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What is Man?
by John Wesley
"When I consider thy heaven, the work of thy fingers, the moon and stars,
which thou hast ordained; what is man?"
How often has it been observed, that the Book of Psalms is a rich treasury of devotion, which the wisdom of God has provided to supply the wants of his children in all generations! In all ages the Psalms have been of singular use to those that loved or feared God; not only to the pious Israelites, but to the children of God in all nations. And this book has been of sovereign use to the Church of God, not only while it was in its state of infancy, (so beautifully described by St. Paul in the former part to the fourth chapter to the Galatians,) but also since, in the fullness of time, "life and immortality were brought to the light by the gospel."
The Christians in every age and nation have availed themselves of this divine treasure, which has richly supplied the wants, not only of the "babes in Christ," of those who were just setting out in the ways of God, but of those also who had made good progress therein; yea, of such as were swiftly advancing toward "the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."
The subject of this psalm is beautifully proposed in the beginning of it: "O Lord our Governor, how excellent is thy name in all the earth; who hast set thy glory above the heavens!" It celebrates the glorious wisdom and love of God, as the Creator and Governor of all things. It is not an improbable conjecture, that David wrote this psalm in a bright star-light night, while he observed the moon also "walking in her brightness;" that while he surveyed,
This fair half-round, the ample azure sky,
Terribly large, and beautifully bright,
With stars unnumber'd, and unmeasured light,
he broke out, from the fullness of his heart, into the natural exultation, "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man?" How is it possible that the Creator of these, the innumerable armies of heaven and earth, should have any regard to this speck of creation, whose time "passeth away like a shadow?"
Thy frame but dust, thy stature but a span,
A moment thy duration, foolish man!
"What is man?" I would consider this, First, with regard to his magnitude; and, Secondly, with regard to his duration.
I. 1. Consider we, First, What is man, with regard to his magnitude? And, in this respect, what is any one individual, compared to all the inhabitants of Great Britain? He shrinks into nothing in the comparison. How inconceivably little is one compared to eight or ten millions of people! Is he not,
Lost like a drop in the unbounded main?
2. But what are all the inhabitants of Great Britain, compared to all the inhabitants of the earth? These have frequently been supposed to amount to about four hundred millions. But will this computation be allowed to be just, by those who maintain China alone to contain fifty-eight millions? If it be true, that this one empire contains little less than sixty millions, we may easily suppose that the inhabitants of the whole terraqueous globe amount to four thousand millions of inhabitants, rather than four hundred. And what is any single individual, in comparison of this number?
3. But what is the magnitude of the earth itself, compared to that of the solar system? Including, beside that vast body, the sun, so immensely larger that the earth, the whole train of primary and secondary planets; several of which (I mean, of the secondary planets, suppose that satellites or moons of Jupiter and Saturn) are abundantly larger than the whole earth?
4. And yet, what is the whole quantity of matter contained in the sun, and all those primary and secondary planets, with all the spaces comprised in the solar system, in comparison of that which is pervaded by those amazing bodies, the comets? Who but the Creator himself can "tell the number of these, and call them all by their names?" Yet what is even the orbit of a comet, and the space contained therein, to the space which is occupied by the fixed stars; which are at so immense a distance from the earth, that they appear, when they are viewed through the largest telescope, just as they do to the naked eye?
5. Whether the bounds of the creation do or do not extend beyond the region of the fixed stars, who can tell? Only the morning-stars, who sang together when the foundations thereof were laid. But it is finite, that the bounds of it are fixed, we have no reason to doubt. We cannot doubt, but when the Son of God had finished all the work which he created and made, he said,
These be thy bounds,
This be thy just circumference, O world!
But what is man to this?
6. We may take one step, and only one step, farther still: What is the space of the whole creation, what is all finite space that is, or can be conceived, in comparison of infinite? What is it but a point, a cipher, compared to that which is filled by him that is All in all? Think of this, and then ask, "What is man?"
7. What is man, that the great God who filleth heaven and earth, "the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity," should stoop so inconceivably low as to "be mindful of him?" Would not reason suggest to us, that so diminutive a creature would be overlooked by him in immensity of his works? Especially when we consider,
II. Secondly, What is man, with regard to his duration?
1. The days of man, since the last reduction of human life, which seems to have taken place in the time of Moses, (and not improbably was revealed to the man of God at the time that he made this declaration,) "are threescore years and ten." This is the general standard which God hath now appointed. "And if men be so strong," perhaps one in a hundred, "that they come to fourscore years, yet then is their strength but labour and sorrow: So soon passeth it away, and we are gone!"
2. Now, what a poor pittance of duration is this, compared to the life of Methuselah! "And Methuselah lived nine hundred and sixty and nine years." But what are these nine hundred and sixty and nine years to the duration of an angel, which began "or ever the mountains were brought forth," or the foundations of the earth were laid? And what is the duration which has passed since the creation of angels, that which passed before they were created, to unbeginning eternity? to that half of eternity (if one may so speak) which had then elapsed? And what are threescore years and ten to this?
3. Indeed, what proportion can there possibly be between any finite and infinite duration? What proportion is there between a thousand or ten thousand years, or ten thousand time ten thousand ages, and eternity? I know not that the inexpressible disproportion between any conceivable part of time and eternity can be illustrated in a more striking manner than it is in the well-known passage of St. Cyprian: "Suppose there was a ball of sand as large as the globe of earth, and suppose one grain of this were to be annihilated in a thousand years; yet that whole space of time wherein this ball would be annihilating, at the rate of one grain in a thousand years, would bear less, yea, unspeakably, infinitely less, proportion to eternity, than a single grain of sand would bear to that whole mass." What, then, are the seventy years of human life, in comparison of eternity? In what terms can the proportion between these be expressed? It is nothing, yea, infinitely less than nothing!