“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” (Psalm 39:11 ESV).
Inhale, then exhale. The lungs expand and retract, the good stuff in, the bad stuff out. All day long, during sleep, while awake, your body breathes. You do it without thinking. A breath occurs, and you do not remember it; its brevity is astounding.
Psalm 39 is full of statements affirming the brevity of life. "Each of us is but a breath," says the psalmist. Exhaled, gone, and momentary. He wrote of his end, the measure of his days, the fleeting nature of his life. He felt his days were a few handbreadths in length, nothing before God. He was a guest and a sojourner in God's great world. Life, the psalmist sang, is short. “Mankind is a mere breath!”
But how ought we respond to the brief nature of our earthly sojourn? If life is short, if God lives in every generation but we only live in ours, if we are but a microscopic dot on the timeline of human history, what should we do? What is our reply to such fragility? How ought we think and feel and act in light of this truth?
1 Get To Work.
First, we respond to the brief nature of life with work. Scripture motivates us to get moving. Life is short. Therefore we have little time to make an impact on others. Jesus taught his disciples to abide in him so they could bear fruit, more fruit, and much fruit. His wish is an abundance of fruitfulness blooming from our lives (John 15:8).
Life can be built with earthy materials — wood, hay, and stubble — stuff which burns up in the fire of eternity. Alternatively, life is constructed with enduring materials — gold, silver, and precious stones — stuff which stands the testing flames of eternity (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). Every believer will appear before Christ's judgment seat, not to decide our eternal destination, for it has been settled for us by our faith in the gospel, but to determine our eternal rewards (2 Corinthians 5:10). Our hope, of course, is to hear Christ say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).
So the brevity of life stirs us to work. We build families, communities, and businesses. We labor in the body of Christ. We watch the church mature and grow. We pour out blood and sweat, working for which Christ has placed in front of us.
2 Get To Rest.
Second, we respond to the brief nature of life with rest. Recently, I read someone declare they were attempting to create works which could last a thousand years. Good luck with that. God goes on, but our vaporish lives will soon be forgotten. Within a generation or two, hardly anyone will know our names. But that reality ought not to depress us, but cause us to rest a little in the magnificence of God.
When every saint in Scripture died, God did not, and his work endured. The pressure of eternity is squarely on his shoulders, for ours could not bear the weight. He will continue. He will raise new laborers for his harvest (Matthew 9:38). He will call and empower young believers for his work (1 Corinthians 12:11). He will use your children’s children for his glory. Our lives aren’t as important as we sometimes imagine them to be. Perhaps the heat of life gets turned down a little when we realize this truth.
So the brevity of life stirs us to rest. God is good. He is on the move. We are partakers in his promises and co-laborers with Christ, but he bears the primary load. Our lives matter, but not like his, so we relax in the joy of just knowing him.
I struggle with a battle for both responses. I want to live in the fullness of each. I don’t want to place undue pressure on life, nor do I want to be slack in the responsibility God wants me to have. I want to husband, parent, and pastor as if life is short, so I better be on the job. However, I also want to carry each responsibility with rest, a certainty that God will move with or without me.