Measuring Days, Psalm 39

A bit over two years ago, I blogged on Psalm 39 under the title, “Carpe Diem!” That Latin phrase means, “Seize the day,” which still seems an apt title. But in revisiting the psalm today, I’m struck by the ESV heading, “What Is the Measure of My Days?”

In this personal lament that conveys the brevity of life, David displays impatience as well as repentance and submission while he waits on God’s will.

He initially determines not to complain:

I said, “I will guard my ways,
    that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth with a muzzle,
    so long as the wicked are in my presence.”
I was mute and silent;
    I held my peace to no avail,
and my distress grew worse (Psalm 39:1-2, ESV).

David doesn’t want to give unrighteous people an opportunity to criticize him or the Lord. But while he holds his peace, his distress increases. He speaks, but he speaks to the Lord (verses 3-6, ESV):

My heart became hot within me.
As I mused, the fire burned;
    then I spoke with my tongue:

“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! Selah
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!

David’s prayer begins with a petition that God will make him more aware of the brevity of life. He seems to have a good grasp of life’s transience and futility, but he asks God to increase his concept of measuring his days.

He knows that the days of his life measure a few hands, like one might measure a pony or horse, and that his lifetime is nothing compared to God’s infinity. Every day, billions of people breath in and out countless times. Yet the sum total of all the breaths of all people who have ever lived and who will ever live is like a mere breath to God! We think our lives are so substantial and important, but all our actions are like fleeting shadows. Why are we so concerned about obtaining and keeping stuff? What will happen to it when we’re gone? Our children will have to sort through it, perhaps keeping a few meaningful mementos, but selling much of it at an auction or giving away whatever has a little value or tossing more than we care to know.

David recognizes life’s brevity and wants to become even more aware of it in order to make each day count. But he also wants to guard against running ahead of God’s will. He waits on the Lord and hopes in him.

“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?
    My hope is in you.
Deliver me from all my transgressions.
    Do not make me the scorn of the fool!
I am mute; I do not open my mouth,
    for it is you who have done it.
Remove your stroke from me;
    I am spent by the hostility of your hand.
When you discipline a man
    with rebukes for sin,
you consume like a moth what is dear to him;
    surely all mankind is a mere breath! Selah (7-11, ESV)

While David waits, he asks God to keep him from sin. He doesn’t want to dishonor God by giving unrighteous people an opportunity to mock him and God. As David reverts again to silence, he recognizes the sovereignty of God over his afflictions, he repents from his sins, and he reiterates the brevity of life.

Psalm 39 concludes with a cry to God (12-13, ESV):

“Hear my prayer, O Lord,
    and give ear to my cry;
    hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
    a guest, like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may smile again,
    before I depart and am no more!”

In this cry, David begs God to see his tears and act. He confesses that we are all sojourners as our ancestors have been (and as our children will be). He seeks relief from distress so that he may smile again before God calls him home.

We have only a limited number of days on earth. When we’re young, they seem to stretch out like an endless road before us. As we age, we begin to sense how close we’re drawing to the end of our journey. The older I get, the more I feel an urgency about working for the Lord. I want to accomplish what he wants me to do while I’m here, and I realize I don’t have all that much time left.

What is the measure of my days? None of us knows the answer to that question. But an awareness of their limit leads to a better perspective of how we use each one as we work for the Lord and wait on his will.



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