Rav Kook Torah

Psalm 39: When Will I Die?


This chapter speaks of terrible suffering and pain. A suffering so severe, in fact, that the psalmist felt he must forcibly “muzzle” his mouth to restrain himself from questioning God’s justice. In desperation, he beseeches God — when will it end?

“הוֹדִיעֵנִי ה’ קִצִּי, וּמִדַּת יָמַי מַה-הִיא; אֵדְעָה מֶה-חָדֵל אָנִי.” (תהילים ל"ט:ה)

“O God, inform me of my end! What is the measure of my days?” (Psalms 39:5)

According to the Sages, God did not accede to this request. “I have decreed that the end of flesh and blood is not knowable.” King David then made a second attempt. “What is the measure of my days?” Again God replied, “I have decreed that the measure of one’s days is not knowable.”

Why did David ask twice? Is there a difference between knowing one’s “end” and “the measure of one’s days”? And what is the reason for this heavenly decree that we may never know when we are to die?

Our Physical End

Theoretically at least, there are two ways in which it should be possible to determine the end of our lives. The first method would be to calculate one’s lifespan by carefully examining the various organs of the body, all of which can only function for a finite period of time. Either through scientific or prophetic knowledge, we should be able to accurately predict how long we will live according to the functioning of our bodily organs.

God, however, created the world so that the factors affecting our physical powers are varied and complex to such a degree that it is impossible to determine when the body will cease to function. In response to David’s first request, “Inform me of my end,” God replied that “the end of flesh and blood is not knowable.” This answer specifically refers to the duration of our physical bodies.

Why is this knowledge withheld from us? If people could calculate the length of their lives, evil individuals would feel free to use their allotted years to commit immoral acts, secure in their knowledge of future years to come. Lacking such assurances, however, brings a measure of vulnerability that weakens evil inclinations. Even if the wicked in their arrogance refuse to admit it, this ambiguity serves to limit evil, curbing the forces of cruelty and immorality.

Measuring Our Days

There is, however, a second method that should allow us to determine the length of our lives. This method is a more elevated path, requiring a higher wisdom. Stated simply, all things are placed in the universe for a set purpose. Since they exist for this purpose, they will last only as long as they need to accomplish their specific goal. Once they achieve their goal, they are no longer needed.

Each of us has a particular mission to fulfill in this world. When King David asked, “What is the measure of my days?” he was referring to this loftier method of estimating one’s lifespan. The phrase “a measure of days” should be understood like the Torah’s description of Abraham’s full and accomplished life. Abraham, it says, was בָּא בַּיָּמִים — “advanced in days” (Gen. 24:1). Each of his days was full, realizing spiritual goals. If we could attain clear knowledge of our mission in life, knowing the actions that we need to perform, then we should be able to determine the length of our lives in this world.

Unlike the first method, an investigation of this nature would certainly bring many ethical benefits. When people reflect on the ultimate purpose of their lives within the framework of God’s providence, such contemplation allows them to transcend their baser desires and prepares them to selflessly serve God and work towards spiritual perfection.

For this reason, David thought that this second method of measuring one’s days would meet with God’s approval. But once again, his request was denied. The Creator of the human soul knows that the optimal path for spiritual growth is through a life lived with uncertainty as to the length of its days.

Necessary Ambiguity

This inherent ambiguity in life protects the world against two extremes — excessive evil and excessive piety. Kohelet (Ecc. 7:16-17) warns that one should “not be too evil” — a danger for the masses — as well as “do not be too righteous,” a risk for the spiritual elite. Just as foreknowledge of one’s lifespan could lead an immoral person to unrestrained levels of evil, so too, clear knowledge of one’s spiritual mission could lead the spiritually sensitive to a life lacking anything outside the narrow realm of one’s spiritual goals.

The physical world is also part of creation, and needs to be built up and prepared for its Divine purpose. If everyone was only concerned with spiritual matters, the world’s physical development would be neglected.

Thus these two Divine decrees — not knowing our bodies’ lifespan and not knowing our spiritual goals — maintain a balance. Together they keep the two extremes in check, excessive evil and excessive piety.

(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. III, pp. 89-90, on Shabbat 30a)

Illustration image: ‘Portrait of an Old Jew’ (Rembrandt, 1654)