Verse 3. LORD, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him? What a contrast between Jehovah and man! The Psalmist turns from the glorious all sufficiency of God to the insignificance and nothingness of man. He sees Jehovah to be everything, and then cries, "Lord, what is man!" What is man in the presence of the Infinite God? What can he be compared to? He is too little to be described at all; only God, who knows the most minute object, can tell what man is. Certainly he is not fit to be the rock of our confidence: he is at once too feeble and too fickle to be relied upon. The Psalmist's wonder is that God should stoop to know him, and indeed it is more remarkable than if the greatest archangel should make a study of emmets, or become the friend of mites. God knows his people with a tender intimacy, a constant, careful observation: he foreknew them in love, he knows them by care, he will know them in acceptance at last. Why and wherefore is this? What has man done? What has he been? What is he now that God should know him, and make himself known to him as his goodness, fortress, and high tower? This is an unanswerable question. Infinite condescension can alone account for the Lord stooping to be the friend of man. That he should make man the subject of election, the object of redemption, the child of eternal love, the darling of infallible providence, the next of kin to Deity, is indeed a matter requiring more than the two notes of exclamation found in this verse.
Or the son of man, that thou makest account of him! The son of man is a weaker being still, -- so the original word implies. He is not so much man as God made him, but man as his mother bore him; and how can the Lord think of him, and write down such a cipher in his accounts? The Lord thinks much of man, and in connection with redeeming love makes a great figure of him: this can be believed, but it cannot be explained. Adoring wonder makes us each one cry out, Why dost thou take knowledge of me? We know by experience how little man is to be reckoned upon, and we know by observation how greatly he can vaunt himself, it is therefore meet for us to be humble and to distrust ourselves; but all this should make us the more grateful to the Lord, who knows man better than we do, and yet communes with him, and even dwells in him. Every trace of the misanthrope should be hateful to the believer; for if God makes account of man it is not for us to despise our own kind.
EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS
Verse 3. LORD, what is man, etc.
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 strong,
And swell the chorus of his praise. --John Newton, in Olney Hymns.
Verse 3. LORD, what is man? Take him in his four elements, of earth, air, fire, and water. In the earth, he is as fleeting dust; in the air, he is as a disappearing vapour; in the water, he is as a breaking bubble; and in the fire, he is as consuming smoke. --William Seeker, in "The Nonsuch Professor."
Verse 3-4. LORD, what is man, etc. There is no book so well worthy reading as this living one. Even now David spake as a king of men, of people subdued under him: now he speaks as a humble vassal to God: LORD, what is man that thou takest knowledge of him? In one breath is both sovereignty and subjugation: an absolute sovereignty over his people: My people are subdued under me; an humble subjection to the God of kings; "LORD, what is man?" Yea, in the very same word wherein, is the profession of that sovereignty, there is an acknowledgment of subjection: "Thou hast subdued my people." In that he had a people, he was a king: that they might be his people, a subjection was requisite; and that subjugation was God's, and not his own: "Thou hast subdued." Lo, David had not subdued his people, if God had not subdued them for him. He was a great king, but they were a stiff people: the God that made them swayed them to a due subjection. The great conquerors of worlds could not conquer hearts, if he, that moulded hearts, did not temper them. "By me kings reign", saith the Eternal Wisdom; and he that had courage enough to encounter a bear, a lion, Goliath, yet can say, "Thou hast subdued my people."
Contrarily, in the lowliest subjection of himself, there is an acknowledgment of greatness. Though he abused himself with, "What is man?" yet, withal he adds, "Thou takest knowledge of him, thou makest account of him": and this knowledge, this account of God, doth more exalt man than his own vanity can depress him. My text, then, ye see, is David's rapture, expressed in an ecstatical question of sudden wonder; a wonder at God, and at man: man's vileness; "What is man?" God's mercy and favour, in his knowledge, in his estimation of man. Lo, there are but two lessons that we need to take out here, in the world, God and man; man, in the notion of his wretchedness; God, in the notion of his bounty.
Let us, if you please, take a short view of both; and, in the one, see cause of our humiliation; of our joy and thankfulness in the other: and if, in the former, there be a sad Lent of mortification; there is, in the latter, a cheerful Easter of our raising and exaltation.
Many a one besides David wonders at himself: one wonders at his own honour; and, though he will not say so, yet thinks, "What a great man am I! Is not this great Babel, which I have built?" This is Nebuchadnezzar's wonder. Another wonders at his person, and finds, either a good face, or a fair eye, or an exquisite hand, or a well shaped leg, or some gay fleece, to admire in himself: this was Absalom's wonder. Another wonders at his wit and learning: "How came I by all this? Turba haec! This vulgar, that knows not the law, is accursed": this was the Pharisee's wonder. Another wonders at his wealth; "Soul, take thine ease"; as the epicure in the gospel. David's wonder is as much above, as against all these: he wonders at his vileness: like as the Chosen Vessel would boast of nothing but his infirmities: "LORD, what is man?"
How well this hangs together! No sooner had he said, "Thou hast subdued my people under me", than he adds, "LORD, what is man?" Some vain heart would have been lifted up with a conceit of his own eminence; "Who am I? I am not as other men. I have people under me; and people of my own, and people subdued to me"; this is to be more than a man. I know who hath said, "I said ye are gods." --Joseph Hall.
Verse 3. Dr. Hammond refers this psalm to the slaying of Goliath, and thus understands the appellation "son of man", -- "David was but a young stripling, the youngest and most inconsiderable of all the sons of Jesse, who also was himself an ordinary man."
Verse 3. Thou takest knowledge of him. It is a great word. Alas! what knowledge do we take of the gnats that play in the sun; or the ants, or worms, that are crawling in our grounds? Yet the disproportion betwixt us and them is but finite; infinite betwixt God and us. Thou, the Great God of Heaven, to take knowledge of such a thing as man. If a mighty prince shall vouchsafe to spy and single out a plain homely swain in a throng, as the Great Sultan did lately a tankard bearer; and take special notice of him, and call him but to a kiss of his hand and nearness to his person; he boasts of it as a great favour: for thee, then, O God, who abasest thyself to behold the things in heaven itself, to cast thine eye upon so poor a worm as man, it must needs be a wonderful mercy. --Exigua pauperibus magna; as Nazianzen to his Amphilochius. -- Joseph Hall.
HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS
Verse 3. A note of interrogation, exclamation, and admiration.
Verse 3. The question,
- Denies any right in man to claim the regard of God.
- Asserts the great honour God has nevertheless put upon him.
- Suggests that the true reason of God's generous dealings is the graciousness of his own heart.
- Implies the becomingness of gratitude and humility.
- Encourages the most unworthy to put their confidence in God. --J.F.
- What was man as he came from the hands of his Creator?
- Holy and happy.
- What is man in his present condition?
- Miserable, and helpless in his misery.
- What is man when he has believed in Christ?
- Restored to a right relation to God.
- Restored to a right disposition toward God.
- He enjoys the influences of the Holy Spirit.
- He is in process of preparation for the heavenly world.
- What shall man be when he is admitted into heaven?
- Free from sin and sorrow.
- Advanced to the perfection of his nature.
- Associated with angels.
- Near to his Saviour and his God.
--George Brooks, in "The Homiletic Commentary", 1879.
Verse 3. Worthless man much regarded by the mighty God. Sermon by Ebenezer Erskine. Works 3, pp. 141-162.
Verse 3. It is a wonder above all wonders, that ever the great God should make such account of such a thing as man.
- It will appear if you consider what a great God the Lord is.
- What a poor thing man is.
- What a great account the great God hath of this poor thing, man.