Man's Thoughts of Man
Psalm 90:3
You turn man to destruction; and say, Return, you children of men.

I wish to point out our duty to the world of humanity; to the communities to which we belong; to the generation in which we live; to the great family of mankind, of which God has made us members.

1. What have been, what are men's thoughts respecting the race of man? We know not for how many thousands of years our race may have lived on this little planet, rolling and spinning "like an angry midge" amid the immensities of space; but, over a space of forty centuries at least, in the pages of many literatures, in the accents of many tongues, we find the opinions of men respecting man. They have been uttered, as freely as to-day, by the bards and prophets of races long since vanished, in language long since dead. Man has ever been a mystery to himself. "Who are you?" indignantly asked an irascible person, who had been delayed in his hurried progress by running against a modern philosopher in the streets. "Ah," replied the philosopher, "if you could tell me that — if you could tell me what I am — I would give you all I possess in the world." To-day, however, we do not want to enter into any transcendent mysteries; we only want to learn what men have thought of man in his moral, his spiritual, his religious aspect. And here, strange to say, we are confronted at once with a perfect chaos of conflicting judgments. According to some, man is a being so small, so intolerably contemptible, so radically unjust, mean, and selfish, that he is not worth working for; he is not only "a shadow less than shade, a nothing less than nothing"; not only "fading as a leaf" and "crushed before the moth"; not only like the grass of the field, which to-day is, and to-morrow is cast into the oven; but also, as far as moral dignity is concerned, he is the mere insect of an hour; a creature essentially allied to the animal; a being who combines the instincts of the tiger and the ape; a blot on God's fair creation; a jar in the sweet untroubled silence; a discord amid the infinite harmony; "a flutter in the eternal calm." It is remarkable how cynics and sceptics in all ages have coincided in this view. Think of Diogenes, searching in daylight with a lantern to find a man in the streets of Athens; think of Phocion, whenever a passage in his speech was applauded, turning round and asking, "Have I said anything wrong, then?" think of Pyrrho the atheist, describing men as a herd of swine, rioting on board a rudderless vessel in a storm; think of La Rochefoucauld reducing man's virtues into mere selfish vices in thin disguise; think of Voltaire describing the multitude as a compound of bears and monkeys; think of Schopenhauer, condemning this as the worst of all possible worlds, and arguing that man is a radical mistake; think of the more serious voice which says, "However we brazen it out, we men are a little breed." But then turn to the other side, the grand and exalted opinions which man has entertained of man. Think of Shakespeare's, "What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god!" Think of Henry Smith's, "When we turn our eyes upon the soul it will soon tell us its own royal pedigree and noble extraction by those sacred hieroglyphics which it bears upon itself." Or take Novalis, "Man is the true Shekinah, the glory-cloud of God. We touch heaven when we lay our hands on that high form."

2. Which, then, are we to follow of these diverse judgments? By which are we to be guided in our own dealings with our fellow-men? I answer with all my heart, take the nobler and better view of mankind. Adopt it, not as a voluntary illusion, but as a sacred fact, as a living faith. Good and evil without end may be said of man; and both be amply borne out by history and by experience. That is due to the fact that man is a composite being; that he partakes of two natures — the animal and the spiritual; that he is swayed by two impulses — the evil and the good; that he has in him two. beings — the Adam and the Christ; that "the Angel has him by the hand, and the serpent by the heart"; that our little lives are kept in equipoise by balance of two opposite desires — the struggle of the impulse that enjoys, and the more noble impulse that aspires. Hence we may say of man, in the same breath, "How poor, how rich, how abject, how august, how wonderful, how complicated is man." "Glory and scandal of the universal," says Pascal, "the judge of angels, a worm of earth; if he exalts himself I smite him down, if he humbles himself I lift him up." But is there no practical reconciliation of these antitheses? Yes, there is: not in the world, not in nature, not in philosophy; but there is in religion, there is in Christ..

3. I would urge you, then, not to give up faith in God or in man, or in God's doctrines for man, nor sweetness, nor charity, nor invincible hopefulness. To lose faith in man is to lose faith in God who made him; to lose faith in man's nature is to lose faith in your own. Depend upon it, that the man who begins by saying, "Mankind is a rascal," will soon add the words, "The world lives by its scoundrelism, and so will I." It makes all the difference in the world whether you judge man from Thersites or from Achilles, from a Nero or from a Marcus Aurelius, from a Marat or from St. Louis; from living men like one or two whom one could name, or from the depraved, wife-beating sots and brutal burglars who are the festering curse of the lowest dregs of the population; from living women like some whom one could name, or from those unmotherly mothers and unwomanly women who nigh turn the motherhood to shame and womanliness to loathing. Oh, judge mankind from its highest and its best!

(1) Let us try to believe that there is a good side in every man. Man, it has been said, is like a piece of Labrador opal. It has no lustre as you turn it in your hand till you come to a particular angle, and then it shows deep and beautiful colours. We sometimes read with amazement how some one, who seemed to be past all remedy in abandoned vileness, suddenly, touched by the glory of heroism, will rise to a great act of self-sacrifice. Look at the battle of Waterloo; look at the trenches of Sebastopol; look at the charge at Balaclava; look at the burning of the "Goliath"; look at the wreck of the "Birkenhead"; to see how the commonest and coarsest of men can recognize the invincible claim and sovereignty of duty, even at the cost of life. Man's nature may often look like the dull chill blank of the Alpine mountain side, darkened only by the shadows of its black and stubborn pines, but let the dawn blush in the vernal sky, and the south wind breathe, and the sun fire to the high tops of those mountain pines, and the snow will melt and vanish under their soft and golden touches, till at last it rushes down in avalanche, and then where yesterday was snow, to-day shall be green grass and purple flower.

(2) And as another way to help us in retaining our faith in human nature, let us sometimes turn away from the thought of bad men altogether, to that galaxy of heaven, wherein shine the clustered constellations of saintly lives. The saints in the long ages have not been few. To these have been due the progress, to these the ennoblement, to these the preservation of the world. Among all the bad passions, among all the disordered lives of men — amid all their meanness, and littleness, and emptiness, and egotism — it is as water in the desert to come in life and more often among the records of the dead on these natures "pure as crystal, active as fire, unselfish as the ministering spirits, strong, generous, and enduring as the hearts of martyrs." Look on these; think of these; do not think of the heartless and aimless crowds that vegetate without living, but read the lives and actions of these fine children of the light.

(3) But above all, as the best of all rules, think constantly of Christ; and fix your eyes on Him. "Of what account after all are the saints compared to Christ? They are," said Luther, "no more than sparkling dewdrops of the nightdew upon the head of the bridegroom scattered among His hair." The only measure of a perfect man is the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.

4. And oh, lastly, the most sure way to justify our faith and hope in human nature is to justify it in ourselves. If you would raise others, live yourself as on a mountain; live yourself as on a promontory. Say with the good emperor of old, "Whatever happens I must be good"; even as though the emerald and the purple should say, "Whatever happens I must be emerald, and keep my colour." That is how men widen the skirts of light, and make the struggle with darkness narrower. To do this is a worthy object; it is the only worthy object of our lives.

(Dean Farrar.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Thou turnest man to destruction; and sayest, Return, ye children of men.

WEB: You turn man to destruction, saying, "Return, you children of men."

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