Psalm 39 – Why Does Life Have to be so Hard?

God, why does life have to be so hard? I know my sinfulness, you know it too—after all you created me. If you know my nature then why be so harsh when I act in accord with that nature; when I behave in ways that are all too human? Remember, I am but a passing guest in this world we call life. Remember the laws of hospitality. Treat me as befitting a guest. Extend your gracious hospitality to me, not your angry looks, or else how can anyone bear this life? – Random reflections on Psalm 39

As the Christian season of Lent begins, I am reminded of the phrase, “Remember man, that thou art dust and to dust you shall return,” as ashes are placed on foreheads. Ashes are a reminder of our mortality. We come from dust and will return to dust, but, oh, there is so much more to life than that. Still it is fitting to reflect on where we came from and where we are going now and then.

The psalm for this week asks those hard questions. The writer is aware of his own sinfulness and is willing to admit to this, but that is not the focus of the psalm. Like Job, he focuses on the hardships of life, wondering about meaning and purpose.

He is afflicted in some way and broods on his affliction. “He has suffered a severe blow. The context suggests that it is physical, although he is not explicit on that point,” one commentary states. At first he keeps quiet lest others use his complaints as an excuse to mock his God – “I said, I will guard my ways, that I may not sin with my tongue; I will bridle my mouth, so long as the wicked are in my presence.” (1) But his silence becomes too much for him, he has to speak – “I was dumb and silent, I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse, my heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue.” (2-3)

When he does speak, he doesn’t ask God why he is experiencing this affliction, rather he asks about life and its fleeting nature – “Lord, let me know my end, and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is!” (4) His life is but a “breath” verse 5 in the Revised Standard translation, insignificant, mere vapor or “vanity” in King James, hence nothing. The use of the word vanity brings to mind Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (Ecc. 1:2b) The author reflects on life in light of death and questions its value – “Surely man goes about as a shadow? Surely for nought are they in turmoil; man heaps up, and knows not who will gather!” (6)

There are no easy answers to his questions. Where other psalms speak of the beauty of creation, the joys of human love and community and God’s great goodness, this one holds us in the depths of the pit where we question this life. It’s not a pleasant place to be. No-one wants to stay here too long, and yet, this, too, is part of the human condition. To deny and avoid the hard questions in life is to rob life of the full potential of joy in the face of despair. It is to live our lives superficially, on the surface.

The Psalms are not meant be read superficially but to be embraced in their totality which includes the full range of human emotion. Whatever we may be experiencing in this life, there is a psalm that reflects that.

Psalm 39 is for those who are asking the hard questions, who are being confronted by death through the loss of a loved one or their own illness. It meets us there in the depths and doesn’t say, “cheer up, things will get better, they aren’t as bad as they seem, it all happens for a reason,” or some other such platitude.

In the pit the psalmist realizes his own sinfulness and realizes that all he has is his God – “My hope is in thee.” (7a) When all else is gone, all that remains is hope. He prays for deliverance from his situation, reminding God that, “I am thy passing guest,” (12b) and thereby making a claim on God, the claim of hospitality. He asks God to turn away his angry face so that he might know gladness again – “Look away from me, that I may know gladness, before I depart and be no more!” (13)

And there he ends the psalm, placing his hope in his God. A good place to end. When confronted with the challenges and hardships of life, sometimes all we can do is hold on to hope, hold on to our God, who holds us in the palm of his hand.

What hard questions are you asking this Lent?
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