David realized life is short in Psalm 39

Life Is Too Short for Sin

Have you ever been defeated in life? You commit the same sins over and over, fall for the same deceptions and are guilty of the same faults today as yesterday. There seems to be no progress. You make the same promises over and over, “Tomorrow will be better. I won’t do that again!” But then tomorrow comes and you are no better. You feel trapped or insane, doing the same things over and over with no change.

Or maybe you are at a point in life where you’ve sinned so badly that you don’t know how you will recover. Every day is full of dread and weariness. You chafe under the weight of your sin. “If I had only known better!” you might say. Your life is marked by such regret and despondency that nothing seems enjoyable anymore. Progress and joy in life are so far away as to be unattainable.

Typically we are told to look upward to Christ and take hope in these times. But in the midst of our struggles this answer can seem insincere since we are so preoccupied with what is affecting us now. Hope seems distant and remote. And thus this source of comfort and consolation becomes to us a cause for suspicion. “Does God really care for me? Is He really present? And if He is, why doesn’t He make things better? Why does He allow me to suffer?” These are the questions we encounter in our misery.

In Psalm 39 we find a startling response to our grief. In Psalm 39 we find the prayer of a broken-hearted man well known to us. But David, although he was a king, suffered much for his sins and did not hesitate to share them publicly. It is striking how transparent David was with his sin considering this Psalm would have been sung by all Israel. David knew his struggles were relatable and his documented experience has become a rich blessing for saints in the Church throughout the millennia.

(It will help to read the whole passage first and then follow along below)

Reflecting on life

Starting in Psalm 39:1-2, we see the struggle of a man who tried to bottle up his sorrow within- can you relate? And, although he had good reasons for this (he wanted to avoid sinning and being slandered), his silence did not help at all. In fact, it only made things worse! (see vss. 2-3) Eventually David can hold his tongue no more. Yet David does not blow up at people. Rather he pours out his distress to God saying,

“O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Surely a man goes about as a shadow! Surely for nothing they are in turmoil; man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!”   (vss.4-6)

This seems like an unusual response to sin’s failure. Typically, we hear these words quoted at funerals or in relation to a recent death. What could compel David to talk about the brevity of life when he is supposed to be sorry for his sin? Simply put, David came to realize life is too short for sin and its consequences.

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In response to his sin with Bathsheba (See 1 Sam 11-12) David was disciplined by God. At the point of writing Psalm 39, David was likely driven from his palace, ousted by his own traitorous son Absalom (see 2 Sam 16). With his very life in jeopardy, it is no small wonder the king cries out, “Make me to know my end!” David wanted to be reminded of the fragility of life because he had wasted so much of it already having an illicit affair, bearing a child out of wedlock, and handling unending family strife (2 Sam 12:10). He realized he had a limited time on earth and wasn’t satisfied with the direction his life was going.

David had come to a point in his life where he was tired of his sin. He was distressed by how little time man has on earth (Ps 39:5) and by the prospect of leaving behind everything he had worked so hard to accumulate (vs. 6). Indeed, after being removed from his palace, David became a vagabond. He had no possessions and, worst of all, he knew that all of this was his fault. Life looked awful and bleak.

Thus we must realize the familiar words, “let me know how fleeting I am,” were not originally made while mourning the death of a loved one, but in response to the miseries brought by sin. But we must not confuse David’s words as an expression of regret. It is a desperate cry, but not without hope. Rather, David is asking God to give him clarity. He wanted a proper perspective on life. Perhaps this is what you too could use.

The Source of Pain and Its Deliverance

In Ps. 39:7-8 David expresses his firm hope in God. “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.” God had become his only hope and David was very frank in admitting it. It is with this naked confession David can make the following request, “Deliver me from all my transgressions. Do not make me the scorn of the fool!”

Continuing in 2 Samuel 16, we find David in his exile being pelted by rocks by a fool named Shimei (2 Sam 16:5-8). Surprisingly, David bears up under Shimei’s curses though he was still the king and could have had him killed (2 Sam 16:9-12). Thus, when David speaks of being cursed by the fool (vs. 8), he is not speaking hypothetically. He experienced it firsthand. The pain in being cursed by a fool is that they show you no sympathy. This is what David dreaded the most, which is why he prayed for deliverance (vs. 8).

Picking up in vs. 9, we see David went silent because, “you [God] are the one who has done this.” This statement is alarming, for when we read the substance of Shimei’s accusations in 2 Sam 16:8, we see he was completely misguided. Shimei had wrongly cursed David for murdering Saul’s family when in fact he graciously spared his grandson (see 2 Sam 9:1-13). David might have rationalized away the experience by telling himself and others that Shimei was wrong. But David knew better. He knew that even if Shimei was technically wrong, the cursing was still arranged by God for prior sins (2 Sam 12:10). Notice David’s response in 2 Samuel 16:10-11: He says Shimei is doing this because “the LORD told him to.”

Even though Shimei had falsely accused David, David knew God was charging him with sin through the teeth of a fool.  This interpretation is confirmed in vss. 10-11. David acknowledges that this cursing, although wrongful and undeserved in its own right, was brought about by God as a means to discipline him for his sin.

In the final four verses, vss. 10-13, David pleads for God to relent from his discipline. Take special notice of the reasons he gives (in bold):

Remove your stroke from me; I am spent by the hostility of your hand. When you discipline a man with rebukes for sin, you consume like a moth what is dear to him; surely all mankind is a mere breath!” Selah “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not your peace at my tears! For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers. Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!”

At first this request may seem illogical and even irreverent since David is asking God to “look away from me that I may smile again.” He almost seems impatient and paints God as a tormentor who took away everything dear to him. But although David was desperate, he was not being irreverent.

David was utterly frank and humble in confessing to God the weakness of his mortality. He calls his life a breath (see also vs. 5), and says he is like a transient occupying God’s land. He in effect tells God, “Lord, you are perfectly just and this is your earth. But you know I’m only a mortal man. You’ve taken everything dear to me but you must know I was not made to bear this misery. I don’t have much time left on earth. Please restore to me the joys of life before I pass away and can do no more good.” A similar argument is made by David in Psalm 6:5 and Psalm 30:9.

Often we shrink from praying this way because we think God wants us to just chin up and bear it. We confuse this with humility, and David’s pleas with brash impetuousness. But is more humility shown in stoically taking whatever punishment comes our way or in admitting to God we cannot make it on our own and asking Him for help? David’s prayer certainly is bold and desperate, but it was by no means out of line.

What can we learn from David?

  1. David knew his own limitations and was honest to God about them (See Ps 39:3, 4-6, 11-12)

It may seem at times like the issues that bother us are too small for God, our weaknesses too great, or that He must be too fed up with our sin to care. But Peter says, “cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Pet 5:7). God holds you as the apple of His eye (Ps 17:8, Zech 2:8). When you are distressed, God is distressed. He doesn’t delight in His children’s suffering- even if it is their fault! He is not the one to quip, “I told you so!”

  1. David didn’t hide his distress or think it irreverent to ask God for mercy (Ps 39:7, 8, 10, 12-13)

This is exactly what Satan wants you to think. “To ask for God’s grace? That is presumptuous and arrogant!” But nothing could be further from the truth. Return to 1 Peter 5:6-8, and note the bold:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.

To seek God’s help and grace is true humility, but to resist grace under the pretense of reverence is hellish pride (See also Jas 4:6, Luke 18:9-14).

  1. David knew he was meant for more than sin and its consequences and was eager to resume a life of honoring God (Ps. 39:7,13)

We would do well to learn this balance of humility mixed with boldness. God has not made you to suffer under the weight of your sins. You were made for so much more. God has made you for a high and noble calling (Eph. 4:1). God is just as distressed as you are by your failings and desires your restoration. At the end of your life God will bring you to experience His joy and glory forever in heaven, but in the meantime He allows you to experience some of heaven’s joys today. He gives the contented life of fellowship in obedience to Him (Phil 4:11-13, Jn 10:10). It is not too late to experience this joy in being reconciled to God (Is 55:6-7). Let your negative emotions move and drive you to renounce your sin and to seek the Lord once again.


So lift up your sorrows to God. Confess your frailty and your sin. Come to Him with your shattered hopes and fears. Then seek in Him your comfort and relief.

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:15–16

Daniel Flores

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