“Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it. But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” (Psalm 39:6-7 NIV)
In this short passage David sums up the human existence on earth in its entirety. But the colorful language he employs makes it a very profound perspective on man’s great eternal question.
Before we look at the picture he has drawn for us, let’s take a quick look at a couple of these terms. The NIV translates the Hebrew word tselem as “phantom.” It is an apt English word to utilize here. Albert Barnes says, “the idea seems to be that of an image, as contradistinguished from a reality; the shadow of a thing, as distinguished from the substance.”
The other term we should glance at is “bustles,” (Heb. hâmâh) which is used to describe the disturbance within a soul, the roaring of the waves and the commotion of a riot. Consider other translations of this sentence:
- Surely every man walks to and fro—like a shadow in a pantomime; surely for futility and emptiness he is in turmoil. (AMP)
- We are merely moving shadows, and all our busy rushing ends in nothing. (NLT)
- Mere phantoms, we go our way; mere vapor, our restless pursuits. (NAB)
So David here pictures unredeemed man, rushing about in a frantic uproar in the pursuit of empty possessions and vain experiences; in short, a life which is far below the nobility for which he was created.
The picture I have in my mind of man is that he begins life in a neutral position in some sense. The way he lives his life over the next 70 years or so will determine the level of substance of his life. He is, as it were, either adding substance to or depleting his eternal being.
If we are living for this temporal earth life, with all of its glittering toys and pleasurable experiences, we are only making ourselves increasingly empty. But, if it is the Lord to whom we are searching and upon whom we have attached life’s hopes, we will become increasingly more substantial.
When God surveys our lives, is He seeing nothing more than ghosts, phantoms, fleeting here and there in the pursuit of more temporal vanity? Or is He seeing valuable lives lived out by people of character and substance?
The truth is that very few people can resist the natural tendency to see the shadows of life as being the true reality and the substance of the spiritual realm as the fairytale. It is the very vanity of earth life that explains the hollow satisfaction it offers and it is the very substantial nature of our life in God that explains the sense of fulfillment it provides.
And how about you? Where do you gain your sense of fulfillment in life? What are the true treasures of your heart? Do you see your life on earth as an opportunity to glorify God or as an opportunity to gratify your lower nature?