Psalm 39:5
Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah.
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(5) Handbreadth.—Better, some spans long. The plural without the article having this indefinite sense.

Mine age.—Literally, duration. (See Psalm 17:14.) The LXX. and Vulg. have “substance.”

Before thee.—Since in God’s sight “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” “If nature is below any perception of time, God, at the other extremity of being, is above it. God includes time without being affected by it, and time includes nature, which is unaware of it. He too completely transcends it, his works are too profoundly subject to it, to be otherwise than indifferent to its lapse. But we stand at an intermediate point, and bear affinity with both extremes” (J. Martineau, Hours of Thought).

Verily every man . . .—Better, nothing but breath is every man at his best. (Literally, though standing firm.) Comp.

“Reason thus with life—

If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing

That none but fools would keep; a breath thou art.

SHAKESPEARE: Measure for Measure.

Psalm 39:5. Behold, thou hast made my days as a hand-breadth — The breadth of four fingers, a certain dimension, a small one, and the measure whereof we have always about us, always before our eyes. We need no rod, no measuring-line, wherewith to take the dimension of our days, nor any skill in arithmetic wherewith to compute the number of them; no, we have the standard of them always before us. “The age of man, or of the world, is but a span in dimension, a moment in duration; nay, it is less than both, it is as nothing,” before God — in God’s judgment, and, therefore, in truth and reality, or if compared with God’s everlasting duration, with “the unmeasurable extent and the unnumbered days of eternity.” Verily every man — Prince or peasant, high or low, rich or poor; at his best estate — Even when young, and strong, and healthful; when in wealth and honour, and the height of prosperity: Hebrew, נצב, nitzab, settled, or established: though he be never so firmly settled, as he supposes, in his power and greatness; though his mountain appear to him to stand strong, and, considering his health and strength, and possession of all the means whereby life may be supported, prolonged, and secured, though he may seem very likely to continue long, yet it is certain he is mere emptiness and vanity: yea, altogether vanity — The Hebrew is very emphatical, כל הבל כל אדם, cal hebel cal Adam, every man is every vanity: or, all men, or, the whole of man, is all vanity. He is as vain as you can imagine. Every thing about him is vanity; is uncertain; nothing is substantial, or durable, but what relates to the new man and to eternity. Verily he is so. This is a truth of undoubted certainty, but which we are very unwilling to believe, and need to have solemnly attested to us, as indeed it is by frequent instances. Selah is annexed as a note commanding observation. Stop here, and pause a while, that you may take time to consider and apply this truth, that every man is vanity. We ourselves are so.

39:1-6 If an evil thought should arise in the mind, suppress it. Watchfulness in the habit, is the bridle upon the head; watchfulness in acts, is the hand upon the bridle. When not able to separate from wicked men, we should remember they will watch our words, and turn them, if they can, to our disadvantage. Sometimes it may be necessary to keep silence, even from good words; but in general we are wrong when backward to engage in edifying discourse. Impatience is a sin that has its cause within ourselves, and that is, musing; and its ill effects upon ourselves, and that is no less than burning. In our greatest health and prosperity, every man is altogether vanity, he cannot live long; he may die soon. This is an undoubted truth, but we are very unwilling to believe it. Therefore let us pray that God would enlighten our minds by his Holy Spirit, and fill our hearts with his grace, that we may be ready for death every day and hour.Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth - literally, "Lo, handbreadths hast thou given my days." The word rendered "handbreadth" means properly the spread hand; the palm; the hand when the four fingers are expanded. The word is then used to denote anything very short or brief. It is one of the smallest natural measures, as distinguished from the "foot" - that is, the length of the foot; and from the cubit - that is, the length of the arm to the elbow. It is the "shortness" of life, therefore, that is the subject of painful and complaining reflection here. Who has not been in a state of mind to sympathize with the feelings of the psalmist? Who is there that does not often wonder, when he thinks of what he could and would accomplish on earth if his life extended to one thousand years, and when he thinks of the great interests at stake in reference to another world which God has made dependent on so short a life? Who can at all times so calm down his feelings as to give utterance to no expressions of impatience that life is so soon to terminate? Who is there that reflects on the great interests at stake that has not asked the question why God has not given man more time to prepare for eternity?

And mine age - Or, my life. The word used here - חלד cheled - means properly "duration of life," lifetime; and then, life itself; Job 11:17.

Is as nothing - That is, it is so short that it seems to be nothing at all.

Before thee - As over against thee; that is, in comparison with thee. Compare Isaiah 40:17, "All nations "before him" are as nothing;" that is, over against him, or in comparison with him. When the two are placed together, the one seems to be as nothing in the presence of the other. So the life of man, when placed by the side of the life of God, seems to be absolutely nothing.

Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity - Margin, "settled." The idea is, that every man is "constituted" vanity. Literally, "All vanity every man is constituted." There seems to be nothing but vanity; and this is the result of a divine constitution or arrangement. The idea expressed in our common version, "at his best state," however true in itself, is not in the original. The thoughts in the original are:

(a) that all people are vanity; that is, life is so short, and man accomplishes so little, that it seems to be perfect vanity; and

(b) that this is the result of the divine constitution under which man was made.

It was the fact that man has been "so made" which gave so much trouble to the mind of the psalmist.

5, 6. His prayer is answered in his obtaining an impressive view of the vanity of the life of all men, and their transient state. Their pomp is a mere image, and their wealth is gathered they know not for whom. As an handbreadth, which is one of the least measures, i.e. very short. These and the following words are either,

1. A continuance of his complaint, that although his days were of themselves very short, yet God seemed to grudge him their natural length, and threatened to make them shorter, and to cut him off before his time. Or rather,

2. A consolation, and correction of his last words, as if he said, Why am I so greedy to know the end of my life, seeing I do already know this, that my life cannot last very long, and therefore if my troubles be sharp, they will be but short?

Nothing; next to nothing for substance and for continuance.

Before thee, i.e. in thy judgment, and therefore in truth and reality; or, if compared with thee, and with thy everlasting duration: compare Psalm 90:4 2 Peter 3:8.

Every man, prince or peasant, wise or fools, good or bad.

At his best state; Heb. though settled or established; when he stands fastest, and likely to continue longest, in regard of his health and strength, and all possible means whereby life may be secured, supported, or prolonged.

Altogether vanity; all that he is or hath is as light, and vain, and unstable as vanity itself; there is nothing but vanity and uncertainty in all his outward enjoyments, in the constitution of his body, yea, in the very temper and endowments of his mind: by which general condition of all mankind he endeavours to quiet and compose his mind to bear the common lot.

Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth,.... These words, with the following clause, are the psalmist's answer to his own inquiries; or rather a correction of his inquiry and impatience, showing how needless it was to ask such questions, and be impatient to die, when it was so clear and certain a case that life was so short; not a yard or ell (forty five inches), but an handbreadth, the breadth of four fingers; or at most a span of time was allowed to man, whose days are few, like the shadow that declineth, and the grass that withers; by which figurative expressions the brevity of human life is described, Psalm 102:11; and this is the measure made, cut out, and appointed by the Lord himself, who has determined the years, months, and days of man's life, Job 14:5;

and mine age is as nothing before thee; in the sight of God, or in comparison of his eternity; not so much as an handbreadth, or to be accounted as an inch, but nothing at, all; yea, less than nothing, and vanity; see Isaiah 40:17; that is, the age or life of man in this world, as the word (w) used signifies; for otherwise the age or life of man, in the world to come, is of an everlasting duration; but the years of this present life are threescore and ten; ordinarily speaking; an hundred and thirty are by Jacob reckoned but few; and even a thousand years with the Lord are but as one day, Psalm 90:4;

verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. As vanity may signify sin, emptiness, folly, falsehood, fickleness, and inconstancy; for man is a very sinful creature, empty of all that is good; foolish as to the knowledge of divine things; he is deceiving and deceived, his heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; and he is unstable in all his ways: he is "all vanity" (x), as the words may be rendered; all that he has, or is, or is in him, is vanity; his body, in the health, beauty, and strength of it, is subject to change; and so are his mind, his memory, his judgment and affections, his purposes and promises; and so are his goods and estate, his riches and honours; yea, all the vanity that is in the creatures, that is, in the vegetable and sensitive creatures, yea, that is in the whole, world, is in him; who is a microcosm, a little world himself: and this is true of every man, even in his "best settled" (y) estate; when he stood the most firm, as the word used signifies; it is true of men of high and low degree, of the wise, knowing, and learned, as well as of the illiterate and ignorant, Psalm 62:9; even of those that are in the most prosperous circumstances, in the greatest ease and affluence, Luke 12:16; David himself had an experience of it, 2 Samuel 7:1; yea, this is true of Adam in his best estate, in his estate of innocence; for he was even then subject to change, as the event has shown; and being in honour, he abode not long; and, though upright, became sinful, and came short of the glory of God: indeed, the spiritual estate of believers in Christ is so well settled as that it cannot be altered; nor is it subject to any vanity.

Selah. See Gill on Psalm 3:2.

(w) "vitale aevum meum", Cocceius; "my worldly time", Ainsworth. (x) "universa, vel omnis vanitas", Pagninus, Montanus, Gejerus, Michaelis, Musculus, Cocceius; so Ainsworth. (y) "stans", Pagninus, Montanus, Cocceius; "quamlibet firmus consistere videatur", Tigurine version, Vatablus; "though settled", Ainsworth; so Junius & Tremellius, Piscator.

Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether {e} vanity. Selah.

(e) Yet David offended in that he reasoned with God as though he were too severe toward his weak creature.

5. as a handbreadth] Better, a few handbreadths long. The shortest measure is enough to reckon life by. The ‘handbreadth’ = four ‘fingers’ (Jeremiah 52:21 compared with 1 Kings 7:26) or less than half a ‘span.’

mine age &c.] The same word as that rendered ‘world’ in Psalm 17:14, denoting life in its fleeting, transient aspect. In the sight of the Eternal man’s existence shrinks into nothing. Cp. Isaiah 40:17.

verily &c.] The particle ak, which is characteristic of this Ps. and of Psalms 62, may be used affirmatively to introduce the whole clause (verily, or surely, as in Psalm 39:6; Psalm 39:11), or restrictively, to emphasise the words which immediately follow it (only). The order of the words points to the latter sense here. ‘Only altogether a breath’, i.e. nought but mere vanity are all men at their best estate: lit. when standing firm: however securely they may seem to be established. Cp. Psalm 144:4; James 4:14.

Verse 5. - Behold, thou hast made my days as a handbreadth. It seems inconsistent that one who professes to be weary of his life should then complain of life's shortness. But such inconsistency is human. Job does the same (Job 14:1, 2). And mine age is as nothing before thee. The short human existence can scarcely be regarded by God as existence at all; rather, it is mere nothingness. Verily every man living at his best state is but vanity. So our Revisers. But most moderns translate, "Verily every man living was ordained for utter vanity" (comp. Psalm 62:9; Psalm 144:4). Psalm 39:5(Heb.: 39:5-7) He prays God to set the transitoriness of earthly life clearly before his eyes (cf. Psalm 90:12); for if life is only a few spans long, then even his suffering and the prosperity of the ungodly will last only a short time. Oh that God would then grant him to know his end (Job 6:11), i.e., the end of his life, which is at the same time the end of his affliction, and the measure of his days, how it is with this (מה, interrog. extenuantis, as in Psalm 8:5), in order that he may become fully conscious of his own frailty! Hupfeld corrects the text to אני מה־חלד, after the analogy of Psalm 89:48, because חדל cannot signify "frail." But חדל signifies that which leaves off and ceases, and consequently in this connection, finite and transitory or frail. מה, quam, in connection with an adjective, as in Psalm 8:2; Psalm 31:20; Psalm 36:8; Psalm 66:3; Psalm 133:1. By הן (the customary form of introducing the propositio minor, Leviticus 10:18; Leviticus 25:20) the preceding petition is supported. God has, indeed, made the days, i.e., the lifetime, of a man טפחות, handbreadths, i.e., He has allotted to it only the short extension of a few handbreadths (cf. ימים, a few days, e.g., Isaiah 65:20), of which nine make a yard (cf. πήχυιος χρόνος in Mimnermus, and 1 Samuel 20:3); the duration of human life (on חלד vid., Psalm 17:14) is as a vanishing nothing before God the eternal One. The particle אך is originally affirmative, and starting from that sense becomes restrictive; just as רק is originally restrictive and then affirmative. Sometimes also, as is commonly the case with אכן, the affirmative signification passes over into the adversative (cf. verum, verum enim vero). In our passage, agreeably to the restrictive sense, it is to be explained thus: nothing but mere nothingness (cf. Psalm 45:14; James 1:2) is every man נצּב, standing firmly, i.e., though he stand never so firmly, though he be never so stedfast (Zechariah 11:16). Here the music rises to tones of bitter lament, and the song continues in Psalm 39:7 with the same theme. צלם, belonging to the same root as צל, signifies a shadow-outline, an image; the בּ is, as in Psalm 35:2, Beth essentiae: he walks about consisting only of an unsubstantial shadow. Only הבל, breath-like, or after the manner of breath (Psalm 144:4), from empty, vain motives and with vain results, do they make a disturbance (pausal fut. energicum, as in Psalm 36:8); and he who restlessly and noisily exerts himself knows not who will suddenly snatch together, i.e., take altogether greedily to himself, the many things that he heaps up (צבר, as in Job 27:16); cf. Isaiah 33:4, and on - ām equals αὐτά, Leviticus 15:10 (in connection with which אלה הדברים, cf. Isaiah 42:16, is in the mind of the speaker).
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