Who do we think we are?
by Mike McKinniss
It has been a common theme among scientifically minded secularists to point to our ever-expanding awareness of our ever-expanding universe and come to the rather small conclusion that we are but specs of accidental cosmic dust in the midst of a vast unimaginable cosmos.
David, without the benefit of telescope or satellite, posed much the same question 3,000 years ago: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them” (Ps 8:3, NRSV)?
It’s a humbling thought, and its weight only increases the more we learn of our universe—a fifteen-year-old estimate on the number of stars in the universe put the expanse at 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.
Who are we, against so vast a creation? Of what significance could humankind really be?
You could forgive the modern scientist her point of view, I suppose. With all the star gazing, it may be hard to focus attention on matters on the ground. Except that for people who are endlessly curious in their pursuit of astronomical knowledge, they’ve halted at such a simple conclusion about a far more interesting question, namely, the nature of human life.
Unlike our current skeptical class, David forges onward with startling audacity: “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor” (Ps 8:5, NRSV).
The NRSV’s translation here may strike some as too brazen. For those more accustomed to reading “angels” in place of “God” here, the translators are on firm footing. (The Hebrew word there is ‘elohim, which could go either way. And the use of “God” aligns well with the Genesis creation narrative, but that’s another blog post.)
David sweeps us up from completely insignificant specs of dust to great and powerful lords. How could he make such a jarring transition in thought? By ruminating on issues a little closer to home.
“You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (Ps 8:6-8, NRSV).
Easy for the king of an agricultural people to say, perhaps. But David’s words are universalist in nature. He doesn’t merely speak of himself, but much more broadly of all people everywhere. And the sentiment is easily applied to fields far beyond the herdsman.
It is not hard to imagine ramping David up to 88 mph and launching him into the 21st century, where he might instead write of humanity’s dominion over multinational corporations and teeming metropolises, over new scientific knowledge and various forms of creative expression. The point, as a later Psalm would also declare, is that the Creator may have made the earth, but he’s placed it squarely in the hands of humanity (see Psalm 115:16).
How wonderful that the planet and everything in it is at our disposal! And how terrible! How encouraging that God has trusted us with the care of his creation! And how humbling! How empowering that our every action on earth—like that of a president or a CEO—has far reaching ramifications across creation! And how risky!
So uttered the prophet-king David, reflecting on the Lord’s creation and his place in it. His elegantly woven words are as a tapestry of magic thread, portraying wildly different, yet equally profound scenes, depending on the angle from which the reader contemplates the ancient king’s musings. His thoughts inspire and humble. His song reveals great truth and points to deep mystery.
It would be nice to think, as some skeptics do, that we are insignificant. We could breathe a great sigh of relief. But the biblical truth declares that we are the most significant beings on the planet and, by virtue of our position in creation, every little thing we do matters. And, at least for David, the thought elicits praise: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth” (Ps 8:9, NRSV)! Can our faith allow us to do the same?