Verse 4. Man is like to vanity. Adam is like to Abel. He is like that which is nothing at all. He is actually vain, and he resembles that unsubstantial empty thing which is nothing but a blown up nothing, -- a puff, a bubble. Yet he is not vanity, but only like it. He is not so substantial as that unreal thing; he is only the likeness of it. Lord, what is a man? It is wonderful that God should think of such a pretentious insignificance.
His days are as a shadow that passeth away. He is so short lived that he scarcely attains to years, but exists by the day, like the ephemera, whose birth and death are both seen by the self same sun. His life is only like to a shadow, which is in itself a vague resemblance, an absence of something rather than in itself an existence. Observe that human life is not only as a shade, but as a shade which is about to depart. It is a mere mirage, the image of a thing which is not, a phantasm which melts back into nothing. How is it that the Eternal should make so much of mortal man, who begins to die as soon as he begins to live?
The connection of the two verses before us with the rest of the psalm is not far to seek: David trusts in God and finds him everything; he looks to man and sees him to be nothing; and then he wonders how it is that the great Lord can condescend to take notice of such a piece of folly and deceit as man.
EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS
Verse 4. Man is like to vanity As he that goeth to a fair, with a purse full of money, is devising and debating with himself how to lay it out -- possibly thinking that such and such commodities will be most profitable, and bring him in the greatest gain -- when on a sudden a cut purse comes and eases him both of his money and care how to dispose of it. Surely you might have taken notice how some of thy neighbours or countrymen, when they have been busy in their contrivances, and big with many plots and projects how to raise their estate and names and families, were arrested by death in a moment, returned to their earth, and in that day all their gay, their great thoughts perished, and came to nothing. The heathen historian could not but observe how Alexander the Great, when he had to carry on his great designs, summoned a parliament before him of the whole world, he was himself summoned by death to appear in the other world. The Dutch, therefore, very wittily to express the world's vanity, picture at Amsterdam a man with a full blown bladder on his shoulders, and another standing by pricking the bladder with a pin, with this motto, quam subito, How soon is all blown down! --George Swinnock.
Verse 4. Man is like to vanity. When Cain was born, there was much ado about his birth; "I have gotten a man child from God", saith his mother: she looked upon him as a great possession, and therefore called his name Cain, which signifies "a possession." But the second man that was born unto the world bare the title of the world, "vanity"; his name was Abel, that is, "vanity." A premonition was given in the name of the second man what would or should be the condition of all men. In Psalms 144:4 there is an allusion unto those two names. We translate it, "Man is like to vanity"; the Hebrew is, "Adam is as Abel"; Adam, you know, was the name of the first man, the name of Abel's father; but as Adam was the proper name of the first, so it is an appellative, or common to all men: now Adam, that is, man of all men, are Abel, vain, and walking in a vain show. --Joseph Caryl.
Verse 4. Man is like to vanity, etc. The occasion of the introduction of these sentiments here is not quite clear. It may be the humility of the warrior who ascribes all success to God instead of to human prowess, or it may be a reflection uttered over the corpses of comrades, or, perhaps a blending of the two. --A.S. Aglen.
Verse 4. Man is like to vanity, etc. With what idle dreams, what foolish plans, what vain pursuits, are men for the most part occupied! They undertake dangerous expeditions and difficult enterprises in foreign countries, and they acquire fame; but what is it? -- Vanity! They pursue deep and abstruse speculations, and give themselves to that "much study which is a weariness to the flesh", and they attain to literary renown, and survive in their writings; but what is it? -- Vanity! They rise up early, and sit up late, and eat the bread of anxiety and care, and thus they amass wealth; but what is it? -- Vanity! They frame and execute plans and schemes of ambition -- they are loaded with honours and adorned with titles -- they afford employment for the herald, and form a subject for the historian; but what is it? -- Vanity! In fact, all occupations and pursuits are worthy of no other epithet, if they are not preceded by, and connected with, a deep and paramount regard to the salvation of the soul, the honour of God, and the interests of eternity ... Oh, then, what phantoms, what airy nothings are those things that wholly absorb the powers and occupy the days of the great mass of mankind around us! Their most substantial good perishes in the using, and their most enduring realities are but "the fashion of this world that passeth away." --Thomas Raffles, 1788-1863.
Verse 4. A shadow that passeth away. The shadows of the mountains are constantly shifting their position during the day, and ultimately disappear altogether on the approach of night: so is it with man who is every day advancing to the moment of his final departure from this world. --Bellarmine.
HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS
Verse 4. He is nothing, he pretends to be something, he is soon gone, he ends in nothing as to this life; yet there is a light somewhere.
Verse 4. The Shadow World.
- Our lives are like shadows.
- But God's light casts these shadows. Our being is of God. The brevity and mystery of life are a part of providence.
- The destiny of the shadows; eternal night; or eternal light. --W.B.H.
Verse 4. The brevity of our earthly life.
- A profitable subject for meditation.
- A rebuke to those who provide for this life alone.
- A trumpet call to prepare for eternity.
- An incentive to the Christian to make the best of this life for the glory of God. --J.F.