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David's Melancholy Prayer

By Dennis Pollock


Psalm 39 is considered a psalm of David, but it is quite a bit different than his usual psalms of praise or desperate petitions. David seems to be in a reflective mood here – this is the thoughtful, philosophical David rather than the warrior David or the exuberant David. He begins by writing: "I will guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue; I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle." (Psalm 39:1)

David was a poet and a writer, and he normally was not at a loss for words. But now he tells of a time when he determined to keep his mouth shut. Apparently, for fear that he might say something displeasing to the Lord, he made a commitment to keep silent. Something was pressing on his mind, and at first, he figured the best thing to do was to keep still. But the longer he kept his lips closed, the more painful it became.

David writes: “I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good…" (Psalm 39:2). David was not simply avoiding negative subjects; he wasn’t saying anything good or bad, positive or negative. This was a strange attitude for the great king, but it did not last. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore. He says: "While I was musing, the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue: “Lord make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am." (Psalm 39:3).


Now we discover what was on his mind. David was thinking deeply about his mortality. His life had been in terrible danger frequently and yet God had brought him through every peril. Now, while things were peaceful, he began to realize that despite God’s amazing interventions in his life and dramatic rescues and deliverances, sooner or later he would die. He was not going to live forever.


How's It Going to End?


Now this may seem fundamental to most of us, but David was intrigued by this and was asking God to reveal to him how his life would finally end. The curious thing about this prayer was that David was asking for something God was not about to tell him. God never tells any of us the exact day of our death. We all have an “expiration date” marked on our lives, but unlike food in a grocery store, those dates are not visibly stamped on us. And it varies widely from one person to another. Some people never reach the age of fifty, others make it into their seventies, and a few people live into their nineties. But there are no guarantees, and we are clueless, not only about the exact date of the end of our lives but even which decade will be our final one. And God has fixed life this way. It would not matter how hard you pray, or how long you pray, God’s word to us is to be saved through faith in Jesus Christ and then live for Him as long as He desires us to live on this earth. When our time of departure comes, He will arrange it, without consulting us or giving us even the slightest input into the matter.


But notice David’s motive in asking to know the specifics of his end. He says: “Show me my end… that I may know how frail I am.” Knowledge of our fragility is something we all very much need to know, and this is especially true for the rich and powerful of this world. Most poor people have no expectations of ever having much, doing much, or being much, and usually are keenly aware of their frailty and weakness. But the rich, the powerful, and the influential people of this world often seem unaware of their fragile state – until something happens to make this crystal clear that despite all their advantages and success, they are every bit as frail and fragile as that homeless person who lives across town.


In David’s day, the most powerful and wealthy people on earth were those who occupied the position of kings, and David was one of these kings. He could have just about anything he wanted, be as wealthy as he wanted to be, have as many wives as he wanted to have, and be married to the most beautiful women of Israel. But David was different from the other kings of his days; he was a man after God’s heart; he was a worshipper of YHWY, the one true God. And David was very much aware that his life was in God’s hands. Somehow, he felt the need to be reminded of just how frail he was, and just how short life is. Despite all his wealth, power, and status, all that he had would one day be stripped from him and he would go into the ground, the same as the beggars and common laborers.


Handbreadth Days


David writes: “You have made my days as handbreadths.” There were no tape measures in those days. People measured things with their hands. How tall was a horse, how large was a table? They would measure these things by how many of their hands made up the length or height. And David describes his life as just a few handbreadths. We do not know how old the great king was at this point, but chances are he was at least in his fifties. Young people rarely think or speak like this. When you are in your teens and twenties, you think you are invincible and immortal. Death seems so far away, that it is hardly worth mentioning. But as the decades roll by, your limited time presses into your consciousness.


And then David seems to describe the source of his concern, writing: “Every man, at his best state, is but a vapor.” Even when we are in our prime, and have hit our stride, and everyone admires us, and the money is rolling in, and we are considered enormously successful, we are nothing more than a puff of smoke, a little bit of vapor or fog that shows up in the morning and is gone before lunchtime. David takes this a step further, saying: "Surely every man walks about like a shadow; surely they busy themselves in vain. He heaps up riches, and does not know who will gather them." (Psalm 39:6). This is getting gloomier and gloomier. All men are nothing more than shadows. We busy ourselves with all sorts of activities, making money and accumulating possessions, not knowing what will become of our wealth and possessions when we die.


It is not an especially positive view of life. How did David, this man of worship, this man of faith, come to such a melancholy frame of mind? We gain a clue about this when David prays: "Remove Your plague from me; I am consumed by the blow of Your hand." (Psalm 39:10). David was going through some sort of serious illness at this time, so serious that he faced the prospect of his demise. And nothing makes us more philosophical about death than when we face the possibility of it in the near future. He has come to see with vivid clarity that however much longer he has on earth, whether months or decades, his days are numbered, and they will pass swiftly. He confesses: "For I am a stranger with You, a sojourner, as all my fathers were." (Psalm 39:12).


No Eternal Perspective


Before we fault David for being so melancholy, we need to recognize that the Old Testament believers had a very dim, fuzzy view of the afterlife and the idea of living eternally. There are only a few, brief, vague hints about this in the Old Testament that were missed by most. They had no sure and certain hope of living eternally with God in heaven. Solomon stated pessimistically, "For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing…" (Ecclesiastes 9:5).


How different this is from the attitude of the New Testament apostles! The closer Paul came to his end, the more his thoughts turned heavenward. As he faced his approaching death, he wrote to Timothy: "The time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day…" (2 Timothy 4:6-8).


Like David, we are all strangers and sojourners in the present world. But who would want to live here forever anyway? But like Paul, we look forward to being with our Savior in a place where there is no sin, sickness, sadness, or pain. On the cross, Jesus faced death on our behalf, so that we might live with Him in Heaven forever. No David, we are not shadows busying ourselves in vain. We are followers of Christ, serving our Master and blessing people in ways that will do them good forever and ever. And when our time on earth draws to a close, we will say, "Halleluia – God is good!"




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