"What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?" (Psalm 8:4)
Martin Marty observes there are four basic questions in the late modern world:
- Who am I?
- To whom do I belong?
- By what shall I live?
- How can I protect myself?
When we ask "What are human beings?", "Who am I?" we are not simply addressing the biological but we are struggling with the theological. Confronted with the horror of vastness of the universe, we wonder about our role and feel alien. Do we count at all? Do we have any significance at all?
Owen Gingerich, professor of the history of science and astronomy at Harvard University observes,
"One consequence of this self-consciousness is that we ponder our place in the universe, and we seek to find meaning and to find God. The search for God is subtle, but perhaps it is this long journey, this search, more than anything else, that makes us human. We are the thinking part of this vast and sometimes very intimidating universe, and our quest could well be the purpose of it all."
Psalm 8 is not a scientific answer to our question. It is a hymn, an evening hymn. It is an expression of faith. An act of worship. A moment of praise. It takes place in the temple, not the laboratory. It springs from the soul rather than the mind. It is wonderment, not wondering. It is awe, not assessment. It is exaltation not experimentation. It is affirmation not analysis. It is celebration, not curiosity.
Four critical affirmations are made in this psalm relative to the question "What are human beings?"
1. Human beings are God-made.
This affirmation is given in the simplest way. It is unexplained and unqualified. Psalm 8 is no more concerned with how God created humans than is Genesis 1. The Bible metaphor when describing Gods creative activity. He is a craftsman, a potter (Gen 2:7), a weaver (Job 10:11), and a cabinetmaker (Job 10:8).
2. Human beings are measured
They are measured against the vastness of the universe. If the psalmist, depending on his unaided eyes, senses smallness how much truer today with our awareness of countless solar systems and billions of stars?
This is critical for humans to understand their place in the world. There cannot be any inflated sense of priority or importance. Pascal observed:
"By space the universe encompasses and swallows me up like an atom; by thought I comprehend the world."
3. Humans are magnified
We are mere mortals but God has "crowned us with glory and honour." The psalm stresses the two opposite poles of human lowness and human height. Human greatness is God-conferred.
God has made us a little lower than himself. Indeed, we are not just related to the animal kingdom but also related to God himself!
As Weiser observes:
. . . . face to face with God man becomes aware of the total insignificance of his existence. When man gazes up at the illimitable expanse of the heavens studded with stars, the difference between God and man is revealed in all its magnitude, and the wholly contradictory quality of that difference is made manifest. The finite is confronted with the infinite, the transient with the eternal, the perpetual sorrows and anxieties of man, who constantly goes astray, with the peace, steadiness and order manifested by the heavenly bodies which run their prescribed course. . . .
It is only if man stands in awe of the greatness of God, which strikes terror into his heart and makes him aware of his total insignificance, that, taking that awe as a starting-point and as the basis of his thoughts, he learns to gain a full understanding of the divine miracle which is made manifest in the relationship between Creator and creature, the miracle namely that it did not seem too small a matter for this Almighty God ‘to be mindful’ of man and lovingly ‘to care’ for him.
As soon as man comes to realize his total insignificance in the sight of God from whom he cannot demand anything, he clearly recognizes that the innermost nature of his relationship with God is that of an incomprehensible grace.
4. Humans are stewards
Humans clearly have little if any control over the physical world. Yet the psalmist concludes: "You have placed all things under his feet." Humans are only masters of the world if they recognise their utmost dependence on the creator. There stewardship is not simply a privilege but responsibility. Anderson expresses it this way:
The concept of man’s dominion over nature is revolutionary when measured against ancient religions which declared that the gods were natural powers and that man’s life was embraced within the mysterious depth of nature, with its rhythmic cycles of fertility.
The God of Israel is not a natural power: he transcends the realm of nature, for he is its Creator. And in a lesser sense man, though related to the animals, stands over against nature as the creature who is commissioned to have dominion over the works of God’s creation, as one who is the representative or vice-regent of God’s sovereignty (kingdom) on earth.