William B. Kessler
Reading the obituaries, quickly scanning the pictures, curiously determining the cause of death, and thoughtfully calculating the ages of those who died, I am sobered as I count up my own years, hesitantly comparing my own age with the age of those who have passed.
Simone de Beauvoir, a twentieth-century French existentialist, recounts her mother’s painfully drawn out death by cancer in a memoir ironically entitled A Very Easy Death. She writes, “Although I was not with Maman when she died, and although I had been with three people when they were actually dying, it was when I was at her bedside that I saw Death, the Death of the dance of death, with its bantering grin, the Death of fireside tales that knocks on the door, a scythe in its hand, the Death that comes from elsewhere, strange and inhuman: it had the very face of Maman when she showed her gums in a wide smile of unknowingness.” Sobering obituaries, ironic memoirs of dying loved ones, and grave smiles of unknowingness: how depressing! Or is it?
David’s prayer in Psalm 39:4 is an intriguing prayer. He prays, “Lord, make me to know my end.” Why would the singer of Israel, the king of Yahweh’s covenant people, pray, “Make me to know my end, and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am”? Why should we pray to know about our approaching death?
David is troubled by many things. He vows to remain silent (verses 1–2), but he cannot remain silent. He is struck by the brevity of life. Using graphic imagery, David describes how life is transient and brief. Consider his images: My life is a handbreadth, measured by inches. A lifetime is as nothing, compared to the stream of time, the ocean of eternity. At his best, man is a mere breath, evaporating in a moment. He is a phantom, a shadow, a ghost. His life, if it is precious to him, is consumed as a moth attracted to a flame. He is “a stranger” here, “a sojourner” before God (verse 12), rootless, wandering about through a single pixel pilgrimage. There is a note of futility: “He amasses riches and does not know who will gather them,” and “They make an uproar for nothing” (v. 6). Furthermore, David stresses the universality and certainty of the brevity of this life with his “Surely every man” statements in verses 5, 6, and 11.
What do we make of this language? What is the meaning of these expressions? The psalm is given to the choir director to be sung in worship; the desire to know the short duration of our earthly life places us before the majesty of God. In worship, praying about the brevity of life, singing about the transiency of human existence, meditating upon our short sojourn as strangers, there is a strong effect upon the sincere worshipper’s mind, producing truth, humility, and fear.
During worship, as we ask to know our end, truth penetrates the deception of our hardened hearts to call into question the false conviction that this life, somehow, will continue ad infinitum. During worship, as we ask to know the extent of our days, humility bends the stand-up soul to recognize that God is sovereign, holding our breath in his hand. During worship, even in the face of fierce adversity, we understand, and feel, as we sing of our transiency, that no power on earth, including death itself, is the object of our fear. God is the one we fear.
We pray for the Lord to “make me to know my end, and what is the extent of my days; let me know how transient I am,” so that wisdom might be a deep well in our soul. If we have a perspective on our troubles that the prospect of “the end” can give, then problems that seem so absolute are truly relativized. If we are able to evaluate adversity from a postpartum position, we are able to measure whether our illnesses, harassments, injustices, and indignities have any real significance. If we arrive at this insight, our whole lifetime is put in its proper context. If we are given discernment to see the cross intersecting with the final chapter of our life, we can see that a fountain of grace greater than our sin flows to us from the infinite, eternal, unchangeable goodness of God. In all of this, we have gained the wisdom that a knowledge of our mortality can communicate.
To read a good story well, it should be read at least twice. Only when we know the end of the story, having read it several times, can we truly appreciate and reasonably evaluate the characters, plot, themes, and symbols. Only then can we give wise interpretation. The wise approach to life is like reading a good story well; it should be read in light of the end. David prays that he might know his end in order to evaluate his present circumstances. He is asking for wisdom. Moses prays a similar prayer in Psalm 90:12, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom.”
We live in a foolish generation that worships youth and avoids old age. It prizes the experience of sensuality and suppresses the knowledge of mortality. However, the more we suppress the knowledge of our mortality, paradoxically, the less we truly live. The more we silence the whispers of our brevity, the louder the shrill voice of vanity becomes. The more we listen to the story of our end, the deeper our insight grows, and the richer our lives become. Pray that the Lord would make us to know our end and what is the extent of our days, that he would teach us to number our days, and that we might present to him a heart of wisdom.
But with the knowledge of our end, knowing the extent of our days, the transiency of our life, we should not be left with a feeling of futility. David looks to the Lord and prays in verse 7, “And now, Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You.” This is the hope that does not disappoint. And with our sight more clearly focused on the source of our hope, a clearer focus than David had, and with our assurance more deeply resting in the object of our hope, a deeper rest than David knew, let us trust in Christ for “our end.”
Jesus Christ has come, lived, died, risen again, and ascended to the Father’s right hand. In his death we have died, and in his resurrection we have been raised. He has inaugurated a new creation, of which we are a part. Clearly, the knowledge that David prayed for has been answered for us in Christ. We know “our end,” in him. We know the extent of our days, in him. We know our transiency ending in eternity, in him. Our hope is triumphantly declared by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:54–55: “But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, ‘Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ ” With the hope of the resurrection, we can courageously pray to know our end.
Is life blown out like a brief candle? Is it a walking shadow? Is it a bad actor who struts and frets on a stage for an hour and then is soon forgotten? Is life a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? The apostle John responds, “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. And he placed His right hand on me, saying, ‘Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades’” (Rev. 1:17–18).
The author is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Columbus, Ohio. He quotes the NASB. New Horizons, June 2013.