The Brevity of Life

O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! 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! Surely a man goes about as a shadow! (Psalm 39:4-6, ESV).

I was reminded this week of that terrible cloud that hangs over all humanity . . . the brevity of our lives.

The Psalmist David lived a long life. Yet, during it he experienced great trials, some of which he failed. In this Psalm, he describes the vast gap between God and his creation.

Even human beings, created in the Lord’s very image so that we might worship him and live in fellowship with him for all time . . . even we human beings, because of sin, are destined to perish. We all die.* It is one of very few certainties that exist; as Benjamin Franklin famously wrote: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

The Bible can sound almost depressing when touching on the theme of life’s swift passage. But if we begin to despair, we have entirely missed the purpose of these verses. They are simply there to remind us of our utter dependence on God.

We must not trust in the pagan wishful thinking of the “immortality of the soul,” apart from its Creator. Nor should we deny God’s presence and surrender to the belief that there is no existence beyond this life. The latter is a particularly sad “religion,” or worldview. And like all beliefs, it requires “faith” (trust) to believe there is no afterlife. C.S. Lewis described that fact in a 1956 epistle included in Letters to Children.

People do find it hard to keep on feeling as if you believed in the next life: but then it is just as hard to keep on feeling as if you believed you were going to be nothing after death. I know this because in the old days before I was a Christian, I used to try.

The message of the Scriptures is not for us to bemoan the fact that we will die, and that our days in this world are brief. On the contrary, God’s word paints this picture vividly, with the sharp colors of reality (rather than numbing pastels of euphemisms) because it is vital that we understand how this life is merely a prelude to the life that follows.

I began this post by saying I’d recently been reminded of death’s immanence. Last year I had written a brief letter to Calvin Miller, the anointed author I quoted in my previous meditation. He graciously responded. Well, it dawned on me that he might enjoy reading my comments about The Philippian Fragment, so I wrote him again four days ago. I had not heard back, and eagerly awaited his reaction . . . only to learn yesterday that Dr. Miller had passed away two days after I wrote to him.

While I was saddened (on behalf of his family and fans) to hear of his death, I recognize that he is already experiencing a more abundant and true life this very moment, than any he could ever know here. Still, I wish I’d written to him just a few days earlier, since I’m curious what he might have thought about my modest words on the subject of compassionate ministry.

Since we began with a Psalm of David despairing about the brevity of human life, it is fitting to end with another song penned by the same royal composer. Once again he acknowledged the shortness of our lives. But here, he makes it very clear that due to God’s immeasurable love for his children, we have an “everlasting” destiny, which will never end. His children by faith, who have trusted in his only begotten Son, already possess the gift of eternal life. And we will experience it fully after the resurrection, when we have discarded this fallen shell and been clothed in our new body.

As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. (Psalm 103:15-19, ESV).

* For theological clarification, it is possible for God to raise someone to heaven without dying (e.g. Elijah), and those who are still living when Christ returns in the Parousia, will not have to experience physical death.

12 thoughts on “The Brevity of Life

  1. This morning a very good friend of mine was rushed to the hospital with chest pains. She’s fine now. But as I was meditating on these same thoughts, my bible reading took me to Jeremiah 29:11, which reminded me once again that God still has a plan and a future for each of us! Thank you for your always illuminating insights.

  2. After having worked in a funeral home, I know all too well death is no respecter of persons. As a pastor, I know all too well that those without faith are the most miserable when death comes. How much more happy, yes happy, the funeral of a saint!

  3. Peter Wiebe

    The death of our son, Jesse, at the age of 10 was an all to real reminder for us that life here on earth can end abruptly. It is so important to invest into eternity now in this life.

  4. You know… when I was a child I experienced something halfway between a vision and a realization. There’s doubtless a word for such an experience, but none of the words in my arsenal seem to fit.
    Anyway, the vision part started with a flower in the grass, and moved through falling leaves, mountains, valleys and stars until the infinity of every curve, scent, color, texture, light, shadow and moment of creation overwhelmed me. The realization was that, if there is no God, then every moment and atom of the universe is lost. It comes and goes and when it goes it is gone forever, unseen, unknown, unremembered. No living thing, nor all living things can take it all in, much less appreciate or remember it. What I can hold in my hand, and even in my mind, is not even a speck of dust. People are fleeting, as are civilizations, and even the earth and all the stars. I knew, then, that the absence of God would be the breaking of my heart, for only God is capable of knowing the existence of every blade of grass and every distant star. Only God can hold all of that in one hand and make it worth its existence. The universe must have a Heart.

    In short, as you say in your post, the only thing that makes the ephemeral OK, or even beautiful and marvelous in its own right, is the eternity of its Creator. At the root of all things, He is my comfort and my liberator, turning what would be bondage and grief into freedom and Joy.

    Hopefully that makes sense. It is difficult to put into words. It is what the second psalm you quote always calls to my mind.

  5. I can’t hear or read Psalm 39:4-6 without thinking of Brahms’ German Requiem. The third movement opens up with this passage with a bass soloist, and the musical setting fits perfectly.

    Here is a good excerpt (in German of course):

  6. This post evidently resonated with a number of people. Classical musicians are not the only composers to have been inspired by these passages. The contemporary musical group Casting Crowns has also addressed the truth that:

    I am a flower quickly fading
    Here today and gone tomorrow
    A wave tossed in the ocean
    A vapor in the wind
    Still You hear me when I’m calling
    Lord You catch me when I’m falling
    And You told me who I am
    I am Yours, I am Yours

  7. Heb 11 has ministered to me this summer. In particular, how Abraham lived in the land promised to him as a stranger. “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God….they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”

  8. Although we know they are in glory, we miss those who go before – sorry to hear of the loss of your friend. Times like this do force us to ponder this life and the next.
    Well written thoughts – no way am I going to attempt to add more.

  9. Your reflections on Calvin Miller’s passing are good to read, thank you. Because of your earlier post, I recently dug up my old copy of The Singer and had spoken about him to a few friends, and so it is sad to read of his passing. Sounds like he led a rich life and I was glad to learn of his being influenced by C.S. Lewis. Glad I discovered your blog!

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