Ps 39:4 “LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.”
Can you imagine going to a sporting event with no scoreboard, boundaries, or time constraints? Too often our lives are characterized by a lack of urgency and unction because we tend to lose the acute awareness of our pervasive finiteness. How do we get that sacred drive back-through prayer! Prayer alone can regularly remind us how weighty every day truly is in light of the eternity that is rushing headlong at us.
David, who appears to be recovering from not only the threat of enemies in Psalm 38 but serious illness in this Psalm, models the role of prayer in measuring each day with God’s perspective:
Prayer enlightens us to know our end. (vv. 1-6)
David submitted to the knowledge that his life was brief. First, he resolved not to sin by his words. He kept silent in the presence of his enemies, but suppressing his feelings only aggravated his suffering. Second, he sought relief from his frustration by submitting to the Lord’s determination of his life. He prayed that the Lord would help him know the brevity of life. This prayer was prompted by the awareness that life is brief in duration—like a handbreadth and a breath.
This is move by the Psalmist is bold, because it raises two tough issues: facing death, “the last enemy” (1 Co. 15:26) and pondering our eternal destiny (He. 9:27). But the immediate application is to this life, because how we handle death and eternity, whether biblical or otherwise, affects every aspect of our thinking and practical living. In our youth, with life mostly before us, we live as if we are immortal. We also tend to view the aged unsympathetically, as if their declining faculties and approaching death is “what old people do” and can cope with easily. Then, when age and infirmity hit us personally and we realize our lives are fleeting and have only two choices left: complain to others or regret to ourselves. But…. there is a third option-to prayerfully anticipate our end before we get there and preemptively live in light of it now.
Prayer directs us where to unload our doubts. (7-11)
The second prayer of David answers the practical unbelief of his first with repentance and an implicit appeal for help: he hopes in God; he confesses sin; acknowledges that the things that got him down were God’s doings; and he admits he needs chastisement. Realizing that his afflictions were due to his sins, David cast himself wholly on the Lord to make his brief sojourn in life enjoyable. He expressed his commitment to the Lord in the words My hope is in You.
Because our doubts are frequently directed at the God who is in charge of our lives, He is the last one we feel like talking to with our disbelief. Hard-to-swallow providences are difficult to handle, but prayer enables us to process them with growing faith in God. Faith, especially during difficult seasons where God is correcting us, tends to fade as we age. The only sure antidote to that heart-level slippage is humble supplications to the God of all hope who only has our best in mind. He never wastes pain-the prayed-up believer believes that even when life feels so short.
Prayer enables us to sanctify our passion. (vv. 12-13)
The call for divine attendance unto the psalmist’s prayer is accompanied with the request, “hold not thy peace at my tears.” Frequently, tears speak more eloquently than a thousand tongues. The sincerity of a tear does not go unnoticed by God. The psalmist is no longer anxious for death, although he is well aware that death is his lot. Instead, he requests a breathing space, a time of refreshment and service before he is no more. He is profoundly conscious of disappointing God by doubting his love and sovereignty in the hard experiences that have so worn him down. When he says he is a “stranger” and “sojourner” with God “as all my fathers were,” he is not complaining in self-pity, but owning it as a badge of God’s covenant love for him and his covenant privilege as a child of God. His final appeal is for forgiveness— “O Spare me”—that he might recover usefulness in his service.
Let’s be honest; any healthy, vibrant human being longs to live longer. Prayer gives us a way to articulate that desire as well as sanctify it. If we are not careful, the prayers prompted by near brushes with death are too much about us and too little about the Lord. No matter what sensations the brevity of life evoke in your heart, the righteous response will always be in harmony with the Psalmist-prayer. Are you feeling weak and worn down? Pray. Are you losing loves ones to sickness and death? Pray. Are you feeling old? Pray. Are you feeling the shadow of death cross over the immediate path in front of your feet? Pray!
The featured picture was taken by me exactly one year ago on November 12, 2018. On that ordinary-day-to-me, I was in a plane over our church building with a dear pilot who just a few months later entered eternity in a tragic plane crash and is today looking at the face of God. When this picture unexpectedly popped up in my social media feed this morning, it jolted me emotionally and moved me to pray with not only David but also Moses, “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). As the writer Annie Dillard famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” To spend them well is to spend them in prayer!