When God made man, He did not leave them to guess what they were supposed to do. He did not tell them to follow their heart and find their purpose. Man does not exist before he is defined. The individual human is not autonomous.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”Genesis 1:28
In this one verse that I can’t seem to stop writing about, we have a summary of human purpose. It is a picture of the good life, and God commands us to make it happen. It is not a command for each individual to obey at the expense of his neighbor, but a command for mankind as a whole to flourish through work, families, and government.
In each of these three areas, there are counterfeit ways to “fill the earth and subdue it” as an individual while being counterproductive for mankind. A man might become powerful through theft, exploitation, and corruption; and he might have children through sexual immorality. A government might become powerful through unprovoked conquest and heavy taxation.
There are also counterfeit versions of Gen 1:28 that aren’t actually productive at all, but they make you feel like you’re being fruitful and powerful. Most kinds of sexual sin can’t produce children, but they make you feel like you’re doing what you were made to do. Completing all of the objectives in a videogame or cheering for a winning sports team might feel like accomplishments, but they aren’t productive. Expensive status symbols feel like wealth, but are often wasteful vanity.
God commands man to rule over the earth with justice and compassion, so all mankind can fill the earth and subdue it for the glory of God. This command isn’t a burden; it’s a blessing. The command is inseparable from “And God blessed them,” here and in Gen 9:1. God’s desire for man is that he receive the blessings of children, wealth, land, and power. He wishes for man the blessings he would promise to Abraham. He wills that man receive the blessings described in Deut 28:1-14. It is the blessing that Laban wishes for Rebekah (Gen 24:60). It is the blessing that Jacob lied to steal (Gen 27:28-29).
If the command is also a blessing, then it cannot be obeyed apart from the favor of God. Adam failed to fully obey Gen 1:28 precisely because he failed to obey Gen 2:17, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Adam’s mission and blessing were thwarted by the curses that came through disobedience. His work produced thorns, and he and his family were destined to be subdued by six feet of earth.
And so we cannot hope to obey Gen 1:28 and enjoy its blessing apart from right worship of God. Even if it’s possible to live a productive and compassionate life without loving God, that life is a ticking time bomb, waiting to unleash the wrath of God that undoes every blessing. But if we start with right worship, and then learn from God how to work, raise children, and do justice, then we will be blessed, and will help mankind to flourish in this age and in the age to come.