I said, ‘I will watch my ways
and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
while in the presence of the wicked.’
So I remained utterly silent,
not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased;
my heart grew hot within me.
While I meditated, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
‘Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.
‘Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be.
‘But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you.
Save me from all my transgressions;
do not make me the scorn of fools.
I was silent; I would not open my mouth,
for you are the one who has done this.
Remove your scourge from me;
I am overcome by the blow of your hand.
When you rebuke and discipline anyone for their sin,
you consume their wealth like a moth –
surely everyone is but a breath.
‘Hear my prayer, Lord,
listen to my cry for help;
do not be deaf to my weeping.
I dwell with you as a foreigner,
a stranger, as all my ancestors were.
Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again
before I depart and am no more.’
Like Bede’s sparrow flying through the warmth of the banqueting hall and out into the snow, the Psalmist’s life is fleeting and his destiny unknown. There’s no confident belief here in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting”.
But that sense of the presence of God seems all the stronger because the big questions of life are not being answered. The Psalmist realises that there’s little point in saying “Let me know my end and the measure of my days”: God will do no such thing.
Yet however fleeting this life may be, and apparently devoid of meaning, the great affirmation makes sense: “My hope is in you!” (verse 7). Brahms set these verses at the heart of his German Requiem – a liturgy for non-believers. But the song is yet more beautiful for those who dare to hope that we may yet find ourselves more than “passing guests”!
leading us from our present into your future
bear with our uncertainties
and strengthen our tremulous hopes.
whatever you were to us at the beginning
do not look away from us now
but keep faith with us as we with you
to journey’s end.
John Durell is an active retired minister and a tutor for the Training for Life and Service programme
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