NORMALLY, WHEN WE ASK THIS QUESTION our thoughts instinctively go to Psalm 8.4, but in fact the question is asked four times in the Old Testament. If we were to try to answer the question without reference to the Word of God, but by human reasoning alone, our answers would be very varied, and would depend on our outlook On life. The physiologist would speak of him, if he is honest, as the most wonderful thing he knows – the human body so complex that even now, after hundreds of years of close examination, men have to say that they are still only slowly discovering its marvels. They would, of course, only be talking of the body. The evolutionist would speak of him as a something which has developed over a period of millions of years from the very lowest form of life to its present exalted position, without stopping to think of where and how the original something originated. Both of these positions leave God out of the picture – there is no place for Him.
When we turn to the word of God we are in the realm of fact and not fancy, and there we discover that men came directly from the hand of God, Gen. 1.26-27. He is declared to have been made in the ‘image of God: he was made with the ability to have communion with God, and was destined to know the glory of God. Positionally he was made only a little lower than the angels, Psa. 8. 5. Alas the divine record, following his history, shows him to be now one who, because of sin, has fallen from his privileged position.
It is interesting to note that four different Hebrew words are translated ‘man’ in the Old Testament. They are - 1. Adam, meaning a human being, a created being, therefore a dependent being. 2. Ish – an individual, one not lost in the crowd. 3. Enosh -mortal, subject to death. 4. Gibbor, a mighty man, indicating great possibilities.
The Bible, which asks the question ‘What is man?’ and shows us what he is now as a fallen creature, also looks to the future, and tells us what man can become – a new creation, the possessor of divine life, to become Christlike, to again have communion with God, and ultimately dwell in glory.
In considering these four questions it may be well to begin with the one so well-known to us, Psalm 8. 4, bearing in mind that the Holy Spirit draws our special attention to it and its context in Hebrews 2. 6-8. In the Psalm the Hebrew word used is Enosh – one that is mortal and subject to death, and the psalmist is expressing his amazement that the One who was so great that the universe came from His hand, the One who with His fingers had put the moon and the stars in their places, and kept them there, should be interested in such a creature as man in all his frailty and failure. The degree of interest shown by the Creator in His frail creature is indicated by the terms ‘thou art mindful of him (or rememberest him)’ and that ‘thou visitest him (inspects him that He might know all about him).’ The words indicate a special attention to this created being. Verses 5-8 of the Psalm show us what God intended for him when He placed him in the Garden of Eden - ‘to have dominion’. But as David writes these words he sees man as one fallen from that position, and he marvels that God the Creator should still be so interested in the rebel.
When we consider the divine comment in Hebrews 2. 9-10 we begin to see what the psalmist could never have imagined, what was involved in God’s remembrance and visitation. The writer of Hebrews is led to show us the One who never failed, but who, for a time became lower than the angels in becoming a man, He tells us that this Man was the One who made all things, and yet was mindful of and came and visited man, that here in the place which had been marred by sin, He might know the suffering of death, and taste death for every man.
Do we experience a surge of wonder as again we think of this welI known and well-loved truth? David, led by God, could ask in awe and amazement why man in his sin should be the object of God’s love and care; and we too may well ask, ‘And what am I that I should be the object of God’s love and grace?’ It is, of course, beyond understanding. In Psalm 144. 3-4 the psalmist is again amazed that God should be interested in man. This time the word translated ‘man’ is Adam – a created, dependent being. The preceding verses, 1 and 2, reveal to us the thoughts of the psalmist in relation to God Himself. He sees Him as the Mighty One, the All-Sufficient One, the One who is completely dependable in every experience of life. The succeeding verses, 5-10, show his understanding of Him as the Mighty Deliverer, before Whom no enemy can stand – He is GOD.
It may be that as David was meditating quietly in the presence of God, these thoughts came to him and he contemplated his God in the wonder of His Person, and the grandeur and might of His works, and he saw himself against the background of this glory, and wondered why this exalted Being should be so interested in him. He speaks of God ‘taking knowledge of him’, or ‘considers his ways’, and ‘makest account of him’, suggesting that man has a place in his plans. This is all the more wonderful when we note that he also speaks of ‘the son of man.’ This is even lower. In Luke’s genealogy of the Lord Jesus from the human angle, Luke 3. 38, Adam is spoken of as ‘the son of God’, but David sees himself as the ‘son of man’ (Adam – a created one?) – i.e. the son of his mother. He did not see himself as coming straight from the hand of God.
Both these lines of thought in verses 3-4 are worthy of our consideration. God ‘takes knowledge’ of us in spite of our nothingness: These words should have a sobering effect upon us, as behind them is the realization that our God has knowledge of us in detail, what we are doing, what we are thinking – nothing is hidden from this omniscient One, not even our innermost thought. Equally wonderful is the fact that He takes us into account – we have a specific place in His eternal plans. This is all the more wonderful when we consider the words of verse 4 - ‘man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away’.
As we turn to Job. 7. 17-18 let us remember that we are now reading what may be the oldest book known to man, probably written well before the giving of the Law. So far as we can judge whoever wrote the book did not have before him other spiritual literature from which to draw his thoughts, but there was certainly an exalted conception of God. Dr. C. I. SCOFIELD comments ‘the book sheds a remarkable light on the philosophic breadth and intellectual culture of the patriarchal age’.
The words on either side of our verses are full of Job’s despondency and of complaint at God’s dealings with him – why does He do it? Verses 17-18 seem to be an expression of incredulity. It appears that, although he had spoken of God almost as a persecutor, and takes up this theme again later there comes to him a recognition, based on past experience that God is not really at all like that. He speaks now of God magnifying man, i.e. making him large and great; he speaks of Him as setting His heart upon him, not laying His hand upon him. Surely here he is thinking of God’s love for him – man (enosh ~ mortal man, subject to death). He then thinks of God visiting him every morning, and testing him every moment (is this so that the continuing trial should not be more than he could bear? 1 Cor. 10. 13). It seems almost like a sudden gleam of light into his darkness. He reverts to his complaint but his thought of God taking such an interest in him stirs him further, and we hear him saying ‘I have sinned’, v. 20 and he asks the question ‘why dost thou not pardon my transgression and take away mine iniquity?’, v. 21.
We look at our verse 17 in the light of the fuller revelation of God in the Person of Christ, and the triumph of the cross, and, we marvel at the intention of God to ‘magnify’ those who trust Him – see Rom. 8. 28-30, and the glorious fact that He sets His heart upon them. We must remember that Job had no knowledge of the purpose of all that he experienced. He does not know of Satan’s charge against him, and of God’s permission that he should be tested in this way. And it says much for his spiritual state that although everything points to God’s apparent harshness in His dealings with him, he can still marvel that He should have any thought for him at all, and that he can also consider God’s enlargement of him, and His constant watchfulness. FRANCIS L. ANDERSEN, in his Tyndale Commentary of Job says ‘All Job has known about God he still believes. But God’s inexplicable ways have his mind perplexed to breaking point. Job is in the right: but he does not know that God is watching with silent compassion and admiration until the test is fully done and it is tilne to state His approval publicly, job 42. 8.'
The question ‘what is man?’ is asked again in Job 15. 14, not by Job this time but by one of his friends, Eliphaz. He uses the same word that job used, Enosh, mortal man, subject to death. With regard to job, who first asked the question, and David, who repeated it many years later, we can say that they are the words of godly men. It is difficult to know how to describe Eliphaz. He is certainly not of the spiritual calibre of either Job or David. It has been suggested that Eliphaz is seeking to put Job in his place by denigrating ‘man’ completely. What he says about man he is really saying about Job, and, without meaning to, about himself. But whatever purpose he had in uttering verses 14 and 16 they are, alas, true, and with the fuller revelation of God’s ways in grace we see again that man, in spite of his wretched failure and sin, is loved by God. Eliphaz may well ask the question ‘what is man that he should be clean … that he should be righteous?’. His words in verse 16 are probably intended to refer to Job primarily - ‘abominable and filthy and drinking iniquity like water’, a jaundiced view indeed, but they apply to mankind in general. And if this is so, how is he going to be made clean and righteous? In spite of all his fine swelling words Eliphaz cannot answer his own question – indeed no human reasoning could produce an answer.
It is said concerning the Lord Jesus in John 6. 6, ‘He knew himself what he would do’, and without any doubt this is true concerning God as He listened to the words of His two servants and Epliphaz concerning - 1. The faithfulness of God and His visiting man, Psa. 8. 42. The taking knowledge of man and including hhn in His plans, Psa. 144.3. God magnifying man and setting His heart upon him, Job. 7. 7. God making man clean and making him righteous, Job. 15. 14.
As we turn to Hebrews 2 we see God dealing with these problems, and we discover it is through ‘The Man’ in whom there was no sin, no failure, the One who came from the throne and was made for a little while lower than the angels for the suffering of death. The writer of Hebrews, while acknowledging the failure of man, says triumphantly ‘But we see Jesus’. And he is then able to speak of this One as ‘tasting death for every man’, v. 9. He goes on to speak of sanctification and the bringing of many sons to glory, v. 10. He also speaks of them as His ‘brethren’ and of deliverance from the power of Satan and death, Yes, God knew that He would do! Those who now know god’s saving and keeping power, as they are asked the question ‘What is man?’ must surely reply ‘I'm Only a sinner saved by grace.'
Now what is man, when grace reveals
The virtues of a Saviour’s blood?
Again a life divine he feels
Despises earth and walks with God.
And what in yonder realms above
Is ransomed man ordained to be
With honour, holiness and love
No seraph more adorned than He
Nearest the throne and first in song
Man shall his hallelujahs raise
While wondering angels round him throng
And swell the chorus of His praise.