Would it be better to win a silver medal or a bronze? In 1995, psychologists from Cornell University studied the reaction of Olympic silver and bronze medalists. They found that bronze medalists were significantly happier with their achievement than silver medalists. The reason is that silver medalists compared themselves with those who won gold, while the bronze medalists were happy to have medals at all.
In Psalm 39, David is desperately trying to find the right perspective on life. He was in the middle of a challenging situation. He was suffering because of sin (vv. 8, 11). In addition, he was surrounded by wicked people (v. 1). So, after a sustained period of silence, David embraced two realizations that helped him gain a glimmer of hope.
First, David realizes life is short. He says “You have made my days a mere handbreadth” (v. 5). A handbreadth in ancient Israel was the width of four fingers, the smallest measurement available. He then shifts the image to compare life to a vapor, or breath (v. 5). In language foreshadowing Ecclesiastes, he describes how the pursuit of wealth and brevity of life are meaningless (v. 6). David realizes what matters most is his relationship to the Lord, “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you” (v. 7).
Second, David realizes that his sin has estranged him from God. “I dwell with you as a foreigner, a stranger, as all my ancestors were” (v. 12). He mourns deeply over his sin and longs for God to hear his cry (v. 12). While this psalm does not come to a full resolution of these difficulties, David is well on his way toward restoration.
The Bible often calls us to think about the brevity of life. In Psalm 90:12, Moses asks God to “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Today, why not make a spiritual bucket list? What two or three things would you most like to accomplish for God during the time you have left on earth?