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"Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He springs up like a flower and withers away; like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure." (Job 14:1-2)
My heart grew hot within me, and as I meditated, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "Show me, O LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life. You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath." (Ps. 39:3-5)
What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4:14)
This is the second article in a three part series about the frailty of life. Each of the articles will study the context of one of the three above passages concerning the frailty of life. In this article, we will look at the passage in Psalm 39.
1I said, "I will watch my ways
and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
as long as the wicked are in my presence."
2But when I was silent and still,
not even saying anything good,
my anguish increased.
3My heart grew hot within me,
and as I meditated, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
4"Show me, O LORD, my life's end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life.
5You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Each man's life is but a breath. Selah
6Man is a mere phantom as he goes to
He bustles about, but only in vain;
he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it.
7But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you. (Psalm 39:1-7)
In this psalm, David describes how he tried to be righteous on his own, through his own works, under his own strength. He defiantly resolved: "I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin". His resolve was weakened, however, when the wicked were in his presence, corrupting him with their evil influence, most likely stirring up sinful desires of revenge in his heart. In that environment, David, in order continue in his own righteousness, "put a muzzle" on his mouth. It got to the point where David could not trust himself to do anything (lest he stumble in his way) or say anything (lest cursing, derision or blasphemy corrupt his words); instead, he remained "silent and still. . . not even saying anything good". Despite his determination and his attempts to carry out his resolution, his "anguish increased" and his "heart grew hot" within him. As "the fire burned", he exclaimed in his despair: "Show me, O LORD, my life's end and the number of my days".
We all, at one point or another, think that we can make it on our own. We say, as William Ernest Henley, "I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul". David, in the first three verses of this Psalm, thought that his own determination and resolve was all that he needed to be righteous. Stating his independence in those verses he proclaimed: "I will", "I will", "I", "I", and "I".
But such a resolution will necessarily end in anguish. Man cannot attain righteousness through his own means. He will always be surrounded by corrupt influences. Even if he employs extreme measures, such as muzzling his mouth or remaining forever "silent and still, not even saying anything good", yet his anguish will only increase and his heart will burn. He will come to the realization that, in his frailty, he cannot make it on his own, he cannot attain the righteousness he had resolved to achieve.
David realized this, and so exclaimed: "Show me, O LORD, my life's end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting is my life". David was, in effect, asking the Lord for perspective. He asked the Lord to prove to his own heart that he cannot make it on his own. David wanted to be convinced of his own frailty, so as to strengthen his dependence on and, thus, his relationship with God. There are times when we intellectually realize that we need to improve our relationship with God, but, in our hearts, we do not feel like it. During these times, we should ask the Lord, as David did, to give us the desire to improve our relationship with Him.
David asked for perspective and God gave him perspective, for David stated in the next verse: "You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath." David realized the frailty of his life, the shortness of it as compared to eternity. We can ignore God in this life and pursue a righteousness of our own, and pursue our own desires and interests, but what have we gained? All we gain is a perceived control over a life whose span is a "mere handbreadth". In doing so, we hazard giving up eternity. As Jesus said: "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:36).
David goes on to point out the emptiness of such a life: "Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: he bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it." So much time, money and effort is spent on that which will not last. When we recognize the brevity of life, we cannot help but see the futility of living our lives for the temporal things, things which will pass away. This realization will either drive one to despair or drive one to seek eternity, and eternity is gained only through Christ, for "whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16) and "whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life" (John 3:36).
So, the only solution to the despair that comes from the realization that man is frail and that life is futile is to turn to the Lord. We must get ours eyes off the temporal and turn them to the eternal. So, David concluded: "But now, LORD, what do I look for? My hope is in you." David was in anguish when he was saying "I", "I", "I", as he did in the first three verses; but, in the end, he realized that his only hope was not in himself, but the Lord.
Yes, Lord, give us the perspective to realize that our only hope for a meaningful life and a blessed eternity is in You. Guide us, by Your Spirit, into an existence that makes the most of our brief time on earth, in service to Your Kingdom. We praise You that You have provided a way, through Your Son, for us to be credited the righteousness that we need to enter Your presence. In Jesus' name we pray these things, Amen.
(In the next issue, the series on the frailty of life will conclude with a study of James 4:13-17)
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