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John Howe, in his discourse on Psalm 89:47-48 The Vanity of Man as Mortal, observes both the grim meditation and the recovery of hope by the Psalmist.   The passage at hand reads as follows:

46 How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? 47 Remember how short my time is! For what vanity you have created all the children of man! 48 What man can live and never see death? Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol? Selah Psalm 89:46–48 (ESV)

(Howe merely references 47-48, v. 46 has been added to complete the stanza.) Of man’s present state, Howe writes:

“Wherefore hast thou made all men in vain?”—then, secondly, in a pathetic discourse with himself, representing the reason of that rough charge, “What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? shall he deliver,” &c. q. d. When I add to the consideration of my short time, that of dying mankind, and behold a dark and deadly shade universally overspreading the world, the whole species of human creatures vanishing, quitting the stage[1] round about me, and disappearing almost as soon as they show themselves[2]: have I not a fair and plausible ground for that (seemingly rude) challenge? Why is there so unaccountable a phenomenon, such a creature made to no purpose; the noblest part of this inferior creation brought forth into being without any imaginable design? I know not how to untie the knot, upon this only view of the case, or avoid the absurdity. It is hard sure to design the supposal, (or what it may yet seem hard to suppose,) “that all men were made in vain.”

John Howe, The Works of the Reverend John Howe, Volume 2 (London: William Tegg and Co., 1848), 266.

Thus, the sight of life from the position of present life is grim. Yet, the poem does not end on a grim tone:

49 Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? 50 Remember, O Lord, how your servants are mocked, and how I bear in my heart the insults of all the many nations, 51 with which your enemies mock, O LORD, with which they mock the footsteps of your anointed. 52 Blessed be the LORD forever! Amen and Amen. Psalm 89:49–52 (ESV)

Howe accounts for the change in tone as resulting from the remembrance and meditation upon the promises of God made to David:

Therefore it was his reflection upon those loving-kindnesses mentioned in the former part of the psalm, contained in God’s covenant, and confirmed by his oath, but understood according to the sense and import already declared, that caused this sudden turn in David’s spirit;* and made him that lately spake as out of a Golgotha, as if he had nothing but death in his eye and thoughts, to speak now in so different a strain, and (after some additional pleadings, in which his faith further recovers itself) to conclude this psalm with solemn praise; “Blessed be the Lord for evermore; Amen and Amen.”

We see, then, the contemplation of his own and all men’s mortality, abstractly and alone considered, clothed his soul with black, wrapped it up in gloomy darkness, makes the whole kind of human creatures seem to him an obscure shadow, an empty vanity: but his recalling into his thoughts a succeeding state of immortal life clears up the day, makes him and all things appear in another hue, gives a fair account why such a creature as man was made; and therein makes the whole frame of things in this inferior world look with a comely and well-composed aspect, as the product of a wise and rational design.

John Howe, The Works of the Reverend John Howe, Volume 2 (London: William Tegg and Co., 1848), 270. It is useful to note that the meditation was not nostalgic: it was not merely hopefulness that someday all with will be better. Rather, it was a remembrance and a future promise that had the effect of transforming the present. The knowledge of what God is doing does not change the present events; yet, such knowledge changes the meaning of present events.

This paradox exists throughout the Bible: present pain is nowhere denied. The Book presents  current misery is vivid color, but then puts the evil of the present into a greater context so that it appears not merely as misery but rather as a means to a greater end.

The pattern is set by the horror and glory of Jesus:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. Hebrews 2:9 (ESV)

The pattern set, the application is upon us, likewise:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16–18 (ESV)

Thus, to respond to suffering and evil we must not deny the reality of the evil. To do so would be to deny the necessity of the atonement, of the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.  However, while we do not deny evil, we deny that evil has the final say. Evil will have its day, but it will soon be reversed and evil traded for glory.


[1] Howe’s imagery here shows some apparent knowledge of Shakespeare. Whether the reliance is direct or whether it merely refers to imagery which had become stock in the culture, I cannot know. The reference is to the speech of Jacques (one of my Shakespeare professors at UCLA told us that Jacques was a pun in that the name refers to a place of repose (shall we say) similar to the current, “Going to the John”) in As You Like It (Act 2, scene 7):

DUKE SENIOR

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.

JAQUES

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

[2] The reference may also have been to this scene in MacBeth (Act 5, scene 5).  In many ways, this reference seems more plausible: it to contains a reference to the stage, yet the emphasis is on the quick leaving of the world and the vanity of life while upon the stage of this world. Yet, again, I do not know if Howe had personal knowledge of Shakespeare (the dislike of the theater among some Puritans did not lie with literature or art, per se. Any reading will quickly disclose a wealth of knowledge concerning art, literature, philosophy and culture – much of classical culture and thus not “Christian”. The concern was primarily with the immorality, such as prostitution associated with the theater).

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.