Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.- Psalm 144:4
Meaning of Psalm 144:4
The book of Psalms is written to praise God and compose songs. The verse Psalm 144:4 means humanity is vain, nothing more than a vapor that disappears as soon as it appears. Also, David adds that his days are like a shadow that passes away to signify the frailty and mortality of man and the shortness of human life when compared to nature or planetary systems, which are eternal.
Interpretations of Psalm 144:4
The verse of Psalm 144:4 is not commonly used but is easily expressed among Christians and added in sermons that can be easily confusing and misinterpreted. Compared to the New Testament, the Old Testament is more poetic and has more proverbs, making it a little difficult to comprehend.
Interpretation #1 As life is short, humans don’t have to obey God
The verse, “Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away” can be interpreted as pointing to a human being’s short life span. The reader might assume if life is that short, then he or she can spend it living carefree and relaxed. Thus, many people, who believe in this version, might believe that wasting their time worrying about anything is not a product, but they must choose to live in the moment. This kind of attitude is also preached by many within the Christian community. It is also believed that being free-spirited might relieve people of anxiety, heart problems, and depression. As when a person doesn’t spend time worrying about right or wrong and what God will say or think, they might live a happy life.
Interpretation #2 God is cruel to allow untimely death
For people, whether in the Christian community or other religions, immortality is a desire and a wish ungranted. While it is not mentioned in the Bible, it is known through mythological and fiction that people yearn to live forever. The concept of death, afterlife, or heaven is not welcome by all as most people want to continue living on Earth for eternity. So, the interpretation of the verse, “Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away”, can be that it is unfair and cruel of God to allow people to die an untimely death, especially when they have unfulfilled dreams or desires. When a person is asked what they fear the most, a lot of them or likely to say death. Hence, for people who believe that it is God who times birth and death, it might seem a little unreasonable and cruel of Him to cause early death.
Interpretation #3 Human’s vain life causes quicker death
The meaning of the verse, “Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away”, can be perceived as two parts of a sentence. There are two independent sentences in the phrase, and the reader might want to relate those two. One part says that man is vain, and another says that his life is short. Thus, it is clear that vanity might lead to a quicker death. Also, it might be a message for people who constantly worry about themselves their future, such as their food, clothes, etc. It might also be a lesson to spend time on more meaningful things than on oneself. Hence to avoid an untimely death, a person should perhaps be selfless and sensible and put their faith in God instead of pleasure.
Interpretation #4 Death brings people closer to God
Almost every Christian believes that death is the ultimate answer to uniting with God in their afterlife. The idea of heaven and living with God for the rest of eternity is a very strongly preached message in Bible and churches. Christians are, in fact, asked to stop being worldly and keep their eyes on the prize, i.e., heaven. It also means that Christians must pay less attention to material things. So, the interpretation of the phrase, ‘his days are as a shadow that passeth away,” means that death is simple and sudden, but it might bring people closer to God.
Interpretation #5 Everything created by God has an expiration date
When God created humans, he also created death. He didn’t intend for human beings to be immortal. He meant for them to be born and also to die. Hence, the meaning of the verse Psalm 144:4 is that a person’s life is so short that it can be compared to a shadow that comes and goes. However, the irony is the amount of time a man spends worrying about himself and his future. Through this verse, David might also be emphasizing the fact that everything God creates, humans, birds, animals, and every living being, comes with an end date. So, spending that short amount of time in worry is in vain. In another interpretation, it is also likely that the author is encouraging the readers to focus on faith in God and be better people while they are alive to inherit heaven after their death.
Historical Background of Psalm 144:4
The Book of Psalms, also known as the Psalter, is one of the most read and quoted books in the Old Testament. The first book, the first book of the Ketuvim (“Writings”), and the third section in the Tanakh. The title comes from the Greek translation, psalmoi, which means “instrumental music” and, by extension, “the words associated with music”. Psalm 144 is the 144th chapter of the Book of Psalms, a part of the final Davidic collection of psalms.
Literary Devices of Psalm 144:4
Psalm 144:4 looks like a short poetic line but contains significant literary devices. Here are a few examples given below.
Simile – In spite of being one of the shorter verses from Psalm 144:4, there is a good example of Simile. For example, ‘Man is like to vanity.’ The use of ‘to’ after the vanity is due to early 17th-century English. In the NASB version, the verse is as follows – Man is like the breath; His days are like a passing shadow. This version uses similies in both phrases.
Metaphor – Psalm 144:4 also has a metaphor in the second part of the verse. For example, ‘his days are as a shadow that passeth away’. The entire verse is also an extended metaphor for ‘death’.
Personification – Here, the ‘shadow’ is personified as if the shadow can pass through a place or a time like humans, it also means that the shadow can die like a living creature.
Assonance – There is also a rich use of assonance in Psalm 144:4. For example, the sound /a/ in ‘as a shadow that passeth’.
Theme – While the entire chapter’s theme is ‘greatness of God’, Psalm 144:4 displays the theme of resolution and loss.