4 Unable to resolve his problem, the psalmist turns to the Lord for instruction. The purpose of knowing life’s end is not that he may plan for every day of his life. He does not ask to know all that will happen but only what is the purpose of life. In the greater awareness of the brevity of life, he hopes that the Lord will guide him in an understanding and acceptance of this brevity. Notice the threefold mention of the brevity of life: “my life’s end,” “the number of my days,” and “how fleeting is my life” (cf. Ps 90; Job 11:7–9; Ecc 2:3).
Prayer is God’s means of instruction. In the quietness of prayer, the psalmist returns to the revealed insights pertaining to his life and to life in general. Because the question was personal, his first insight is personal. But the sage in him is not content until he has generalized it to be applicable to humankind.
Show me, O Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how ﬂeeting is my life (v. 4). The word ‘end’ is never used of geographical limits but always of either God’s judgments, or, as here, of the end of life. The psalmist wants divine instruction regarding the nature of human life. It is only temporary, and short-lived, and he prays that he may understand this. This section is very similar in idea to Psalm 90:1–12, where the counting of days is not just numerical but rather an understanding of human life and its frailty.
39:4 Show me, Lord, my life’s end. His concern, interestingly enough, is not about sin but about the brevity of life. He wants to know when he will die, not so much to mark the calendar but to understand better the brevity and frailty of life.
Ver. 4. My heart was hot within me; while I was musing, the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue, Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is, that I may know how frail I am.—A sense of our frailty a subject for prayer:—
Bishop Horsley says that David, moved by a godly contrition, pours forth this prayer, that he might know his end and the measure of his days.
- Why should contrition lead to such a prayer? David speaks not of forgiveness, though that is what the contrite heart first asks for. But he does not here pray even for this. Apparently he does not, but really he does. For the prayer to be taught how frail we are, is virtually a prayer that we may be made holier, more averse from sin, and more devoted to the great end of our being. That it is this is shown—
- By the fact that the interval between the evil work and the execution of the sentence against it causes the hearts of men to be steadfastly set in them to do evil. If penalty followed immediately on crime, men would not dare to sin as now they fearlessly do. They trust themselves to the hope that delay in punishment ever inspires. There is a sort of unacknowledged idea that what is protracted and indefinite will never take effect. A thousand things may intervene to prevent execution.
- Or there is at work another, and not wholly different feeling. It is confessed that sin must be repented and forsaken, seeing that otherwise there will come a fearful retribution hereafter; but it is imagined that life will yet afford many opportunities, so that it is safe, or at least not imminently dangerous, to persist a while longer in criminal indulgence, which keeps up the sinner in this his procrastination. If you could practically overthrow this his theory, and substitute for it the persuasion, that “in the midst of life he is in death,” he would be almost compelled, by his felt exposure to danger, to make provision for the coming eternity, on the threshold of which he may be at any moment standing, and which may be upon him, in its awfulness and unchangeableness, ere he draw another breath. How many still believe the ancient lie with which the tempter deceived Eve, “Ye shall not surely die.” How few live “as strangers and pilgrims” here on earth. Instead of that there is a great settling themselves down, as if earth were their home; a slackness in religious duties, as if there were no great cause for diligence; a deferring of many sacrifices and performances, as though the case were not urgent; and this, too, where the parties not only avouch themselves careful for the soul, but are clearly to be distinguished from the great mass around them, by a general endeavour to do the will of their God. And what should we say is needed, in order to the correcting these errors and inconsistencies? What, at least, would be a mighty engine in producing greater steadfastness in the righteous, greater abstraction from earth, greater devotedness to religion? We reply without hesitation—a deep conviction of the uncertainty of life. Had men such conviction they could not live, as now they do, so entangled in the world, so eager in its service. It would warn him back from the inordinate pursuit of earthly things.
- But note the petition itself. What a curious fact it is that such a petition should be offered unto God. Its terms are explicit enough, at least there can be little doubt as to its drift. He does not mean that God should show him the exact measure of his days and the precise number of them he had yet to live. Such a petition would be unlawful, for it would be an intrusion into those “secret things” which “belong only unto God.” But that which the psalmist seeks to know is, the frailty of his life. This is the drift and scope of the petition, that he may have an abiding sense of the shortness and uncertainty of life. Now, is it not strange that such a prayer should be offered? I do not ask God to make me know that such and such substances are poisonous when all example testifies that they are; or that the weather is variable, when I have such continual proof of it. I do not pray to know anything, which I know indubitably from books, or testimony, or observation. Why, then, pray to be made to know how frail I am? It seems like praying to be made to know that the sun rises and sets; that storms may suddenly overcast the sky, or that any other thing may happen which we already know is wont to happen. And yet David, who was as little likely as we are to shut his eyes to well-known truths—he offers up this prayer, “Lord, make me to know mine end,” etc. I cannot but draw a lesson from this for one’s own ministerial guidance in the discharge of the ministerial office. If there is one thing more than another I would desire to have impressed on all classes of my hearers, it is the simple, self-evident, universally confessed truth, that they are frail beings liable at any moment to death, and certain at no very distant time to be removed to another, even to an invisible world. I have already shown you that there is little needed, beyond the abiding consciousness of this truth, to produce in those who have hitherto neglected religion, an earnest heedfulness to the things of eternity; and in others, who have devoted themselves to God, an increased and increasing diligence in the culture of personal holiness. So that it will naturally be one great aim of the minister to gain power for the truth of the uncertainty of life; to withdraw it from the mass of facts, which are acknowledged rather than felt, and to place it amongst those which influence the conduct. How is he to proceed in the accomplishment of this aim? You know very well what is ordinarily tried; and if reason sit in judgment on the matter, it might possibly pronounce it best fitted to succeed. There are arrayed all the affecting evidences that can be gathered together of human frailty. But, however fair and admirable in theory, is this course practically effective when the fact of which we desire to produce conviction is the uncertainty of life? Alas! no. The universal testimony from ministerial experience, is that a well wrought sermon on the frailty of life is commonly ineffectual to the making men on the watch for the approaches of death. Here it is that our text comes in with a great lesson. It does but echo this result of ministerial experience. The psalmist prays to be made to know his frailty; as though quite aware that meditation and observation would never bring it home to him, notwithstanding that it seemed impossible for him to shut his eyes to the fact. And if it be a thing for prayer, it is evident enough that all meditations amongst the tombs, and all musings over the dead, will be practically of no avail, except as they bring men to their knees. Here, then, is the great lesson which, as a minister, I gather from the text. I wish to impress on you your frailty, and entreat you to let this be part of your daily prayer to the Almighty—“Make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.” (Henry Melvill, B.D.)
Reflections for the New Year:—
- That human life must terminate. The knowledge and belief that our times are in God’s hand have a powerful influence in making us humble, self-denied, watchful and holy. The return of day and night, the revolution of the heavenly bodies, the beating of our hearts, the circulation of the blood, every clock in our chamber, and every watch we carry, all proclaim the affecting truth, that our days are hastening to an end.
- That the measure of our days is determined by God. The sovereignty of the Most High is eminently discovered in the various admeasurements of human life.
III. That the knowledge of our end, and of the measure, of our days is of great practical utility in the Christian life. “That I may know how frail I am.”
- That God alone can teach us the end, the measure, and the value of the present life. “Lord, make me to know mine end,” etc. This is a lesson which the wisdom of men cannot teach. We hear, we confess the general truth that all must die; but we act as if it were not true, as if it never were to be interpreted of ourselves! But when God teaches us our end, He inspires us with other views. No person can be indifferent to death and mortality when God is his teacher. (Christian Magazine.)
“Make me to know mine end”:—
From this prayer it would appear that men are prone to forget their end. Why do men forget their last end?
- Not because there can be any doubt as to its importance. What a momentous event is death! The termination of our earthly connection, and our introduction into a state, mysterious, retributive, probably unalterable.
- Not because men have no reminders of it. If you see a painting, the artist is in his grave—a book, the author is no more—a portrait, the subject is gone to dust.
- Not because there is the slightest hope of avoiding it. “It is appointed unto all men once to die.”
- An instinctive repugnance to it. All men dread it.
- 2. The difficulty of realizing it. We cannot possibly know what it is to die. It is a knowledge that can only be got by experience.
- The commonness of the occurrence. If only a few in a whole country died in the course of a year, and one or two in our neighbourhood, the strangeness might affect us.
- The general hope of longevity.
- The soul engrossing power of worldly things. “What shall we eat, what shall we drink, wherewithal shall we be clothed?” This is the all absorbing question. But why should men consider their latter end?
(1) To moderate their attachment to earthly things.
(2) To stimulate preparation for a higher state.
(3) To enable us to welcome it when it comes. (Homilist.)
Brief life is here our portion:—
Some see a kind of pettishness in this verse, the fruit of impatience under the chastening hand of God. But it is not for us to upbraid the psalmist, for what is his impatience compared to ours? David prays, “Make me to know mine end.” But was his frailty a secret that he could not discover? We may be sure that he knew it in part, but he wanted to know it after a more perfect way; with that spiritual enlightenment which God alone could communicate. Thus he would know—
- His end. Do we know this?
- Its certainty. I must die. There is no discharge in that war. Is that fact realized by us?
- It will be our end. Not a halt, but a finale. Mine end for all things beneath the sun—sin, sorrow, service, opportunity for doing and getting good. Think of the accompaniments of our end, the last scenes here in which we shall take part. Picture it all to your minds so far as you can. Rehearse it so far as you may. And think of its results. Then it is that though we end here, we enter on the most solemn part of our existence. Whither wilt thou go? To be with Christ, or amongst the lost—which? We need to be made to know our end, made to believe in it firmly, realize it vividly, so as to be prepared for it whenever it comes.
- The measure of his days. It is only the days of God that cannot be counted. Ours can, “as poor men count their sheep,” because they are so few. But the fact that man is sinful makes it blessed that his days should be few. Would we have a Voltaire for ever stalking about this world, or such as he? Let us measure our days so as not to waste them.
III. His frailty. We are like travellers on a road across which there is a deep gulf. Some know it, but most forget it. Those in the front ranks fall into it, and the others will, but as yet they think not of it. So we all go on until we come to that fatal step which will plunge us into eternity. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
4. “Lord.” It is well that the vent of his soul was Godward and not towards man. Oh! if my swelling heart must speak, Lord let it speak with thee; even if there be too much of natural heat in what I say, thou wilt be more patient with me than man, and upon thy purity it can cast no stain; whereas if I speak to my fellows, they may harshly rebuke me or else learn evil from my petulance. “Make me to know my end.” Did he mean the same as Elias in his agony, “Let me die, I am no better than my fathers?” Perhaps so. At any rate, he rashly and petulantly desired to know the end of his wretched life, that he might begin to reckon the days till death should put a finis to his woe. Impatience would pry between the folded leaves. As if there were no other comfort to be had, unbelief would fain hide itself in the grave and sleep itself into oblivion. David was neither the first nor the last who had spoken unadvisedly in prayer. Yet, there is a better meaning: the Psalmist would know more of the shortness of life, that he might better bear its transient ills, and herein we may safely kneel with him, uttering the same petition. That there is no end to its misery is the hell of hell; that there is an end to life’s sorrow is the hope of all who have a hope beyond the grave. God is the best teacher of the divine philosophy which looks for an expected end. They who see death through the Lord’s glass, see a fair sight, which makes them forget the evil of life in foreseeing the end of life. “And the measure of my days.” David would fain be assured that his days would be soon over and his trials with them; he would be taught anew that life is measured out to us by wisdom, and is not a matter of chance. As the trader measures his cloth by inches, and ells, and yards, so with scrupulous accuracy is life measured out to man. “That I may know how frail I am,” or when I shall cease to be. Alas! poor human nature, dear as life is, man quarrels with God at such a rate that he would sooner cease to be than bear the Lord’s appointment. Such pettishness in a saint! Let us wait till we are in a like position, and we shall do no better. The ship on the stocks wonders that the barque springs a leak, but when it has tried the high seas, it marvels that its timbers hold together in such storms. David’s case is not recorded for our imitation, but for our learning.
 VanGemeren, W. A. (2008). Psalms. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Psalms (Revised Edition) (Vol. 5, p. 360). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Harman, A. (2011). Psalms: A Mentor Commentary (Vol. 1–2, pp. 330–331). Ross-shire, Great Britain: Mentor.
 Bullock, C. H. (2015). Psalms 1–72. (M. L. Strauss & J. H. Walton, Eds.) (Vol. 1, p. 299). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Exell, J. S. (1909). The Biblical Illustrator: The Psalms (Vol. 2, pp. 288–290). New York; Chicago; Toronto; London; Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company; Francis Griffiths.
 Spurgeon, C. H. (n.d.). The treasury of David: Psalms 27-57 (Vol. 2, pp. 215–216). London; Edinburgh; New York: Marshall Brothers.