Of Handbreaths and Cubits

February 19, 2021

The psalmist reflects on the brevity of life in Psalm 39:5. Other things are going on in the psalm, but I want to focus on a word in verse 5.

Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! (Psalm 39:5 ESV)

The word is handbreadth. A handbreadth is the width of your four fingers excluding your thumb or about 3 inches. The psalm has used a short measure of length to talk about length of time. I can visualize a handbreadth. It is harder to visualize time. But the psalm reminds me of the brevity of life.

This brings us to the cubit, which is a measure of length six times greater than a handbreadth or about 18 inches, the distance from the tip of your fingers to your elbow. Jesus uses the cubit in a discussion on worry.

Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? (Matthew 6:27 NKJV)

Translators have a bit of a struggle in this verse. The Greek word (ἡλικία | hēlikia | Strong’s G2244) can mean either a span of life or a reference to height. So which should we choose?

I think Psalm 39:5 tips the balance in favor of length of life. Jesus uses the very generous cubit in comparison to the handbreadths of the psalm. But I think both are using measurements of length to describe lengths of time. It is figurative not literal. They are striking images.

I’m also not convinced that most people wishing to be taller want to be 18 inches taller at least in the ancient world. Basketball was not a motivation in the time of Jesus. A person who is 5 foot 2 inches would become 6 foot 6 inches.

Translations understanding this is a reference to height are the KJV, NKJV, and HCSB. Translations understanding this as adding to the length of life are ESV, NASB, NIV, NET, and CSB. These latter translations change cubit to hour or moment with footnotes giving more information.

Psalm 39 reminds us of the brevity of life. It’s like handbreadths. Jesus instructs us that we can’t even add a cubit to our life spans length with worry.

— Russ Holden

Don’t Inherit Folly

February 13, 2021


The simple inherit folly, but the prudent are crowned with knowledge. (Proverbs 14:18 ESV)

The Book of Proverbs is meant to be read slowly and meditated upon, so it’s good to ponder Proverbs 14:18. I like the definitions in the footnotes of the NIV at the beginning of Proverbs for simple and fool: “The Hebrew word rendered simple in Proverbs denotes a person who is gullible, without moral direction and inclined to evil.” (Footnote on 1:4). And in Proverbs 1:7 the footnote on the word fool reads, “The Hebrew words rendered fool in Proverbs, and often elsewhere in the Old Testament, denote a person who is morally deficient.” Folly or foolishness in this context can deal with behavior that is immoral, dangerous, or even self-destructive. Not having a moral compass in your life will lead you into evil which may have painful consequences.

The prudent person makes sound judgments and can look ahead to see the moral consequences of various actions. The prudent will be crowned. Their path leads to what is good and honorable.

Theodore Dalrymple is a British essayist who as a psychiatrist worked in a British prison and a hospital in a low-income area. He illustrates this proverb. He describes patients coming to him that are depressed that he believes are simply unhappy because of a series of wrong choices. He writes,

My patient was not just a victim of her mother, however: she had knowingly borne children of men of whom no good could be expected. She knew perfectly well the consequences and the meaning of what she was doing, as her reaction to something that I said to her—and say to hundreds of women patients in a similar situation—proved: next time you are thinking of going out with a man, bring him to me for my inspection, and I’ll tell you if you can go out with him.

This never fails to make the most wretched, the most ‘depressed’ of women smile broadly or laugh heartily. They know exactly what I mean, and I need not spell it out further. They know that I mean that most of the men they have chosen have their evil written all over them, sometimes quite literally in the form of tattoos, … And they understand that if I can spot the evil instantly, because they know what I would look for, so can they—and therefore they are in large part responsible for their own downfall at the hands of evil men.*

The simple without moral direction inherit folly, the consequences of immoral decisions. The prudent look ahead guided by moral principles and receives the good. Beware, don’t inherit folly!

— Russ Holden

Loving Jesus More Than Anything Else

February 5, 2021

The words of Jesus seem shocking and harsh: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26, ESV). These words have certainly been misunderstood and abused at times through church history.

Part of our problem is with the word hate. Our English meaning is hostility, aversion and loathing. To plug that into Jesus’ statement is to misunderstand. The Old Testament has a usage of hate that means to love less than.

  • When the Lord saw that Leah was hated… Genesis 29:31 (Rachel being loved more) 
  • If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other hated, and both the loved and the hated have borne him children, and if the firstborn son belongs to the hated… Deuteronomy 21:15 (English translations often do not use “hate” here as they attempt to make it more understandable.)

Matthew’s account makes the same point but with greater clarity for us: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38, ESV).

Yet even after we come to terms with the word hate, the statement by Jesus is still shocking. We must place being a disciple above a number of very good things – parents, wife, children, family, and even our own life. In other words, we can’t let any of these things, even saving our own skin, keep us from following Jesus.

How does that look in real life? Years ago, I read report on a woman convert in Cambodia. When she began to attend church for worship, her family locked her in her room. She climbed through a window and left home. The church had to provide her temporary shelter until she could get on her feet. She couldn’t return to her family and be a Christian too.

Her mother finally accepted her, but her brother and family continue to reject her. Even after experiencing this rejection from family, she was baptized. She counted the cost for following Jesus and decided that she loved Jesus more than anyone or anything else.

−Russ Holden