works of God and the ways of God, are the primary reasons why a true saint loves these things; and not any supposed interest that he has in them, or any conceived benefit that he has received from them. Self-love cannot properly be said to be the first foundation of his love to these things.”
I. The world’s people.
1. Self-love is a principle that is entirely natural, and hence cannot be the foundation of what is gracious or spiritual (Luke 6:32).
2. Self-love is also the foundation of gratitude in the world’s people.
3. Self-love may give rise to a sort of love to God. False education will make men grateful to a God of their own imagination. Insensibility to the heinousness of sin may move the natural affections toward a being they imagine to be like themselves.
II. The hypocrite. The genesis of their affections follows much the order of the world’s people.
1. They rejoice in themselves.
2. They secondarily rejoice in God because He is so good to them, and has made so much of them.
3. They rejoice in their own experiences.
4. Their affections are moved by impulses, pride, conceit, and selfish considerations.
5. They are great talkers about themselves. If we will believe them, they are no ordinary saints.
III. God’s people.
1. They contemplate and adore the matchless perfections of God, the beauty of Christ, the sweetness of grace, the wisdom of redemption, the completeness of God’s law, and the like. A natural affection does not have its chief roots in such a soil as this.
2. Secondarily, they rejoice that so glorious a Being is theirs.
3. Then they love God because of His marvellous kindness and unparalleled condescension (Psalms 116:1).
4. In God’s goodness they see a mirror that reflects the beauty, the grace and the perfection of His being and attributes, and from hence are begotten a holy gratitude and a heavenly love.
5. “The saints’ love to God is the fruit of God’s love to them, as it is the gift of that love.”
6. As is the genesis of love, so is the genesis of spiritual joy, delight, and pleasure: “All my springs are in Thee” (Psalms 87:7). (L. O. Thompson.)
The excellent Name
I. This psalm is--
1. A hymn of praise to the Creator, giving glory to “Jehovah our Lord.” By His “Name” we understand His revealed nature, as made manifest in His--
(1) works of creation (Psalms 8:3; Psalms 8:6-8);
(2) acts of salvation (Psalms 8:4-5).
2. A Messianic hymn--
(1) referred by Christ to Himself (Matthew 21:16);
(2) quoted of Him (Hebrews 2:6-9; 1 Corinthians 15:27).
3. A hymn of the Ascension. This seems the special thought (Hebrews 2:9, where verse 5 is alluded to, and Acts 2:33).
II. The text in particular is expressive of the great doctrine of the ascension.
1. “Our Lord” Jesus Christ is “the Lord,” i.e. Jehovah. His “Name” is indeed the Divine Name, for Jesus signifies “Jehovah-Saviour” (Hebrews 1:4;-see its lengthened form in Numbers 13:16).
2. “The earth” is the sphere in which the “excellence” of His Name is manifested.
(1) In the past, by the marvellous revelation of His sinless human life, by His mighty words and works, by His sacrifice for sin, and by His “glorious resurrection and ascension.”
(2) In the present, by the power of His gospel, subduing, as it is, all things under His feet.”
3. “All the earth” shall one day be brought to own that His “Name” is “excellent.”
4. Yet His chiefest “glory” is now “set” “above the heavens,” to be revealed in its full excellence only when He shall come again to take to Him His power and reign.
III. The “Name” of Jesus should be proved “excellent” in our experience.
1. As a power to salvation (Acts 4:12). He is ascended up on high to perpetually plead the merits of His saving Name. And it is in that Name alone that there is hope for sinners. That Name, “Jehovah-Saviour,” means one able and willing to save; and it is the only “excellent” one to which all must look (Isaiah 45:22).
2. As a power to holiness (Acts 2:33). The ascended Saviour has given to the Church the grace of His Holy Spirit, to be implored in His “Name,” and sent forth in His “Name” (John 14:26; John 16:24). The Holy Ghost teaches us the “things of Christ,” and makes us so realise the excellence of His name, that for it we “count all things but loss.” (T. H. Barnett.)
Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast Thou ordained strength.
The strength of feeble instrumentalities
The sudden drop from the glories of the heavens to the babble and prattle of infancy and childhood is most impressive, and gives extraordinary force to the paradox that the latter’s witness is more powerful to silence gainsayers than that of the former. This conviction is expressed in a noble metaphor, which is blurred by the rendering “strength.” The word here rather means “a strength,” in the old use of the term--that is, a stronghold or fortress; and the image, somewhat more daring than cold western taste finds permissible, is that out of such frail material as children’s speech, God builds a tower of strength, which, like some border castle, will bridle and still the restless enemy. There seems no sufficient reason for taking “children and sucklings” in any but its natural meaning, however the reference to lowly believers may accord with the spirit of the Psalm. The children’s voices are taken as a type of feeble instruments, which are yet strong enough to silence the enemy. Childhood, “with no language but a cry,” is, if rightly regarded in its source, its budding possibilities, its dependence, its growth, a more potent witness to a more wondrous name than are all the stars. In like manner, man is man’s clearest revelation of God. The more lowly he is, the more lofty his testimony. What are all His servants’ words but the babbling of children who “do not know half the deep things they speak”? God’s strongest fortress is built of weakest stones If the two parts of the Psalm are to be kept together, the theme of the compendious first portion must be the same as that of the second, namely, the glory of God as revealed by nature and man, but most chiefly by the latter, notwithstanding and even by his comparative feebleness. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
God glorified by children’s mouths
This Psalm sings of the grandeur of God as seen in creation. Our subject is His power displayed in human weakness.
I. There is a conflict. Our text speaks of enemies. We know who they are--the seed of the serpent. We know how it began, and it goes on, on the enemy’s part, in the same fashion. God uses weapons, mainly, of a moral and spiritual sort. He has used, and He can and will, when needful, use others.
II. In this conflict the weapons are very singular. “Out of the mouth of babes,” etc. Bring hither that sweet babe. See that little mouth--it challenges a kiss: and note with joy that God may use that little mouth as His conquering weapon against the devil. I have seen many an ancient cannon upon which were moulded in bronze the words, “The last argument of kings.” Yes, but the gracious arguments of the King of kings are sent home by a human mouth, and that of a little child. How Satan must be angered that his craft is not met by craft. Already the testimony of feeble men has been used as the great power of God. How are these weapons used? These strangely soft, yet sharp, feeble, yet mighty weapons--how are they used?
1. They smite by prayer. Children pray and they are heard.
2. By praise, which louvers the pride of His adversaries, while they cry “Hosannah!” and sing the praise of Jesus’ name.
3. And by testimony. We never know what one child’s mouth can do. Christ is the Word, but these mouths supply the voices by which it is sounded forth. The Hebrew reads, “hast Thou founded strength,” as if the very foundation of the Church’s strength lay in the mouths that God moves to speak.
III. The warriors in this warfare are very special. “Babes and sucklings” (Matthew 11:25; 1 Corinthians 1:1-31). Such are those who proclaim Christ in the world. Our Lord would get little honour from our race if all children’s voices were hushed, and all childlike spirits with them. Scribes and Pharisees never cry “Hosannah!” they are so busy binding on their phylacteries, washing their hands, and devouring widows’ houses. The first to cry “Hosannah!” are the children, and the next are those who are like them. Some say, “To shout and sing is children’s work”; so it is, and it is ours because we are children too. Now, note
IV. That the qualification of these warriors lies in their weak side. If it lay on the strong side, we should react, “Out of the mouth of men of middle age, in the prime of life; of wise old men, who have had long experience, God ordaineth strength.” But no, it is “Out of the mouths of babes,” etc. Thus the Lord puts the adversary to a perpetual reproach. He puts a child against His giant foe, and overcomes him. Our power to serve God lies on our weak side. He uses not our greatness, but our littleness. You know what the learned men say is the weak part of some of us--they put it something like this: “We regret the preacher’s total inability to keep abreast of the times; his incapacity for modern thought; and his want of affection for the higher culture.” That is our weakness. Yes, and our strength, and therefore we glory in it. “I determined not to know anything among you save Jesus Christ and Him crucified.” If all God’s servants will come to this, they will do far more good than by the so-called “culture,” which is nothing but the science of growing more weeds than usual I have desired to be a little child again, and wished that I had never heard of the existence of a quibbler. We hear now-a-days much of “great thinkers”; we prefer to be great believers. When the Church gets back to her simple faith in Jesus, she shall be qualified for victory. She shall vanquish the world. When she has thrown aside the wooden sword of carnal reason and has taken up the true Jerusalem blade of faith in God. Then because of all this, let me plead--
V. For a loving reverence for childhood. It seems to me that in the Lord’s battle there is always a babe in the forefront. The child found in the ark of bulrushes crushes the power of Pharaoh; the boy David, Goliath; and the still loftier story of the battle of the Lamb opens in like manner, “Unto us a Child is born,” etc. Never doubt the possibility of children’s conversions. Never despise them. Do not say, “Oh, they are only a parcel of boys and girls!” What if they are? May they not be a better parcel than some of you? If we could get the simple trustfulness of childhood back again, it would be a great gain. Let us not undervalue the praises or the service of children. That is a sweet vein. “And Samuel ministered before the Lord, being a child. In the victory of the Church it is written, A little child shall lead them.” This city of ours is better evangelised by our Sunday schools than by all the rest of us put together. Little Mary and Tommy come back from school, and they find that father is hardly dressed; he has not been to a place of worship, but reading the Sunday paper; he don’t want any of your singing and preaching. But the children begin to sing, and when dinner is over, they talk about What teacher said, and perhaps say something about the sermon. And so the father gets more singing and preaching than he bargained for. When they go to bed, they clasp their little hands and pray for their father, and he is obliged to hear them. Thus he gets praying as well as singing. The children are missionaries. They enter where others cannot. Tommy and Mary can’t be shut out. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Little children God’s stronghold for troubled men
The common interpretation is, that God uses men who are, for weakness and insufficiency, as babes. Not that He literally uses “babes and sucklings.” This interpretation, so common in the Church, has never found favour in the synagogue. The Rabbis have a surprising love for children. They apply to children and schools all the Scripture verses that speak of flowers and gardens. The Talmud is full of stories which indicate this love for the little ones--e.g. “There was once a great drought, and the most pious men wept and prayed for rain, but none came. At length an insignificant person prayed, and instantly the heavens covered themselves with clouds, and the rain fell, ‘Who are you,’ they cried, ‘whose prayers have alone prevailed?’ And he answered, ‘I am a teacher of little children.’” Again, “When God was about to give His law to His people, He asked them whom they would offer as guarantees that they would keep it holy, and they said, ‘Abraham.’ God said, ‘Abraham has sinned; Isaac, Jacob, Moses himself, they have all sinned; I cannot accept them.’ Then they said, ‘May our children be witnesses and our guarantees?’ And God accepted them, even as it is written. ‘From the mouth of the little babes has He preached His empire.’” The literal rendering is to he preferred. This verse is quoted in the Gospel by Matthew in a way which is quite decisive of the meaning. That we should thus understand them is shown--
1. From the general drift of the Psalm. The little children trust and love and are at peace, though men be so different.
2. From sympathy and agreement in this truth, which we find in other great poets, such as Wordsworth, “Trailing clouds of glory,” etc.
3. From our own experience, children suggest helpful, restful thoughts. If in his origin man is so pure and so divine, must he not be capable of a Divine strength and blessedness? (Samuel Cox, D. D.)
The useful ministry of children
In the Middle Ages lived the great theologian, the great Chancellor of the University of Paris, Jean Gerson, whose whole life was spent in storms of political struggle and religious strife, and when, after his long years of turbulent battle to beard popes and burn heretics, he took refuge in the silence and solitude of a monastic cell, his one joy was to gather the little children round his bed and bid them pray, “Lord, have mercy on Thy poor servant, Jean Gerson”; and even the strong combative soul of Luther melted to tenderness in the presence of little ones; and it was the voice of a little girl singing a hymn on a doorstep at Weimar that dispelled the heartache of Philip Melanchthon; and the agonies of the Scotch martyr Wishart were soothed when, to the taunt that he had a devil, the voice of a little child was heard replying, “You man does not speak like a man that hath a devil”; and George Whitfield was cheered and encouraged when he saw the little boys and girls who had gathered around his pulpit lifting to him in pity their tearful faces when the mobs pelted him with stones and dirt. And thus to these saints, and many more, has the trustfulness and simplicity of little children been, as it was to the heart of David, a strength made perfect in weakness to still their own enemies and the enemies of God. And which of us personally has not felt from the reminiscences of his own childhood, if, indeed, a pang of shame to think that we are in some things farther from heaven than then, yet also an inspiration of hope and strength? (Dean Farrar, D. D.)
A prophecy of the Incarnation
These words are alleged by our blessed Saviour (Matthew 21:16), to prove that Christ must reign till He has subdued all His enemies under His feet. He that reads this whole Psalm would think it were nothing else but a description of man’s excellency, whom God had made next to the angels in dignity, and given him dominion over all things He had made. How is that which is a description of mankind in general, a prophecy of Christ in special! The key of the interpretation of this Psalm is to be sought in the words, “Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings,” etc.
1. The meaning of the words as they stand in the Psalm. The whole drift of the Psalm is to praise and glorify God for the dignity wherewith Fie hath invested man. This glory and honour is seen in two particulars.
(1) In that God hath ordained that weak and feeble creature man to subdue and conquer His enemies.
(2) In that He hath made man the lord of all His creatures.
2. The purport of these words was fulfilled in our blessed Saviour’s incarnation. The devil by sin brought mankind into thraldom, and became the prince of this world, himself with his angels being worshipped and served everywhere as gods. To vanquish and exterminate this enemy, and redeem the world from this miserable thraldom, the Son of God took on Him, not the nature of angels, but the nature of weak and despicable man, that grows from a babe and suckling. And the Son of Man enables also other sons of men, His disciples and ministers, to do the like in His name.
3. This victory, as for the event, so for the manner of achieving it, is agreeable to our prophecy. Forasmuch as Christ our General nor fights, nor conquers by force of arms, but by the power of His Word and Spirit, which is “the power of His mouth," according to the text, “Out of the mouth,” etc. (Joseph Mede, B. D.)
When I consider Thy heavens.
That is what people will not do. They are thoughtless, superficial, frivolous; they do not sit down and put things together and add them up, and ask the meaning of the poetry of the total.
1. “When I consider”--I become a new man, much larger, nobler, saintlier. What does consider mean? I wonder if any six men in any audience could tell the meaning, etymological and historical and parabolical, of consider. It is a word which everybody knows. It is two words, it is two Latin words; it is con or cum, with, together: sider--what is there in the word sider? Nothing. Take care! Sider comes a long way up the track of language; it was born sidus. That is what you say when you write, your married name; under it you put nee, born--another name, your father’s name, which you have relinquished in favour of another name. Sidus means star; it is the root of siderial heavens, the starry heavens, the stellar universe, and the like. Considerealise--when we star together--put the planets into syllables and words and paragraphs; when I considerealise, make a lesson book of the stars; when I punctuate my discourse with millenniums, then I pray. If men would do this they would be religious, but they are frivolous--“What is in the paper this morning?” Ah me! ‘tis hideous and disheartening. When I, said the Psalmist, who kept his shepherd’s crook in the belt of Orion, when I considerealise, talk in stars and think in planets and pray in constellations--Reverence is the basis of true character. Little subjects will make little men; gossip will dethrone an Aristotle.
2. How this considerealising of things changes their whole aspect, their entire value, relation, and meaning. We do not loop our subjects on to the great cars, so we perform little journeys, and we are no sooner out of the house than we are in it again. We do not outrun the height of the planets; we are so easily excited by subjects that really have nothing in them. Who would speak of a great earthquake? There never was such a thing, except within the limits of the little earth itself; then it was very great, it almost shook down the chest of drawers in my house! For a time I thought the bookcase was going to fall over me; it was a great earthquake! No, a spasm not worth talking about; if the earth had quaked itself out of existence it would not have deserved the epithet great. God is great, and His heavens are as nothing before Him, and the universe is to Him like a dewdrop trembling on the leaf of a flower.
3. We must therefore get into the right way of thinking about things; we must consider, we must read much in starlight; we must bring the right scale to bear upon the events which disturb us so much, and then they will disturb us no longer. The Psalmist says, “When I consider Thy heavens, the moon, and the stars, which Thou hast ordained,” then I get the right view of everything else. We must get back to the geometric measurements, to the stellar spaces, to the all-quieting immensities; then we shall be great, because we shall be in our measure like God.
4. And when I thus consider, my spirit is tranquillised; a great peace steals over my soul. When I look at death I am disquieted and overborne and impoverished; when I look at immortality I am young, I come out of my chamber as a bridegroom ready to run a race, like a giant that cannot be tired. Thus there are two views of life, the detranquillising view and the all-tranquillising view. We may spend so much time with death as to think the universe is but a ghostly shadow. Why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God, count His stars, be familiar with His heavens; hear the man of science who tells thee that, having seen the night glory, the telescope has found forty thousand galleries such as the gallery which is visible to the poor struggling astronomical instrument; and when thou dost bathe thyself in the rivers of the stars thy flesh shall come again as the flesh of a little child, and thou shalt begin to praise God in a new sweet hymn.
5. “When I consider,” I find that things are not so roughly related and antagonised as at first they seemed to be. I was not looking from the right point of view, I did not get far enough away from my subject, I was in the thick of the battle, in the very midst of the storm of dust, I could not see things in their right relation and proportion; but when I climbed the stairway of the stars and looked down upon the earth and time and measurable space I said, All things work together for good to them that love God.
6. “When I consider,” consideralise, put the stars together, I get time drawn into its right relation or driven off into its right prospective, I punctuate the literature of Providence properly. Consideration, properly defined, is a religious duty. In 1 Samuel 12:24 you have exactly what I mean--“Consider how great things He hath done for you. Job says the same thing in his own grand way, “Stand still and consider the wondrous works of God” (Job 37:14). Put things together; give God time. You are impatient because you are little poor fussy fools; give Him time. Consideration is a great element in wisdom and practical prudence. Sometimes men cannot go to the stars, so God has made some little stars for them to look at. How kind He is, and condescending! He says, in effect, The stars are too many for you, you feel a noise in your little heads, and it is not good for you to look at the Milky Way and the Great Bear and the gleaming Orion and the beauteous Venus; so I will make some starlets for you, little living stars, asteroids. How sweet! Hear His voice through the medium of His prophet, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider”--the same word, with all its stars and Milky Ways--“consider her ways, and be wise” (Proverbs 6:6). So you can get the lesson reduced as to mere size; you can have a universe in a microcosm, you can have all creation reduced to a minimum, so that you can see God’s meaning and learn God’s philosophy. Consideration is the only profitable use of history. We find, then, in Isaiah 43:18, “Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. That is the reason why you are so poor, and why you are so easily driven about. You might be rich in history, you might be millionaires in retrospect. Consideration is the best use of nature. Consider the lilies, how they grow: connect them with the stars. And consideration is the greatest impulse to true piety, as we are taught in Hebrews 10:2-3, “Consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself.” Consideration is the greatest guarantee of self-control. “Consider thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” Stars have fallen, angels have dropped out of line; consider thyself. Solitude is often necessary to true consideration. God said to the prophet, “Go forth into the plain, and I will there talk with thee” (Ezekiel 3:22). (J. Parker, D. D.)
The revelation of God in His works
I. All the Divine works express the Divine character. Long after Niebuhr had ended his eastern travels, when he had become blind and debilitated by old age, he beguiled his weary hours “in recalling the aspect of the oriental heavens. As he lay in his bed, the glittering splendour of the nocturnal Asiatic sky, on which he had so often gazed, or its lofty vault and azure by day, imaged themselves to his mind in the hour of stillness, and ministered to him his sweetest enjoyment.” Not the heavens alone, but the whole earth is full of its Maker’s glory. He said, “Let the earth bring forth its plants.” And it did so. He said this in willing it. His act of choosing is virtually His act of speaking; and as a printed word is a permanent memorial of the speaker’s thought, so the plants yielding seed are perennial mementoes of their Author’s mind. And God said, “Let the earth bring forth its living creatures.” It was so; and these living creatures are the published words of Him who spake, and it was done. There are forces in matter and in mind. These forces are preserved, as they were originated, by the positive act of God. This act is His speech.
II. The methods in which the Divine character is revealed by the Divine operations.
1. One of these methods is the use of signs, which are fitted in their very nature to suggest the truth pertaining to God. There is a natural language for expressing spiritual ideas. The proverb is, that actions speak louder than words. The tear makes known what the tongue conceals. The sigh, the groan, the blush, the drooping head expose the secrets which no words can tell. Now, if an elevated gesture of man have a fitness to express a lofty thought, much more has the expanse of the firmament, or some mountain of the Lord, a fitness to suggest an idea of His exaltation. The works of God are adapted to an end; this adaptedness is an effect, and therefore a sign of His skill. His works are fitted to a good end; this fitness is a result, and thus an exponent of His wisdom. His works are so adjusted as to awaken the hope of a reward for well-doing, or the fear of a penalty for ill-doing; this adjustment is an effect, and thus a declaration of His purpose to remunerate the good and to punish the bad. If any object be suited in its structure to impress the mind of man, this very suitableness is an expression of the mind of God. Whoever attends to the teaching of nature listens to the conversation of Him who speaks through all nature. The laws of health are prescriptions from the great Physician. The inward structure of things will sometimes awaken in the most atheistic mind a fear of that mysterious Agent who “maketh darkness His pavilion round about Him,” and “gathereth the winds in His fists.” Nor is the natural language in which God reveals His attributes limited to external symbols.
2. We feel the internal signs of His character and plans. The approval of a good man’s conscience has a meaning higher than that of a mere human phenomenon. It is an expression of the Divine justice. It is a smile of God alluring us to persevere in well-doing. The remorse of conscience is also an alphabetic sign in the book of nature that God is just. Their sensibilities, more than the stars of heaven, declare the glory of God; and their intellect, more than the firmament, showeth His wisdom.
3. Another method in which the works of Jehovah express His character is the use of signs which have a conventional fitness to suggest ideas. He has superadded arbitrary to natural language in the communication of His truth. The rainbow has nothing in its structure adapted to reveal a Divine promise respecting another flood; but the Author of it gave it a meaning, and made it, as it were, an epistle printed on the clouds and recording a Divine purpose. The articulate speech of men also is, not less really than the earth itself, a work of God. He inserted within us the tendency to use arbitrary language. These influences of speech “declare the glory of God.” But more than this. He uses our words as His own vocabulary. He employed arbitrary language in conversing with Adam, Abraham, Moses. He adopted Hebrew, Chaldaic, Greek, Aramaean sentences in communicating His truth through prophets and apostles. He now instructs men in the words of His ministers. David exclaims, “0 Lord, our Lord, who hast set Thy glory above the heavens,--out of the mouth of children Thou hast prepared for Thyself a power that shall overcome the enemy”; and if the voice of babes “declare the glory of God,” then much more do the lips of His evangelists “show His handy work.”
III. Consider some of the reasons why Jehovah unfolds His character in His works.
1. One obvious reason is, that the manifestation of His attributes is inseparable from the exercise of them. If He act at all, He must act out the principles of His being; and to act them out is to make them known. When He governs the world He puts forth His attributes; in putting them forth He exposes, expresses them. He exerts His wisdom in giving to the mind an impulse to infer the nature of the cause from the nature of the effect. In exerting this wisdom He exhibits it; for it is this wisdom, as the cause, to which the mind reasons from itself as the effect. He cannot form an image of Himself without disclosing the original excellence which is imaged forth. How can He let His benevolence have its free scope unless He form sentient beings able to enjoy His benevolence; and how can they fully enjoy it unless they perceive it; and how can they perceive it unless He show it unto them; and how can He show it unto them clearly unless it appear in His deeds? If He exercise His mercy toward men, He must relieve the suffering; if He do give this relief, He must therein manifest the mercy which He feels. It is necessary for Him either to repress His love or to express it. Why should He repress it? Why close the gates through which His benignant favours flow forth as a stream?
2. Another reason why Jehovah makes use of His works as a language revealing His attributes is, that He promotes the welfare of His offspring by the revelation. The Father pleases His children by appearing to them. The disciples were troubled until they heard the cheering voice, “It is I, be not afraid.” The Psalmist, in our context, was triumphant when he beheld the sun coming as a bridegroom out of his chamber, and rejoicing as a hero to run a race. Other men are often in solitude; or if in society, they have no friends. But the child of God, wherever he moves, is near to his Maker. Under the venerable oak, or on the skirts of the deep sea, or in the pure air of the mountain top, he talks with the Great Spirit. The laws of his own mind are the words of his Friend whispering within him. In the constitutional workings of the soul God does manifest Himself to it. An author of an effect must be some free will. But many effects without us and within us are not produced by a created free will; then they are produced by the Uncreated. They make known God’s laws. They disclose His feelings. The acts of conscience testify of His purposes. The decisions of the reason speak His counsel. The necessary beliefs of men are His teachings. All ethical axioms are His revelation. The moral freedom of men is His express summons to a right preference. Their innocent joys are His words of good cheer. Perhaps it is impossible for any power to impress on the mind any truth, by mere words, so deeply as by acts, which are emphatic words.
3. Another reason why Jehovah reveals His excellence through His works is, that He promotes His own blessedness by the revelation. He might, in merely written syllables, inform us that He is omnipotent; but as a Sovereign He chooses to speak to us by the globes of heaven, which declare Him to be Almighty. He might, in a merely artificial language, indicate His benevolence; but He prefers to address us in our own joys and hopes, which rehearse His loving kindness. But why do we presume that the blessedness of the Most High is promoted by His development of His excellence? So far as we have learned, it is the law of all sentient beings to express themselves. Even the cattle on a thousand hills, the birds of the air, have an irrepressible longing to make known what they feel. It is the law of all mind, above all a pure mind, of course then an infinite mind, to bring itself out to the light. Why then should not the Being of whom we are the image feel an immeasurable bliss in gratifying His desire to manifest, in the view of others, what He enjoys Himself? But He has more than this constitutional tendency to develop His character. This character is a good in itself, and deserves His own as well as our supreme love; delighting in it, He must be happy in the radiating of it upon His offspring. The exercise of His attributes is a source of bliss, and we have seen that He cannot exercise them in their normal way without manifesting them; He must therefore rejoice in their manifestation. He cannot raise men to their destined thrones without illustrating His own mercy in their exaltation: why should He hide that mercy? These things, such things, are not done in a corner. A fountain does not keep itself compressed in a ball of ice. The sun does not bind its rays to and within itself. From within, outward, all affections flow forth. From the recesses of the soul to the well-being of the universe all right affections move forward. The diffusing of its own joy is the law of a loving heart, and only in the diffusing of it is the full development of it, and only in its development is the consummating of its rest.
IV. Remarks which are suggested by this theme.
1. The reasonableness of Jehovah in His retributive administration. He loves virtue. His constitutional desire is to manifest His love. Why should He restrain this desire? But if He express it His nature prompts Him to express it by act. And the act by which He will make known His love of virtue,--known thoroughly by being felt deeply,--is the exciting of the moral sensibility of virtuous agents in favour of their own rectitude. Their complacency of conscience, and many of its preliminary and consequent joys, will be their reward. The reward is worked out according to the laws of their constitution. But these laws are the work, and therefore the word of God. They express His remunerative justice. He will reveal His loving approval in our moral judgments; these will be the heavens declaring the glory of God. And is it not reasonable that He should honestly express what He inwardly feels? This disposition to express His delight in the pure of heart, and to make them blissful in receiving the expression, is His remunerative justice to them. Equally reasonable is the punitive justice of the Most High. He abhors sin. No finite mind can ever fathom the depth of His displeasure toward one solitary transgression. Shall He conceal His displeasure? His abhorrence of sin is nothing dishonourable, nothing wrong. Why should He hesitate to express it? It is what it ought to be, noble, magnanimous. Why shall He not be honest in revealing it? And if He do reveal it, why shall He not adopt the method which He prefers in His ordinary dispensations; the method which the law of His being has prescribed; the method of action, the emphatic, the Divine speech? The punishment is worked out according to the laws of their constitution. But these laws are the device of God. They express what He feels. The upbraidings of conscience are the declarations of His punitive justice. And is it not a punishment from Jehovah?--what can be a severer recompense than for us, if we are left incorrigible, to have the inward assurance that our Friend, our best Friend, is ever near us, frowning upon us,--our compunction being His frown;--not because He is indifferent to our persons, but because He loves them, and therefore abhors our suicidal crimes, and exposes His abhorrence, not in artificial forms of speech, but in our own reason, in our moral judgment, in all the pains by which He awakens our displacency, and which He appends to it.
2. The consistency of the atonement with other parts of the Divine administration. As the Most High loves to express Himself in the material world, so He loves to express Himself in the phenomena of the mind and heart. As He chooses to disclose His attributes in the punishment of the wicked, when this punishment is needful for the common welfare, so He chooses to dispense with punishment when He can disclose the same attributes, and impress the same truths, and promote the same well-being in some equivalent way. The power of any language to suggest ideas and excite emotions is mysterious. Articulate speech is a wonder. The significance of penal suffering is felt more clearly than it can be described. But the fulness and variety and intensity of meaning and of impression in the atonement are what even the angels desire to look into.
3. A third remark, suggested by our theme, is on the harmony of both the visible and invisible works of God with the feelings of a devout man. He keeps his ear attent to the sounds of the land, air, sea, and therefore they express to him rich truths. Ebal shouts to Gerizim, and Gerizim shouts back to Ebal the words of the Lord. He draws nigh to them who seek Him in His works, and He hides Himself from them who care not to listen for His voice. The longer we listen to a distant sound, so much the more distinctly do we hear it; for the atmosphere becomes wonted to it, and our minds become expert by discipline in detecting the auricular vibrations. So the longer we listen to the voices of nature, they become the more full and rich in their expression of Divine truth. Old age refines the spiritual ear; and as the body decays the soul becomes more and more sensitive to the undulations of the spiritual atmosphere. And as century after century rolls by, the whisperings of the Divine Spirit will be more and more clearly recognised, and that volume of sound which came to the ear of David from the skies by day and by night will be gaining new emphasis and new power, until, at the millennium, the heavens will declare the glory of God, so that all men shall hear, “as it were, the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of many thunderings, saying: Allelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth.”
4. The Christian preacher is an interpreter both of nature and of revelation. One spirit reigns in both. The truths of the Bible are illustrated by the phenomena of life, and the phenomena of life are explained by the truths of the Bible. The analogies between the two are needed for comprehending the two. The prophets and apostles vivified their discourses with these analogies. Thus is all nature alive and vocal, when the prophets describe it. More than one folio volume has been filled with comments on the suggestions which have been gathered from the myrtle, cedar, olive, willow, palm, and all trees; from the eagle, dove, sparrow, lion, viper, dragon, leviathan, and all animals; from the silver, pearl, jewel, ruby, and all manner of precious stones; from the wells without water, clouds without rain, floods, winds, flaming fire--all of them ministers of God; from children, fathers, ambassadors, rulers, shepherds, trumpeters, soldiers, captains; things in heaven and on earth and under the earth, all laid under contribution,--the grave itself forced to give up its dead men’s bones, to express and to impress some truth which men would overlook if they were not startled into an attentive mood. And since the day when men spake with tongues of fire from the Holy Ghost, the Chrysostoms and the Bernards and the Jeremy Taylors and the Whitefields of the Church have lifted up the clarion of the Gospel, and waked the echoes from the woodland and the mountain, and have made the rocks and the streams resonant with the voice of God. Now, as of old, it is the high office of every minister to gather into his own mind, that he may diffuse through the mind of his people, instructions from the sea and the field, from science and from history, from the arts and the aims of men. He should make all the events of life pay tribute to Him who governs, as He created, the world for the Church. (E. A. Park, D. D.)
The Gospel and the magnitude of creation
Some persons object to the inaccurate language of Scripture in regard to the sun’s rising and setting, and other truths established by modern astronomy. But the Scriptures were given to man to lead his soul back to God, and to do this in a way suited to every stage of man’s progress. Therefore it was the common language of men, and not of the science of the schools. But there is another objection deeper than this. It is, that the Gospel revelation is out of proportion to the magnitude of creation. This difficulty arises from the view of the universe given to us by astronomical science. Our earth is very small compared with other planets revolving round the sun, and with the sun itself And the sun is but one centre amongst myriads more. But coming more directly to the objection that is urged, we note that it takes one of two forms.
I. That man, looked at in the light of such a material universe, is too insignificant for such interposition as that of which the Gospel tells. But
1. The aim of the Gospel is spiritual, to save men from sin, and hence moves in a sphere entirely distinct from that of astronomy. Moreover,
2. It is the presence of intelligent life which gives significance to creation. What were the Alps and Andes; what Niagara, what the ocean, but for the thoughts they suggest? The real grandeur of the world is the soul which looks on it. Mind breathes into matter the breath of life, and so it becomes a living soul. “Man,” says Pascal, “is a feeble reed trembling in the midst of creation; but then, he is endowed with thought.” The very discoveries of astronomy attest the greatness of man’s mind, for the discoverer is ever above the discovery.
3. Then think of man’s moral capacity. He can think the material universe out of being, and we believe that once it did not exist; but moral ideas--truth, right, goodness--these are eternal both in faith and thought.
4. And mind is immortal. The material universe changes, but mind lives on in conscious identity. If in matter there is infinite space, in mind there is infinite time.
5. And if it was befitting of God to create the world and man, then it is befitting of Him to care for what He has made. Is it a worthy idea of God to think that He abandons things to chance hazard here? that the highest part of man’s nature will be left to neglect? And if the supernatural interposed to create, might it not interpose to save?
6. And the argument from astronomy helps rather than hinders faith. For if God has lavished so much pains upon the material universe, will He not do as much for the moral and spiritual for whom He has made the material? And if it be asked, why should God do so much for mind here and not elsewhere? Why here alone? How do we know He has not? It is to be expected that in other worlds He reveals Himself in infinitely varied modes, according to the need of each.
II. God is too exalted for us to expect such an interposition. This is the second form of the objection--it brings God too low.
1. But if we allow Him a free hand in His works of power and wisdom,--which we all confess are infinite,--are we to deny Him like freedom in His display of goodness and mercy?
2. Can we say that because He is so great in the heavens, therefore He cannot be great in stooping down to our sin and misery? Such is not our standard even for men; how much less for God! No, “As high as the heaven is above the earth, so great is His mercy to them that fear Him.” His greatness is the measure, not of His distance from us, but of His nearness to us.
3. Further, the balance of qualities which we require in a perfect character, supports the teaching of the Gospel. Pascal has finely said, “I do not admire in a man the extreme of one virtue, as of valour, if I do not see at the same time the extreme of the opposite virtue.” Therefore in God, may we not expect that if we see, as we do, the extreme of power, there shall be also corresponding love? Is God’s character ill-balanced? And power and genius are never so great as when they stoop to lift the fallen and the lost. And if God gave us this instinct, must not His own character be in harmony therewith? Could we reverence in God that which we cannot respect in man? He, therefore, is far more than mere power--infinite in goodness and in truth. It is to the glory of the Gospel that it has given us this view of God, and reveals Him crowned with loving kindness and tender mercy. (John Ker, D. D.)
A sketch of the modern astronomy
St. Paul was wont to avail him self of all common ground between himself and his hearers, whatever it might be. And doubtless he would do the like today, though, in so doing, he might soar above the understanding of many amongst us. Hence I have attempted to meet the men of science on their own ground, though, in so doing, many a humble Christian will find little for his own edification. But if those whose welfare is contemplated can be won to the Gospel, surely then others can only, and will only, rejoice. It is right to appeal to the works of nature. Our Lord did so, and the Psalmist here takes a lofty flight. He contemplates--it was probably a meditation born of the night--the starry heavens. There is much in such a scene to elevate the soul. But what are these starry lights that we behold? Their distances and their magnitudes have been calculated, and vast numbers of them have been observed. But when we see how small a spot this earth of ours is in the immensity which surrounds it, can we think that here only is the exclusive abode of life and of intelligence? Are these other far vaster worlds, which roll in other parts of creation, not also worlds both in use and dignity? Why should the Great Architect call these stately mansions into existence and leave them unoccupied? And in confirmation of this we observe that they are formed upon a system similar to our own. They have their revolutions round the sun and their succession of day and night. And future ages will probably make yet more discoveries concerning them. And we know that beyond the boundary of the planetary system there is a multitude of other lights which sparkle in our firmament and fill the whole concave of heaven with innumerable splendours. These fixed stars are at an immeasurable distance from us, but they are not shined upon by our sun; their light is self-derived, they are so many suns. And they, too, resemble our sun, in its revolution, and their number is simply incalculable. Where, then, can we limit the Almighty, or cease to trace His footsteps? And how vast are the movements of our sun and its planetary system. Not only does it revolve, but it goes forward through space, and carrying along with it all its planets and their secondaries with them. And since our sun may only be one member of a family, taking his part along with millions of others in their mighty movement for which there is ample space in immensity, how insignificant does our world appear. Think of the nebulae also. Are all these worlds unpeopled? Does God care only for us? (Thomas Chalmers, D. D.)
Results of contemplation
I. We are impressed with God’s infinite independence of human help. We cannot touch one of His stars; we cannot control their courses; we cannot increase or diminish their light. Yonder they shine, away from our poor patronage, indifferent to our powerless opinion. When, then, God asks our help in anything, He does so for our good, and never to fill up the circle of His own ability. How these star-lit heavens rebuke my officiousness!
II. We see that creation is established upon a basis of order. There is no controversy in all those heavenly spaces! The stars are quiet. There is no collision of orbits. Everywhere there is sovereign law. The moral significance of this is plain. See what God would have in the moral universe! In the individual heart; in families; in churches; in nations. God is the God of order, and order is peace.
III. We see the infinite sufficiency of God to preserve all the interests we commit to Him. If He can sustain that firmament of worlds, can He not sustain our little life? Can He who numbers the stars not also number the hairs of our head? Is our house greater than God’s heavens, that He cannot be trusted with it? “Commit thy way unto the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass.” Does His work in the starry creation ever fail? Does the starlight waste because of the insufficiency of God’s glory? O Thou who carriest the worlds in Thine hands, carry, too, my poor life!
IV. We see the essential difference between physical sovereignty and moral control. The weakest man is greater than the most magnificent star! God has made man greater than the heavens, though physically he dwindles into nothingness in presence of their vastness and glory. In what does his superiority consist? In all that is implied in the term “will.” Man can say “No” to God. Physical government is an act of sovereignty, but moral control involves the consent of the life that is governed. The house cannot be shaken, but the tenant may spend his days in controversy and bitterness against the builder. Why cannot human life be as peaceful as the quiet heavens? Because human life has a will of its own. God seeks by all the tender persuasiveness of His love, as shown in Jesus Christ, to bring that will into harmony with His own;--when that is done, there will be a great calm. A consideration so conducted will
(1) Enlarge and strengthen the mind.
(2) Show contrastively the power and weakness of man.
(3) Excite the highest hopes regarding human destiny.
(4) Tranquillise the impatience and fretfulness incident to an incomplete life. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
Contemplations on the starry sky
There is nothing of all that we can behold that more elevates the mind, or pervades it with more and grander thoughts and emotions, than the view of the starry sky. The starry sky says to us--
1. Adore the greatness and glory of God. How couldst thou fail of perceiving Him, the Eternal, the Infinite, the Almighty, the Supremely-wise, the All-gracious, in these His works? Endeavour to form a conception of the whole of this infinite system of suns and worlds, and then raise thy mind to Him who made and preserves them all. How great, how inconceivably great, must He be, the Creator and Father of all worlds, the primordial source of energy and motion, the first, eternal cause of all things, etc. Then be absorbed in devotion, in adoration, O man, when thou contemplatest this theatre of the marvels of thy God.
2. Be sensible also of thy insignificance, and learn humility. Thou oughtest not to be proud, but neither shouldst thou be of an abject mind.
3. Have a proper sense of thy dignity, and learn to think generously and nobly.
4. Presage thy future perfection and happiness, and get a foretaste of them! (G. J. Zollikofer.)
Two voices of nature
The poet first looks out upon nature, and feels his littleness; then he thinks further, and sees his greatness. He knew very little of the universe compared with what we know. We look upon the earth, these rivers, these mountains, this ocean, we look back historically upon the tremendous forces which have pushed these continents up, and are pushing them, so that it is estimated that within the last five years Scandinavia has been pushed up over three hundred feet into the air from the ocean bed; we look upon the starry firmament with these immensities of space, and it will be very strange if we are not inclined to say, “What are we? Insects on a globe of sand; the world an ant hill, and we but ants upon it.” “Who am I, that I should think the Creator of these blazing orbs, the forth-putter of this tremendous power, the wisdom that has planned and keeps in order this marvellous mechanism--that He should count the hairs of my head, or think of me as His son?” Yet, if we think deeply, we shall come also to the thought of the Psalmist, and see in the very grandeur of nature a testimony to the grandeur of man. If we have learned something which the Psalmist never knew respecting the greatness of nature, we have learned something also which the Psalmist never knew concerning the greatness of man, for whom the world has been made. Not only has this wonderful world been given to us, not only has this wonderful world been mastered by us, but it has been given to us to find the way to the mastery of it ourselves. If you consider that this world is a university. All its powers are hidden from us until by our own energy we have discovered them, mastering us until by our own supremacy we have dominion over them; if you consider that all this has been given to us to make “character”--does it seem so strange that this world should be also the theatre of a more Divine redemption, the place whereon a greater service to character has been wrought than can be wrought by cloud, or tree, or mountain stream, or ocean? This world is not an ant hill. It is God’s house; it is man’s house; God-given for man’s use and man’s supremacy. (Lyman Abbott, D. D.)
Man and the universe
It is possible to measure man against the universe on more than one scale, and the result will be strikingly different according to the scale which we use.
1. The scale of space and time. How instantaneously, how inexpressibly, are we dwarfed by the result! What are we but microscopical insects, crawling in indistinguishable multitude upon the face of a planet, which, in comparison with the countless orbs of space, is itself no more than a grain of stardust? We can reduce astronomical results to figures, but to all this the mind responds by no adequate effort of conception. So also it is with periods of time. I am not sure that we do not feel our littleness more when we think of the thousand millions of living beings on the earth now, and of the thousand times a thousand millions who have mouldered into its elemental dust. We may heap figure upon figure to express our physical insignificance, and we shall not find the level of our nothingness.
2. There is a radical distinction between man and the universe. It is a necessity of man’s nature to divide the whole vast sum of things into two marvellously unequal parts--himself, and all that is not himself. The sense of personality, this discrimination between the I and the not I, is so strong and fundamental, that it requires, in most of us, an effort to take the other view, and to consider ourselves as a minute and undivided part of the whole. The moment you introduce the ideas of personality and consciousness, it becomes necessary to measure the relations between man and the universe on quite a new scale. Thought has no magnitude. When we apply the words greater and less to feeling, it is only by way of metaphor. Whatever lives the life of consciousness and reflection, though never so feebly, is separated by an immeasurable gulf from that which simply exists, unwitting of its own existence. This fact of reflective consciousness would seem strange and significant enough, if it implied no more than the power of simply cutting ourselves off from the universe, and so recognising ourselves. But it becomes stranger and more significant still, when it is seen to involve the power of setting up the “I” over against the “All,” and, weak, ignorant, transitory, as each one of us is, of distinctly comprehending the vast and complex totality of which we form a most minute and undistinguished part. Compare me with the universe on the physical side, and words are utterly powerless to express the inconceivable contrast of greatness and littleness. But think of one philosopher bringing into correlation to the same law the falling apple and the revolving worlds, and another reducing to theoretic uniformity the speed at which the planets circle in their courses, and a third demonstrating, with glass of new magic, the constituents of the solar atmosphere, and you will see how there can be no comparison between that which thinks and that which simply is. If, on the one hand, nature is our irresponsible tyrant, on the other, we are masters of nature. This is much more the case when we bring within our survey the moral element. How decisively this moral element differentiates man from nature. Take humanity out of the universe, and it is neither moral nor immoral, it is simply natural. The world of morals is emphatically human, and as emphatically not material. It is in connection with human morality alone that what I may call the moral indifference of nature receives some measure of explanation. There is a further sense, in which both man and the universe may be said to receive and reflect God, and so in this highest capacity of being to be again at one. And yet while this is so, at no point is the difference between them more radical; for the reflection of mind in matter is another and less thing than the reflection of mind in mind. The world reveals God without knowing Him: but man consciously receives God as a Divine guest, and feels His vivifying and purifying presence. The pure heart sees, and knows, and welcomes God. The keen conscience leaps up to answer His least command. The disciplined will submits, and rejoices in submission. The fine life lives in the Divine and eternal life, and is unspeakably content. (C. Beard, B. A.)
The greatness and littleness of man
I. The estimate we make of man’s place in God’s universe depends upon the criterion by which we judge. There is a sense in which, viewed as a physical force in the world of matter, man is nothing.
II. It becomes necessary, therefore, to measure man’s place and importance in God’s universe by altogether other standards.
1. If we contemplate man simply as a being of intelligence, the scale begins to turn. The fact of a thinking mind in man puts him above sun and moon and stars. Mind is above matter, intelligence above force.
2. The importance of man in the universe is greatly heightened when we advance from the mental to the moral. “Two objects,” said Kant, “fill my soul with ever-increasing admiration and--Above us the starry heaven, within us the moral law.” Man is a member of the kingdom of spirits. He is capable of virtue and of sin. He is a free being, capable of self-improvement and self-destruction. He can contend with his Maker.
3. Man as a sinner is of special importance. A creature who sins always makes himself of importance. An offending member of a family assumes a significance he did not have before. Viewed simply as a sinner, man looms up in the Divine government above the stars.
4. A sufferer is a being of importance in God’s universe. He is worthy of God’s thought and visitation. However feeble, and obscure in rank, if he suffers, and is liable to suffer forever, he becomes of importance in the Divine government.
5. The crowning proof of man’s greatness and worth must be taken from God’s own estimate. That is found in the sacrifice that God has made to restore man to the high place from which he has fallen. The moon and the stars cost nothing--the redemption of the soul cost God’s Only Begotten Son.
1. The reasonableness of the fact that God is mindful of us.
2. The real greatness of man as a sinner lies in his penitence, contrition, confession.
3. If a man is worth so much to God, he surely ought to be of great value to himself.
4. If man is so important a creature as a sinner and a sufferer, how much more so as a Christian! (James Brand, D. D.)
Vastness of the material universe
The contemplation of this must have immense power over the mind. The nightly vision of the starry heavens has three daughters, Religion, Superstition, Atheism. It is very important that believers in God should reason rightly. For Atheism is hastening to occupy the ground which Superstition long ago filled. If the mind of man were in unimpaired simplicity, the spectacle of the universe would teach him piety; but, being as he is, piety must be first imparted by other means. But being imparted, this vision of the heavens will be one chief means for aiding both his reason and imagination. For the heavens display the infinitude of God, and that infinitude filled with existence. They symbolise and demonstrate His Divine attributes by the vastness and richness of His visible universe. Such is the doctrine of mind reason. But if reason be corrupted, there follows Superstition, as in the East; or Atheism, as amongst modern scientific men. Bacon, who originated our modern philosophy, and Newton, who verified it,--the two minds who more than any other have ruled the world of mind,--both believed in the Supreme Intelligence which the material universe demonstrated. But it is otherwise with their successors. And that men of science should doubt disturbs many who cannot bear to think that the Divine existence should be called in question. They forget that all arguments other than those of the mathematician can be assailed again and again, and are always open to question. Only mathematical argument excludes, or can exclude, controversy. Further, it should be remembered that these men of science have elevated their abstract laws to the position of effectual causes of things, and so have Set aside the first great Cause, and, in their minds, supplanted the higher truth. But there is another and more modest form of this same impiety, and which is derived from the contemplation of the vastness of the universe. This world and man are so insignificant that it is incredible that God should be mindful of him. But this false modesty will be confuted if we remember that the universe is composed of separate parts, and that the whole is but the vastness of accumulation. Our argument is briefly this: The material system, so far as it is open to our knowledge, surpasses all power of conception. Yet this immensity is but the immensity of matter; and we know by consciousness of an order of existence incomparably more excellent than matter, even in its most admirable combinations. It is probable, therefore, that this higher order of existence actually spreads itself over the entire surface of the material system, and is developing itself in some manner proportionate to its superior dignity. Hence the material universe, great as it is, may be nothing more than a stage for the accomplishment of the destinies of this higher order of existence. And concerning these destinies, we may infer from the ease and tranquillity of the messengers of heaven that all is well, if looked upon from a point sufficiently high. Just as when a father, stationed on an eminence, is watching the progress of his sons through a labyrinth, they may confidently presume that their course is the right one, so long as they see a cheerful smile on his face. And are we not taught modesty by this very vastness of the universe? What is our knowledge but that of a single spot? (Isaac Taylor.)
Wonders of grace in the height and in the depth
It is charged against earnest Christians that they are unable to see the wonders of God in the world; that from holding so rigidly to the letter of the Scripture, the taste has been lost for the Divine displays in the firmament and in the glory of earthly nature. It may be true of some, but where this is so it is opposed to Holy Scripture and to Christ Himself. Nowhere shall we find any hymns in which the glories of God in nature are more tenderly and devoutly celebrated than they are in these Psalms. So, then, let us meditate--
I. On the wonders of Divine grace in the heights above. This Psalm is a night Psalm, called forth by the contemplation of the glory of the starry heavens. Wonderful is the scene which is opened to the eye when it looks from earth to heaven. Men need such a view. They would not then be quiet in having no certainty on earth concerning heavenly and eternal things. What wonders fill the heart when we look up into those distances of light. How flee, how calm, how regular they are as they float in wide space--how innumerable. And are they empty, and what is their destiny? But if I have no other theatre of His grace than that one so infinite I can call Him the Infinite, but the name of Father dies away on my lips. What is man when compared with immensity? The greatness of God crushes our hearts if we look only at the wonders in the heights above, and the expression of amazed and humble thanksgiving is also the language of doubt. “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?” Let us, then, hasten on, that in the infinite we may see the Father, to consider--
II. The works of God’s grace in the depths below. They throw light upon His works of grace in the heights above. There are two kingdoms in which our Lord and God reigns upon earth:
1. The kingdom of nature. Now, would it not take away from His glory if His creative power had called forth so many worlds in the immensity above us, but His preserving and sustaining power could not keep pace with it? If the eye which guides the four thousand nebulae could not see the falling tear which is wept upon this little earth? But it is not so. The microscope, when the telescope was discovered to support human doubt, seems to have come into existence to meet that doubt. And by its means we find the infinitude of God in every flying straw and in the smallest grain. None can say where God is greater, in the great or in the little, in the immensity on earth or in the infinity in heaven. But if the flying straw and gnat display His wonderful works, what will He not have done in and for man? Man has a spirit which can think and soar and worship. But though it can soar to heaven, it brings down no certain news. I see the heavens full of stars, and man’s heart of anticipations and forebodings. Yes, these are the only relics which man has rescued from the Fall. And no philosopher can still those longings and forebodings. But are they forever to remain unsatisfied? No, for see--
2. The kingdom of grace. Man, without Christ, might have expected that the Divine wonder-working power would show itself in and for his spirit more than in the flowers of the field. He needs it so much, but knows not the way of life. God, who feeds the ravens and gives food to the young eagles, was He not to have taken care to feed man’s heart? Yes, for the Saviour came, God manifest in the flesh. And the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest,” etc. So on the whole earth weary, heavy-laden men have ever since drunk of the water of life which quenches the thirst forever. (J. Tholuck.)
How cometh he to mention the moon and the stars, and omit the sun? the other being but his pensioners, shining with that exhibition of light which the bounty of the sun allots them. It is answered, this was David’s night meditation, when the sun, departing to the other world, left the lesser lights only visible in the heavens; and as the sky is best beheld by day in the glory thereof, so, too, it is best surveyed by night in the variety of the same. Night was made for man to rest in. But when I cannot sleep may I, with the Psalmist, entertain my waking with good thoughts. (Thomas Fuller.)
God’s stars and their message
An atheistic leader of the French Revolution said one day to a Christian villager, “We are going to pull down your church tower, so that you may have nothing left to remind you of God or religion.” “You will not only have to pall down the church tower,” said the man, “you will also have to blot out the stars, before you can destroy all that reminds us of God; they speak to us of Him.” (W. Walters.)
Work of God’s fingers
This is most elaborate and accurate; a metaphor from embroiderers, or from them that make tapestry. (John Trapp.)
What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?--
What is man
The influence on religious faith and hope of what we call “nature”--of the sun and the moon, the stars, the mountains, and the seas--varies with different men, and varies with the varying temper and mood of the same man at different times. There are some aspects of nature which sometimes make it difficult to believe that there can be any real communion between the Creator and ourselves. Those of us who live in great cities are perhaps especially sensitive to the austere influences of the material universe. If we perished, what difference would it make to this stupendous universe? Ages ago David felt the insignificance of man when compared with the greatness of God’s material works, and expressed it in the words of our text. Our humiliation is deepened by the discovery that our own life is kin to the inferior forms of life around us. In the very highest there still survive affinities with the lowest. What right have I to claim a different rank? The Most High appears to take no heed of the moral qualities of men, or of their weakness and helplessness. What right, it may be urged, have we to claim any special remembrance from Him? This is the gospel of science. Is it true, or is it false? The truth in it David had a glimpse or: But instead of yielding to the grovelling fear, David triumphed over it, turning with exulting confidence to his assurance that, after all, God is mindful of us, that God doth visit us. What are these pleas worth?
1. We are told the whole world in which we live is a mere speck in the universe, and it is incredible that God can have a special care for it. But there is a certain intellectual and moral vulgarity in attaching such importance to mere material magnitude.
2. The life of man is too brief and momentary compared with the ages during which the universe has existed. But science itself contains the reply to this argument. All these ages have been necessary in order to render it possible for a creature like man to come into existence.
3. We are encompassed by laws which take no heed of the personal differences of men, of the varieties of their character, or of the vicissitudes of their condition. To ask God to deal with us separately and apart is to forget that He guides the whole universe by laws which are fixed, irreversible, and irresistible. But this too is a fact, I am conscious of a power of choice--of moral freedom. That must be taken into the account. You tell me of law, but there is another law, the law of my moral nature. I am not absolutely bound by the chains of necessity in my moral life. In the centre and heart of my being I am free. Separated from nature, I may be akin to God. As for those modern thinkers who deny the moral freedom of man, they are engaged in a hopeless struggle. Their controversy is not with philosophy or with religion, it is with the human race. The whole history of mankind is the proof of man’s consciousness. So long as in our moral life we know that we are free we can look up into the face of the living God with the hope that He will deal with us separately and apart, that He Himself will care for us, and that there may be direct communion between us and Him. (R. W. Dale, M. A.)
Man, what is he
This language of the Psalmist shows that there were two facts in his mind that had settled down as undebatable convictions. The first is, that God is the Creator and Proprietor of the heavens. “Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers.” He was neither Atheist, Polytheist, nor Pantheist. The second is, that God pays special regard to His creature man. “Thou art mindful of him,” etc. Now with these two facts in his mind, he studied; “considered” the heavens. A wonderful study are these heavens! Who can compute the number of yon flaming orbs? Think of their infinite variety. No two alike. Think of the swiftness and regularity of their revolutions. What is man?
I. Negatively. He does not mean to imply that man constitutionally is a contemptible being--a creature too insignificant for notice. The very next verse shows that he could not mean that, for he says, Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, etc. Man is an immortal intelligence, and therefore great. He does not mean that man is insignificant in comparison with the heavens. The heavens are incapable of studying their Maker; man can. The heavens have no power of self-modification--they cannot move slower or faster, grow brighter or dimmer, of their own accord; man can. The heavens will not continue their identity forever. “The stars shall fade away,” etc.; but man will abide.
3. He does not mean to imply that there is a probability of man being overlooked amidst the immensity of God’s works.
4. He does not mean that it is essentially inconsistent with God’s greatness for Him to notice man. This cannot be entertained. Great and small are relative terms to creatures only. To the Infinite they have no meaning.
II. Positively. What, then, does he mean?
1. The great sentiment in his mind at the time was undoubtedly the infinite condescension of the great Creator and Proprietor of the heavens. This condescension would impress him as he thought of man as a spiritual creature.
2. This condescension would impress him much more as he thought upon him as a mortal creature, a creature only of a day, “who cometh forth as a flower and is cut down,” etc.
3. This condescension would impress him most of all as he thought upon man as a sinful creature--ungrateful, disobedient, rebellious. (Homilist.)
The subject of religion--the soul
Religion is the maintenance of a real bond between God and the individual man. Its object is God, but its subject is the soul.
I. What is the soul? Man is not his accidents; not those things with which we associate him when we speak of any one man. But he is a person--something separate and distinct from all others, and whose identity can be traced, year after year, all through life. And of all this we are conscious. The lower animals do not possess this sense of personality. But man is a personal spirit, separate from all others. Now, this consciousness is not the result of our physical constitution. Thought, after all, is not merely phosphorus. But we are conscious of the spirituality of the soul. The Bible takes it for granted, and appeals to it. Christ cares not for the outward, but for the spirit of a man. And because we have this soul we are capable of religion But--
II. Whence comes this soul? There are the ideas--
1. Of the East, which tell of the transmigration of souls.
2. Of the West--especially of Plato--which teach that the soul has had a former existence, and is here as a penalty for former sin. This doctrine travelled to Alexandria, is found in Philo, and in the Talmud, and in the Gnostics.
3. The Church opposed it, for it has no basis in Scripture; it contradicts the doctrine of original sin, which tells that its consequences devolve on those who had not sinned as Adam had. And it is equally at variance with the account of the Creation, which teaches the simultaneous creation of both soul and body. And experience is against it. We have no memory of such pre-existence.
4. Whence, then, came the soul? Is it begotten by the parents? Tertullian and Augustine leant to this view, the latter finding in it explanation of the transmission of sin. But when Lactantius asked, “From which parent came the soul, or was it from both?” no answer could be found. And, as a fact, the child resembles the parent in temperament, that which is of the body, but not in genius or will. Is the soul, then, created by an immediate act of God? In favour of this is the consideration that so the truth of the spirituality of the soul is maintained, and of the simultaneous creation of both. But against it it is urged--
(i) That God ceased creation on the seventh day. But, in reply, we have new species of animals.
(ii) That it binds the Creator to create a human soul at the will of man, perhaps an adulterer. But man cannot sin without Divine assistance. He is dependent for everything.
(iii) That there can be no transmission of sin. But sin is a defect of the soul rather than a positive quality. Therefore, on the whole, the creative theory is to be preferred. And it agrees emphatically with the Scripture distinction between the “fathers of our flesh” and the “Father of our spirits.” But both teach that God creates the soul. Then--
III. What is the destiny of the soul? Some say, “We cannot tell; the dead return not.” But when death comes near us this reply will not serve. We cannot believe that our loved ones cease to be. The moral argument is, after all, the strongest. Justice demands a future state. Is the soul’s growth to stop? The Bible takes the truth for granted. The doctrine of Sheol, the sayings of the prophets, the heroism of the Maccabees all countenance this truth. We have the resurrection of Christ as the great argument for the resurrection of the body as well as of the soul. Both are necessary to complete life.
IV. Religion is based on the sense of immortality. It is impossible without it. Suicide would be reasonable, and, indeed, has been advocated as wise. Seneca contends for it, but the Church by her teaching of the value of each soul counteracted all such views. Our main business, therefore, is to save our soul. (H. P. Liddon, D. D.)
The Psalm reveals not the littleness, but the greatness of man. One of the most plausible of the objections of unbelief has been the attempt to prove fallacious the prospects which Christianity offers to men beyond this world. Consider, then, the Christian idea of an immortal and heavenly life hereafter. It is this which is imperilled. I take the Psalm before us as furnishing a triumphant and lasting reply to the kind of unbelief in question. In nature, first, God shows us His estimate of man. The ascent is easy from nature to grace, in which the Divine estimate is raised to its highest point. Was not everything the earth contains made for our use and enjoyment, in measure increasing with every new discovery? We are invited to look still further afield. This world, which is made for us, is not independent or alone. It is in no sense self-sustained. It is part of a wonderful and incomprehensible whole. Other great creations concur in its maintenance. The whole host of heaven has been brought into co-ordinate and helpful relation to it--yes, it, the world, exists for us! When I consider the manifold bearings of Thy universe upon man--what is man? We do not say that we are the only moral and spiritual beings in the midst of so many worlds. But we do say--and science combines with Scripture to compel us to say--that these worlds have been in part created for us, just as our world has been in part created for them. So much, then, for what nature teaches. The first step being taken, another follows. Man is an object of the manifold agencies of myriads of worlds. He is so as man; and the relative position he holds, intellectually, morally, or socially, to his fellow men has nothing to do with the fact. Nature ministers to the Caffre and the Hottentot as truly as to the man of most advanced civilisation. Why, then, should man refuse to believe that he is an object of solicitous love to that God who created him, who made him what he is, and who thus crowned him with glory and honour? The prospect of human destiny as opened up by Christianity is grand; but not too grand to be ascribed to Him who created the universe, and so arranged it that it should constitute one vast system of ministration to us. Try from the greatness of man to estimate the greatness of the end. Is eternal life too much for a being whom the worlds combine to sustain, to feed, and to bless? Is a heaven of holiness and of love too much for a being whom angels are delighted to protect? It may be objected that this is a low and selfish view to take of the matter. But remember that the grandeur of our destiny is not determined and measured by our merits, but by the immensity of the Divine goodness. The eternal and blessed life which we anticipate is not of reward, but of grace; not a payment, but a gift. (Clement Bailhache.)
The end of man
This text teaches more than the condescension of God. The Psalmist has been contemplating the starry heavens. Now he turns his observation on himself, apparently mean and insignificant, and perceives that lie is the object of God’s special and distinguishing care. What is man, for what purpose is lie intended, that he fills so large a space in the Divine regard?
I. The nature of the Divine government. God never acts without a purpose. His great purpose is His own glory. The Divine care of man exhibits His goodness; but even Divine goodness is not without a purpose, for it is a form of the Divine wisdom. The universe is one. One law governs and unites all, and each is contributive to it. The earth is part of a system of worlds. Though each part is necessary to the whole, there are those which occupy more important places in the great economy, not, doubtless, from any intrinsic excellence in themselves, but the ordination of God. In God’s moral universe His higher glories are displayed, because there He manifests His moral attributes. The character of individuals not only makes up the aggregate character of a nation and the world, but they affect each other; while each is employed and controlled for the one grand purpose of created beings. The moral kingdom of God is extensive. There are intelligent beings peopling other worlds than this. There must be, in the moral government of God, the same certainty and universality of principles, and a harmony and connection of the various portions, all being controlled to effect the one purpose of the glory of God. There must be, in this moral universe, influences more powerful than others, and objects which attract in an especial manner the notice and contemplation of the rest. What these are we may infer from the manner in which God regards them.
II. The dealings of God towards man. Mark the circumstances of his creation. With what pomp and circumstance is he ushered into the world. But what are the wonders of his creation compared with the glories of his redemption? Man is the occasion and object of an attribute whose blessing the fallen angel never enjoyed, and which the holy angel had never before beheld exhibited, the Divine mercy. For his complete redemption the wonderful means of grace are instituted, and made effectual by the vivifying and resistless energies of the Holy Ghost. The subject of man’s redemption is that into which the angels desire to look. There is much taught us in this brief expression. Those angelic students have large experience in the investigation of the Divine glory. Again we ask, What is man? It is the purpose of God to display in him His chiefest glory. Therefore man holds a place of so great importance in the universe of God. Application:
1. How grateful should we be for this distinguishing grace of God.
2. What manner of persons should we be in all holy conversation and godliness!
3. How certain is the triumph of the Church.
4. Impenitent man, God is mindful of you. (The Evangelist.)
The meanness and the greatness of man
Could any paradox be imagined greater than this--this contrast between the insignificance of man’s self and the preeminence of man’s destiny? No interval of time or transference of scene, no contrast of persons or of circumstances, has tarnished its freshness or robbed it of its power. Nay, must we not rather confess that, as the world has grown older, the chasm between the greatness and the meanness of man has widened, and the paradox has increased from age to age?
I. Each new discovery has depressed the relative importance of man in the material universe.
1. Astronomy has taught us our insignificance in space.
2. Geology teaches us our insignificance in time.
3. The microscope discovers to us miniature worlds, crowding under our eyes, countless in number, and each thronged with a dense population of its own.
4. The anatomist dissects and the chemist analyses the human body. Man is found to be compounded of just such substances as the brute, the tree, the stone. There is absolutely nothing besides.
5. If there is nothing in the component elements of the human frame which accounts for the preeminence of man, we may at all events look for an explanation in some peculiarities of structure. But the naturalist will tell us that all attempts at classification with a view to separating man off by a broad line from the lower creation fail signally.
II. The materialist will be content to say, “What is man? An insignificant atom in time and space. And the son of man? An organism like other organisms.” But the believer is constrained to add, “Lord, that Thou art mindful of him! Lord, that Thou visitest him!”
1. The believer may boldly claim science herself as his teacher, for it has accumulated evidence at every step that, as a thinking, hoping, aspiring, progressive being he is quite unique in God’s creation. The Psalmist thought of man’s dominion over the beasts, birds, fishes of the sea. We have lived to witness his sovereignty over the elemental powers of nature--he can order the lightning, weigh the sun, make the vapour his slave.
2. Yet this subjugation of the powers of nature is only the earnest of greater things to come. Apostles and evangelists saw the true fulfilment of the Psalmist’s prophetic saying in the ultimate and supreme destiny of mankind, as realised in the person and work of the one representative Man. The song of the Psalmist falls on the ears of Christians now with a fuller cadence, swelled with the experience of nearly thirty centuries, and prolonged into the hopes of eternity. (Bishop Lightfoot.)
Man’s study of himself
I. Fine animal organism. Perfect machine; every part-adapted; power to repair itself, and reproduce its kind. “Fearfully and wonderfully made.”
II. Intellectual being. Animal organism of little value aside from this. To answer text, see intellectual giants: Paul, Caesar, Shakespeare, Newton.
III. Spiritual being. Man created after grand plan: “Let us make man in our own image.” Traces of grandeur in fallen man.
IV. Immortal being. This soul, in glorified body, shall go on forever. Were death the end, life would be unexplainable.
V. Responsible being. Life is not chance; nor is the hereafter. We give account of our powers. We shall face our Maker. Tomorrow is the judgment. These facts should not oppress us, but lead us, by God’s hell), to make our lives the best answer to the text. (Homiletic Review.)
God’s idea of man
Considered as part of nature, mall is insignificant. As a product of nature, man seems to possess a higher dignity. He is the last result of the vast system of forces that play about him. Apart from man, apart from the consciousness and reason that are his attributes, the glory of the visible universe has little meaning. Yet man must still seem insignificant when measured by the highest standard. Man’s opinion of his own importance and inherent dignity has fluctuated, because he is moved by feeling. His thought has ever vibrated between two opposite conceptions of himself Today, in the fulness of his energy, he fancies himself the noblest of beings and the measure of all things. Tomorrow, in a moment of weakness and humiliation, he becomes conscious of the hollowness of this high pretence, and confesses to himself his utter incapacity to comprehend the simplest facts of his own being.
I. God has revealed that man is the result of a special creation. There are two processes by which finite existences come to be. One is that of evolution; the other is that of creation. The Biblical description of man’s origin plainly teaches that man was created, not evolved. The interval between the highest brute intelligence and the rational soul of the lowest man is so wide and impassable a gulf that all but the most extreme and immoderate theorists find need to suppose the intervention of a sublime life-giving power that transcended all previously existing natures in bestowing upon man a rational soul.
II. God has revealed that man is a spiritual being. We have, in consciousness, a witness that helps us to comprehend the conception of man as a spiritual being. We find in the animals a consciousness of feeling, but not a consciousness of self. Not one of them gives evidence of this knowledge of personality which we all possess. From it our actions radiate, and for our actions we are justly held responsible.
III. God has revealed that man was created in his image. God is a person. God is free; and it is in the possession of freedom that man is in His image--after His likeness. The image of God which men now possess is an imperfect one. By the image of God a “vital” likeness is intended; a likeness that has its source in a community of life. Man is God’s image, and God would not have His image marred. (David J. Hill, LL. D.)
We regard the entire Psalm as descriptive of man’s dignity and importance, which is at once seen in the exalted position he occupies in the realm of nature, and in the Divine system of revelation with which God in His love has blessed him.
I. His dignity appears from the home in which he dwells. As we look upon this great world in which we live, upon the heavens robed in majesty and glory, we cannot but recognise man’s superior excellence and importance. We may well exclaim, “Whence all this weight of magnificence--this perfect arrangement and adaptation? Whence this fulness of provision, and this unbounded wealth of beauty and of blessing?” The world, with all its immense surroundings, finds its only explanation for its existence, and the realisation of its loftiest designs, in the presence and requirements of man.
II. Man’s dignity is further manifested from a survey of his physical nature. As we glance at the construction of the human frame we cannot fail to notice the amazing wisdom and power therein displayed. It teems with marks of purpose and intelligent design. There is nothing like it in all the variations in the material world. It is the crown and coronation of all the physical creations, and the masterpiece of Divine wisdom and skill. The makeup of the human body has ever been a matter of wonder to the thoughtful mind. Science also tells us that influences from the vast regions of outlying space are ever playing upon man, and affecting him physically, more or less, continually.
III. When we pass from man’s outward nature to his intellectual, his superiority is more fully seen. Man is distinguished in the scale of being by thought. It is this which lifts him above the brute creation, and constitutes him an active, intelligent, and responsible agent. It is the possession of this princely power to think that places him on the very throne of material beings, in his hand the sceptre of dominion and on his brow the crown of a possible and glorious destiny. Man can comprehend many of the mighty laws which are ever operating in the vast realms of matter and of mind. Think for a moment of the rapidity of thought: time and space are both annihilated by it. Consider the amazing power of thought: man, by the exercise of his thinking faculty, is transforming the entire face of nature, and emancipating her mighty and long-kept secrets. By the application and exercise of his thought man is becoming the perfect master of the world in which he lives, Never did mind wield such a kingly power over matter as at present.
IV. It is, however, in his moral and spiritual nature where his importance is most fully displayed. It was in this respect, chiefly, that man was created in the image of his Maker. It is the soul that makes man the most precious being in this lower world.
V. What God has done for him. When we look at this we feel as if our former remarks have only led us to the threshold of this theme. In the Bible all the possibilities of man’s being are foreseen, and all his wants and actualities are fully provided for. (W. Harrison.)
Man’s kinship to God
The Psalmist reminds us that, although little in himself, he is Divine in his origin, and though weak and frail in his present life, he is capable of a glorious future, and that future God has in store for him. “Thou madest him a little lower than the angels, and crownedst him with glory and worship.” The literal meaning of the words is still more striking. Thou madest him a little lower--or a little less--than God. He does not answer his own question, but he reminds us of this important factor in the inquiry, which must not be left out of view. It is this fact in our history which it is so needful to remember, and yet so easy to forget, amid the din and strain of our daily life. It is hardly possible for us to escape from the remembrance of our littleness and our weakness. In the straitened condition of this mortal life, both as regards our physical powers and our intellectual attainments, how little, after all, we can do, how little, after all, we can know! But how easy it is to forget that we are made a little lower than the angels, a little less than God, to live unmindful of our high calling as the children of God, unmindful of the splendid destiny which lies within our reach. Yet it is in the remembrance of this fact that our moral strength can alone be found. The contemplation of our weakness and our littleness, the frailty of the perishing body, the instability of the mental powers, the fewness of our passing years, the shortcomings of our best endeavours, the insufficiency of what we accomplish compared with what we purpose and desire,--all this might well suggest to us a philosophy of despair. But the thought of our high origin and our glorious destiny awakens and fosters in us the religion of hope. And so the Psalmist asks, What is man? Thou madest him a little less than God. It is this which the record of creation tells us in another form, that God made man in His own image. It is perhaps impossible for us fully, to understand the scope and meaning of these wonderful words, “made in Gods image,” “a little less than God.” The greatest of our theologians have given to them very different interpretations, as they have sought to discover and to define those powers and faculties in man which appear to reveal in him the traces of the Divine image. But whatever else the words may mean, they clearly assure us that there is in every man something that is akin to God, something which separates him from all other creatures on the face of the earth, something which makes it possible for him to think of God, to know God, and to love God. In this, at least, we find the special prerogative of humanity, that which distinguishes and differentiates man from all the lower orders of creation. The patient labours of science are unfolding to us day by day new and beautiful mysteries in the world of nature, with fuller knowledge of the marvels of animal life, and of seeming intelligence even in the tiniest of God’s creatures; but no trace is found of anything akin to this capacitor of man, this high endowment of humanity--the power to know his Maker and to do that Maker’s will. These are the highest capacities which belong to human nature, even in their possession, but still more in their use. It is in these unparalleled gifts that man’s true greatness lies. There is nothing more great, nothing more noble, nothing more beautiful within the reach of humanity than to know with a personal affection the Being to whom we owe our existence, to be able to understand something of the working of His Divine power and love, to sympathise with the holiness and purity of His nature, still more to make efforts after attaining to some measures of that purity and that holiness in ourselves. These are at once the privileges and the responsibilities that belong to our humanity, the outcome of that love of God which breathed into us something of His own Divine nature, and gave us the germ of a Divine life. It is true, as the Psalmist reminds us, that man is like a thing of naught, that his time passeth away as a shade. It is not less true that He who made us made us in His own image, a little less than Himself, to crown us with glory and worship. This is the paradox of humanity--man’s high origin, and man’s humble estate. So Pascal exclaims, “Oh, the grandeur and the littleness, the excellency and the corruption, the majesty and the meanness of man.” (Archbishop Thompson.)
What is man
Is he but a bodily organism? Is he a duality, body and mind united together? Is he a trinity in unity, having a material frame, a connecting life principle, and an immortal spirit? We know nothing of mind force except through its material manifestations. Voltaire said, “The welfare of a nation often depends on the good or bad digestion of its prime minister”; and Mr. Motley avers that “The gout of Charles V may have changed the destinies of mankind.” Our mental and emotional states rise and fall with our bodily conditions, as the tides with the moon. How often does bodily decay seem to be mental decay. In answer to the question, What is man? the materialistic and semi-materialistic schools give various answers. “Man is but a thinking machine,” says one. Feuerbach declares that “The soul is but the sum total of nervous processes.” In another place he says, “It is but a dust heap, to be dispersed as it was swept together.” Zoust asserts that “Man’s acts are the result of his organisation.” Another maintains that “The brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile.” Moleschoff avers that “Thought is a motion of matter.” Buchner, that “Mental activity is a function of the cerebral substance. It is emitted by the brain as thoughts are by the mouth, as music by the organ.” There is, however, one truth we must face; there is a will constituting the self-hood of each person, absolutely uncontrolled, but controlling all bodily conditions. It is a will separable in thought and fact from the material organism in which it finds its play and manifestation. I find no better answer to the question, What is man? than that contained in Scripture, And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” (Samuel Fellows, D. D.)
The greatness of man
Man seems to occupy a middle position in the universe. If in respect of his physical organisation he resembles the lower animals, over whom he undoubtedly wields a superior force, in respect of his moral and rational nature he resembles God, the crown and summit of all being. One of the special characteristics of man is self-consciousness. Attribute as you like all individual acts to some chemical or physiological causes, how do you account for the fact that at the bottom of all these individual acts a man is conscious of himself as centre and bond of union of all these acts? What is it which each one of us means when he says “I”? We mean something utterly distinct from all that is not I, something which is profoundly conscious of this deep distinctness. I think, and I know that it is only I who think. I think about myself, and I know that it is myself only about whom I am thinking. I am conscious of my own identity and of my utter separateness from all besides. I trace and assert this separateness and personal identity for any long period of years. When the outward circumstances of my life were quite different from what they are now, when my bodily shape and form were so different that none who had known me earlier could recognise me now, when I had completely other thoughts and feelings and pursuits than I have now; when I was a little child and a schoolboy I was essentially the same as I am now. The thoughts of my mind are my thoughts; the acts of my will are my will. I am the ruler who disposes all other manifold instruments of my nature. This reflective self-conscious faculty is wanting in the beast. Traces of a faculty like memory are indeed found in the beast, formed by a repetition of sensations, but this does not ascend to the higher human faculty of forming an objective notion of sensations and feelings, and therefore the beast has no language, properly so called. He can utter inarticulate sounds, expressive of pleasure and pain; he cannot, like man, compare and generalise, and communicate rational thought by the vehicle of speech. What a paradox to put man on a level with the brute! What is the value and dignity of all the knowledge which has been acquired by the animal portion of the universe since it first came into distinct being? Where is it treasured up? What improvements has it undergone? What ameliorations of condition has it caused? But compare this weakness and non-progressiveness with man as the interpreter of nature, and its lord by knowledge and power. Consider even the present grandeur of human knowledge. Man penetrates into the nature of things, and investigates their hidden causes. He transposes into mental images the things perceived by the senses: he passes beyond the limits of sensuous impressions into the world of rational thought, and thus grasps the eternal truth underlying the perishable. His knowledge here indeed is but partial, but it contains within itself a prophecy of future perfection. Think, moreover, how the whole world without man is reflected in man, and is reproduced by the various forms of art in painting, music, poetry, sculpture--illuminated, beautified, spiritualised, transfigured. Man’s imitative art is a resemblance of the Creator’s power. It has been irreverently asserted by an atheistic writer that the heavens no longer declare the glory of God, but of Newton and Laplace. The glory of the astronomer who can measure the courses of the heavenly bodies and calculate the forces of the universe is really only another witness to the glory of the Creator, for He who framed the heavens framed also the understanding of the philosophic man, by which he was enabled to ascertain the laws regulating their motions. To man belong also--if we may trust the verdict of a psychology grounded upon actual facts of consciousness--personality and free will. He is not a mere automaton pushed and pulled by external forces over which he exercises no control. All sense of moral obligation demands as a postulate free will--all praise or blame of others are based upon the same hypothesis. The universal testimony of mankind, when not biassed by the desire of conforming to any paradoxical theory, would declare that we do not call a man good or bad in the same way as we should a tree, or a plant, or a dog. Man we believe to be himself a cause of action. The motives by which man acts are, after all, only influences, not compulsions. We are conscious that there is a wide distinction between the influence of a motive, and anything which might be fairly called restraint. We know within ourselves that in yielding to a motive, that is to say, in resolving in conformity with it, we are able to refrain from forming this resolve. We are free to be fools and to be vicious, only we prefer to be rational and to be virtuous. (W. Ince, M. A.)
Science humiliating man
The view which glorifies the dignity and value of human nature and points its aspirations forward is challenged in our time by an important school of thinkers. Science, whose moral characteristics have often been reproached as pride and self-concept, preaches aloud from professorial chairs the lesson of humility, and, echoing the precept “Know thyself,” bids man lay aside as a false illusion the fond imagination that he has a place in creation superior to the brute. Man is represented as an improved animal or vegetable, differentiated in the long course of ages from earlier forms of life by a more perfect organisation and a more complete adaptation to his surroundings, but not superior in essence or endowed with higher hopes than the rudimentary organised beings who have preceded him in the gradual development of the universe. The accurate observations of physiology and biology have traced out numerous marks of likeness of organs between man and these earlier organisms, which we have been accustomed to call lower. Rudimentary inchoate forms of the mechanism of the human body have been noticed in the irrational beings, and man is pronounced to differ from the despised ape not more than the cultivated European of our day from the barbarous native of the Admiralty Islands. On observed facts a theory is based, claiming to be covered by the facts in accordance with the strictest methods of induction, that there has been going on through countless ages of the universe a development from one primordial seed of insect, and animal, and man, through endless varieties of sub-species, each slightly deviating from and improving upon its predecessor in the series, until man, the latest result of evolution, appeared upon the earth. The old theory of final causes and foreseen adaptations of organs to their purposes we are told must be abandoned, and a doctrine of types of form must be substituted for a wise and benevolent will underlying the material universe. We may fear lest imagination should carry us into inferences which the organs of experience cannot verify. We may listen respectfully to all the analogies and homologies revealed to us by the biologist, and yet pause in the immediate acceptance of a provisional hypothesis of one uninterrupted evolution exclusive of any specific acts of creation, when the geologist tells us that he can discover few (if any) traces of these thousands upon thousands of varieties and sub-species which the hypothesis postulates, and we may feel a natural difficulty in understanding how the present phenomena of life have been produced by the survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence, when we observe that the alleged earlier and lower types still exist side by side with the later and higher. If man, to use the poet’s metaphor, is in his moral progress still working out the tiger and the ape, the tiger and the ape still hold their place in the animal world, and are not extinct species. Man has not survived, but is contemporary with them. A layman also may be at liberty to note that natural science does not speak with unanimous voice either on the facts or the speculative theories of the origin of man. Great names are ranged on either side of the controversy. Biology cannot claim a monopoly and exclusive privilege in the discussion of the great problems of anthropology, psychology, and theology; history and philosophy are entitled to be heard. They maintain that there are moral and spiritual facts in man’s nature over and beyond those physical facts which fall within the range of natural science, and these cannot be overlooked, but must be idly taken into account if we would attempt an adequate answer to the question, What is man? (W. Ince, M. A.)
The Jewish and the Christian thought of man
I. The Jewish conception of man. It involved--
1. Similarity of nature to that of God Himself. He must have understood that man finds his true and proper life, his human heritage--even as God does--in the thoughts which visit his mind, in the choices which proceed from his will, in the feelings which glow within his heart, in moral activities and spiritual enjoyment.
2. Likeness of character to the Divine. The Jew held that man had once walked with God on noble heights of wisdom and righteousness, and that, having fallen from these, it was his true aspiration to regain those spiritual levels, and live again the life which is pure, holy, heavenly, Divine.
3. A share in Divine authority. God has given to His human children a share in His wide rule.
4. Divine interest and attention. To the lowly it is much to enjoy the notice of the strong and high.
5. Privilege of approach to the Nest High. Man is one who might “walk with God,” as did Enoch; be the “friend of God,” as was Abraham. Having this thought of the dignity of man, the Jew had an equally clear view of--
6. His real degradation and misery. For the two truths stand or fall together. The Jew, recognising man’s moral freedom and spiritual obligation, saw dearly and felt keenly the character of his low estate; he knew the touch and smarted under the sting of sin.
II. The distinctively Christian view. What has Christ added to our thought about ourselves?
1. He has led us to take the highest view of our spiritual nature. Man, like God, is a spirit; his corporeal frame being only a frame.
2. He has drawn aside the veil from the future, and made that long life and that large world our own. The Jew hardly knew what to think about the future.
3. He taught us to think of ourselves as sinners who may have a fill restoration to their high estate. By His words of love and by His work of mercy He summons us to return, to believe, to rejoice; to walk in the favour, to live in the love, to dwell in the home, to be transformed into the likeness of the Father of our spirits. (William Clarkson, B. A.)
On the condescension and goodness of God to man
1. The meanness of man, and his unworthiness of the regard and affection of the Most High God. Whenever mail singles out one of his fellow creatures with peculiar regard, it is on account of some amiable or useful quality he supposes him to possess; his powers to entertain and communicate pleasure, his benevolence of disposition, his strict integrity, or his ability to grant protection and to confer benefits. These form the ordinary basis upon which esteem is built. There must be suitableness and correspondence between the persons allied in friendship. In vain, however, shall we look to these several sources of esteem to account for that regard which God has been pleased to entertain for man. When we survey man, and compare him with the Divine Being, there appears everything which would tend to break the bonds of union. I do not here set before you the intellectual meanness of man, or the scanty and limited nature of his powers and faculties; though these might seem an insurmountable obstacle to union. There are more serious obstacles to an union between him and a Holy God. Man is a depraved and sinful as well as a weak creature. There prevails in him not merely a darkness with respect to spiritual things, but a dislike to them. It must be admitted, indeed, that there are remains of dignity in man which sometimes break forth and show his original. To know what man is, we ought not to consider of what he is capable under circumstances peculiarly favourable, but to look at him as he generally is.
2. Contemplate the nature of the great and glorious God, and judge how unlikely it is that He should be “mindful of man,” or visit him. How little are we acquainted with the Divine nature. Though we cannot tell what He is, we can say what He is not. Consider a Being who, full and complete in Himself, needs no addition, and feels no want, a Being who knows all things, embraces the past, the present, the future, in one comprehensive glance. All nations before Him are nothing. “Wherein, then, is man to be accounted of?” Then the peculiar attribute of God is holiness. How abominable, then, is man, who “drinketh in iniquity like water”! God is just. Will not this form an eternal separation between man and God? True, when we consider God only in the light of the most benevolent of beings, and man in the character of the most wretched, we may discover some reason why God should thus regard and visit His creatures; for there is an attraction between benevolence and misery. But then mere benevolence could be supposed to extend only to the relief of absolute necessity, or deliverance from immediate danger. No principles of common benevolence are sufficient to explain the gracious acts of God to man. Consider, then, the nature of God’s benevolence.
1. “Mindful of him” is not merely opposed to “forgetting him.” God cannot forget any of His creatures. The word means, God keeps man constantly in view, ever watching over him, and never ceasing to do him good.
2. “Visit him.” This expression supposes more than mere care or providence. It implies a degree of union and regard which may well excite our surprise. A man is said to visit another when he comes to him in order to cultivate friendship and love. Illustrate by God’s coming to dwell in the Temple at Jerusalem; by the incarnation of the Only-begotten Son; by the providential dispensations of God; by gracious support and comforting in the trying seasons of life. (John Venn, M. A.)
The contradictions in human nature
In unfolding the contradictions of our nature we shall speak of man as a being endowed with reason, a moral being, a being impelled by longings for happiness. In these three particulars we shall discover in him, side by side, the grandeur and the meanness of his nature.
1. How great is man in his intellectual powers, in his capacity to know, to do, to design, and carry out a purpose! He understands and fulfils the will of God, which calls him to life in society. The tie of kindred not only binds together a few in smaller circles, but nations shape themselves into one grander whole, a great and glorious combination in which the individual serves the whole, and the whole the individual. From wise deliberation result laws, which are administered with wisdom and authority, establishing domestic and foreign safety, protecting life, property, and reputation, and promoting whatever tends to the well-being and improvement of those who are fellow citizens. Art sets up its barriers against the threes of nature, which often assault us as a foe, or constrains her to submit to man and to accomplish his designs. Though separated by the abyss of the ocean, nations bind themselves to the exchange of mutual obligations. Man has lifted his eyes to the stars. What is transpiring there in those vast distances, whose very magnitude oppresses him, escapes not his penetrating glance. He descries the mysterious movements of the Almighty, guiding the heavenly bodies on their way, prescribing to them where they shall shine, and when they shall disappear. He penetrates the bowels of the earth, and brings up to glisten in the sunlight that which lay hid in the darkness of her depths, he does more than this in his own bosom--an abyss not less deep and dark. And while he thinks and feels, he observes the laws of his own thoughts and feelings. He lift, up his thoughts higher than the sun, higher than the most distant stars; he lifts them up to God Himself, and bows in the dust before Him. In what of glory or grandeur can he be wanting who is capable of knowing and worshipping God? Little or nothing could be lacking to man were not this power abruptly checked; or, which is still worse, were it not frightfully abused. What could restrain this man with his skill in reasoning out the sublimest and most difficult problems, were not this power associated with the necessity of labour and the liability to mistakes? An outside impression has struck him; all his thoughts are scattered. A disorder attacks some portion of his body, whose cooperation with the mind is needful, and all his thoughts swim about chaotic and in disorder. A somewhat inferior check, by which God humbles our pride, springs from man’s mistakes in judgment. Even that power by which man discerns the truth he employs to hurl truth from the throne, and to set up error in truth’s stead; squandering upon it the enthusiasm which only the truth should inspire. Through reason man is capable of living in well-ordered society. But are not the perverse principles which result in the overthrow of all social order, of all human well-being, taught and propagated by a reason degenerate? Through reason man is able to distinguish between his immortal soul and his perishable body. But has not the same reason sought to obliterate this distinction, leaving him in frightful confusion? As though his very being itself, with all its noblest faculties, were a contribution of his physical development! Through reason he is capable of investigating the powers of nature, and tracing them to their Creator. But has not this reason also presumed to assign to things themselves their own origin, their own preservation, their own destruction? Has it not arrayed in open opposition a Nature idolised and a God betrayed?
2. Just as emphatic are the contradictions which we discern in man’s moral nature. Does he not, in this respect also, sometimes exhibit a grandeur and sublimity in which we recognise traces of the Divine image in which he was created? As God Himself has prescribed the law of love, which He displays toward His Son, begotten of Him from all eternity, and toward all beings created anew through the blood of His Son; so, also, is the same law engraven ill the soul of man, and he finds rest only ill the consciousness that through love and the manifestations of love is he one with the whole kingdom of God. This commandment is not easily fulfilled. For the world without and the love of the world within present to it a fearful obstacle. Yet just as mighty as is the foe, so glorious is the victory. And how many examples of these hard-fought victories has the history of the world recorded l And how many names distinguished for virtue shine in all the ages! A great and noble army of God’s champions, who not only overcome their forbidden tendency to evil, but who also sacrifice time’s noble things for something nobler: things seen, and even life itself, for things not seen, and who, by freeing themselves from all things earthly, have discovered to the world a freedom like that of God, to whom all things are subject. Not, indeed, without God’s help. Yet is that a trifling glory--to ascribe this to Himself, and to regard all our actions as emanating from God? Not--and this is the greatest glory of all--not for their own glory did they accomplish this. Yet what glory is greater than to seek only the glory of God; to cast our hard-won palms at His feet, and confess that He has done it, and not we ourselves. And not only from you, ye heroes in virtue, but from those also who inflict upon themselves painful austerities, do we recognise the sublimity of our nature. Yes, this also is beautiful, to weep and mourn, not for an earthly happiness, which we have lost, but for happiness spiritual; because we have not kept a commandment engraven on the heart. For this proves that spiritual things are recognised as our highest good. (F. Thereemin, D. D.)
Man and the universe
The Psalmist has been contemplating the clear midnight sky, and there strikes into his soul that old, that unchanging sensation by contrast to the vastness of man’s littleness. Everything that has happened in the way of advancing our knowledge of the world has gone to augment this consciousness of man’s physical littleness. Astronomy has shown that this planet is not the centre of any system at all. Geology took up the tale where astronomy had left it; and man, the speck in space, becomes but as a moment in time. Biology took up the story where geology left it; and man, the speck in space, the moment in time, becomes now just as one of the changing phases in the ever-running river of life. True, there is a sense in which science gives back to us with its left hand what it has taken away with its right. Still, man feels his littleness as he never felt it before in the vastness, the inconceivable vastness, of the system of nature. When you look at man in history there again the same sensation is borne in upon your mind. Man in history appears as moving under the impulse of vast forces which he cannot control. Men are dispirited, embittered, crushed by the sense of their own failure, by the sense that they are infinitely weak, and circumstances infinitely strong. The individual life seems just but as a spark that can be snuffed out, puffed out, just by the breath and the wind of circumstance. Among great men there is no one to whom the sense of man’s littleness has presented itself with such overwhelming force as to Pascal. It is when we pass from the intellect to the moral faculties that we first begin to gain reassurance. There is in man, who can resist and can impress a spiritual and moral meaning on his circumstances, something greater than there is in all the universe beside. There is in all of us, whatever we may have been, something which rises in us and tells us what we are meant to do and to be, some sense of duty, some inherent conviction, that what we ought to be is assuredly in the long run what we can be. And this conscience forces us to believe, that there is a moral purpose in this world, which must at last be vindicated as supreme. All the vague mass of emotion and feeling of this sort comes to its centre, and finds its realisation in the victory and the ascension of Jesus of Nazareth. It is the glory of the Christian faith that for us who believe in Jesus, and know the record of His life, all the dim faith in the supremacy of goodness has reached a point of primary realisation. Sovereignty, supreme and absolute, is in the case of Jesus of Nazareth the goal and climax of all moral effort. The exaltation of Jesus is not His own personal supremacy merely; it is the hope and encouragement of the whole race. To us Christians the ascension, the glorification of our Lord, His triumph as prophet, priest, and king, ought to be a thought both of continual power and continual inspiration . . . In the moral world, ay, in the world of matter as well as of spirit, there is nothing ultimately strong but that cause, that cause of thoroughgoing holiness, truth, and love, which is forever embodied in Jesus our Lord. (Bishop Gore.)
The glory of manhood
“What is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?” (Psalms 8:4.) It was a contemplation of the vastness and the beauty and the glory of the universe that caused David to ask this question in wondering awe. David reasons with himself that here is the Great Being who fills the midnight sky with suns and moons and planets and worlds, like shining jewels, and yet cares so much about man, who is physically so insignificant when compared to these creations, that He visits him and holds communion with him in loving tenderness. It would be inconceivable if man were only an animal; it is not the outward man which can be seen with the eye, but the inward man, the unseen, the spiritual personality, which chooses and decides, which forms purposes and devises schemes to carry them out,--that is the man whom God visits, and whose prosperity is important. There could be no greater folly than for men or women to treat themselves as though the physical life, which needs to have clothing of more or less fashionable cut, and food that may please the palate or nourish the body, were the real man or woman whose comfort is to indicate the decisions of life. The folly is evident when we consider that this outward, physical life is a very fragile and temporary affair, which has no certain lease of existence, and is liable to be pulled down at any time, liable to be snuffed out like a candle, while the inner spiritual personality is to go on living forever. (L. A. Banks, D. D.)
That Thou art mindful of him.--
God mindful of man
At times the thought comes to all thinking men that it is presumption to think that God cares for us. Webster was kept back from Christianity for a long time by this thought. Look at proof of the mindfulness of God outside the Bible. We learn from our own hearts and from nature--
1. That it is wrong for parents to bring children into the world and not care for them. Are we to suppose that God would enact in heaven what our sense of justice and charity will not allow on earth--that the superior can be unmindful of the inferior?
2. It seems natural for anyone to think most of his best workmanship. Napoleon thought most of Austerlitz, Wellington of Waterloo, Morse of the telegraph, Lincoln of the Emancipation proclamation. Man is God’s best workmanship. Man is capable of wonderful growth. I am sorry we have sinned; but we are wonderfully constructed. It can never be that God is unmindful of such workmanship. God sees in man what is like Himself, the sense of justice, hatred of cruelty, unselfishness. To say that God is unmindful of us, that we cannot add to or take from His glory, is to say that I am a better being than He is, for I do care for them that are lower down than I am. What tenderness we find in the human heart! I read what that most wretched father, the father of Charley Ross, said in Boston some time ago, “I will search for my lost boy while life lasts; I will go up and down the earth, and look into the face of this child, and then of that, to see if it is my lost boy.” What! has God placed such love in man for his lost child, and will not He care for His children, lost children though they be? (H. M. Gallaher, D. D.)
God mindful of man
These words furnish no reasonable ground for a doubt as to the possibility of God’s exercising a sustaining providence in favour of such a creature as man. They express a conviction which lies at the root of all natural as well as all revealed religion. The root and groundwork of all religion is the impulse which leads men to pray. Man’s relation to God as a person; man’s dependence on God; man’s power to ask, and God’s power to give such things as that dependence makes necessary. We pervert this conviction when we represent God under a form which makes providence a fiction and prayer a delusion, as an impersonal principle, as an immovable intelligence, as an inexorable fate, as a being who has no feeling for the wants of man, and is inaccessible to his prayers. The very conception of universal law and order, which science discloses as pervading the material world, is liable, if contemplated in an irreligious spirit, to lead our thoughts away from God, who is mindful of man and visits him, to represent to us a God of science, who is not a God of worship, to set before us an intelligence, it may be, manifested in the grand scheme of the universe, but to hide from us the personal God of each one of us, our Father who is in heaven. The first duty of man is enjoined upon him as the command of God: The first sin of man is disobedience against God. The first dim shadowing forth of man’s deliverance from the power of sin is the redemption provided by God. We are not told that man transgressed against the moral order of things; we are not told that he disobeyed the dictates of his own reason; we are not told that he felt the reproofs of an accusing conscience. We are not told that man was created as a part of the world, and under the general law of the world; that his creation was a step in the development of forces acting under some natural and necessary impulse; that his fall was but a further continuation of that development, a stage in the course of progress which was determined for all things from the beginning. The opening of Scripture brings before us man in his religious nature, as a being created by and dependent upon God. This is the first teaching of Scripture, and it is also the last. Man, in the progress of his knowledge, is ever striving after unity, ever seeking to reduce many phenomena to one general principle. To reduce many effects to one cause, many phenomena to one law; to this tendency are due all the grander triumphs of science within her proper field, but to this also are due the most pernicious errors of a false science, striving to establish herself in a field which is not her own. The boundaries of the one and of the other are clearly marked out alike by the consciousness of man and by the Word of God. Obliterate distinctions, frame general laws as we will, there is one distinction which stands out marked and prominent as the basis of all philosophy and all religion, a distinction which neither philosophy nor religion can set aside without destroying themselves at the same time: the’ distinction between mind and its objects, between moral and physical law, between liberty and necessity, in one word, between person and things. Man, like the natural world, is the work of God; but man, unlike the material world, can know that he is the work of God, and can worship the God who made him. And man too, unlike the material world, can obey or disobey the law which God has given him. Modern sophistry either regards man and the laws of man’s conduct as but a part of the course of nature, or talks of necessary determinations and invariable antecedents of the human will. Against both perversions the language of Scripture furnishes a standing protest, and if read aright a safeguard. From the very beginning of the world man stands out apart and distinct from the rest of God’s creation, alone made in the image of God, alone subject to a moral law, alone capable of obedience or disobedience to that law. God is revealed in relation to man as He is revealed in relation to no other of His visible creatures--the personal God of His personal creatures. (Dean Mansel.)
God’s care of men
When we consider the care of Providence over the children of men, whether manifested in the works of nature or of grace, we naturally fall into the reflection of the text, and wonder to see so much done for men, who seem to have no merit or desert equal thereto. And if we go from the works of nature to those of grace, the same reflection will pursue us still. One would think that men, owing so much to God, would be careful to serve and obey Him. But the very contrary is the truth. They made gods of brutes, and became brutes themselves. For why should he not turn brute himself who has One for his god? But the wonder is that God should care for such creatures, that He should be willing to forgive them, and to send His Son into the world to die for them. Now all this should lead men to adore and give thanks to God for His grace and favour. But often it has the opposite effect. For when men consider that God does nothing without reason, and at the same time see so little reason why God should do so much for them, they begin to suspect whether He has done it or no, and to imagine that the whole history of the redemption is a cunningly devised fable. The wonders of grace--the incarnation and the death of the Son of God--are so tremendous, whilst there is nothing in man that bears any proportion to such concern for him. Now this reasoning is plausible; it does justice to the wisdom of God, and no injustice to man. But this prejudice lies as much against the works of nature as against those of grace. For who would have dreamt that there should be such a glorious world for such a creature as man? It is therefore but a like wonder that God should send His Son to redeem us. If He created them, surely He may redeem them. But in reply to all such reasoning let us--
I. Ask ourselves whether we are proper judges in this matter? Who are we, to judge of what it is wise for God to do? In human affairs we pretty well know and are able to judge, of the powers, abilities, and ends of men, and of their wisdom. In judging of a house you do not think merely of the man who is to live in it, but of the power, station, wealth, and so on of the builder, and then you judge whether or no too much has been lavished upon it. So in regard to this earth. True, it is for man to inhabit, but we are not to think of him only, but of the great Builder and Maker, who is God. And as He has infinite power, who are we that we should say that He has spent too much?
II. And do we comprehend fully the end proposed? If you see a great building, but know not for what use it is intended, how can you say whether it be too large or small, or aught else about it?
III. And this reasoning applies also to the works of grace. It is indeed wonderful that the Son of God should be born of a virgin, and suffer and die for our redemption. But why should we object? Do we know that the end proposed could have been gained in any other way? And what is there wonderful, other than being unusual, m that Christ should be born of a virgin? And why should not God dwell here, if He see fit? And we are not told that we are the only persons concerned in the work of redemption. Redemption has far-reaching purposes. Who are we, then, to judge of it as some do? And if we find, as we do, that God has taken such care for our present life, is it not reasonable to suppose that He will also care for our spirits? In both nature and grace, the works of God are indeed wonderful, and we unworthy of the least of them. And we may justly say of both: Lord, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him? (Thomas Sherlock, D. D.)
God mindful of man
Look at these words in reference--
I. To David. He wrote the Psalm. It expresses--
1. Wonder--that God should have chosen him. God acts as a sovereign, choosing whom He will.
2. Care--for God had been very mindful of him.
II. To Christ. He is the grand sum and substance of the Psalms. And here we have--
1. Wonder; for how wonderful is Christ.
2. Care--God took care of Him.
III. To saints. This their language. It is that of--
1. Depreciation; for how little and how unworthy are they.
2. Acknowledgment; for God hath been mindful of His people.
3. Observation: What is God in His nature, covenant, person? And what is man, by nature, fallen, renewed?
4. Inference: That as God is mindful of you, you are to be mindful of God. Be consoled. Maintain communion. Look on to the eternal future. (Edward Andrews, LL. D.)
God mindful of man
Christianity viewed as a system is seen to be sublime, when we consider the oneness and harmony of its grand design. But infidelity is not so; it is inconsistent with itself. Some say that human nature can regenerate, can perfect itself; that it has in it a principle inherently good, and needs no Gospel to lead it into the way of truth. Others say, man is so insignificant that it is not to be thought that he can be brought into contact with God; he is but dust, and as such is born and dies. They quote our text in a sense the opposite of that in which it is meant. But it meets both objections. The first--that man can perfect himself. For the Psalm evidently expresses astonishment at the condescension of God in visiting creatures so unworthy of His regard. Then people, in their pride, think that God has not visited man at all, nor do they desire that He should. Man does not need it. Thus they set aside the whole government of God, and turn the world into a desolate wilderness, and make the human race orphans, with no Father to guide, to help, to save. And then the second objection--that we are too insignificant for God to notice. This is a more natural thought than the former one, but it is, nevertheless, a very hurtful one. It resolves itself, really, into an infirmity of our perceptive faculties. It dethrones God, for it makes Him like ourselves. We, no doubt, are confined and baffled in the presence of a multitude of objects. But God is not as we are. He does care for the least as well as the greatest. The creation that is lower than ourselves refutes the objection; for if God care not for us, still less will He care for them.
I. How God is mindful of man.
1. He is so always, from the earliest hour of our infancy.
2. He has provided all things necessary for our existence.
3. And for our happiness. He has given us the pleasures of sense, of imagination, of friendship, of memory; above all, the pleasure of holiness. How monstrous, then, the thought that God has left the world to shift for itself, that He is far off and takes no notice of us.
4. Read also the Scripture histories for further proof. See how God visited Adam, Noah, Abraham, and others. How He became incarnate in Christ, whose whole life showed how God was mindful of man. And especially it was a visit of atonement. And now it is by His Spirit, who strives with each man’s soul; who meets us in prayer, and in our worship in God’s house.
5. And He is mindful of us in His providence. Even our afflictions are all for our good.
II. But why is He thus mindful of us? We may well wonder why. True, man is endowed with mind capable of understanding truth, but the chief reason is, For God so loved the world, etc.
III. Then, should we not be mindful of him? (W. M. Punshon.)
The Divine regard to man
I. A summary survey of God’s regard to man. In all the helpless years of infancy and childhood. In all the dangers and snares of youth. In all the concerns of manhood. In all the infirmity and decrepitude of old age. He is mindful of us in providing “all things needful”--laying the whole creation under contribution towards our benefit, and also by a constant inspection of our heart and our ways. He visits man--
1. By visible manifestations of His presence.
2. By the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. By the influences of His Spirit.
4. By the dispensations of His providence.
II. On what ground we may justify this profusion of bounty and regard to man. What is man viewed as a material being, and an inhabitant of the present world only? In point of magnitude, splendour and magnificence, or duration. Looking at man in this light only, the Divine conduct towards him is more mysterious than ever. What is man, considered as an intelligent being, and destined to be the inhabitant of an eternal world? Here the clouds will begin to disperse, and we shall see the wisdom as well as goodness of God towards men. What is man, considered as a spiritual being, and capable of redemption? (Delta in “Sketches of Four Hundred Sermons. ”)
How and why God is mindful of man
1. Satisfying his mental aspirations. Though each occupies but an infinitesimal space on the globe, yet in every breast there is a yearning after the boundless and infinite. The child is ambitious to climb the heap of soil in the field; the youth must scale mountain peaks to view landscape and sea; the man must leave native lands to conquer forests of unexplored continents; the sailor yearns to reach the poles; and then, after navigating the globe and bringing up from its heart unnumbered treasures, the play of human ambitions is not finished. But a moment comes when mere materialistic investigations and discoveries do not satisfy. Our very knowledge of the universe at last causes us to recede into our inner self, and we become absorbed in the mystery of our own being. Then are we tempted to cry out in awestruck wonder, “O Lord, who am I that Thy Eternal Mind should be full of me?” Christ alone gives the satisfying answer. We were created to grow up into His stature.
2. Satisfying his spiritual needs. When sordid ambition has spent its life; when the hand has gripped its last possession, then memory awakes either as a mocking spectre or as an angel of peace. Starving souls, come to Jesus. He shall feed you with the living bread. We are children of eternity.
3. In every circumstance of temporal existence God rides the whirlwind and rules the storm. If we could see deep enough, we should recognise that “Whatever is, is in its causes just.” Yet, while the future remains a dim, unknown quantity to our reason, and shadows flit across the canvas of our daily life, it is hard to believe that God stands within the shadow keeping watch over His own. What we now call “Discord” is really “Harmony not understood.”
1. Because He loves us. God cannot, by His very nature, by all His covenants of grace and mercy, leave His own. But we can leave Him. We can wander from the Father’s house.
2. Because He desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should return unto Him and live. Sin is a gigantic failure. George Eliot says, “I could not live in peace if I put the shadow of a wilful sin between myself and God.” It is human to err; but fiendish to dwell in guilt. But Christ died for sin. Fill your soul with the Divine anger against your own sin; leave it now, and fly to the Father of lights. (W. Wynn.)
That Thou visitest him.--
Some crises of human life and their moral lessons
“What is man?” The child of circumstance, yet endowed with freedom of moral choice, and weighted with the responsibility which that freedom brings. All creation waited for the coming of man, who was to be to all things, animate and inanimate, master and lord. This dominion, whence was it? It lies not in superior strength, powers of endurance, or length of days, but in that mysterious relation to the Maker of all, His likeness, His image, in which man alone of all God’s works was made. He is the being whom God made for this one beneficent purpose, to be the recipient of His visitation, the object of His Divine regard. This visitation is no accidental feature introduced to repair the catastrophe of the fall, but an integral part of God’s original design. Man was made--each man is made--to be the companion, the friend, of God!
1. Trace God’s visitations to His intelligent creatures upon earth, as Bible history unfolds them to us. Holy Scripture is one continuous record of God’s effort to catch the attention of human ears, and to win the affection of human hearts. If we had ever any doubt of man’s destiny, and the purpose of his creation, surely the incarnation of God has removed it.
2. God visits us all and each. There are those general visitations in which God has drawn near to us collectively. When the history of this century is written no fact will stand out store conspicuously than this, that it has witnessed an extraordinary visitation of God in the revival of Christian faith, Christian worship, and Christian practice. There is another and very different form of visitation that is quite as truly of God. That large knowledge of the natural world, its forces and their application, to which modern science has advanced with such splendid strides. “Never before have the aspects of this natural world been so curiously, sensitively, and lovingly watched as now.” How do we receive this visitation? Has the issue of it been, “that the invisible things of God are more clearly seen.” or has it been this,--“We have swept the heavens with our telescope, and have found no God”? Or are we afraid of science altogether, with a foolish, faithless fear, refusing to believe that by its means God is drawing nearer to our souls? But there are also individual visitations in which God makes Himself felt in every human life; some of these are so striking and significant that even the most careless soul can only put them away by an effort; some of them so quiet and commonplace that only the spiritually minded will see God’s hand in them at all. Shall we not, then, make it our prayer and our endeavour to keep alive and awake within our souls that heavenly faculty whereby we can recognise our God when He draws near in whatever way He please to visit us? (E. J. Gough, M. A.)
The royal visit and its object
When the Prince of Wales visited America, people were very anxious to know what he came for. Had he come to look into the principles and results of the Republican Government--our form of government? Had he come for his health, or did he come to remain? He did not tell us. We were none the wiser after he left us. But when the Prince of Heaven came He did not come on any secret mission. Me told us He came that He might bind up the broken-hearted; that He might give liberty to the captives; that He might give sight to the blind; that He might seek and save that which was lost, and to strengthen the weak. He came to heal; He came to lift up; He came to bless. He did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to give life. He did not come to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He said that the Father sent Him that He might save the world. (D. L. Moody.)
For Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels.
Man a little lower than the angels
While the Psalmist refers primarily to man, we learn from St. Paul that the text has a further reference to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I. The text, as spoken of men. Perhaps it was not so much in nature as in position that man, as first formed, was inferior to the angels. Nothing higher could be affirmed of the angels than that they were made in the image of God. If, then, they had originally superiority over man, it must have been in the degree of resemblance. The angel was made immortal, intellectual, holy, powerful, glorious, and in these properties lay their likeness to the Creator. But were not these properties also given to man? Whatever originally the relative position of the angel and the man, we cannot question that since the fall man has been fearfully inferior to the angels. The effect of transgression has been to debase all his powers; but, however degraded and sunken, he still retains the capacities, of his original formation, and they many be so purged and enlarged as to produce, if we may not say to restore, the equality. Take the intellect of man; there is no limit to its progress. Use the like reasoning in regard to power, or holiness, or dignity. The Bible teems with notices, that so far from being by their nature higher than men, angels even now possess not an importance which belongs to our race. It is a mysterious thing, and one to which we scarcely dare allude, that there has arisen a Redeemer of fallen men, but not of fallen angels. And angels are represented as “ministering sprints.” Believers, as the children of God, are attended and waited on by angels. Then, while human nature is still walled off from every other in its special properties, risen spirits may stand on a par with the very noblest-created intelligence, glowing with the same holiness, arrayed in the same panoply, and gathering in from all the works of God the same immenseness of knowledge and the same material of ecstasy.
II. The text, as spoken of our Lord Jesus Christ. His being made “a little lower than the angels” is represented as with a view to the glory which was to be the recompense for His sufferings. This is a very important representation, and from it may be drawn a strong and clear argument for the divinity of Christ. We could never see how it could be humility in any creature, whatever the dignity of his condition, to assume the office of a Mediator, and to work out our reconciliation, if an unmeasured exaltation was to be the Mediator’s reward. A being who knew that he should be immeasurably elevated if he did a certain thing, can hardly be commended for the greatness of his humility in doing that thing. He must be the king already, ere his entering the state of slavery can furnish an example of humility. And yet in consenting to be “made a little lower than the angels” our blessed Redeemer actually humbled Himself. Who, then, can this man have been before becoming man? We cannot suppose that the attributes or properties of Godhead were capable of being laid aside or suspended. Shrouded and hidden, but not laid aside, was the divinity of Christ. If He could not lay aside the perfections, He could lay aside the glories of Deity. Every outward mark of majesty and greatness might be laid aside. He passes from the form of God to the likeness of men. It is not in the power of language to describe either the humility or the compassion thus displayed. It was literally the emptying Himself, the making Himself poor, “that we through His poverty might be made rich.” (Henry Melvill, B. D.)
Man and angel
I. Man lower than the angels.
1. By creation the angel is the “elder brother” of the two, for he was created first. Angels’ songs always bear some reference to man; something pertaining to man invariably forms part of their theme. Not only in time is man lower than the angels, he is so--
2. In the substance from which he is formed. Angels are pure spirits, but one part of man is formed out of the clay.
3. In his habitation. God gave heaven for an abode unto the angels, but “the earth hath He given to the children of men.”
4. In his powers. Angels “excel in strength.” “Man that is a worm, and the son of man that is a worm.”
5. In his character. Man was not made as he is, but he has made himself so, by his sin.
II. Man equal to the angels.
1. Although not in the same workroom, they are in the same service. The king’s livery is worn by the humblest guard of the mail, as well as by the highest officers of the household. The angel said to John in Patmos, “I am thy fellow servant.”
2. They are equal in rights and privileges. The godly man is as sure of heaven as any of the angels who are now there: only as yet he is not made meet for it.
3. In kindred, for man, too, is a child of God.
4. In duration of existence. Every man is to exist forever. “Neither can they die any more.”
III. Man higher than the angels. That is, in his glorified state.
1. He shall have a better feast. There will be dishes on man’s table that angels can never taste.
2. Better apparel. Man’s garments will be the workmanship of “grace.” They are more expensive. Angels’ garments cost only a word; but blood was essential to wash the robes of the saints and to make them white.
3. A better song. Saints have themes the angels cannot think upon, and strains which they can never reach.
4. A better position, and superior privileges. Angels shall approach very near the throne; but they shall never sit upon it. (David Roberts, D. D.)
God’s idea of man
What is the “little” which marks man’s inferiority? It is mainly that the spirit, which is God’s image, is confined in and limited by flesh, and subject to death. The distance from the apex of creation to the Creator must ever be infinite; but man is so far above the non-sentient, though mighty, stars and the creatures that share earth with him, by reason of his being made in the Divine image--i.e., having consciousness, will, and reason--that the distance is foreshortened. The gulf between man and matter is greater than that between man and God. The moral separation caused by sin is not in the Psalmist’s mind. Thus man is invested with some reflection of God’s glory, and wears this as a crown. He is king on earth . . . Such then is man, as God meant him to be. Such a being is a more glorious revelation of the Name than all stars and systems. Looked at in regard to his duration, his years are a hand breadth before these shining ancients of days that have seen his generations fret their little hour and sink into silence; looked at in contrast with their magnitude and numbers, numberless, he is but an atom, and his dwelling place a speck. Science increases the knowledge of his insignificance, but perhaps not the impression of it made on a quiet heart by the simple sight of the heavens. But besides the merely scientific view, and the merely poetic, and the grimly agnostic, there is the other, the religious, and it is as valid today as ever. To it the heavens are the work of God’s linger, and their glories are His, set there by Him. That being so, man’s littleness magnifies the Name, because it enhances the condescending love of God, which has greatened the littleness by such nearness of care, and such gifts of dignity. The reflection of His glory which blazes in the heavens is less bright than that which gleams in the crown of glory and honour on man’s lowly yet lofty head. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
The dignity of man--his restlessness
“But little lower than God” (R.V.). It seems as though man were born with the rudiments of omniscience, and was therefore bound to be made impatient by the discovered presence of anything that declined to be known; and born, likewise, with the rudiments of omnipresence, and therefore bound to be disquieted by the sight of any frontier not yet transcended. That is one of the startling proofs of the impatient in our nature. Put a man in a room, and, no matter how large the room, he wants the window up; every place crowds and we want to move out. From the time when Abraham crossed the Euphrates and Joshua went over the Jordan, mankind has been wanting to get out and over the river. We do not know all the lakes in Africa yet, but some of us are a good deal more interested over the imagined discovery of canals in the planet Mars than we are over the seas and waterways of the distant parts of our own globe. No pasture is so large but we want to get over the fence and crop the grass on the other side. Not only are we irritated by limitations of place, and try to be ubiquitous, but are similarly annoyed by limitations of time, and attempt to explore and map the centuries that preface recorded history, and even the ages that are the threshold of the present history of the earth and heavens. We are so accustomed to this habitual intrusion into untraversed domains that it can easily escape us what a certain irrepressibleness moving within us all this betokens; and this sailing out among the stars and then coming home, for a little while, to make a book of what we have seen there, what the stars are made of, how large they are, how much they weigh, whether they are young or old, infant, middle-aged, grey haired, or imbecile, and this groping back into the old years of our universe, towards the primeval days, tracking the progress of events, or trying to decipher the wheel marks made in the old strata or on the cosmic star mist by the giant car of onward movement when creation’s springtide was yet on, and then coming quietly back to today, and in an easy chair by the fire complacently penciling diary notes of the world’s babyhood, and with no feeling at all but that it is the thing for a man to do, that the universe is to be known, and that man is here to know it--well, there is a Titanic audacity about it all that is to me superbly uplifting. Man may bare failed in a good deal that he attempts, a good many diary memoranda he may have entered under the wrong day of the month or even under the wrong month, but there is a hugeness in the very venture that betrays Titanic fibre. There are certain heights of audacity that the fool may essay to scale, but there are cloud-piercing pinnacles of audacity that there is not room in a fool’s mind to even conceive or tension to adventure. But not only can man stand up in the face of nature and cross question it and compel it to testify too, but he can exercise upon nature a volitional as well as an intellectual mastery, and can harness it to his own purposes. We are not afraid of the World any more, in the old way in which men used to be, partly because we know her way. We know how to take her. We have a presentiment of what she is plotting before she does it, and so not likely, as once, to be caught napping. The forces that used to play about us with all the untrained friskiness of wild horses prancing and cantering over the plain we have caught, some of them, and have put a collar about their necks and bits in their mouths, and, by means of a good deal of draft tackle that we have rather ingeniously devised, have set them drawing our loads, turning our wheels, working our machinery, and running all our errands. And, now, what we call Civilisation is, a good deal of it, simply a matter of the success with which we make nature do our work. We are not, of course, claiming for man that he has completely subjected the world’s wide energy. Storm and steam have still to be dealt with warily--a thunderbolt is still hot if handled carelessly; but the entire attitude of man towards all these things is changed. A lion is stronger than a man, and if the two meet on brute ground the lion will always be a good deal more than a match for him; but man is a good deal smarter than the lion, and if the two meet on an intelligent ground, the lion will be driven to the wall. So in regard to the raw energies of the material world, if man undertakes to wrestle with nature on material ground, man will invariably be whipped, and the bit of lightning would be just as demoralising to a Socrates as to a mule or pony, providing the encounter take place on territory that is distinctively the lightning’s own. But let a man take that same bit of lightning on to ground that is distinctively his own, and he will file its teeth and put a muzzle over its nose, and tie a string around its neck and attach a letter to that string and send the little amphibious streak either under the water to London or overland to San Francisco, and all over so quickly that you see his muzzle on the return trip almost before you had time to know that he was fully off. That is the sort of thing that man is when he steps off from the ground of materiality or of brutality and gathers himself together on the imperial platform of his own God-imitating personality; and there is where he wants to keep himself in all this matter of trying to appreciate his true and genuine denotement. Damaging and discouraging suspicions of diminutiveness are never going to insinuate themselves and get the better of us till we have been allowing our measure to be calculated on some other basis than that of what we distinctly are as personal beings. That is why David in the earlier part of this very Psalm was oppressed by thoughts of man’s littleness; he undertook to compute human greatness with an astronomical tape line; he was distressed by the small figure he made as seen against the vastness of the stellar sky taken as a background. But the mere arithmetic immensity of the heavens has properly nothing to do with it; yardsticks are utterly foreign to the account. It was a far greater thing to be David contemplating the heavens than it was to be the heavens making eyes at David. It is a greater thing to be able to think the heavens than it is to be the heavens. (Charles H. Parkhurst, D. D.)
Man’s glory--its loss and recovery
In the apse of St. Sophia’s, Constantinople, the guide points out a place where there is a hidden face of Christ portrayed by some early Christian artist. When the Mohammedan conqueror possessed himself of that noble Christian temple he ordered all Christian symbols to be effaced. This beautiful head of Christ was covered over with canvas. When the Christian conqueror again enters the gates of Constantinople the canvas will doubtless be torn away and this bit of early Christian art be brought to light and restored; and let but the gates of the city of man’s soul be opened to the conquering King, and his Lord shall strip away the sins that hide God’s glory in these fleshly temples, and the resplendent image of God shall be seen in men once more.
Thou madest him to have dominion.
Dominion is a far-reaching word. We have not yet thrown our measuring line upon it, and realised all its suggestions and inspiration. Is there not a stirring sometimes in the heart, which means: I was meant to be a king; I was meant to be master; I was meant to exercise dominion--dominion over the enticements of matter; it was intended that I should be able to say to the most fascinating spectacles that could appeal to me--Stand back! Man was meant to have dominion over the satisfactions of sense. Is it not quite heroic, in some small way at least, that a man shall be able to say to a habit, I have done with thee; you do not leave this day fortnight--you leave now. That is what God means man to be and to do in regard to everything that is not of the nature of God Himself. It is well to put our very habits through a process of discipline, supposing the habit to be not altogether wicked. Is it worth while that we should be able to hold things in dominion if we cannot hold ourselves in check? The great aim of every life should be self-control, dominion over self. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
Thou hast put all things under his feet, etc.
Cruelty to animals
If the lower creation were not too insignificant or worthless to contribute to the glory of Jesus, they cannot be deemed too insignificant for Him to care for, and for us to protect and honour. We know it is said of His saints that “he that toucheth them, toucheth the apple of His eye.” In other words, He feels what is done to His people as sensitively as if it had been done to Himself. And, of course, while there is a sense in which, using human language, He must be jealous of them, as He is in regard to no other (they being emphatically the fruit of the travail of His soul), yet if all creatures have been intrusted to His sovereignty, and are the subjects of His sway, He must regard any wanton injustice or cruelty inflicted on the meanest and the lowliest as an unwarranted aggression on what the old divines call His “rectorial rights.” It may seem to some an unnecessary straining of the subject: that it would be better to rest and vindicate it on principles of ordinary benevolence. It is well, indeed, that we can take up the lower ground too, and, for those who would scorn the appeal to gospel motive, address ourselves to the claims and sympathies of our common humanity. But I do confess it seems to me that this theme secures a far more commanding demonstration when we see the lower animals, whose oppression we are called to denounce, placed under the especial care and authority of the Redeemer; that as the living creatures were brought one by one to the first Adam to be named and placed under his protection, so the second Adam, the Lord from heaven, who is to restore in every respect what the other forfeited, has had among the “all things put under His feet,” “all sheep and oxen, yea, and the beasts of the field, and the fowl of the air, and the fish of the sea, and whatsoever passeth through the paths of the sea.” Though the members of the lowlier creation are represented in the text as subjected to the rule of Christ, they have been subordinated by Him to the care of man. To man, as high priest of creation, they have been made over at once for his use, and to secure his protection and kindness. In thus consigning them to his custody, this great Lord of nature has given significant intimation of the treatment He Himself designs them to receive at the hands of their deputed governor. He has manifested on every side a desire for the happiness of His creatures. Pain is in no instance the law or condition of their being. The sport of the insect, the carol of the lark, the gambols of the quadruped, the gush of summer song in the groves and woods, all read the design and intention of a bountiful, beneficent, and benevolent Ruler. And if man, therefore, abuse his delegated authority, and instead of the merciful guardian and friend of the helpless, become the rigorous tyrant and torturer, does he not thereby set himself up in guilty defiance of the purposes of the Almighty, and do what he can to abridge the happiness he was commissioned to provide and promote? We shall proceed to enforce, from a few brief considerations, the duty of abstaining from the infliction of pain on the inferior creation, and their paramount claims on man’s sympathy, protection, and kindness. Let us advert, at the outset, to a lurking and widely accepted fallacy with regard to the lower animals having a comparative insensibility to pain. That they are capable of a certain amount of suffering none dare dispute, but we question if there be not at the root of much of that reckless torture of which they are the subjects, an impression that their wild and untamed habits of life and their iron frames make them proof against the physical anguish of which the human being is susceptible. I would ask what in anatomy, what in physiology is there to bear out such an hypothesis? How can I more befittingly stun up this subject than by a closing reference and reply? Some have ventured to assert that the lower animals, being infinitely beneath us in the scale of being, are unfit subjects and objects for any such special and exceptional tenderness as that for which we plead. I ask, Where should we have been at this moment if this were a recognised and universally-acted-upon law in the government of God--that a being, because superior in the scale of existence, should refuse to bestow regard or interest on those who are some degrees beneath him? Is not the whole scheme of redemption one marvellous display of the condescension and kindness of one Being to those immeasurably below Him? Man’s condescension to the lower animals! What is this in comparison with God’s regardfulness of man? The former is but the attention and kindness of one creature to another, both springing from earth, both hastening to dissolution. But the kindness of God to the human offspring is that of the Infinite to the finite, Almightiness to nothingness, Deity to dust! Oh, if God, the great God Almighty, thus visits the guilty with tenderness, shall we visit the innocent and unoffending with cruelty and oppression? when He has thrown the shield of His merciful, but unmerited, protection over us, shall we thus requite His kindness by acting toward the humbler creatures of His hands with contempt and disdainful neglect? No! as we behold His kingdom stretching downwards from the pinnacles of glory to every living thing in the habitable parts of the earth, where from the beginning His delights have been, let us recognise the beauty and profound meaning of that magnificent vision which burst on the prophet by the river Chebar--significant exposition of the Mediator’s sovereignty: the four fold resemblances or images of creature forms, of which only one was human, and the other three of the lower animals--the lion, the ox, and the eagle; while over all, in the sapphire firmament, we read, was “the likeness as the appearance of a man.” It was the very truth and language of our text embodied and symbolised: the all-glorious and glorified Mediator presiding over the Kingdom of Providence, and demonstrating in the most extensive sense “His Kingdom ruleth over all”! Seeing, then, that all creatures thus wait upon Him, that He gives them their meat in due season, let the topic of our meditation (pleading, and pleading all the more earnestly for those who cannot plead for themselves) receive the loftiest enforcement by joining in with the loyal ascription of the Psalmist--“Thou hast put all things under his feet.” (J. R. Macduff, D. D.)
The supreme rule of Christ
This Psalm is stamped with a worldwide breadth; it is of no nation, it is of all time; it shines with a light transcending that of mere human genius. We are brought face to face with these three--nature, man, and God. Here is no picture drawn from nature. This description--“Thou hast put all things under his feet”--does not, as a matter of fact, describe man’s present position on the globe. All things are not put under him. He does not reign over nature, he wrestles with nature. The Psalmist is not using here the language of prophetic inspiration. He is looking back to the primitive glory, the primeval character of man as it is written upon the very first page of this book. The Bible grasps so firmly the unseen future, just because it plants its foot so strongly upon the past. Human nature did not crawl up from sentient slime; man was born with the likeness of his Father shining out from his very countenance, able to converse with God, and to render intelligent and loving obedience to God. Turn to the New Testament Scriptures. A new light, a new glory, suddenly breaks forth from them. “We see Jesus . . . crowned with glory and honour.” In Scripture there is but one Divine right, and that is God’s own right. “His Kingdom ruleth over all.” This authority is the inherent, eternal right of God in the very nature of things. Is it impossible to transfer it? Is it conceivable that the Almighty God should give His glory to another? Jesus said, “All authority is given to Me in heaven and in earth.” In the days of His humiliation, our Saviour constantly exercised four kinds of authority--the authority to forgive sin; the authority to declare truth; the authority to rule nature; and the authority, over human hearts and consciences--the claim of universal and absolute obedience and faith. These four are in close and inseparable moral unity. (E. R. Conder, D. D.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Psalms 8". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30