The ephemeral existence of man is a theme to which I keep returning these days. From our general perspective, a lifetime seems to go on forever, though that perspective changes over the years.
When I was young, summer days and blue skies seemed to go on forever. Summers seemed to be endless. I could not wait to be older. Old age was a very distant horizon.
As we get older, the pace of life quickens. We fill up our days to overflowing with busyness and activities. We are constant thinking, planning, worrying, distracted, looking forward, stewing over the past, attending to the needs of spouses and children and clients and customers and neighbors and co-workers and … we hardly notice how time passes.
Every once in a while we stop and think on it, but even the thoughts about how quickly the children have grown are fleeting. They rise and ebb into the flow of the preoccupations of our lives like so much mist in the fog of living.
Even less often, we come face to face with the reality of our own mortality. When a loved one, friend or acquaintance dies, especially if they die too young, we cannot escape the thought of our own inevitable demise, and we are uncomfortable dwelling on it. Sometimes other things trigger the thought. As we get older, it becomes less easy to put off.
This is good! The truth is that we are fleeting. Our lives are, literally, passing. In the span of time, our lives are less than momentary – like smoke in the wind.
God and His Word are eternal.
We need to understand the character of our existence in the world in comparison to the unsurpassing glory of God. When we do, we begin to understand the incredible grace and extent of His love for us. That God would even acknowledge us is beyond incredible! And more than that, He loves us; He made us for His purpose. When we see our lives for what they are, we begin to appreciate our utter dependence on God and desperate need to be right with Him who made us from dust!
Lord, make me to know my end
And what is the extent of my days;
He amasses riches and does not know who will gather them.
And now, Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in You[viii]. (Psalm 39:4-7)
[i] The word translated “transient” is emphasized in the Hebrew (using contract emphasis), meaning “not just a little”! We might call it an understatement of the true character. To say that I am “transient” (fleeting, passing, momentary, ephemeral, transitory) is understating the truth of the matter.
[ii] The word translated “handbreadths” contains “focus emphasis” in the original text, meaning that this word is meant to be focused on. You might imagine an exclamation mark (!) on that one word.
[iii] ‘ayin/369 – nothing (“nought”), non-existence viewed as actual or hypothetical (according to on the context). This is a very strong negation and means: “none at all”; “absolutely without”; “not one example”; “there is not, was not, will not be.” The context indicates the exact sense.
[iv] heel/1892 – literally, a vapor, disappearing like a breath; vanity, coming to no purpose (“in vain”) – without substance or value; what is “vaporous, coming to zero” – without meaning because merely temporary and fleeting (transient); be worthless, come to naught, futility, like worldly possessions and achievements “gained” apart from faith – hence of no eternal meaning (cf. Ecc 12:13 with Rom 14:23, Heb 11:6). The word translated “mere breath” is also emphasized using contrast emphasis, meaning “not just a little”! The meaning of the word is understated compared to the reality.
[v] The original text is hithpael, meaning that the action involves a high degree of self, suggesting in this context that man walks about in self-absorption while he is, in reality, but a phantom (image or reflection of God).
[vi] 6754/elem – image, “something cut out” (BDB), a representation. It is used five times of God creating mankind in His Essence, i.e. “cut out of” the same stock (“in His likeness”). Man is nothing in himself; his value is found in the God who’s image/reflection is found in man.
[vii] heel/1892 again, and again focus emphasis is used to underscore the importance of the word in the sentence, focusing the emphasis on the word “nothing”.
[viii] The focus emphasis in this sentence is on “You” (God), which is the point of the entire passage. God is the supreme focus, not man. God is all and man is nothing. We are only of value in relation to God.
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