A Song of Mortality

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Psalm 39:1-13

As we grow older, we increasingly are brought face to face with reminders of our own mortality and the transitory nature of life. That is inexpressibly sad if this world is all there is. But Christians know there’s more!

Like all animals, human beings must die. Nowhere is that truth more eloquently expressed than in the Bible.

All flesh is grass,

and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;

surely the people is grass.

Isaiah 40:6-7, rsv

At your command we die

And turn back to dust. . . .

You bring our lives to an end

Just like a dream.

We are merely tender grass

That sprouts and grows in the morning,

but dries up by evening.

Psalm 90:3,5-6, cev

But unlike all other animals, humans are different in that we know we must die. We alone of all creatures possess consciousness. We realize that we are alive; we have self-awareness. But we also realize that we will certainly die someday. So we have to live with the burden of that knowledge.

Like many other biblical poems, Psalm 39 is a song of human mortality, of approaching death. It expresses the awareness of how brief and fragile our lives are.

“Show me, O Lord, my life’s end

and the number of my days;

let me know how fleeting is my life.

You have made my days a mere handbreadth;

the span of my years is as nothing before you.

Each man’s life is but a breath. (vv. 4-5)

THE PROBLEM OF SUFFERING

“Lord, teach me that my life must have an end,” sings the psalmist, “and that my days are measured.” Those are the words of a man who is very much aware of his own coming death. Something, some kind of terrible suffering, has caused him to reflect upon the frail and fleeting nature of life in general, and his life in particular. It may be that he was suffering from some kind of severe illness that had brought him to the brink of the grave. Perhaps he had had to watch as someone he loved breathed out their life in terrible pain. We don’t know. But we do know this man was in anguish. He could have been suffering physically; he certainly was suffering emotionally.

You have worn me down.

You punish us severely because of our sins.

Like a moth, you destroy what we treasure most.

We are frail as a breath.

(vv. 10-11, cev)

For sensitive and thoughtful people, suffering causes a problem beyond the present physical or emotional pain. It causes me a spiritual problem. It makes us aware of the fact that things aren’t as they should be. We sense that we were not meant to die. We were made for better things. To put it bluntly, something is wrong. There’s something wrong in a world in which infants are born with horrible, crippling defects, where young mothers die of cancer and leave their families to cope alone, where senility steals a bright and lively mind and leaves only a blank expression in its place. Something is wrong in a world where some people are starving while others eat too much, where wars devour so many of our youth, where nature itself can turn violent and destroy innocent people. In short, something is wrong in a world where there is death.

The toughest kind of suffering isn’t physical; it’s spiritual. Other creatures can feel physical pain as we do, but physical pain is usually only temporary or intermittent. We alone feel the lasting soul pain of mortality. It’s not just that we have to suffer; it’s knowing that we have to suffer. It’s not only that we’re going to die; it’s being aware of this truth ahead of time, living with it always. That’s what gives such a sense of almost unbearable sadness to life. All things, including our own bodies and minds, grow old, run down, wear out, die. And we feel it, the futility, the frustration, the emptiness of life in a world where death is the final end – or seems to be. This is what makes our pain so painful. It’s the burden of knowing we must lose everything we love, because nothing lasts.

Now think carefully about that last point. Why do we feel this pain at the fact of mortality? Where does the sense of grief come from? Other creatures don’t feel it; how did we come to have it, if we’re nothing more than animals who live for a while and then forever cease to be? A fish living in the sea doesn’t feel wet, because the water is its natural home. Why then do we humans, living in this world of time, feel so out of place? Why do we feel so much pain at being caught in the process of loss which passing time necessarily involves? The only possible reason I can think of is that this world wasn’t meant to be our final home. We’re not simply temporal creatures. We weren’t meant to die. We were meant to live forever. We have eternity in our hearts.

RESPONSES TO SUFFERING

Now consider the different reactions of different kinds of people when faced with suffering and the fact of death. For unbelievers, suffering can only be considered bad luck, and death is an unpleasant reality that should be ignored and suppressed as much as possible. For those who reject the idea that there is a God, and a world beyond this earth, nothing in life can have any ultimate meaning. The only thing anyone can do is to try to get through life as best they can, hoping to find some temporary happiness and to prolong that as much as possible. Whatever happens along the way to interfere with this happiness – accidents, disappointments, sickness, death itself – is simply part of the game of life. There’s no point to any of it, no use in trying to understand any meaning behind the things that occur. There isn’t any meaning. Life is simply to be enjoyed or endured, and most often both. It can’t be understood. Life is tough, and then you die. That’s all there is.

That is the view of people who don’t believe in God. But it’s not what the people of the Bible believed.

Take the man who wrote Psalm 39, for example. As I have already noted, we don’t know the exact nature of his suffering, but we know from his reaction that it must have been acute. But notice what he says about his pain:

I was silent; I would not open my mouth,

For you are the one who has done this.

Remove your scourge from me;

I am overcome by the blow of your hand.

You rebuke and discipline men for their sin.

(vv. 9-11)

According to the psalmist, everything that happened to him was God’s doing. And it was neither senseless nor meaningless. It was all part of God’s process of discipline in his life.

That’s a conviction which is shared by every believer whose faith is biblically informed. I have a very close friend who has experienced terrible suffering in his life. “If I didn’t believe in a God who rules and controls all things,” he told me, “I wouldn’t have anything.” Think about this. What comfort is there in believing in a God who has nothing to do with our suffering, or in believing that suffering has no ultimate meaning? Why put our faith in, why pray to, a God who can’t prevent terrible things from happening? What use is there in asking a God like that for help?

It is true that if we, like the psalmist, ascribe the suffering and tragedies of our lives in some sense to the disciplining hand of the Lord, we raise other questions for faith, hard questions with no easy answers. Why did God do this? How could he allow such a thing to happen? What possible good can come from that tragedy? All believers struggle with these questions. But at least it makes sense to ask them. At least we can ask them of the right Person -the one who is in charge. And we can know they have a chance of being answered someday, that our suffering does have meaning and that we may be able to understand it eventually.

WHAT TO PRAY FOR

In the prayer that is the 39th Psalm, the psalmist asks for two things especially from God. The first is for the wisdom to gain a true perspective of life. “Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days.” There’s no one more foolish than the person who thinks he will live forever. The New Testament book of James talks about the blindness of those who boast about their plans for the future, acting as if they were in control of their lives and destinies.

“What do you know about tomorrow? How can you be so sure about your life? It’s nothing more than a mist that appears for only a little while before it disappears.”

James 4:14, cev

Like the psalmist, James is reminding us of the impermanence and uncertainty of life. “What is your life?” he asks. Answer: it is a mist, a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Our earthly lives are as temporary as the morning fog which the sun calls up out of the damp earth and then dispels by its warmth. That’s what we are physically. “For he knoweth our frame,” says Psalm 103, “he remembereth that we are dust. As for man, his days are as grass – as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it and it is gone, and the place thereof shall know it no more” (Psalm 103:14-16). Remembering that we must die soon can have the very healthy effect of causing us to live with eternity in mind. If my earthly life is like the life of a flower -healthy and flourishing for a little while, but soon cut off and dried up – then I want to be sure I know how to get to heaven where life lasts forever. Eternal life is what matters most.

The other thing our writer prays for is help.

“Hear my prayer, O Lord, listen to my cry for help;

be not deaf to my weeping. . . .

Look away from me, that I may rejoice again

before I depart and am no more.”

(vv. 12-13)

If God is the one who sent his suffering, then God can also be the one who mercifully relieves it, who takes it away. So our writer prays for that. But the psalmist’s perspective was limited. Though he was wise enough to realize how transitory earthly life is, he couldn’t see clearly beyond the grave. Living as he did on the far side of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he couldn’t know for sure what would happen to him after he died. So he prays just for some more time in this life here on earth. He asks God to “look away from me before I depart and am no more.” What he means is something like this: “Lord, please have pity on me, ease my suffering. Give me peace for just a little while before I die.”

But there is a hint here in Psalm 39 of something more. “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you. Save me from all my transgressions” (vv. 7-8). Like the psalmist, our only hope in the face of death is in the Lord. Only he can save us. But unlike the psalmist, we know how God has actually done that, by sending his son Jesus to die for our sins, and by raising him from the dead to give us eternal life.

Because Jesus lives, those who trust in him shall also live. Though our physical nature wastes away, though our bodies grow old and sick, and eventually die, though our earthly lives are like the morning mist that disappears with the heat of the day, nevertheless in Christ we live forever. Do you know that if you put your trust in Jesus Christ you will never die, at least not in the most important sense? That through Christ you can have eternal life? Do you realize that your life has meaning, that it’s headed somewhere more than just to the grave? Do you understand that suffering here is preparing you for glory hereafter? Then thank God, who gives us the victory over death, through our Lord Jesus Christ!