What Is Man?

By Weylan Deaver

“O Lord, what is man that you regard him, or the son of man that you think of him?” (Psalm 144:3, ESV). How we define ourselves—the human race—is tied to worldview and greatly affects how we live now, not to mention what we believe about the future. Notice the question is not seeking a definition as much as it is asking God why he cares so much for us. To the Psalmist, it was a given that God made man. Sadly, to many now, it is not.

Man is not a great ape, and it is not best to define us in terms of opposable thumbs, large brains, upright posture, tool use, complex societies, etc. The truth is far nobler and impressive: man is the only terrestrial creature made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) who will live eternally in heaven or hell (Matt. 25:46; 2 Cor. 5:10). Man is also the only being on earth who can be described in relation to his personally named original ancestor. That is, mankind can accurately be defined as the descendants of Adam.

So many things separate us from all animals. Humans are self-aware. This is more than being alive; we can think about the fact we are alive and have individual, personal existence. Humans are able to ponder their own origin. No kangaroo wondered where the first kangaroo came from, or how Australia got here. Cosmology is not considered by canines and cattle.

Humans have an innate capacity to appreciate and reflect on beauty, whether it be outer appearance, personality, music, a work of art or a dazzling Texas sunset. Poetry and prose are not the province of the finned or four-footed. No aardvark has given us a treatise on aesthetics.

Humans ask about the right thing to do. Even if we sometimes arrive at the wrong answer, it is still because something in us seeks to define right from wrong. Dolphins do not have penal codes, courts of law, or crime statistics. Elephants do not philosophize on ethics. Animals operate on instinct. Calling people animals cannot nullify that we reason and behave on a higher plane, which gives the lie to our being labeled animals.

Humans have to do with time. We can ponder the past and plan for the future. Hounds do not study history, but people do. We are keenly, uniquely concerned with time. Squirrels may stash nuts for the coming winter, but they are not worrying whether there will be nuts left for their offspring twenty years from now. People, on the other hand, can plan long-term. Some of us even plan our own funerals and we leave behind wills to make sure our wishes are carried out when the clock no longer affects us.

And, humans think about what follows death. Even those who disbelieve the Bible still wrestle with the future and come to some conclusion about it—accurate or not. No horse ever entertained the concept of whether there would be divine judgment on its life, or decided it did not have a soul. It takes a human to grapple with such ideas. Eschatology is the field that studies last things, such as death, judgment, eternity, the end of the world. It is one more of the many areas where animals have no concern, and lack any capacity to have concern. Why is it we think on such things?

These facts, and more, should help us realize we are neither animals nor relatives thereof. To be human is to be different from every creature on earth in striking, undeniable ways. We can admit it and seek the One who made us like this (Acts 17:26-27). Or, we can kid ourselves in futile effort to deny the obvious. But, wherever the skeptic runs, he cannot get away from his own shadow. He, too, is man.

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). Here, again, is the question. The Psalmist begins to describe man, not in terms of physical traits, but that he is “a little lower than the heavenly beings,” and “crowned…with glory and honor” (v. 5). God has given man “dominion” over the whole of creation, including “beasts of the field” and “birds of the heavens” and “fish of the sea” (vv. 6-8). The conclusion? “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (v. 9). The right answer to “What is man?” should lead naturally and inevitably to praising the Lord’s majesty. If God is not worshiped because of our conclusion to the greatest question, then we have the wrong answer.