Psalm 39:5

 

EXPOSITION

Verse 5. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth. Upon consideration, the psalmist finds little room to bewail the length of life, but rather to bemoan its shortness. What changeful creatures we are! One moment we cry to be rid of existence, and the next instant beg to have it prolonged! A handbreadth is one of the shortest natural measures, being the breadth of four fingers; such is the brevity of life, by divine appointment; God hath made it so, fixing the period in wisdom. The behold calls us to attention; to some the thoughts of life's hastiness will bring the most acute pain, to others the most solemn earnestness. How well should those live who are to live so little! Is my earthly pilgrimage so brief? then let me watch every step of it, that in the little of time there may be much of grace. And mine age is as nothing before thee. So short as not to amount to an entity. Think of eternity, and an angel is as a newborn babe, the world a fresh blown bubble, the sun a spark just fallen from the fire, and man a nullity. Before the Eternal, all the age of frail man is less than one ticking of a clock. Verily, every man at his best state is altogether vanity. This is the surest truth, that nothing about man is either sure or true. Take man at his best, he is but a man, and a man is a mere breath, unsubstantial as the wind. Man is settled, as the margin has it, and by divine decree it is settled that he shall not be settled. He is constant only in inconstancy. His vanity is his only verity; his best, of which he is vain, is but vain; and this is verily true of every man, that everything about him is every way fleeting. This is sad news for those whose treasures are beneath the moon; those whose glorying is in themselves may well hang the flag half mast; but those whose best estate is settled upon them in Christ Jesus in the land of unfading flowers, may rejoice that it is no vain thing in which they trust.

 

EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS

Verse 5. My days. Man's life is styled days because it is not conferred upon us by wholesale, by months and years, but by retail of days, hours, minutes, moments, as to check our curiosity in making enquiry how long we have to live Psalms 39:4 : so acquainting us with the brevity thereof, we may learn to depend upon God's bounty for the loan of our life, employ it for his glory, and every day prepare for the Bridegroom, Christ. Edmund Layfielde.

Verse 5. My days an handbreadth. That is one of the shortest measures. We need not long lines to measure our lives by: each one carries a measure about with him, his own hand; that is the longest and fullest measure. It is not so much as a span: that might possibly have been the measure of old age in the infancy of the world, but now it is contracted to a handbreadth, and that is the longest. But how many fall short of that! Many attain not to a finger breadth: multitudes pass from the womb to the grave; and how many end their course within the compass of childhood! Robert Leighton.

Verse 5. Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth. The line wherewith our lives are measured, is made both of coarse and fine thread.

  1. It is measured by itself, and considerable in its own frailty; so the just length of it is an handbreadth.
  2. Secondly, with eternity, so it is found to be as nothing. Mine age is as nothing before thee. ... An handbreadth, and is that all? So he says, that exactly measures them all, and whatsoever else was created with its own hand. A handbreadth is one of the shortest kind of measures. There is an ell, a cubit, and a palm or handbreadth, whereof there be two kinds, the greater and the less. The greater handbreadth is the whole space betwixt the top of the thumb and the little finger, when the hand is extended, called a span, in account near twelve inches. The lesser handbreadth, in a more proper and strict signification, is the just breadth of the four fingers of the hand closed together, here chiefly intended, this interpretation best agreeing with the original, and complying most with the prophet's mind, by the unanimous consent of the choice interpreters. Edmund Layfielde.

Verse 5. Mine age is as nothing before thee.

  1. David might truly have said, Mine age is short in respect of Methuselah's; the days of Methuselah are said to be nine hundred and sixty and nine years; the days of David, by computation of the time when he began and how long he reigned, were not much above three score and ten, so that he lived not so many tens as Methuselah did hundreds.
  2. David might have said, Mine age is very short in comparison of the age of the world. St. Paul saith of the fashion of this Macrocosm, it passeth away 1 Corinthians 7:31 ; but the age of the microcosm, man, passeth away far swifter.
  3. David might have said, Mine age in this world is exceeding little in comparison of the duration of the other world.
  4. Finally, David might have said, Mine age is scarcely anything before the angels, whose duration began with this world and shall continue in the world to come, and so is coaetaneous with both the worlds. But all these are far short of this comparison which he here maketh of his age with God which is eternal, both a parte ante, and a parte post, from everlasting to everlasting. Nathanael Hardy.

Verse 5. As nothing. If a man be so diminutive a creature, compared with the fabric of that great world, and the world itself so little that it cannot contain the Lord, so little and light that he feels not the weight thereof upon the tip of his finger, man will well merit the name nothing, when he is placed before the Lord. The keel of man's life is laden with more vanity than verify and substance, if the searcher of the reins and heart come aboard to view it. Ten thousand of our days will not make God one year, and a thousand of our years in his sight are but "as a day wherein it is past, and as a watch in the night." As drops of rain are unto the sea, and as a gravel stone is in comparison of the sand, so are a thousand years to the days everlasting. Edmund Layfielde.

Verse 5. Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. The Holy Spirit is pleased elsewhere to speak more sparingly, as it were, in favour of man; he discovers the nakedness, but yet comes backward to cast a garment of lenity over it, that somewhat shadows the shame of it. "Man is like to vanity Psalms 144:4 ; their days consume in vanity Ps 78:33; Man is vanity" Psalms 39:11 ; but here with open mouth an unveiled terms full of emphasis, he proclaims every man to be abstracted vanity; and as if that were short he adds, he is all vanity; mere vanity, all manner of vanity, altogether vanity: nothing else, nothing less; yea, somewhat more than vanity, "lighter than vanity" Psalms 62:9 ; and "vanity of vanities." Ecclesiastes 1:2 . And that no place of doubt may be left, he ushers the doctrine unto our hearts with a strong asseveration; assuredly, in truth, without all controversy, man is altogether vanity. Edmund Layfielde.

Verse 5. Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Bythner expounds it thus. Every man at his best state is altogether vanity; hoc est omni ex parte, ita ut vanitas et miseriea quae per alias creaturas frustratim spargitur in uno homine aggregata videatur; sic homo evadit compendium omnium vanitatum quae in creaturis extant: that is, he is the sink and centre of all the vanities in the world; he is as it were the universe of vanity. Quoted in William Reynold's Funeral Sermon for the Honourable Francis Pierrepont, 1657.

Verse 5. "Every Adam standing is all Abel." See Hebrew Text.

Verse 5. Selah. A little word, yet of no small difficulty to explain. Left out of the Bible by the vulgar translators, as though it were impertinent, where, let them consider, whether they come not within the verge of that malediction in Revelation 22:19 . The ancient interpreters did not much meddle with it, and our editions leave it without interpretation. But seeing "whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope" Romans 15:4 , and till "heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled" Matthew 5:18 , we have sufficient warrant after the example of the learned, and encouragement to make enquiry after the mind of the Holy Spirit, in that which he hath both commanded to be written, and hath commanded unto us. Wherein, like the crystal glass, I will rather present you with the true visage of antiquity, than use any newly framed feature or painting of my own.

Selah is mentioned seventy-four times in the Scripture, whereof seventy-one in the book of Psalms, and thrice in the prophet Habakkuk, which is written psalm wise; and it is ever placed in the end of a Psalm or verse, four places only excepted, where, like the sun in the midst of the planets, it is seated to conjoin the precedent words with the subsequent, and communicate splendour unto both. There was a threefold use of it in ancient times, whereof the first concerned the music; the second, the matter handled unto which it was affixed; and the third, the men or congregation assembled in the temple of the Lord, which two last may still have place among us Christians, who are ingrafted into the stock Christ, from whence the Jews were cut off, but from the first we cannot properly suck such nourishment as once they did.

First of the music. The king's choir ( 1 Chronicles 25:1-6 Psalms 62:1-12 , Epigrafh; 1 Chronicles 16:41 ) learned five things by it:

First. To make a little pause, stop, or stay, when they came to Selah, and to meditate awhile upon the matter foregoing.

Second. They knew by that cessation and interval that King David as he was prophesying unto the people, and praising God upon the loud sounding cymbals, was at that instant inspired and taught some new lesson. Wherefore, as men being in serious discourse, when they hear a sudden noise hold their peace to listen, saying, hark! see, lo! so David's heart being smitten by the voice of God's Spirit, the music ceased, stopped, and he checked himself as it were thus: "Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth."

Third. It signifieth the change and variation of the music in some strains, or of the metre, or sense, or disjunction of the rhyme, or ceasing of some one sort of music, which howsoever St. Hierome makes some scruple of. The Septuagint, as often as they meet with Selah in the Hebrew text, in their Greek version translated it, the change of the song.

Fourth. It directed them to sing the same verse over again whereunto Selah was annexed. Lastly, it was their instruction to elevate and lift up their voices, praising God with louder voices and loud sounding cymbals. Selah called upon them for louder strains of music and shrillness of voice. But seeing the Jewish harmony and sweet melody is overwhelmed in the ruins of their glorious temple, we remain unskilled in their notes, which doth obscure our annotations upon it. Let this suffice for the "music."

  1. Selah concerns the text of Scripture itself, or the matter handled, in five branches.

First. Some think it to be only an ornament of speech, to grace the language with a sweet emphasis; or a nonsignificant word to complete the harmony, lest the verse should halt for want of a foot, but this conjecture is inform, and many feet wide from the truth.

Second. It is not only an adorning of speech, but signifies an end of that verse, matter, or Psalm, where it is found, and it is ever in the end of Psalm and verse, these four places only exempted from this rule: Psalms 55:19 57:3 Habakkuk 3:3 Habakkuk 3:9 . For as we write "finis" at the end of a book, song, or poem, so the Jews underwrite Selah, "Salome," or "Amen," at the end or finishing of any canticle or work. And the modern Jew at thus day, following the opinion of Aben Ezra, take Selah to be the same with "Amen," using it at the end of their epithets and prayers twice or thrice indifferently; thus: "Amen, Selah, Amen, Selah," which receives some credit from this that the particular Psalms end with Selah Psalms 3:8 , and the books of Psalms with "Amen." For whereas the Psalter is divided into five books, four of them end with "Amen" -- so be it. As you shall find: Psalms 41:13 , the end of the first book; Psalms 72:19 , the end of the second book; Psalms 89:52 , the end of the third; and Psalms 106:48 , the conclusion of the fourth.

Third. Selah is an hyperbole or illustration of the truth by way of excess in advancing and enlarging it, to make the truth and sense more clear and evident, as if we should say, `that is wonderful!' or, `that is excellent!' and sometimes by way of aggravation that is, `monstrous,' `intolerable,' `horrible!' `The Lord came from Teman and the Holy One from Mount Paran. Selah.' Habakkuk 3:3 . Selah.

  1. God came with great dignity, excellency, and ample majesty. `Many there be that say of my soul there is no help for him in God. Selah.' Psalms 3:2 . Selah, as if he had said, Oh, monstrous, and horrible blasphemy, to excommunicate a child out of the favour of his heavenly Father; and limit his mercy whose hand is omnipotent to relieve all that rely upon him.

Fourth. It serves to declare the eternity of the truth revealed in that Psalm or verse, though perhaps it only began then to be manifested in the church, or more fully at that time than in former ages. Howsoever, the people unto whom it was published, or the persons unto whom it was sent, were otherwise persuaded at the first publication of it. That it was a truth from everlasting and shall continue for ever: instance Psalms 3:8 , `Salvation belongs unto the Lord, thy blessing is upon thy people. Selah.' As if he had said, `This is a thing beyond all controversy true, that God hath ever delivered, and will for ever bless his people.' This doctrine is sempiternal and durable, that the mercy of the Lord endureth for ever. Psalm 136.

Fifth. It did instruct them to meditate seriously upon those themes where Selah was engraven, as containing matter worthy of singular observation, meditation, and remembrance, as either concerning Christ, "Who is the King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory. Selah." Psalms 24:10 . The mysteries of grace. "The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah." Psalms 46:7 . Man's duty Ps 4:4 32:5, or frailty Psalms 9:20 32:4. That as the diamond is of greater value than other precious stones, and the sun is more glorious than the planets, so those sentences are more resplendent, than other parcels of Scripture. Which though at the first bare view, it doth not always so appear, there being other texts of Holy Writ more excellent (if it were meet to make any comparison) where Selah is not found, yet if we dive into the occasion, scope, and nature of the sentence, we shall more willingly accept, when we consider, that it is an usual custom of the Holy Spirit, for our singular instruction and benefit, to propound things of a low and inferior nature to our deepest meditation. Instance Psalms 9:16 . "The Lord is known by the judgment which he executeth; the wicked is snared in the work of his own hands," which is shut up with "Higgaion Selah," meditation Selah, as if he had said, here is a matter worthy of observation and eternal meditation; the righteous should never forget this, that the wicked perish in their own counsels, and are taken in their own net. An observation worthy to be engraven in every religious person's bosom, that God will one time or other be known among the wicked by his most severe judgments executed upon them, though they would never learn by his patience and mercies to acknowledge him for their Lord. Thus far of the matter. Now it remains for a conclusion to unfold the several instructions which Selah afforded unto the congregation, which are these six.

First. It served as a note of attention and intention of the mind to what was sung or said, Psalms 3:2-8 , that wheresoever they cast an eye upon Selah, they might conceive they heard the Lord's voice from heaven speaking. "Hear this, all ye people, give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world. Both high and low, rich and poor together." Psalms 49:1-2 . That as their voices were lift up in singing, so much more their hearts and affections might be elevated, that their voice and hearts being both in tune, the joint harmony might be sweet in the ears of the Lord.

Secondly. It was a note of affirmation, whereby they declared their consent and assent unto the truth delivered, as we say when we approve of another's speech; right, just, you say truly, it is most certain. So their Selah was as much as true, certain, excellent. Instance Psalms 3:4 , "I cried unto the Lord with my voice, and he heard me out of his holy hill." Selah, i.e., It is most certain that the Lord knows the secrets of our hearts, and is the judge of the quick and dead, and will pass most righteous sentence upon us, giving to every man according to his deeds in the flesh, whether good or evil. Psalms 52:3 . "Thou lovest evil more than good; and lying rather than to speak righteousness. Selah" -- that is to say, undeniable, we all confess it, our own experience and sorrows have made us know this, that those who have not the fear of God before their eye love to speak and do all the mischief they are able against God's people, to hurt them rather than help them, to wound their innocent reputation rather than preserve it.

Thirdly. It was a devout ejaculation of the heart and soul unto God, wishing and desiring the accomplishment of what was spoken or promised. Instance, Habakkuk 3:13 . "Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people. Selah." As if he had said, Lord, I beseech thee, evermore, go out so to deliver thine anointed. Psalms 55:17-19 . "Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice. He hath delivered my soul in peace from the battle that was against me; for there were many with me. God shall hear, and afflict them, even he that abideth of old. Selah," i.e., O Lord, I entreat thee, ever bow down an ear unto my humble suit, and rise up against them that rise up against me.

Fourthly. It denoted their admiration at some strange unusual effect, whether the work of God, or wickedness of man. Psalms 57:3 . "He shall send me from and save me from the reproach of him that would swallow me up. Selah," i.e., Oh, wonderful and admirable goodness of God, that is pleased to send sometimes his angel from heaven, always his mercy and truth to deliver his poor perplexed servants from them that are too strong and mighty for them, Psalms 54:3 . "Strangers are risen up against me, and oppressors seek after my soul: they have not set God before them Selah," i.e., Oh, horrible impiety and cruelty to hurt after the life of the saints, and cast the God of life and his remembrance behind their backs.

Fifthly. Of humiliation and consternation of their mind, by the consideration of God's incomprehensible majesty, and their own great frailty and misery. Instance, Psalms 65:7 . "He ruleth by his power for ever; his eyes behold the nations: let not the rebellious exalt themselves. Selah," i.e., here is a matter of humiliation before the King of all the world, Ps 68:7,8. "O God, when thou wentest forth before thy people, when thou didst march through the wilderness. Selah," i.e., my very heart trembled to consider; I am moved out of my place, to reflect upon that majesty before whom "the earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of God; even Sinai itself was moved at the presence of God, the God of Israel." Psalms 39:11 . "When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity, thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: surely every man is vanity. Selah." As if he should say, this may humble the proudest heart in the world, and cast him down to the ground.

Sixthly. It was a note of Doxology and praising of God in a special manner, not much unlike, or the very same with this, "For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever." As for example, "All the earth shall worship thee, and shall sing unto thee, they shall sing to thy name. Selah," Psalms 66:4 . "Yea, Lord, in thee will we boast all the day long, and praise thy name for ever. Selah," Psalms 44:8 . "Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who only doeth wondrous things. And blessed be his glorious name for ever: and let the whole earth be filled with his glory; so be it, even so be it." Psalms 72:18-19 . Edmund Layfielde.

 

HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS

Verse 5. (last clause). Man is vanity, i.e., he is mortal, he is mutable. Observe how emphatically this truth is expressed here.

  1. Every man is vanity, without exception, high and low, rich and poor.
  2. He is so at his best estate; when he is young, and strong, and healthful, in wealth and honour, etc.
  3. He is altogether vanity, as vain as you can imagine.
  4. Verily he is so.
  5. Selah is annexed, as a note commanding observation.

Matthew Henry.