Psalm 39:4-7, 12-13
”O Yahweh, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!
Behold, You have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is nothing before You. 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!
And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You…”
”Hear my prayer, O Yahweh, and give ear to my cry; hold not Your peace at my tears! For I am a sojourner with You, a guest, like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more!”
The finitude—the limit—of humanity is an ancient teaching of the Church, which stands in stark opposition in our culture today that imagines the human mind and will to have limitless power. Scientific endeavours, science fiction movies and literature, and video games have dedicated themselves to this belief.
The sci-show called Black Mirror is essentially the 21st century version of The Twilight Zone, where Black Mirror has a focus on our digital obsession and, arguably, characterises the digital hell we wish to set up for ourselves. In episode 4 of season 1, called “San Junipero,” they explore this fiction of human limitlessness that many believe to be entirely possible.
In the episode, a person’s consciousness can be uploaded into a Cloud server where they can essentially live forever in a heaven-like state, never mind that it depicts this heaven as rampant in pagan sins (e.g. premarital sex, drug abuse, and homosexuality). Nevertheless, this episode explores a concept that many people—scientists included—believe to be entirely possible, that we can somehow digitise the intangible human consciousness (soul?) to live forever in a digital Cloud. Even if this were possible, I would never consider uploading my consciousness to a cloud server because Clouds can be hacked. Your consciousness would merely become a file that can be erased, or glitched, or corrupted. That would be far worse than physical death.
Anyway, human limitlessness is not a concept the Scriptures affirm and, therefore, the Church has never confessed. We can go to various places in Scripture to address this, especially Job, but we will stay with today’s psalm.
David talks of his “fleeting” nature, that human existence is merely a breath—indeed nothing—before the Almighty Creator. Millennia before philosophy dedicated itself to explore the limits (or supposed limitlessness) of the human mind, Scripture has long confessed our finitude. Dietrich Bonhoeffer addresses the limit of the human being quite extensively.
For example, we cannot walk through walls, or fly, turn water into wine, move things with our mind, raise the dead, or tell God what to do and how to be. In these and various other ways, then, we do not have total free will (see Luther’s treatise On the Bondage of the Will). In other words, human beings are fundamentally limited. Things that are limited come to an end—they die.
David wholly recognises this finitude of being human and the hopelessness that is in it, but then he says, “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in You” (v. 7). The best thing a limited creature can do is to hope in the One who is limitless. This is God’s graciousness toward us limited humans. God gives us hope—the hope we have in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 6:5). The Limitless One chooses to hear the prayers of His limited humans whom He loves and answers them (v. 12). God does not look upon our miserable limited condition and says, “Too bad. Be limited and die.” Instead, He promises us limitlessness. That is, He promises us eternal life—unlimited life—in Jesus Christ upon His imminent return. The perishable will become the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:42).