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The poet Percy Shelley captured one of the most striking images of the brevity of human life and our tendency to forget it. The pedestal of a great statue reads, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair.” But that ancient pedestal sits alone in the desert, forgotten and irrelevant. Trunkless legs stick into the air. The head, with its look of arrogant command, lies knocked off, half buried in the sand. Even the mighty are leveled by time; even their works are impotent beyond the few years of their existence.

The temptation to forget the brevity of life doesn’t belong just to the rich and powerful. Each of us, caught up in the routine of daily life and our sense that we have many years yet to live, easily forgets that our lives on this earth pass quickly and are gone. Just consider the analogies that Scripture uses for human life: a mist, a breath, a shadow, a sigh, grass that withers, and flowers that fade. Those are some of the most ephemeral images on earth. But God’s Word does not emphasize the brevity of life to minimize life’s significance; it does so to focus our hearts on what matters. In doing so, God’s Word offers three specific ways that the brevity of life should shape our priorities.

First, the brevity of life should diminish our efforts to strive after wealth and the things of this world. David writes:

O Lord, make me know my end

and what is the measure of my days;

let me know how fleeting I am! . . .

Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!

Surely a man goes about as a shadow!

Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;

man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather! (Ps. 39:4–6)

The picture that David paints is a flurry of busyness, of anxious turmoil, in an effort to build up wealth and attain success and security in this life. But as David points out, our lives are a breath and a shadow; we don’t even know who will receive all that we have worked for.

Psalm 39 brings to mind Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy 6:7 that we brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything out of the world. If all that is the case, why would we spend the precious few days we have seeking to secure what we cannot keep and over which we have no control beyond the short shadow of our lives?

Remembering the brevity of life keeps us focused on what matters, that we might live a life of wisdom, giving ourselves wholeheartedly to the work of the Lord.

Second, remembering the brevity of life can give us a heart of wisdom. In Psalm 90, Moses reminds us that God is from everlasting to everlasting, but because of mankind’s sin, we all return to dust after a mere seventy or eighty years, which end like a sigh. Then Moses prays, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (v. 12). What is a heart of wisdom? “Wisdom” in Scripture is a broad term that may be summarized as right living, or living life as God intended it to be lived, because of our fear of the Lord. Comparing God’s everlasting majesty to the brevity of our days because of our sin instills a fear of the Lord: a recognition of who He is and of the honor, worship, and submission He deserves. Numbering our days reminds us that we will shortly stand in His presence and give an account for what we have done. To do so impresses on us the importance of living according to His Word as He has called us to do. The effect is a life of wisdom, inspired by meditating on the brevity of life.

Third, the brevity of life leads us to use our lives and all that we have for God’s glory. In 1 Chronicles 29, David takes up an offering for the temple. He himself gives generously, as does all Israel, amassing gold, silver, and bronze for the work. And when David sees the result of the offering, he offers a prayer of praise to God. David prays:

“But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? . . . Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding. O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own.” (vv. 14–16)

As David considers his ability to give to the temple, he is in awe that he, a man whose days are as fleeting as a shadow, would be able to do something that would contribute to the work of the Lord and the glory of God. That realization causes him to give generously, to engage in the work with his whole heart, and to praise the name of the Lord. We, too, are invited to participate in this astounding blessing. We who are like grass that quickly withers are invited to be instruments in the Lord’s hand, accomplishing His work. We are invited to be ambassadors for the King of kings. We are invited to use our gifts, possessions, and abilities in ways that bring about eternal fruit for the glory of His name. And if we have an opportunity to participate in such glory, how can that not be our highest priority and joy in the few days we have here on earth?

We live in a culture that holds out the glitter of wealth and opportunity and calls us to spend our days pursuing its goods. We live in a culture that presses us to compromise God’s truth to find acceptance and success here and now. But in the face of these temptations, remembering the brevity of life keeps us from getting drawn off course. Remembering the brevity of life keeps us focused on what matters, that we might live a life of wisdom, giving ourselves wholeheartedly to the work of the Lord.

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From the June 2023 Issue
Jun 2023 Issue