This psalm, along with many other passages, teaches us how to understand the transience of our lives. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). Some men ignore this truth. Some see it and despair. Others, blessed of God, see it and learn wisdom. The psalm is given to Jeduthun, one of the Levitical musicians appointed to lead public worship (1 Chron. 16:37-42; 25:1-8; 2 Chron. 5:12; 35:15). This is therefore wisdom for the Church here; this is to be embraced corporately.
“I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue . . .” (Ps. 39:1-13).
Take this psalm in four stanzas. The first recounts David’s resolve to be silent in the presence of wicked men over something that was troubling him (vv. 1-3). He was agitated over the transience of life, but knew that to say so out loud in the presence of wicked men would be distorted by them, so he kept silent. In the second stanza, we see what was bothering David (vv. 4-6), and we also see that it is a question that has really unsettled him. The next verse (v. 7) is the turning point in the psalm, where David commits himself to the Lord, trusting in Him. But this third stanza encourages us to ask the question another way—if man’s life is as fleeting as all that, why does a sovereign God bother to discipline us (vv. 7-11)? In the last stanza, we come to the place of rest; this world (as it is now structured) is not our home. We are aliens and pilgrims here (vv. 12-13).
David was consumed with a question, but he resolved not to sin with his tongue in expressing that question (v. 1). He put a muzzle on himself, and we see in the second part of the first verse that he did this because the wicked were present. He knew that wicked men would distort the questions of a believer. Faith and unbelief both handle these questions, but in a completely different way. Even so, unbelief likes to pretend that this is not the case. And so David was quiet and held his peace, but this simply stirred him up further (v. 2). And so the consuming question grew hot within him, and he turned and his fire flared up before the Lord (v. 3). Learn from this that the way you feel is important, but it is never so important that you are permitted to forget where you are.
Man Is Smoke:
So here is the question: David asks God to teach him to know how his life will end, and to enable him to recognize that his life is short, and that it is measured (v. 4). Another way of saying this is that man’s life on earth is frail and short on purpose. God is the one who has fashioned things this way. God is the one who made our days the width of four fingers (v. 5). Man at his best, at his most impressive, in his kingly grandeur, is a bunch of smoke and nothing. Have you ever seen a giant thunderhead coming up over the horizon, the emperor of all the clouds? What is that? Insubstantial vapor. Selah means think on this; remember it, mediate on this (Jas. 4:13-16). Surely every man, each man, head for head, walks in a vain show, a vain display, a vain pomp (v. 6), trailing clouds of glory behind him. So remember the deep wisdom of Ecclesiastes. This assessment includes those men who heap up piles of money for themselves. An old man, a miser, whose hands are arthritic and bent and good for nothing except to rake coins into a pile, is doing nothing but raking smoke—smoke for somebody else.
We should learn from this a three-fold vanity. Learn the vanity of our honors and awards. The whole thing is a vain show. Second, learn the vanity of our griefs, anxieties and fears; we are disquieted in vain. And third, learn the vanity of our labors, heaping stuff up for somebody else.
So Who Cares What Smoke Does?
But if this is the lesson, why wouldn’t an all-powerful God just let the smoke be? Why does God bother to thrash the smoke? David begins by anchoring his trust in God (v. 7), but the question still remains. It cannot be the case that smoke is all this is. David asks God to deliver him from his transgression, and not to let him be the reproach of fools (v. 8). David submitted to the chastisement because God was the one who did it (v. 9). There had to be a good purpose in it. He then prayed that God would relent in His discipline because David was about to be consumed (v. 10). When God chastises men for iniquity, they cannot bear up under it. Every man is gone like a moth; every man is vanity (v. 11). Selah. This is essentially the same as Job’s question— why does God seem to care so much (Job 7:17-21)?
David then asks God to hear his prayer, and to pay attention to his tears (v. 12). The reason given for this is that David, king of Israel, is a stranger and a pilgrim. Not only so, but his fathers were the same—he came from a race of strangers and pilgrims. He then concludes with a prayer that God would spare his life, before he departs and is no more (v. 13). The point here is not a request to spare his life so that he may forget what he has learned here. A longer life may be a delusion, but it also provides the godly with more time to prepare for their final pilgrimage.
So the house of mourning is better than the house of stand-up comedians. Meditation on the brevity of life is good for us and reminds us that we are aliens and strangers in this world. What does Abraham say when he gets up from beside his dead wife, and speaks to the Hittites? “I am a stranger and a sojourner with you: give me a possession of a buryingplace with you” (Gen. 23:4). The same mentality is found in the New Testament. “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul” (1 Pet. 2:11).”These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).
Not Smoke Forever:
When Macbeth descended into his version of despairing nihilism, he said that man was nothing but a “walking shadow.” This life “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Too many Christians try to answer this argument by denying the indisputable premise—the walking shadow part. They try to slap some kind of happy face on the problem, which only means that they are not really paying attention. The fact that we will not be smoke forever does not mean that we are not smoke now.