Life is just a breath!

1. A time for silence

Psalm 39 seems to follow on from Psalm 38. In chapter 38, we thought about the problem of evil and pain in the world. We noted that atheism has nothing to say to those who suffer – this is just the way things are (they say). Atheism’s presuppositions demand this, there is no transcendence, we are just the products of time and chance on the matter of the universe; there is no good, no evil, there is no hope either within or beyond the physical world.  We saw last time that from a biblical perspective, there is a partial answer to the problem of evil and suffering: God made us with the ability to choose and we rejected his ways – evil thus entered the world and we all live under its impact. This explanation only partly helps, we still suffer, and we still cry out to God, why? It seems that we can only reframe the question of evil and suffering by asking is there one to whom we can entrust our suffering. The God of the universe became like us, became part of that suffering and offers a restoration of all of creation that will bring an end to suffering, evil and pain. This does not remove the pain, but it gives us hope. We also noted last time that the way God dealt with Israel is not the same as the way he deals with the church. The people of Israel were specifically warned that their sin would bring about curses and suffering, in contrast, their faithfulness to God’s ways would bring success. The church, however, is to expect difficulty and suffering irrespective of its faithfulness (perhaps even because of its faithfulness): think of the experiences of the disciples and of the apostle Paul, they faced opposition, imprisonment and many died for their faith.

David lived under the general circumstances of Israel’s relationship with God – disobedience would bring curses and this principle seems to have applied to David’s position. His sin brought about great sorrow and suffering. At the end of chapter 38, David pleads for God’s presence and support.

In chapter 39, we find that David has made a vow of silence:

I said, ‘I will watch my ways
    and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
    while in the presence of the wicked.’

Psychologists broadly categorize people according to 4 dimensions, each dimension having 2 possible preferences (Myers-Briggs type indicator). One of these dimensions is ‘favourite world,’ in the sense of inner or outer worlds: are we most comfortable as outgoing with extraverted thinking or as reflective, reserved and with introverted thinking. We are all a bit of both, but we tend to have a preference for one over the other. David sees his current time as one that needed less talk (no talk in fact) and much internal reflection. The bible has much to say about the tongue! James points out the dangers of the tongue and notes that it is not at all acceptable for believers to issue praise to God and at the same time curse our fellow human beings who are created in God’s image. Sometimes it’s best to keep it in check! It seems that in David’s distress that he had learned to keep silent. David had decided that restraint was desirable. Interestingly, David’s son, Solomon, said that there is a time to be quiet and a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3). I suspect that David needed time to work things out, a time to speak with God rather than his fellow men, a time to consider his situation before God. For a period, it seems that this is a good thing, but we are social creatures and just as there is a time for silence, so also is there a time to speak!

2. A time to speak

It seems as though all of David’s thoughts had been building up like pressure behind a dam. When his silence does end, he has two big things to say. The first is on the brevity of life and the second is on the pointless way most of us spend our short lives!

‘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.

David sees his life as a relatively few years, just a hand breadth. It seems when we are young and have our whole lives stretching out before us that we have all the time in the world. But reality kicks in and it seems in just a moment we are old! David recognizes that we are just a breath away from the end of life. Perhaps in some ways the pandemic has been a reminder to us that life is short and for some it can be much shorter than seems fair. Robert Burns in his poem Tam O’Shanter speaks of the brevity of pleasure:

But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow fall on the river,
A moment white – then melts forever,

Interestingly David measures the shortness of life against God: ‘You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you.’ By any measure, our lives are short, but when set against the eternal God they are near nothing! In view of this, what should we value? In what should we invest our meagre resources? Since I started working for myself, I have enlisted the help of an independent financial advisor and accountant. Just this week we discussed my small one-man company and matters financial. It’s of huge importance that we look after our financial affairs, as Christians we should not be careless with these things, but it seems to me that we should keep a light hold on these things. David recognized this and spoke of those who rush around heaping up wealth, wealth that would one day belong to someone else! Jesus spoke of a man who had a good year on his farm. He was rich and his barns were full to overflowing. His response? Store up the wealth, take it easy, eat, drink and be merry. This is pretty much the philosophy of our day too. Jesus did not sugar-coat his opinion of this man: You fool! He said. Why? Because that very night the man’s days would come to an end. The lesson? Be rich toward God! God doesn’t need our wealth – he made it! But he does want relationship with us.

Our lives are short, no question, we need to attend to temporal things, you should be investing in a pension and taking care of your wealth, but are we investing in eternity too? The days that we have are precious, let’s not squander them on things that are of no lasting value. Jesus encouraged his disciples to ‘seek his kingdom,’ all the other things will then fall into their place.

3. Don’t be a stranger to God

David realised that his problem, and I think we can say our problem too, is one of a fractured relationship with God because of our ‘transgressions.’ David cried out, ‘save me from my transgressions.’ This in many ways is the message of the bible – of rebellion faced with a God who is ready to forgive and bring restoration.

Israel’s history is littered with discord, in fighting and bloodshed. Isaac had twin boys. The elder gave no thought for the benefits, responsibilities, and importance of his position as the first born. His brother did, and he stole the birthright from his elder brother. As a result of his deception, the younger brother Jacob had to run from the (perhaps justified) murderous intent of his elder brother Esau. The dispute ripped the family apart. 20 years later, the brothers met, Jacob had made a success of his life, as had Esau. Esau was with 400 men; it was time to settle an old festering score once and for all. The bible describes the intensity of the build up to the meeting and we wonder what was to happen, would Esau at last take his chance to kill the brother who so badly deceived him? Here’s how it played out in Genesis 33: “But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.”

Surely this is a picture of the love of God that reaches down to us in these short lives. David prays that God would not be deaf to his weeping – his transgression has placed a huge barrier between him and God. He had become a foreigner and a stranger to God. The Hebrew word translated stranger carries the idea of a temporary inhabitant, just a guest without domestic rights. His relationship with God was distant and lacking. The remarkable thing is that God in his love is prepared not to accept us as house guests, but as members of his family, with the full rights of family members.

What should we do with our short lives? Eat, drink and be merry? Or prioritize our relationship with the eternal God?