“O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!
David confessed to his failing effort to control his tongue in our last passage, and like David, I too am guilty of a “speaking” when I shouldn’t. Or better yet, of not trusting God for control of my heart, of my thoughts and therefore of my tongue, especially when in the presence of the wicked.
David immediately follows up his confession with a description of the futility of life, the sheer brevity of our existence.
David speaks of his days as a mere “handbreadth”. This is an uncommon word in my world, and I had to look it up, for my initial understanding was that of a measurement of physical distance, most commonly used in defining the height of a horse.
Low and behold, the modern definition justifies my thinking, in that a handbreadth is a linear measurement approximating the width of a hand, somewhere between 2.5 and 4 inches.
But that is so technical, so soulless. David is speaking of his existence, of my existence and your existence. Is he using handbreadth because he could think of nothing smaller, nothing less significant? His next definition of our lives is that of “nothing before Him, that is in relation to the everlasting nature of God, and our temporal existence actually as nothing, for it is measured in units of time, and time does not impact the Triune God, who inhabits eternity.
Although the Son did enter into His creation (of time!) at one point, in order to partake of flesh and blood. It is good to remember that the time units we swim in, the seconds, minutes, hours days, weeks, months, years, decades, centuries and millennium are, in relation to God’s existence “as nothing”.
But as fallen men and women, we dwell in this creation called time, just as we exist in the created atmosphere or on the surface of the created earth. Time, as a created “thing”, is of God, and one of the conditions upon which we exist.
David has established time as being immaterial to God and then speaks of three “surely’s”.
Surely #1 – All mankind stands as a mere breath.
David speaks of all mankind, the entirety of mankind, from the creation to the completion of all, as being a mere breath, a vapor that is transitory, empty and a vanity.
Mankind is a contradiction of terms, in that as David provides his description of it’s nothingness, each man in the sight of God has been sought, loved, served, guided and died for. What contradiction is this. How can we resolve this tension?
I do not have an answer to this – it is above me, and the only suggestion I may have is that David speaks of the duration of mankind’s existence, whereas the death of the Son speaks of the inherent worth of the creation. David is speaking of all of mankind’s existence, whereas Jesus, although having sought all men, is personal, and relates to each of those within mankind.
of his lifetime, let’s say his 70 years during a specific culture and time, with all the limitations and conditions of the time he exists in, is as nothing before God. Nothing, in relation to the conditions the man
Surely #2 – A man goes about as a shadow
At this point, I think David is leaving the group description, that is of all mankind, and focusing, or describing a single man, and in the relation to the previous description, this single man is only a shadow, a negation of light as a result of some body in the path of light.
Previously, all of mankind is described as nothing, or in my engineers mind, a zero, a non value. A single man as described in this verse, is a negation of light due to some blockage of light, the result of some barrier restricting light. This single man doesn’t even warrant being described as that which causes the shadow! A negative effect. Again, for those who understand my thinking as defaulting to numbers much of the time, this single man may be considered less than nothing. A negative value, in relation to comparing time with eternity.
Now, please don’t get me wrong and think of David giving some arithmetical formulation of men and all mankind. It is my non-balanced literal, numerical thinking that produces this discussion.
David is a poet and is expressing poetically the utter emptiness of his duration of existence without God. His heart is beating correctly, for he realizes his strength can only come from the One who is eternal, outside of the realms of time.
Surely #3 – A man experiences turmoil for nothing
This single man, this one who’s timely existence is equated with a negation, a less than zero value, suffers for nothing. Can you sense the futility David is seeking to express?
This single individual, like all others before and after, keeps themselves busy, works to produce the desires of their heart, spends this duration of time, which has been described as less than nothing in relation to eternity, this single individual spends this time pursuing wealth, wealth that will be taken by some other.
Consider – an individual using an insignificant allotment of time, struggling to acquire wealth that will end up as someone else’s possession, someone who is unknown.
David is speaking hard things to my heart now. Effort expended for nothing, a life spent chasing vapors, years of sweat and toil all to end up in a strangers wallet. How to understand this truth from the Psalmist? What is to be my understanding in order to respond properly? For I hear myself say that I need to be a good steward, to care and seek to provide for the ones I love, and for those God directs me too. And many passages come to mind that speak to caring for our loved ones, of seeking the protection and provision of others.
How can I reconcile this seeming problem in my thinking? Am I to consider all my efforts to be futile? All the time I have spent on this earth as “wasted” and that will be provided to me as a vapor?
Can we take a moment to consider a passage that I think gives some additional light on this psalm? Jesus spoke a hard parable in Luke 12. Let’s visit it for a moment.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”‘ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
At the risk of oversimplifying the passages we are considering, I understand the Lukan passage, the parable of the rich fool, to be a response to a question from a covetous man, one who wanted more of an inheritance. Old Testament law provided the first born double the amount of inheritance than any other sibling. As an example, if two sons in a family were to receive and inheritance, the first born would receive 66% of the inheritance while the younger son would receive 33%. I understand this one asking the question was looking to find a way around this law, and to get an equal share of the inheritance.
Jesus told a parable of a covetous rich fool to address this mans desire, and to expose him as the fool. Jesus was awesome at nailing a problem with a simple story!
Notice the reason I picked this parable when considering Psalm 39:6. In the 20th verse Jesus places these words in God’s mouth.
…the things you have prepared, whose will they be?
This is very similar to David’s message in the 6th verse of Psalm 39.
So, what of it Carl? Jesus is speaking of covetousness. David is speaking of the brevity of our time in relation to eternity. Both men are directing our attention to the importance of God’s perspective in everything we do and think.
Jesus’ parable seems to drive home the point for me. Covetousness. Accumulating things for the wrong purpose is the issue. A covetous man seeks to provide for himself (only?), to acquire and own things for the sake of his own comfort or ease, even his own pride.
And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”‘
David speaks of the turmoil of our acquiring, and the futility of losing it to others, even strangers.
In a perfect world, ownership would not provide the option of covetousness, but as fallen creatures, it is the condition we find ourselves in. It is a battle we must fight in order to maintain a purity of heart towards God. A battle to find a life of stewarding God’s good gifts and realizing we own nothing.
My friends, we are to steward things and love people in the wisp of time we have, for soon enough our opportunities will be gone.
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