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THE SHORTNESS OF HUMAN LIFE
Psalms 39:4-5. Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. Behold, thou hast made my days as an hand-breadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee! verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.
THERE is nothing more painful to a pious mind than to see how generally religion is neglected and despised. A godly man delights to speak of the things which are nearest to his heart: but he is often constrained to be silent, lest he should only induce the persons whose welfare he would promote, to blaspheme God, and to increase thereby their own guilt and condemnation. Gladly would he benefit all around him: but in many cases he perceives, that the very attempt to do so would be to “cast pearls before swine.” In tenderness to them therefore, as well as from a regard to his own feelings, he imposes a restraint upon himself in their presence, and “refrains even from good words,” though it is a pain and a grief to him to do so. Such was David’s situation when he penned this psalm. He was grieved to think that rational and immortal beings, standing on the very verge of eternity, should act so irrational a part: and not finding vent for his feelings amongst men, he poured them out before God in the words which we have just read; and intreated, that, however careless others were about the concerns of eternity, he might be more deeply and abidingly impressed with them.
Wishing that your minds may be suitably affected with this all-important subject, I will set before you,
David’s estimate of man’s present state—
He acknowledges that he himself could form but a very inadequate notion respecting it—
[Speculatively indeed he knew well enough, that man’s days are but few at all events, and quite uncertain as to their continuance: but the deep, and practical, and influential sense of it he had not in any degree equal to its importance; nor could he impress it on his own soul, without the powerful assistance of God’s Holy Spirit. Hence he poured forth this earnest petition to his God, “Lord, make me to know my end! make me to know how frail I am!”
It is thus with us also. Speculatively, the most ignorant amongst us has as perfect a knowledge of the subject as the most learned: but, practically, no one knows it, unless he have been taught of God: and even those who have “heard and learned it of the Father,” need to be taught it more deeply from day to day.
That children do not reflect upon it, we do not wonder, because of the vanity of their minds, and their almost entire want of serious consideration. But when persons are grown to maturity, we might well expect them to feel so obvious a truth. They see that multitudes are cut off at their age; and they know that with the termination of the present life all opportunities of preparing for eternity must cease: yet they not only do not lay these considerations to heart, but they will not hear of them, or endure to have them presented to their view. Nor are those who are more advanced in life at all more thoughtful on this subject. Engaged in worldly business, and occupied in providing for their families, they put the thoughts of eternity as far from them as they did amidst the more pleasurable pursuits of youth. And even when they attain to old age, they are as far from realizing the expectations of death and judgment as ever. They know, in a speculative way, that they are nearer to the grave than they were in early life, and that they may at no distant period expect a change. But still these views are no more influential on their minds than they were at any former period of their lives. A condemned criminal, who has but a few days to live, feels that every hour brings him nearer to the time appointed for his execution: but not so the man who is bowed down with years: the very habit of living puts at an indefinite distance the hour of death; and days and months pass on without ever bringing at all nearer to his apprehensions the time of his dissolution. Even the sick labour under the same mental blindness. They attend to the fluctuations of their disorder; and one single symptom of convalescence does more to remove the expectation of death from them, than many proofs of augmented debility do to bring it home to their feelings with suitable apprehensions: they are still buoyed up with hopes from the skill of their medical attendant, when all around them see that they are sinking fast into the grave. Whatever be a man’s age or state, it is God, and God alone, that can “make him thoroughly to know and feel how frail he is.”]
Nevertheless the view here given us is truly just—
[The life of man is so short, as to be really “nothing before God.” The comparison of it to “an hand-breadth” is peculiarly deserving of our attention; because by that image every man has, placed as it were before his eyes, “the measure of his days:” he cannot look upon his hand without calling to mind how frail he is, and how soon his present state of existence must come to an end. Let him divide his life into the periods of youth, manhood, and old age; and let him in his own apprehension divide his measure also; and it will bring to his imagination, in a very forcible way, the truth which he is so backward to contemplate. A great variety of other images are used in Scripture to convey this truth: life is compared to a shuttle which flies quickly through the loom [Note: Job 7:6-7.]: to a ship, which soon passes away, and leaves no trace behind it: to an eagle, which, with the rapidity of lightning, hasteth to its prey [Note: Job 9:25-26.]: but the image in our text is more striking than them all; because, whilst it is peculiarly simple, it is also practical, embodied, portable. Not that any image is sufficient to paint the shortness and uncertainty of life in its true colours; for “before God, with whom one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day [Note: 2 Peter 3:8.],” it is absolutely “as nothing.”
As far as words can describe the state of man, truly the Psalmist has done it in our text. “Man is vanity;” not only vain, but vanity itself. “Every man” is so: not only the poor and ignorant, but the rich and learned: as it is said, “Surely men of low degree are vanity, and men of high degree are a lie: to be laid in the balance, they are altogether lighter than vanity [Note: Psalms 62:8.].” And this they are “in their best state;” even in the vigour of youth, and in the midst of all the pleasures and honours that their hearts can wish. And they are so “altogether,” both in mind and body; for their body is “crushed before the moth;” and in respect of mind, they are, as far as spiritual things are concerned, “like the wild ass’s colt.” This description may appear exaggerated: but it is true: yes, “verily,” things are so, whether we will believe it or not: and if any deny it, our answer is, “Let God be true; but every man a liar.”]
Such being the real state of man, I will endeavour to shew you,
The vast importance of being duly impressed with it—
It was the want of this knowledge that made the adversaries of David so proud and contemptuous: and it was from a conviction of these truths that David was led so deeply to bewail their infatuation. A due consideration of the shortness and uncertainty of life would be of infinite service,
To diminish our anxieties about the things of time—
[We should think but little of our pleasures, or riches, or honours, if we considered how short a time they would continue, and that they may all vanish, together with life itself, the very next hour. Examples in abundance there are, in every age and place, to shew the extreme vanity of all that the world calls good and great. It is not in the Bible only that we see those who promised themselves years wherein to enjoy their newly-acquired wealth, cut short, and called in an instant to their great account: we see it continually before our eyes: the messenger of death is sent to many, who think of their end as little as any of us can do; and the sentence, “Thou fool, this night shall thy soul be required of thee,” is executed without any previous notice or expectation. If it be thought that still, if not in their own persons, yet in their heirs, they enjoy the things for which they have laboured; I answer, that they are often deprived of those very heirs, on whose aggrandizement they had set their hearts; and are constrained to leave their wealth to others who are comparatively strangers to them. Moreover, supposing their destined heir to succeed to their wealth, they little know what effect it may have upon him, and whether he may not dissipate it all in a tenth part of the time that it took them to amass it. Solomon mentions this as a very great drawback upon human happiness: “I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun; because I should leave it to the man that shall be after me; and who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewn myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity [Note: Ecclesiastes 2:18-19.].” It is probable that Solomon saw how weak his son Rehoboam was: and certainly, of all the instances that ever occurred of the vanity of human grandeur, this is the greatest: for Solomon’s head was scarcely laid in the grave, before ten of the tribes out of the twelve revolted from his son, and, instead of being his subjects, became his rivals and enemies [Note: 1 Kings 12:16; 1 Kings 12:19.]: and in the space of fire years afterwards, all the treasures, with which Solomon had enriched both his own house and the temple of the Lord, were taken away by an invading enemy; and brazen shields were made by his son to replace the golden shields with which the temple had been adorned [Note: 1 Kings 14:25-27.]. How strongly does this illustrate those words of David which immediately follow my text! “Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and cannot tell who shall gather them.” Assuredly, all our feelings, whether of hope or fear, whether of joy or sorrow, whether for ourselves or others, would be moderated, if only the thought of the transitoriness and uncertainty of human affairs were once duly impressed upon our minds: “those who have wives, would be as though they had none; those who weep, as though they wept not; and those who rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; those who buy, as though they bought not: and those who use this world, as not abusing it:” the one thought, I say, how “transient every thing in this world is,” would produce in us, if not an indifference to the concerns of time, yet at least a moderation in our regard for them [Note: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31.].]
To augment our diligence in preparing for eternity—
[Who that considered the uncertainty of life, would defer the concerns of his soul, which are of more importance than ten thousand worlds! It were rather to be expected that such an one would give neither sleep to his eyes nor slumber to his eyelids, till he should have secured, beyond a possibility of doubt, the favour of his God. One would think that every hour spent in any other pursuit should be grudged by him; and that, whatever efforts were made to divert his attention to any other subject, he should say with Nehemiah, “I am doing a great work, and cannot come down [Note: Nehemiah 6:3.].” With what care, under such impressions, would a person read the word of God! With what humility would he attend divine ordinances! With what strong crying and tears would he present his supplications at the throne of grace! How, in all that he did, would he resemble those who contended in the Olympic games, running, wrestling, fighting as for their very life! The man with the avenger of blood close at his heels would not exert himself more to reach the city of refuge, than such a one would in “fleeing from the wrath to come.” It is only those who promise themselves days and months to come, that can sleep at their post, and dream of more convenient seasons, which may never arrive [Note: James 4:13-14.] — — —
In this view then I cannot too earnestly entreat you to offer, each of you for yourselves, the prayer of David, “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am!” — — — And I beseech you to get his estimate of human life so graven on your hearts, that you may walk under the influence of it to the latest hour of your lives. In a word, My heart’s desire and prayer to God for every one of you is, that you may be so “wise as to redeem your time,” and be so taught to number your days as to apply your hearts unto wisdom [Note: Psalms 90:12.].”]
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Simeon, Charles. "Commentary on Psalms 39". Simeon's Horae Homileticae. https://studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13