Brethren Archive

What is Man

by Inglis Fleming

“What is man?” is a question which is again and again asked in Holy Writ, and we may occupy ourselves profitably in considering the answers given to the enquiry.

I would call attention first to Job 7:17-18.


Here the patriarch Job, afflicted and distressed under the chastening hand of God, cries out in the bitterness of his soul, “WHAT IS MAN?”

He had been the greatest of all the men of the East. As a prince among the sheiks he had been honoured and feared by all. Now he was brought low. The three hedges about himself, his household, and his property (Job 1:10), had all been broken down. His substance had been carried away by his enemies. His sons and daughters had died, and he, himself, had been smitten with loathsome boils, and was now in such misery that he would choose rather to die than to live. Feeling the pressure of all his sorrows and sufferings, and not yet seeing the end of the Lord (Jas. 5:11), he complains to God, crying, “Let me alone, for my days are vanity.”

Man in his littleness is in view. “What is man that Thou shouldest magnify him? and that Thou shouldest set Thine heart upon him? And that Thou shouldest visit him every morning and try him every moment?” With some sense of the majesty of God, he feels how insignificant man is, and murmurs because he is not left alone. Why should God take knowledge of him and observe him and his ways?

And well it is that a man should be brought to feel and to acknowledge his smallness and weakness. For though a man may boast himself among his fellows, and even in his self-sufficiency set his mouth against the heavens, expressing pride and rebellion against God, yet, after all, what is he?

Well he is in this day, as someone has said, one of about fifteen hundred millions of people inhabiting the earth: a mere unit among myriads. Then the earth on which he lives is one of the smallest globes in the vast universe. If the sun were a hollow body, fifteen thousand earths would be required to fill it. And the sun itself, though the centre and controller of the system of which the earth forms part, is only one of multitudes of flaming orbs, the number of which passes all human computation. Thus man is not so very great, although he glorifies himself so much. And moreover his days are truly few and full of vanity. His works, remarkable though they may be, will all decay and pass away, and—

“Like the baseless fabric of the vision . . .

. . . Leave not a wrack behind.”


Eliphaz the Temanite, one of Job’s three friends, also asks the question: “What is man?”

In his question he brings the sinfulness of man before us as he demands “What is man that he should be clean? and he which is born of a woman that he should be righteous? Behold He putteth no trust in His saints; yea, the heavens are not clean in His sight. How much more filthy is man which drinketh iniquity like water?”

Not only is man little and insignificant, but he is unclean and guilty as well. He has his origin from a polluted source. He is of a corrupt stock, and he has committed sins innumerable. Thus his whole life is marred by evil. He may be outwardly correct, but inwardly be is wrong. The thoughts and intents of his heart are contrary to God. Self is his centre, “pride rules his will,” God is not in all his thoughts.

The witness of Eliphaz (who seems to have echoed much that Job had himself stated before) is abundantly confirmed by the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, and by the personal testimony of the people of God in all the ages.

Thus Job is brought to cry at the end of God’s dealings with him, “I abhor myself and repeat in dust and ashes.” Daniel tells us that in the presence of God “my comeliness was turned in me into corruption.” Isaiah says, “We are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousness are as filthy rags.” Jeremiah declares, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Paul says, “I am carnal, sold under sin.” Peter cries, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Man as fallen is corrupt from foot to crown, and utterly unfit for God.


In Psalm 144 we find the psalmist asking the same question, “What is man?” but in different associations to those in which we have thought of man hitherto. It is now man as the object of God’s solicitude who is presented. The weak and sinful creature of whom we have spoken is now seen as the object of God’s tenderest interest and consideration. In joy of heart, David sings the praises of Jehovah, saying: “Blessed be the Lord my strength . . . my goodness, and my fortress; my high tower, and my deliverer; my shield and help in whom I trust; who subdueth my people under me. Lord, what is man, that Thou takest knowledge of Him! or the son of man that thou takest account of him! Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.”

Unworthy, insignificant, and weak, the sinful man finds his refuge in the Lord, and learns to draw everything from Him. Power, goodness, support, protection, salvation, all that he needs is with the Lord in abundance. And all these are with Him for the feeblest and most sinful man who turns to Him. Well may the sweet Psalmist of Israel close the psalm with the jubilant note, “Happy is that people that is in such a case: yea happy is that people whose God is the Lord.”


In Psalm 8 we have the enquiry, “What is man?” made once more. And we shall find that the answer given brings us into another order of things altogether. “When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained: What is man, that Thou art mindful of him; and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?”

The greatness of God’s glory in the created heavens—the work of the Creator’s fingers—causes the psalmist to marvel at the fact that God is mindful of such a creature as man. But at once the Holy Spirit carries him away from the thought of man in his weakness to the contemplation of man in his true greatness and glory. “The Man Christ Jesus” comes into sight. Man in responsibility and failure and feebleness no longer attracts the attention. The Man of God’s right hand. . . the Son of Man whom God has made strong for Himself, alone is seen. “For Thou hast made Him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned Him with glory and honour.” We see Him stooping to manhood and to death, “even the death of the cross,” for the fulfilment of the will of God, and now set in resurrection glory in the place prepared for man according to the counsels of God. There everything is put under His feet—earth, air, and sea being alike subjected to Him. The Man of God’s counsel and delight occupies the psalmist’s gaze and by this means is brought before ours.

And we, having our lot cast in these days, see the fulfilment already of part of that which was prophesied of in this portion of God’s Word. It is true that we have to wait for the Lord’s name to become excellent in all the earth (it has become excellent in our hearts now by the grace of our God); but we know His glory set above the heavens, for Christ is glorified there. While we wait for all things to be put under His feet, “we see Jesus. . . crowned with glory and honour.”

And still fuller unfoldings of the divine pleasure are made known to us than were given to the writer of Psalm 8, for we learn that we who believe are for ever to be associated with Christ, under whose feet everything is soon to be placed. The psalm does not present the Christian’s link with Him, but brings into prominence Him with whom we are linked.

The New Testament, however, makes the association for us most clear. There we have the quotation of Psalm 8 three times. The first occasion is Ephesians 1. Here the Lord Jesus is presented before us as Man raised from the dead by the exceeding greatness of God’s power, and set at His right hand. All things are put under His feet, and He is given to be Head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all. The same power which wrought in Christ has wrought in us. The Head over all things has the church as His body, which is composed of every true believer since the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost. “The body is the complement of the Head; it is in this sense His fullness; this is His glory. It is He who divinely fills the whole universe, the church is the body of Him who does it.”

Hebrews 11 quotes the psalm, and adds, “But now we see not yet all things put under Him, but we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honour,” and we learn that “both He that sanctifieth [Christ] and they who are sanctified [Christians] are all of one.” They are associated together before God, and that for this cause “He is not ashamed to call them brethren.” Soon they will be displayed in glory with Him, being brought there by Himself as the Captain of their salvation.

Finally, in 1 Corinthians 15:27-28, we learn that when Psalm 8 is fulfilled, when all things are at last actually put under His feet, when all things are subjected unto Him, that then He, the Son, shall Himself be subject unto Him who put all things under Him, so that God may be all in all. What perfection of moral glory and beauty is here disclosed, in this Man after God’s own heart. He who is “over all, God blessed for ever,” the eternal Son “in the bosom of the Father” having become Man, ever acts for the glory of Him who sent Him. And He who suffered for the glory of God must yet reign for the glory of God. But when every enemy is laid low, when every discordant note is hushed, and every string of the great harp of praise is brought into perfect tune according to the mind of God, then the kingdom in perfect order will be given up to God the Father, that God may be all in all.

The first man, Adam, came into a scene of perfect order, and wrought havoc and confusion. The Second Man, the last Adam, came into the midst of the havoc and confusion, and at infinite cost to Himself brought honour and glory to God, and will yet give order and peace in this world, and yield everything up to God in divine symmetry and perfection.

How wondrous is man’s place and portion as seen thus in Christ? How blessed to know that He is our life and that we are for ever linked with Him who has glorified God so fully!


S.T. 1914

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