View All Things in the Light of Eternity (Psalm 39)
If you knew you would die at the end of this month, would you live differently? There are always things of secondary importance that we have to deal with, but if we knew we were going to die soon, perhaps tonight, what would we do differently? What do you want the people standing around your grave to say, and how does that image effect how you live today?
Psalm 39 helps us put life in perspective by asking God to teach us that our lives are short and that meaning in life is found only in God. Let’s walk through the Psalm.
David knows that the pain he is experiencing is because of his own sin, and the punishment for that sin is from God (vv 9–10). At first, David decided to be silent, to say nothing good or bad (vv 1–2a). But his silence only increased his pain, and so he decided to break his silence (vv 2a–3). But what he said is surprising. His solution to his suffering is to ask God to teach him how short his life is (vv 4–5).
“Show me, LORD, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.”
A “handbreadth” is the width of four fingers, one of the smallest units of measure in Hebrew thought. “Breath” translates the same Hebrew word used in Ecclesiastes generally translated as “vanity,” meaning “empty.” David wants to know that his life is extremely short, that life lived apart from God is empty. As an example of emptiness, David confesses that those who think they are secure because of their riches will die and not even know who will spend their wealth (vv 5b–6, 11). They are not secure.
David knows that his unconfessed sin has alienated himself from God.
“I dwell with you as a foreigner,
a stranger, as all my ancestors were” (v 12).
A “foreigner” was a legal status in Israelite law, also translated “alien” or “sojourner.” The person was protected but could not own land; they didn’t really belong.
David also wants to be reminded that the only meaning in life is to be found in a relationship with God (v 7).
“But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you.”
Meaning is not found in wealth, nor is meaning found in busyness. The NLT translates v 6a as, “We are merely moving shadows, and all our busy rushing ends in nothing.” Meaning in life is found “in you,” in a relationship with God.
David ends with a plea to God for resolution.
“Hear my prayer, LORD,
listen to my cry for help;
do not be deaf to my weeping.
Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again
before I depart and am no more.”
David knows he is separated from God and pleas for God to “look away,” to remove the punishment, so that David can live out his life in relationship with God, and then die.
Why would David pray that God show him how short his life really is? Because death has a way of putting life in perspective. I just turned 66; my father just passed away. Both are strong reminders to look at how I live my life, how I pursue significance and meaning. It is a not-too-gentle reminder that we don’t have limitless time to do whatever we want to do. There is an end to life; and the older you get, the faster the end is coming.
I am reminded of the movie “What About Bob?” and the discussion between Bob and Dr. Marvin’s son Siggy. Siggy was consumed with the fact that everyone will die, and his conclusion was that nothing mattered. Rather, death should teach us that meaning in life does not come from this world, but from living in a relationship with God.
Psalm 39 teaches us that we need to live our lives in the clear awareness and conviction that life is short, and apart from Christ life is meaningless. For David, the awareness of the shortness of life was a reminder to confess quickly. For me, it is the determination to focus on what really matters, because every day spent doing secondary things is a day spent not doing the most important things, like loving God and loving those around me. Sure, there are secondary tasks that must be done, but over time those secondary (perhaps even good) things can consume my time and replace the primary things.
How different we are to be from this world. The lie of this world is that there is security apart from Christ, mostly in wealth, and yet we don’t even know who will spend our money after we die.
The lie of this world is that you have plenty of time to pursue your own ambitions. The truth is that, “Before the Eternal, all the age of frail man is less than one ticking of a clock” (Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, 189). We may build bigger barns, but tonight our soul may be required of us (Luke 12:18).
The lie of this world is that tomorrow will come. Spurgeon quotes a saying etched into the wall of a taproom: “You would weep if you know your life was limited to one month, yet you laugh while you know not but it may be restricted to a day” (189). How would today be different if you knew it would be your last? I know that in a sense we can’t live that way; there needs to be planning and forward-looking. But in a deeper sense, would we live life as we are living it, if in fact today is the last day of our life? Would we not confess our sin if we were to stand before him in a matter of hours?
Waltke and Houston encourage us to “view all things in the light of eternity,” and then they quote Erasmus, “We should not use ‘this passing world’ capriciously, nor store its wealth selfishly, nor bustle about aimlessly. Rather, with the psalmist, we should acknowledge that our hope is from God alone” (The Psalms as Christian Lament,154).
Life is full of emergencies. Every day the details and business of life try to drag us down. More significantly, they can blind us to the true realities of life, making us think that the meaning of life is in the details, in the things of this world.
We must live life viewed from the hearse. We must live in the constant awareness that life is fleeting and that the only true meaning in life is that which is gained when living in relationship with God. We are sojourners here on the earth (1 Peter 2:11; Heb 11:13); our true citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20).
Or to put it another way, no one on their deathbed wished they had spent more time at the office. No one has ever seen a hearse with a trailer; you can’t take your things with you. Shouldn’t we then live in light of this reality?
- Why do we so often think that we have plenty of time and therefore don’t need to confess sin quickly? Have you ever put off confessing, and then something happened that made confession impossible?
- How has the Lord helped you see the fragility of your life?
- The human tendency is to think that wealth (and the things of this world) bring security. Do you think this is true? Do you know of examples that show this is not true? Why is it so hard to believe that the Bible says about this?
- What are some things that you have to do that aren’t really the primary things you want to do?
- What are the top five things you want to be said around your gravesite? Are there adjustments you can make now to help ensure that will happen?
- In general, what does “life lived from the view of the hearse” look like?