William G. Bass was engaged in a meeting with a local church, working in the neighborhoods of a small town in southeastern Florida. He and I had been asked by someone (and my, how you never seem to know just who) to find time to visit a recent convert who had been worshipping with a digressive group in town, seeking perhaps an encouraging word.
As humans, we do not like to think about our own immortality. We are not interesting in speaking in terms of there not being a tomorrow. Rather, we speak as if things will continue on in the future as things have continued in the past. However, deep down inside of us, we do realize that anything can happen to us at any given moment. We have seen and perhaps experienced the sudden loss of life of family members and friends. There are horror stories of family members lost due to drunk driving. Nightly local news reports of people doing that which they would do every day, but this time dying in car accidents, shootings, or some other unforeseen event.
In psalm 39, king David is contemplating the brevity of life. In verses 4-6 David realizes the insignificance of our lives in the greater scheme of this world. In verse 5 David says that our days are a few handbreadths. One handbreadth is the distance of the four fingers together on ones hand. Therefore, David is saying our days are very short. David further says that our lifetimes are nothing in the sight of the eternal God. We are but a shadow and a breath in this world.
Even more interesting is the Hebrew word in verse 5 translated “breath” in most versions is the same word the Teacher in Ecclesiastes used when he said, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” To speak of life as a breath or a vapor is to understand the vanity in pursuing the things of this world. David is drawing the same conclusion that the Teacher in Ecclesiastes drew: life is meaningless and worthless without God.
James also tried to remind us of the fraility and brevity of life in James 4:13-16:
“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money. Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that. As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”
Recognizing our frailty
How rare it is for us to stop and appreciate the brevity of our lives! We assume that things will continue the way we they are day in and day out. The people in many of the countries on the Indian Ocean assumed it would be another vacation day. Little did anyone know that a cataclysmic tsunami would engulf and kill over 130,000 people. We simply assume that tomorrow will be like today and today will be like yesterday without thought about the brevity of life and that our time is truly a vapor. For those of us who live in Florida, we have quickly put our lives back in order and have already forgotten the speed in which our lives can be turned upside down.
David prays in psalm 39 that he understand truth of the brevity of life more fully. We need to see how fleeting our lives are. We need to understand the measure of our days to be short. We need to appreciate the day we have and not assume tomorrow is available to us. We leave so much unsaid and undone. How often we see people who have lost loved ones wishing they had another few hours to say or do some final things! They never imagined they would not have time to offer those final important words. They assumed tomorrow would come. We have not learned the lesson from those who agonize that they do not have more time to spend with their families. We have not learn the value of serving the Lord today because we may not have tomorrow to get our lives right with God.
We must seize each day that is given to us. Paul said as much to us in Ephesians 5:16, telling us to “redeem the time, because the days are evil” (NKJV). Other translations help us understand this phrase “redeem the time” by saying, “making the most of every opportunity” (NIV) and “making the best use of the time” (ESV). The pursuit of the things in the world is vanity. We need to pursue the things that are most important: God and our relationships with family and believers. We need to use today to say the words we need to say to our loved ones. We need to treat each other the way the ought to be treated, not assuming that we are granted time with these people tomorrow. Rather than assuming we will have more time for God and families later, we need to assume that all we have is today. Life is fragile and our time on this earth is short. Let us maximize our time so that we will not regret the life we lived.