The drift of men's minds is aptly described by the historian when he says of the ancient philosophers that in the sublime inquiry concerning human nature, "Their reason had been often guided by their imagination, and that their imagination had been prompted by their vanity. When they viewed with complacency the extent of their own mental powers; when they exercised the various faculties of memory, of fancy, and of judgment, in the most profound speculations, or the most important labors; and when they reflected upon the desire of fame, which transported them into future ages, far beyond the bounds of death and of the grave, they were unwilling to confound themselves with the beasts of the field or to suppose that a being for whose dignity they entertained the most sincere admiration could be limited to a spot of earth, and to a few years of duration" Decline and Fall, chapter xv, par. 18.
Even so are they described by the apostle Paul: "Because that, when they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things." Such was their pride and self-conceit that "they did not like to retain God in their knowledge" (Romans 1:21-23, 28).
Far different is the disposition of one who is truly wise. King David also carried on some investigations in human nature, but from a different point of view. His desire was to know what God would say of him. "My heart was hot within me; while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue, Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before Thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity" (Psalm 39:3-5).
Again: considering the pit which the heathen had made for themselves, and into which they had sunk, and how they were boasting against God, he prayed, "Put them in fear, O Lord: that the nations may know themselves to be but men" (Psalm 9:20). Just think of it! "But men!" The nations would make their boast in the fact that they were men and would consider themselves competent to dispense with God altogether; but God's word says that they are only men. Man is nothing in himself, and can be nothing only as God gives him opportunity and power.
Let us stop a moment to read what the Scripture says of the origin of man: "And God said, Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them" Genesis 1:26, 27. "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul [living creature]" (Genesis 2:7).
Like the beasts, he was taken from the ground. He is but "dust and ashes." He cannot boast at all, not even over the beasts that are placed under him; for it is simply by the power of God, who can make of the same clay a vessel unto honor and one unto dishonor, that he is any different from them. The earth is the source whence all animate creatures spring. "All are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Ecclesiastes 3:20). After death and decomposition the dust of the prince cannot be distinguished from the dust of the pauper, nor even from that of his dog. If at the last he does not share the fate of the beasts, and go into oblivion, it is only because he has had humility enough to accept the wisdom that comes from God; for "man that is in honor, and understandeth not, is like the beasts that perish" (Psalm 49:20). "Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?"
Man is made from the dust, that he may remember that he is nothing in himself; but also in the image of God, that he may know the infinite possibilities before him--association with God Himself; of himself having no more might than the dust upon which he walks, but capable of the greatest things through the power and goodness of God. And, strange as it may seem, his capabilities are the greatest when he is most sensible of his weakness. "When I am weak, then am I strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10).
"And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7). Not even here can man claim superiority. The beasts of the field breathe the same air that he does. It is also to them, the same as to him, the gift of God. Indeed, the very fact that his breath is in his nostrils is a proof of his frailty. "Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?" (Isaiah 2:22). It is the breath of life which God has given him, but how feeble a hold he has of it. "For what is your life? It is even a vapor, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away" (James 4:14).
How can this be, since the life was given him from God? It is not that life from God is a slight thing, but because man has so slight a tenure of it. In the hand of God is the breath of every living thing, and at His pleasure He can take it to Himself. "If He set His heart upon man, if he gather unto Himself His spirit and His breath: all flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust" (Job 34:14,15). "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it" (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Not yet have we found anything in which man can boast.
How natural it is for men in extremity to turn for help to some other man, or to human power. And yet no man on earth has the power to make any change in his own physical condition. He cannot change the color of his hair, nor add an inch to his stature. "They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches: none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him" (Psalm 49:6, 7). Therefore the exhortation comes, "Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish" (Psalm 146:3,4). Whom should he trust? "Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God: which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: which keepeth truth forever" (Psalm 146:5,6).
There is no life but from God. "For with Thee is the fountain of life" (Psalm 36:9). But life is righteousness; "for to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace" (Romans 8:6). Sin is death, and is from Satan, and the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Sin is at last to be utterly blotted from the universe, and of necessity those whose lives are still sin must be blotted out with it. If they cling to their sinful lives, they must be destroyed with sin. Christ is the righteousness of God; for God alone is good, and in Christ is all the fullness of God. Therefore only those who have Christ can have any hope of life hereafter. In fact, they have no real life now. "This is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life" (John 5:11,12). Nay, more than this: "He that believeth not the Son shall not see life" (John 3:36).
It is true that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust, but only the righteous will be raised to life; they that have done evil come forth from their graves to the resurrection of damnation. (John 5:28, 29). Their lot will be to "be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power" (2 Thessalonians 1:9). Since they have not the righteousness which alone is life, there is nothing by which their existence can be continued.
All this is to teach men that there is hope only in God; that He is supreme, and that power belongs alone to Him. Not only a single man, but "all nations before Him are as nothing; and they are counted to Him less than nothing, and vanity" (Isaiah 11:17). But while this should make man humble, it should in no wise discourage him. Indeed, it is for our encouragement, for God made the universe from nothing, and so He can take the man who trusts Him, and make of him what He will. To the end "that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:29- 31). Surely man should not be ashamed to acknowledge his lowly origin, since through Christ he may do all things.
One more lesson of encouragement may be learned from the frailty of man, which shows that only in humility is true exaltation found. Since all things come from God, man can be at his highest state only when he gladly acknowledges that he is nothing, and yields to the loving power of God. The fortieth chapter of Isaiah contains the message which is to prepare a people for the coming of the Lord in glory. It is a message of comfort, because it tells of the power of God. Here is the message:
"The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth; because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever" (Isaiah 40:1-8).
That which is to prepare men for the glorious appearing of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, when He comes to reward every man according as his work shall be, is the full acceptance of the message that man is nothing, and that God is everything. His alone is the power, and His word works effectually in every one that believeth. The works that will stand the test of the judgment are the works that are wrought in God. "All flesh is grass"; but we have seen how the power of God is most wonderfully shown in the grass. It was the word of God that said, "Let the earth bring forth grass," and that is the word which liveth and abideth forever, and which is by the gospel preached unto us. We have seen how the power of that word causes the tiny blade of grass to push its way to the surface and the light, in spite of the heavy clods that would hold it down. Infinite power is exhibited in the frail thing. Even so does the word of power work in those who heartily believe it. He who acknowledges himself to be nothing--frail and helpless as the grass--will be strengthened to do mighty deeds, and will be lifted above the clods of earth, into the sunlight of the presence of God.