Psalm 39:4-6 (ESV)
4 “O Lord, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
5 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
6 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!
Time flies! Life is short! Where did the time go?!
Recently my wife and I watched the 1981 drama, “On Golden Pond,” starring Henry Fonda and his daughter, Jane. One scene shows the family celebrating retired professor, Norman Thayer’s (played by Henry), 80th birthday at their summer get-away home. Much of the movie centers around Norman dealing with the issues of aging and knowing that his remaining days are few. At his birthday party when he’s asked what he thinks about turning 80, one thing he said was he never thought it would come so fast.
Indeed, time flies! The few verses from the psalm above is a reminder about the importance of pondering that fact and ordering our life accordingly. When we are young we’re more prone to feelings of invincibility. This psalm intends to break us from that delusion.
The truth is we live our lives in this world always on the precipice of eternity, no matter how secure we may feel. Just a couple of days ago, I barely avoided a major accident on the interstate that could’ve easily robbed me and/or my 14 year old son of our lives. There have been other times as well.
Over a decade ago, as I was driving home from work, a tractor-trailer veered all the way into my lane on a narrow country road. I was at a spot where there was a steep embankment to my right. I really didn’t have anywhere to go. The thought crossed my mind that this could be it. At the last second the driver swerved enough to barely miss me. The awareness that all that separated me from greeting my wife and family and meeting my maker was a split second and a few inches hit me even though the truck didn’t.
Life is short; and it is fragile. Nonetheless, we humans are prone to denial and self-deception when it comes to this fact. Throughout the ages we have come up with ways to convince ourselves otherwise.
One such way is to see life as cyclical. This involves the idea that each human is a small part of a broader cycle of life, and the life we now live is only one of dozens, hundreds, or a countless number of lives that we will inevitably live before we finally reach the highest level of ultimate reality. There are many ways people think of their inner selves, as separate from bodily existence. We seem to readily believe that we are inherently and independently immortal and self-existent. Other versions of this belief in our own inherent immortality are much more linear than cyclical. That is people convince themselves that their own inherent immortality guarantees them a continued or eventual peaceful and joyous eternal existence regardless of how we live our lives in the here and now. In some versions of this way of thinking all that is required for a peaceful eternal existence is to just die having lived with good intentions. In other words, as long as you meant well, it matters not whether you really lived well.
Interestingly, another way we are deceived is by convincing ourselves that our present life is all there really is. This is the personal philosophy that says life is short and this short life is all there is so make the most of it by experiencing as much pleasure and comfort as possible now.
But this is not why the Bible reminds us that life is short. The Bible reminds us that life is short, fragile, and fleeting so that the brevity of it can help us to live in light of the eternity of it, as paradoxical as that may sound. The psalmist and the rest of God’s word does not intend to give us the impression that the way we live our short lives really don’t matter in the long run, or that because life is short we should “just live it up” in a hedonistic sense.
The Bible tells us our lives are fragile and short to remind us that we are ultimately not self-sufficient, dependent only on ourselves. Indeed, we are completely dependent upon our Maker. Our lives are ultimately in his hands, and whether we live a faithful life of trust and dependence upon him matters for both the temporal present in this life, and for our eternal future in the next.
The way we live now, whether a life of trust and faith in God and his ways, or trust in ourselves and our material possessions, really does matter for eternity. In other words, the brevity of life in this world, is meant to prepare us for an eternity of life in the world to come. The better we live now, the better we will live forever, unless by “better” we mean rich in things of the world, but poor in the things of God. The Biblical hope of eternal life was never meant to lead us to believe that our short lives in this world don’t matter. The hope of eternal life should inspire and empower us to live a better life not only in this world, but also for the sake of this world, which God intends to redeem and renew.
I imagine that those few verses from the Psalm above played a role in a parable of Jesus recorded in Luke 12:13-21.
Luke 12:15-21 (ESV)
15 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.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 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. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Life is short; eternity is forever. The brevity is meant to prepare us for eternity. Are you ready?