How Brief Our Lives!
(H) For the director of the choir, for Jeduthun, a psalm of David. (1) I said, “I will guard my ways lest I sin with my tongue. I will guard my mouth with a muzzle while the wicked are in my presence.” (2) I was mute and silent. I kept quiet to no avail. My distress grew worse. (3) My heart grew hot within me. As I mused the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue: (4) “Yahweh, make me know my end and the measure of my days. Let me know how transient I am. (5) Behold, you have made my days as handbreadths. My lifespan is as nothing before you. Surely all humanity stands as a mere breath. (Selah) (6) Surely, as a shadow man walks about to and fro. Surely in vain they are in turmoil. He accumulates and does not know who will gather.”
The first three verses of the psalm contain several important emphases. “I will guard" is found twice, conveying David’s reluctance to speak rashly about what was on his heart (vs. 1). Next we find three synonyms for not speaking: “mute... silent...kept quiet” (vs. 2). Then the internal turmoil the psalmist feels is expressed in two synonymous terms: “my heart grew hot...the fire burned” (vs. 3). These verses serve as a powerful buildup, preparing us to receive the message David wants to communicate beginning in the next line (vs. 4).
The strength of the psalmist’s emotion is evident in the opening words of each of the next three verses. He first invokes Yahweh (vs. 4). Then he uses the strong exclamation, “Behold” (vs. 5). Finally, he turns to another exclamatory word, “surely,” which he uses three times consecutively to convey the deep passions these thoughts stir within him (vss. 5 & 6). Twice we find the term, “my days,” along with the synonymous expressions, “my end” and “my lifespan” (vss. 4 & 5). David is clearly gripped by the brevity of life, both for himself and for all humanity.
I. The psalmist reining in his troubled thoughts (1-3)
II. The psalmist expressing his deep concerns (4-6)
- praying to understand the transience of life (4 & 5a)
- mourning over the brevity of our lives (5b & 6)
The brevity and painfulness of human existence should stir within us a deep desire to discover Yahweh’s purpose for creating us.
APPLICATION (a personal reflection)
I happen to be studying this psalm on the day when I celebrate another birthday. Several family members and friends have sent cards and messages. Others call including our adult children. They ask the same question: “How does it feel to be a year older?” Jokingly I tell them, “I feel wiser and more venerable.” The truth is, I feel weaker and more vulnerable.
How appropriate to study Psalm 39:1-6 on the occasion when I mark a milestone in growing older! I am particularly struck by David’s prayer (vs. 4) and determined, as a result, to make it one of my recurring prayers in the years that are left to me. If we could grasp how fleeting life is and how little of it we have left to us, we would be far more likely to invest our time more wisely, waste it less, and commit ourselves to that which lasts for eternity. All of us who know the Lord, no matter what our age, should frequently ask ourselves, “How can I best invest my life for God’s glory in the time I have left?” An old piece of doggerel reminds us of a great truth: “Only one life that will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”