Psalm 146:4

 

EXPOSITION

Verse 4. His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth. His breath goes from his body, and his body goes to the grave. His spirit goes one way, and his body another. High as he stood, the want of a little air brings him down to the ground, and lays him under it. Man who comes from the earth returns to the earth: it is the mother and sister of his body, and he must needs lie among Ins kindred as soon as the spirit which was his life has made its exit. There is a spirit in man, and when that goes the man goes. The spirit returns to God who gave it, and the flesh to the dust out of which it was fashioned. This is a poor creature to trust in: a dying creature, a corrupting creature. Those hopes will surely fall to the ground which are built upon men who so soon lie under ground.

In that very day his thoughts perish. Whatever he may have proposed to do, the proposal ends in smoke. He cannot think, and what he had thought of cannot effect itself, and therefore it dies. Now that he is gone, men are ready enough to let his thoughts go with him into oblivion; another thinker comes, and turns the thoughts of his predecessor to ridicule. It is a pitiful thing to be waiting upon princes or upon any other men, in the hope that they will think of us. In an hour they are gone, and where are their schemes for our promotion? A day has ended their thoughts by ending them; and our trusts have perished, for their thoughts have perished. Men's ambitions, expectations, declarations, and boastings all vanish into thin air when the breath of life vanishes from their bodies. This is the narrow estate of man: his breath, his earth, and his thoughts; and this is his threefold climax therein, -- his breath goeth forth, to his earth he returns, and his thoughts perish. Is this a being to be relied upon? Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. To trust it would be a still greater vanity.

 

EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS

Verse 4. He returneth to his earth. The earth -- the dust -- is "his."

  1. It is "his" as that from which he was made: he turns back to what he was, Genesis 3:19 . "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
  2. The earth -- the dust -- the grave is "his", and it is his home -- the place where he will abide.
  3. It is "his" as it is the only property which he has in reversion. All that a man -- a prince, a nobleman, a monarch, a millionaire -- will soon have will be his grave, his few feet of earth. That will be his by light of possession, by the fact that for the time being he will occupy it, and not another man! But that, too, may soon become another man's grave, so that even there he is a tenant only for a time; he has no permanent possession even of a grave. --Albert Barnes.

Verse 4. His breath goeth forth. There is the death's head, the mortality of man indeed, that a breath is as much as his being is worth. Our soul, that spiraculum vitarum (breath of lives), the Lord inspired it, not into Adam's eye, or ear, or mouth, but into his nostrils, which may show to man his imbecility, cujus anima in naribus, whose soul is in his nostrils, and depends upon a breath, as it were; for the very soul must away if but breath expires; soul and breath go forth together.

Now hear this, all ye people, ponder it high and low; your castle is built upon the very air, the subsistence is in your nostrils, in a breath that is gone in the twinkling of an eye. Wherefore David maketh a question, saying, "Lord, what is man?" He answereth himself also: "Man is a vanishing shadow" ( Psalms 144:3-4 ), a shadow of smoke, or the dream of a shadow rather, as the poet speaketh. Blessed therefore are the poor in spirit; this advantage have all afflicted ones, that they have checks enough to call them home, and make them see they be but men. The curtain of honour, profit, or pleasure, hard it is and rare to draw aside when it is spread over us: "man in honour understandeth not" (Ps 49:20). To great ones therefore be it spoken; the Psalm intends it of very princes: "His breath goeth forth."

See we now the continuity, exit, "it goeth" as if it were now presently in its passage: showing this, that Homo vivens continue moritur, that life is a continued death; our candle lightens, consumes, and dies: as in the passing of an hourglass, every minute some sand faileth, and the glass once turned, no creature can intreat the sands to stay, but they continue to fall till all are gone: so is our life, it shortens and dies every minute, and we cannot beg a minute of time back, and that which we call death is but the termination, or consummation of it. --Thomas Williamson; in a Sermon, entitled, "A Comfortable Meditation of Humane Frailtie and Divine Mercie", 1630.

Verse 4. The primary idea of breath and the secondary one of spirit run into each other in the usage of the Hebrew word xwr, so that either may be expressed in the translation without entirely excluding the other. --Joseph Addison Alexander.

Verse 4. His breath (or spirit) goeth forth. Now I come to the liberty of the spirit, that it recedes inviolate;

  1. In Act; "it goeth":
  2. In Essence; "it goeth forth."

  1. Our spirit is free in the act; it is not snatched, as it were; "it goeth." A soul in life sealed to eternity by the first fruits of the Spirit hath its good issue, its free passing, its hopes even in death; for let this breath fade, fidelis Deus, God who cannot lie, will stand nigh us in that exigency, and begin to help where man leaveth. The Holy Spirit, whose name is the Comforter, will not omit and leave off his own act or office in the great needs of death. Hence good Hilarion, having served the Lord Christ seventy years, checks his soul that it was so loath at the last to go forth, saying, Egredere, O anima mea, egredere, "Go forth, my soul, go forth." Devout Simeon sues for a manumission: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word." The spirit goeth forth; it passes freely; because it taketh up or embraces the cross of Christ, as he commandeth us to do. But is the act at our will and liberty? Not simply. We may not projicere animam, thrust or cast forth our breath or spirit; spiritus exit, it goeth forth. Strive, we must, to cast the world out of us; we may not cast ourselves out of the world. Saint Paul dares not dissolve himself, though he could wish to be dissolved: God must part that which he joins; God giveth, and God taketh away; and if God say, as he doth to Lazarus, Exi foras, Come forth; with faithful Stephen we must resign our spirit and all into his hands. When God biddeth us yoke, he is the wisest man that yieldeth his neck most willingly. When our great Captain recalls us, we must take the retreat in good part. But it is heathenish to force out the soul; for when the misdeeming flesh, amidst our disasters, will not listen with patience for God's call, but rather shake off the thought of divine providence quite, then are we ready to curse God and die, and that is probably to leap e fumo in flammam, out of the sin of self murder into hell. No, but God will have our spirits to pass forth upon good terms. Spiritus exit, "the spirit goeth forth."
  2. Secondly, the spirit goeth free or inviolate in essence; death is not the end, but the outgoing of the soul, a transmigration or journey from one place to another. "It goeth forth"; so the character of our weakness we see in the issue; it is an argument of our eternity; for man indeed is perishing, but so is not his spirit. The phoenix goes forth or out of his ashes, "the spirit returneth to God who gave it" (Ec 12:7); that is, it abides still; and as in the body it pleased God to inclose the soul for a season, so it may as well exist elsewhere without it, if God will; for it hath no rise at all from the clay, yea, it bears in it immortality, an image of that breast whence it is breathed. The separate and very abstract acts of the spirit, even while it is in the body, the wondrous visions of the Lord to his prophets, usually when their bodies were bound up in sleep; Saint Paul's rapture when he knew not whether he was in the body or out of it; the admirable inventions and arts of men, manifest the soul's self consisting. Not Socrates, and Cato, and the civilised heathen only, but the very savages believe this, and so entertain death, ut exitum, non ut exitium, as a dissolution, not as a destruction: spiritus exit, "his spirit goeth forth." -- Thomas Williamson.

Verse 4. His breath goeth forth, etc. The Hebrew gives the idea not that the spirit, but the mortal part of man will return to the dust. "His soul (fem. xwr) goeth forth", i.e., returneth to God; "returneth he (masc. bf) to his earth." As in Ecclesiastes 12:7 : "He" is the mortal man of clay, but "his breath" (soul) is the real immortal man. --Simon de Muis.

Verse 4. He returneth to his earth. Returning, in its proper notion, is a going back to that place from whence we came, so that in this clause here is a threefold truth, implied, expressed, inferred.

  1. That which is implied in this phrase of returning is, that man in respect of his body came from the earth; and as it is here implied, so it is expressed concerning the first man by Moses ( Genesis 2:7 ). "The Lord God formed man" (that is, the body of man) "of the dust"; or according to the Hebrew "dust of the ground"; and by St. Paul ( 1 Corinthians 15:47 ), where he saith, "The first man is of the earth, earthy." True it is, we are formed in our mother's womb; but yet inasmuch as we all came from the first man, we are truly said to come from the earth; only with this difference, that he immediately, we mediately are framed out of the earth. This truth was engraven in full characters upon the name of the first man, who is called Adam, from a word that signifieth red earth, and that very word is here used, perhaps to mind us of that earth whereof man was first made; yea, according to the usual etymology, the name homo, which in the Latin is a common name to both sexes, is derived ab humo, from the ground. For this reason it is that the earth is called by the poet magna parens, the great parent of all mankind, and in the answer of the Oracle, our mother; and in this respect we are said by Eliphaz "to dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust", Job 4:19 .
  2. That which is expressed is, that man (when he dieth) returneth to the earth, pant[z lcsm[nsi ksniz [vm[n saith the poet, "We are all dust when dissolved." As the white snow when melted is black water; so flesh and blood when bereaved of the soul become dust and ashes: in which respect St. Paul giveth this epithet of "vile" to our bodies. Philippians 3:21 . Indeed, man's original being from the earth, he had a natural propensity to earth; according to the maxim, Omne principiatum sequitur naturam principiorum, "Everything hath an aptitude of returning to the principle whence it cometh"; but yet had he not turned away from God he had never actually returned thither. It is sin which hath brought upon man a necessity of dying, and that dying brings a necessity of returning to the earth: in which respect it is observable, that the threat, "thou shalt die the death" (Ge 2:17), which was denounced against man before his fall, being afterwards renewed ( Genesis 3:19 ), is explained (as to temporal death) by these words, "to dust thou shalt return"; so that now the motion of the little world man is like that of the great, Circulare ab eodem puncto ad idem, from the same to the same; and that as in his soul from God to God, so in his body from the earth to the earth. The rivers come from the sea, and they return thither. The sun ariseth out of the east, and thither it returneth. Man is formed of the earth, and into earth he is again transformed: with which agreeth that of the poet Lucretius:
Cedit item retro de terra quod fuit ante.

  1. That which is inferred in the emphatic pronoun "his", which is annexed to the noun "earth", is that the earth to which man returneth is his; this being that which ariseth out of both the former conclusions; since it is therefore his earth because he cometh from and returneth to it. Earth is man's Genesis and Analysis, his composition and resolution, his Alpha and Omega, his first and last; Ortus pulvis, finis cinis; earth is his both originally and finally. So that our bodies can challenge no alliance with, or property in anything so much as earth. For if we call those things ours which had only an external relation to us, as our friends, our horses, our goods, our lands; much more may we call that our earth whereof we are made and into which we shall moulder; no wonder it is here said to be "his"; so elsewhere he is said to be earth, as being called by that name. -- Nathanael Hardy, in a Funeral Sermon entitled, "Man's Last Journey to his Long Home", 1659.

Verse 4. In that very day his thoughts perish. The thoughts which the Psalmist here, no doubt, especially intends are those purposes which are in the minds of great men of doing good to those who are under, and depend upon them. The Hebrew word here used is derived from a verb that signifieth to be bright: cogitationes serenae, those candid, serene, benign, benevolent thoughts which they have of advancing their allies, friends and followers. These thoughts are said to "perish" in "that day" wherein they are conceived; so Tremellius glosses. In which sense the instability of great men's favour is asserted, whose smiles are quickly changed into frowns, love into hatred, and so in a moment their mind being changed, their well wishing thoughts vanish. But more rationally, "their thoughts perish in that day" wherein their persons die, because there is no opportunity of putting their purposes into execution. They perish like the child which comes to the birth, and there is no strength to bring forth; or like the fruit which is plucked off before it be ripe. Whilst they live we may be deceived in our expectations by the alteration of their minds; but, however, their condition is mortal, and when that great change by death comes, their designs (how well so ever meant) must want success.

From hence it followeth, which is by some looked upon as a part of the meaning of the words, that the thoughts or hopes of them who trust in them perish. It is a true apothegm, Major pars hominum expectundo moritur; the greatest part of men perish by expectation. And good reason, inasmuch as their expectation, being misplaced, perisheth. How strongly this argument serveth to press the Psalmist's caution against confidence in man, though never so great, is obvious. It is true, princes and nobles being invested with honour, wealth and authority, have power in their hands, and perhaps they may have thoughts in their hearts to do thee good; but, alas, how uncertain is the execution of those intentions, and therefore how foolish is it to depend upon them. "Trust in the Lord Jehovah" (saith the prophet), "for with him is everlasting strength." Aye, and with him is unchangeable goodness. It is safe building upon the rock, trusting upon God, whose thoughts of mercy are (like himself) from everlasting to everlasting; but nothing is more foolish than to build on the sand, trust to men, whose persons, together with their thoughts, perish in a moment. Therefore let our resolution be that of David: "It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man; it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes", Psalms 118:8-9 . --Nathanael Hardy.

Verse 4. In that very day his thoughts perish. At death a man sees all those thoughts which were not spent upon God to be fruitless. All worldly, vain thoughts, in the day of death perish and come to nothing. What good will the whole globe of the world do at such a time? Those who have revelled out their thoughts in impertinences will but be the more disquieted; it will cut them to the heart to think how they have spun a fool's thread. A Scythian captain having, for a draught of water, yielded up a city, cried out: "What have I lost? What have I betrayed?" So will it be with that man when he comes to die, who hath spent all his meditations upon the world; he will say, What have I lost? What have I betrayed? I have lost heaven, I have betrayed my soul. Should not the consideration of this fix our minds upon the thoughts of God and glory? All other meditations are fruitless; like a piece of ground which hath much cost laid out upon it, but it yields no crop. -- Thomas Watson.

Verse 4. I would have you take this passage and illustrate it as applying to purposes, projects, and intentions. That, I think now, is precisely the idea intended to be conveyed. "In that very day his thoughts perish"; his purposes, his projects -- what he intended to do. These cherished thoughts are gone. My dear brethren, there is something here for us. You find many beautiful passages and instances in Scripture in which this idea is embodied and realised, sometimes with great beauty and poetic effect, in relation to the enemies of the church. "The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my hand shall destroy them; thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them, they sank as lead in the mighty waters." In that very day their thoughts perished "Have they not sped? have they not divided the prey? to every man a damsel or two? to Sisera a prey of divers colours of needlework? So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord." The sacred poet does not even suggest that they had perished; but feeling that it was a fact, only lifts up her heart to God. "So let all thine enemies perish, O Lord." And so you will find in many parts of Scripture beautiful ideas like this concerning the purposes and intentions that were in men's hearts utterly "perishing" by God's just laying his hand upon them -- the purposes that were in their hearts against the church. --Thomas Binney.

Verse 4. In that very day his thoughts perish. In the case of the rich fool ( Luke 12:16 Luke 12:20 ) his "thoughts" of building larger barns, and of many years of ease and prosperity, -- all his selfish and worldly schemes, -- "perished" in that self same night. --John W. Haley, in "An Examination of the Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible", 1875.

Verse 4. His thoughts perish. The science, the philosophy, the statesmanship of one age is exploded in the next. The men who are the masters of the world's intellect today are discrowned tomorrow. In this age of restless and rapid change they may survive their own thoughts; their thoughts do not survive them. --J.J. Stewart Perowne.

Verse 4. His thoughts perish. As the purposes of all about worldly things perish in the approaches of death, so do the purposes of some about spiritual and heavenly things. How many have had purposes to repent, to amend their lives and turn to God, which have been prevented and totally broken off by the extremity of pain and sickness, but chiefly by the stroke of death when they have (as they thought) "been about to repent", and (as we say) "turn over a new leaf" in their lives; they have been turned into the grave by death, and into hell by the just wrath of God. --Joseph Caryl.

Verse 4. His thoughts. Rather, "his false deceitful show"; literally, "his glitterings." -- Samuel Horsley, 1733-1806.

Verse 4. To trust man is to lean not on a pillar but on a little heap of dust. The proudest element in man is his thought. In the thoughts of his heart he is lifted up if nowhere else; but, behold, even his proudest thoughts, says the Psalmist, will be degraded and perish in that dust to which he will return. Poor, perishing pride! Who should trust it? -- Johannes Paulus Palanterius.

 

HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS

Verse 4. Decease, Decay, Defeat.

Verse 4. (second clause). The failure of man's projects, the disappearance of his philosophies, the disproving of his boastings.