December 26, 2016
This psalm is unfamiliar to me. And, for the moment at least, so much the better. I read it as something new and the words are themselves, hard-edged and fresh-scented, and do not dissolve immediately into the rote and rhythm of long memory. I have to pay attention.
And I begin my reading in the old – some would say “archaic” – King James translation which makes the reading even more difficult and requires the exercise of imagination.
But – worth it! I find lately that reference to the King James not only gives you that stately cadence and flavor that I’ve grown to love, there are subtleties and nuances that are obvious – or at least visible – in this old translation that don’t show up in the newer ones. C. S. Lewis recommended that one should read two old books for every new book read. This, he said, might help stave the tendency for chronological arrogance: the idea that what we think now is true and whatever people thought differently before is simply error. Maybe that same idea should apply as to Bible translations.
No matter which translation you read, though, one dominant theme in this psalm is the evanescence of human life. We’re here and then we’re gone. And our striving and achievements don’t amount to much; “he heapeth up riches and knoweth not who shall gather them . . .”
Corollary to this is the psalmist’s prayer for perspective:
Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am. . .
For the psalmist, it seems that this earthly life is all he is aware of; all he expects. He believes himself to be under God’s judgement. That is why he is suffering. At the end of the psalm he prays for this relief: “Look away from me [God] that I may rejoice again, before I depart and am no more.” Wow. This is not a Christian perspective. Although there are other psalms that seem to point to an expectation of life after the grave – “and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. . . .” (Psalm 23) and “thou dost not give me up unto Sheol nor suffer thy godly one to see corruption. . . .” (Psalm 16) But here in this psalm, the writer expects nothing beyond this life, so it seems.
There is undoubtedly much wisdom to be gained in a sober reflection of the probable length of our earthly life, but the notion that life continues into eternity provides even more food for thought, even more impetus to change our behavior.