Question: "Why does the psalmist ask, "What is man that you are mindful of him" (Psalm 8:4)?"
Answer: When we consider Psalm 8:4 along with its surrounding verses, we see that the psalmist (King David) is praising the Lord for granting humans such a superior position in His creation. He writes, “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, ESV).
In this passage, the Hebrew word translated as “man” refers to humanity in general and emphasizes the transience and weakness of humankind. When David looks at the vastness and splendor of the universe, human beings appear small and insignificant. Considering the majesty and permanence of the moon and stars God has created, David wonders, “What do human beings amount to, that You, O God, should take them into account?” Then he answers his own question: “Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor. You gave them charge of everything you made, putting all things under their authority” (Psalm 8:5–6, NLT).
In view of God’s handiwork and the limitlessness of His creation, David is awestruck by the Lord’s concern for human beings and the position He gave them to rule over creation. The all-powerful God of the universe cares so deeply for us that He made us only slightly lower than Himself (or, as some translations have it, than the angels) and gave us authority over His creation. Psalm 8:4 echoes Genesis 1:26 and the triune Godhead’s decision to create humans in His own image and likeness and give them authority over all of God’s creation. Both passages communicate a biblical doctrine—that from the beginning God made humans to be His representatives on the earth and to have dominion over every other creature in His name.
In the mind and heart of God, people are His foremost concern. Job makes the same observation, but with a different emphasis. Rather than being captivated by God’s attention, Job—caught up in his misery and suffering—wishes the Lord would leave him alone: “What is mankind that you make so much of them, that you give them so much attention, that you examine them every morning and test them every moment? Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant?” (Job 7:17–19).
The book of Hebrews makes striking use of Psalm 8:4: “For in one place the Scriptures say, ‘What are mere mortals that you should think about them, or a son of man that you should care for him? Yet for a little while you made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You gave them authority over all things.’ Now when it says ‘all things,’ it means nothing is left out. But we have not yet seen all things put under their authority. What we do see is Jesus, who for a little while was given a position ‘a little lower than the angels’; and because he suffered death for us, he is now ‘crowned with glory and honor.’” (Hebrews 2:6–9, NLT). The writer of Hebrews references the Old Testament passage to show that Jesus was truly human, God incarnate. Psalm 8:4 was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
Jesus humbled Himself and became a human being. In His earthly ministry, He was “a little lower than the angels” (Hebrews 2:7, 9). As a man, He willingly experienced suffering and death, just as we do. But Jesus “tasted death for everyone” (verse 9, NLT). He took on our nature and became like us, but without the sin and rebellion that tarnish our existence. Through His death, Jesus broke the power of death for us: “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying” (Hebrews 2:14–15, NLT). Jesus became a human and died to set us free from death.
Who are we mere humans that the supreme God of creation involves Himself so intimately with us? What do we learn from the psalmist’s question?
“What is man that you are mindful of him?” celebrates the dignity and esteem of humans in the eyes of God despite their seeming insignificance. Even in our lowly state, God honors us greatly, so much so that He gave us authority over creation. What’s more, we learn that we are the center of His attention, the apple of God’s eye (see Deuteronomy 32:10; Zechariah 2:8; Psalm 17:8). We are the Lord’s ultimate creation and masterpiece, created “anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago” (Ephesians 2:10, NLT).