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Commentary On Psalms Volume 2 by Jean Calvin

Psalm 39:4-6

4. O Jehovah! cause me to know my end, and the number of my days, that I may understand how long I may live. 5. Behold, thou hast made my days as a hand-breadth, and mine age as if it were nothing before thee: truly every man, while he standeth, is wholly vanity. Selah.6. Surely man walketh in a shadow; surely he disquieteth himself in vain: they heap together [riches, ] and know not who shall gather them.

4. O Jehovah! cause me to know my end. It appears from this, that David was transported by an improper and sinful excess of passion, seeing he finds fault with God. This will appear still more clearly from the following verses. It is true, indeed, that in what follows he introduces pious and becoming prayers, but here he complains, that, being a mortal man, whose life is frail and transitory, he is not treated more mildly by God. Of this, and similar complaints, the discourses of Job are almost full. It is, therefore, not without anger and resentment that David speaks in this manner: |O God, since thou art acting with so much severity towards me, at least make me to know how long thou hast appointed me to live. But is it so, that my life is but a moment, why then dost thou act with so great rigour? and why dost thou accumulate upon my head such a load of miseries, as if I had yet many ages to live? What does it profit me to have been born, if I must pass the period of my existence, which is so brief, in misery, and oppressed with a continued succession of calamities?|

Accordingly, this verse should be read in connection with the following one. Behold, thou hast made my days as a hand-breadth. A hand-breadth is the measure of four fingers, and is here taken for a very small measure; as if it had been said, the life of man flies swiftly away, and the end of it, as it were, touches the beginning. Hence the Psalmist concludes that all men are only vanity before God. As to the meaning of the words, he does not ask that the brevity of human life should be shown to him, as if he knew it not. There is in this language a kind of irony, as if he had said, Let us count the number of the years which still remain to me on earth, and will they be a sufficient recompense for the miseries which I endure? Some render the word chdl, chedel, mundane; and others temporal, that is to say, that which endures only for a time. But the latter rendering is not appropriate in this place: for David does not as yet expressly declare the shortness of his life, but continues to speak on that subject ambiguously. If the word mundane is adopted, the sense will be, Show me whether thou wilt prolong my life to the end of the world. But in my judgment, the translation which I have followed is much more appropriate; and, besides, there may have been a transposition of the letters d, daleth, and l, lamed, making the word chedel for cheled. It may, however, very properly be taken for an age or period of life. When he says that his age is, as it were, nothing before God, in order to excite God so much the more to pity and compassion, he appeals to him as a witness of his frailty, intimating, that it is not a thing unknown to him how transitory and passing the life of man is. The expression, wholly or altogether vanity, implies that among the whole human race there is nothing but vanity. He declares this of men, even whilst they are standing; that is to say, when, being in the prime and vigor of life, they wish to be held in estimation, and seem to themselves to be men possessed of considerable influence and power. It was the pangs of sorrow which forced David to give utterance to these complaints; but it is to be observed, that it is chiefly when men are sore oppressed by adversity that they are made to feel their nothingness in the sight of God. Prosperity so intoxicates them, that, forgetful of their condition, and sunk in insensibility, they dream of an immortal state on earth. It is very profitable for us to know our own frailty, but we must beware lest, on account of it, we fall into such a state of sorrow as may lead us to murmur and repine. David speaks truly and wisely in declaring, that man, even when he seems to have risen to the highest state of greatness, is only like the bubble which rises upon the water, blown up by the wind; but he is in fault when he takes occasion from this to complain of God. Let us, therefore, so feel the misery of our present condition, as that, however cast down and afflicted, we may, as humble suppliants, lift up our eyes to God, and implore his mercy. This we find David does a little after, having corrected himself; for he does not continue to indulge in rash and inconsiderate lamentations, but lifting up his soul in the exercise of faith, he attains heavenly consolation.

6. Surely man walketh in a shadow. He still prosecutes the same subject. By the word shadow, he means, that there is nothing substantial in man, but that he is only, as we say, a vain show, and has I know not how much of display and ostentation. Some translate the word darkness, and understand the Psalmist's language in this sense, That the life of man vanishes away before it can be known. But in these words David simply declares of every man individually what Paul extends to the whole world, when he says,

|The fashion of this world passeth away.| --
1 Corinthians 7:31

Thus he denies that there is any thing abiding in men, because the appearance of strength which displays itself in them for a time soon passes away. What he adds, that men disquiet themselves in vain, shows the very height of their vanity; as if he had said, It seems as if men were born for the very purpose of rendering themselves more and more contemptible: for although they are only as a shadow, yet as if they were fools, or rather insane, they involve themselves needlessly in harassing cares, and vexing themselves to no purpose. He expresses still more plainly how they manifest their folly, when he declares that while they anxiously and carefully heap up riches, they never think that they must soon, and it may be suddenly, leave their present abode. And why is it that they thus fret away their mind and body, but only because they imagine that they can never have enough? for by their insatiable desire of gain, they eagerly grasp at all the riches of the world, as if they had to live a hundred times the life of man. Moreover, David does not in this passage hold up to scorn the covetousness of man in the same sense in which Solomon does, Ecclesiastes 5:10; for he not only speaks of their heirs, but declares generally, that men disquiet and vex themselves with care, although they know not who shall reap the fruit of their labor in amassing riches. They may indeed wish to make provision for themselves; but what madness and folly is it for them to torment themselves with incessant and unprofitable cares which have no certain object or limit? David here condemns those ardent and unbridled desires, under the influence of which worldly men are carried away, and talk in a strange manner, confounding heaven and earth; for they admit not that they are mortal, much less do they consider that their life is bounded by the narrow limits of a hand-breadth. David spoke under the influence of a distempered and troubled state of mind; but there is included in his language this very profitable lesson, that there is no remedy better fitted for enabling us to rise above all unnecessary cares, than the recollection that the brief period of our life is only, as it were, a hand-breadth.

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