By James Boice
Theme: When Suffering Comes
In this week’s lessons we see how David responds in the midst of trouble, which is by taking his cares to the Lord and trusting him to act.
Scripture: Psalm 39:1-13
This is the meaning of verse 4. Verse 4 does not mean: “I am weary of this suffering; tell me when I am going to die so this will end” or “Life is too short for all I have been given to do; this is unfair.” Instead, it means, as J. J. Stewart Perowne expressed it, “Make me rightly to know and estimate the shortness and uncertainty of human life, that so, instead of suffering myself to be perplexed with all that I see around me, I may cast myself the more entirely upon thee.”3 This is exactly what David does in the verse immediately following this stanza, that is, in verse 7.
It is also what we find in classic language in Psalm 90:12. Psalm 90 was written by Moses, but it raises the same issues as Psalm 39, though in a much calmer and trusting frame of mind. It is often read at funerals: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
Does David learn by doing this? Yes, he does. The first thing he learns when he turns to God is that, puzzling as the brevity of life may be, it is nevertheless something that God has himself willed. God has fixed the span of human years, as we see in verse 5: “You have made my days a mere handbreadth.” Therefore, the brevity of human life is no accident; it has meaning. And this meaning must be good, because God, the author of this circumstance, is a good God.
There is a second thing that David learns. He learns that, since life is short, the only real meaning of a man or woman’s existence must be in God, for God is eternal. David therefore turns to God, which is where we begin the next stanza. Verse 7 expresses this determination. It is the turning point of the psalm.
But the third stanza (vv. 7-11) also introduces a second, additional problem which intensifies the first one, namely, God’s heavy-handed treatment of so unsubstantial and fleeting a creature as man. Stanza two protested the brevity and apparent vanity of life. This stanza talks about transgressions, sin, rebuke and discipline. Why does God bother to discipline men and women, particularly when they are such unsubstantial creatures? This was Job’s question when he was made to endure so much suffering and apparent discipline at God’s hand:
What is man that you make so much of him, that you give him so much attention, that you examine him every morning and test him every moment? Will you never look away from me, or let me alone even for an instant? If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins? For I will soon lie down in the dust; you will search for me, but I will be no more (Job 7:17-21).
Do you understand that? Can you see that David and Job are saying the same thing, asking the same question? And can you perceive how the question arises precisely from the fact that we are so small and that God is so great, that we are creatures of a day and he is of eternity. If you do understand that, I am sure you also realize that you have asked the same question yourself many times in one way or another. I have counseled many people who have asked it.
- Why is it beneficial to understand the brevity of life? What does an awareness of our own brevity reveal about God?
- What is the significance of your existence?
Reflection: Contrast the world’s approach to the brevity of life versus that of the Christian.
3J. J. Stewart Perowne, Commentary on the Psalms, 2 vols. in 1 (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1989), vol. 1, p. 328. Original edition 1878-1879.
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