The brevity of life is a major theme in the Bible. In Psalm 39, David asks the Lord to show him his life’s end and then uses three metaphors to illustrate a simple theme: Life is brief. David describes life as a mere handbreadth, a quick breath, a fleeting phantom. Compared to an eternal God who has no beginning or end, our earthly life span seems a mere blip. When I think of life as a single breath, I’m reminded of someone blowing out a long breath on a cold morning, only to see it quickly evaporate.
Show me, 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. Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it. But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you. (Psalm 39:4–7)
These rich metaphors are set in the context of a busy person who gives no thought to the length of life. The phrase bustles about especially resonates with people of our time. A person can be so busy trying to get ahead that he or she fails to remember that the race might be nearly over!
Praying David’s prayer might do us good. You could say that David is asking God to help him visualize his own funeral. When I read Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, I took his challenge to visualize my own funeral. I tried to think of who would be crying and who indifferent. I tried to imagine my pallbearers, as well as what various speakers would say about me. And I found that visualizing one’s own funeral is an effective way of setting life goals.
The Bible is rich with metaphors about the brevity of life. In one prominent example, Moses uses the illustration of grass: “[God sweeps] men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning—though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered” (Ps 90:5–6). I have mowed grass every summer since I was in the fifth grade. Keeping up with it during the spring rains and the early summer is difficult, but by late summer, it becomes dry, brown, and dead. Paying attention to the grass could teach us something about how quickly our lives on Earth pass.
The prophet Isaiah adds another metaphor—flowers: “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall” (Isa 40:6–7). I don’t know a lot about growing flowers, but I know how much my wife loves them when I bring some home to her. I also know that they can be expensive. I love the expression of joy I see on Julie’s face when I give her flowers, but I hate how quickly flowers wilt and die, even when kept in water. Paying attention to flowers could also teach us something about the brevity of life.
Question: Are you paying attention to the lesson of flowers?
“The grass withers and the flowers fall” (Isa 40:6–7)