Psalm 39 Commentary

Let’s turn to Psalm 39.

When it comes down to it, Psalm 39 is a lament psalm. But it’s a lament that was almost not given.

David’s going to explain some realities that discouraged him from speaking truthfully about his problems. But then we’re going to see him overcoming that as he considers how temporary this life truly is. From there, he eventually launches into his lament – in which he reflects on how his sin has resulted in unpleasant circumstances in his life. Then David finishes in a fairly melancholy way by asking God to give him some amount of joy before he dies.

That’s Psalm 39 in a nutshell. Now, let’s look at the details.

We’ll start with the superscription.

KJV Psalm 39:1 <To the chief Musician, even to Jeduthun, A Psalm of David.>

Jeduthun was the name of a Levite whom David appointed to lead one of the Temple choirs.

So, David is writing this psalm for the chief musician – in this case, this man named Jeduthun. That’s what we gather from the superscription.

Now, David begins the body of this psalm by rehearsing something that happened to him historically in verse 1.

I said,

I will take heed to my ways,
that I sin not with my tongue:

I will keep my mouth with a bridle,
while the wicked is before me.

Take heed and keep are both the same word in Hebrew. So, David is emphasizing his silence.

At some point in the past he determined that he would be silent.

Why? Well, he was concerned that he might sin with his tongue. And we all know how easy that is. The tongue is a fire – the very world of iniquity. If anyone doesn’t sin with his mouth he’s a perfect man.

So, David’s concern seems to be legitimate.

And he also tells us the kind of person he especially didn’t want to sin with his tongue in front of. It was the wicked.

And I think we all know what that’s like. Which one of us wants to make misstatements – even sinful statements – in front of a lost person? We’re trying to win them to Christ. So, I think we all tend to be pretty careful about what we say when they’re around.

And David was the same way. He was going to watch his ways and try to not sin with his tongue in front of people he knew who didn’t know the Lord.

And we’ll see later on in the development of this psalm that David really wanted to issue a lament – but he felt like that would be inappropriate to do in front of wicked people.

Why is that? Well, you and I have seen David’s lament psalms. And sometimes we can be almost shocked at how he complains to the Lord – sometimes he complains even about the Lord. And that’s not typically the message we want lost people to hear, is it?

You might know what it’s like to be going through some tremendous personal upheaval that is a direct result of how God is treating you as his child. And a lost person simply would not understand. In fact, if they knew of your bitter complaints about how God is dealing with you, you’re afraid that they might have even more reason to reject the Lord.

But then that lost loved one or friend comes up to you in the middle of your struggling and says, “So, how are you feeling?” And you want to pour out your bitter complaint to them – but you know they would have no ability to comprehend the true nature of your struggles.

I think that’s David’s concern here. He is struggling with God and would give his lament. And yet, he doesn’t want to make God look bad.

His concerns are appropriate. His heart is in the right place. But it’s not easy to refrain from issuing your laments about life – no matter how hard you try, as we see David relating his experience with trying to keep silent moving on into verse 2.

 2 I was dumb with silence,
I held my peace, even from good;

So, he was able to do this – to keep quiet in front of the wicked – even when he felt like he needed to express his great difficulties.

And what happened? End of verse 2.

and my sorrow was stirred.

Sorrow is also translated as grief or pain. So, he is now incredibly grieved with having to keep in his complaints.

And it gets worse for David in verse 3.

 3 My heart was hot within me,
while I was musing the fire burned:

So, he’s mulling over his difficulties. He’s thinking about them and brooding over them. And he feels restrained from speaking of them to the Lord – because he doesn’t want to make the Lord look bad in front of lost people.

But as he does this, it feels like a fire inside of him is burning. His heart is hot. He can’t hold this in any longer.

And so he finally speaks – as he admits at the end of verse 3.

then spake I with my tongue,

And so the following is what he ended up saying to the Lord.

And the first thing that David requests of the Lord is that God would help him to remember how temporary both he – and the wicked men whom he was concerned about – really are.

 4 LORD, make me to know mine end,
and the measure of my days,

what it is; that I may know how frail I am.

The word Know is used twice in this verse, as you can see. So, David is wanting God to impart knowledge to him.

And the knowledge he’s looking for has to do with his own mortality. He wants God to keep before his eyes the fact that he will someday die. David is asking God to help him remember that he is weak and needy.

And then it seems as if in the next verse David has indeed come to know those realties.

 5 Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth;
and mine age is as nothing before thee:

So, David understands these things.

He knows that his days are like a handbreadth – the distance from one side of your hand to the other. If we’re talking about length – how long is that? Somewhere between 2 and 4 inches. That’s not very much.

And that’s how David perceives his life. In light of eternity, a person’s life is so short. This is what David wanted to be reminded of – and it’s what God apparently did remind him of in light of his prayer in verse 4.

So, that’s David looking forward – he wants to know that the days he has left are few.

But he also wants to look back and see how brief his life has been thus far. He has come to realize that his age and the life he’s lived out thus far are nothing in God’s sight.

For a being who is eternal and has always been and will always be – you can imagine that the age of even the oldest living person in the world is unimpressive.

And we might tend to think that these details are morbid. We might try to actually avoid these realities and try to keep them out of our mind. But David here wants to ponder them. He wants to consider them.

And it’s not simply that David wants to know his own temporary nature. But we see him start at the end of verse 5 to consider the fact that everyone is like this.

verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity.

Selah.

Literally – “Surely all breath all man standing.Man – even those who stand strong and mighty are merely a breath – a vapor that passes away.

And I think that David at this point – after the beginning of the psalm in which he was so overly concerned to keep his emotions hidden from wicked people – now David is starting to wonder how important it really is that he tries to make himself look good in front of them.

After all – these guys – and David himself – are all just going to pass away rather quickly. Why be so concerned about what others think about you – when both you and they are so temporary?

And why be so concerned about what the wicked think about God – if what you’re saying is truth? That’s I think what David delves into now in verse 6.

 6 Surely every man walketh in a vain shew:
surely they are disquieted in vain:

he heapeth up riches,
and knoweth not who shall gather them.

Now, the words “surely” and “vain” appear 3 times in this one psalm – verses 5, 6, and 11. In verses 5 and 11 the phrase “every man” also appears in the Hebrew. And even though the phrase “every man” shows up in verse 6 in the KJV, in Hebrew its simply “man.”

So, three times in this psalm, David is having to remind himself that “man” – “every man” even – is empty, is vain, is a vapor that passes away.

And these were the very men that he was so concerned about not offending. He was so concerned that the wicked ones among these men would take the opportunity to impugn God’s character based on the truth that David was wanting to speak.

And so, I think David is now saying – “Forget it! I’m sick of putting on a show for these men who are just temporary – like a cloud passing by.”

And the phrase vain show paints the picture even more vividly of how to think of these people. That Hebrew word in the KJV is translated once as vain show and the other 16 times it appears, it’s translated “image.”

Now, an image of something is not the thing itself. It’s a representation – but it’s not the substance. And so, David is saying that these men whom he was fearing are just like that – no substance, a temporary image. Not to be feared.

And these people are oftentimes wealthy in this world because they’re unscrupulous and have no fear of God that would curtail their unbridled pursuit of wealth-at-all-costs. And that’s what David is acknowledging at the end of verse 6. They do heap up riches.

But since these men are a mere breath – someday they leave their riches to others. And those riches might go immediately to someone they don’t know. Or maybe the riches get passed on to children. And then maybe to grandchildren. But even if that’s the case – eventually those riches go to someone they never knew.

And so, even when these people are worked up or disquieted – it’s nothing to fear.

Even though this kind of thing can honestly be rather frightening for the righteous. Does it frighten you when you read the news and some powerful politician is speaking of curtailing freedom in this country for Christians? Maybe he doesn’t come out and say that that’s his plan. But you can connect the dots and you know that what he’s proposing will result in injury for us.

I remember the morning when I read the news and discovered that our country’s Supreme Court had made it illegal to forbid the marriage of homosexuals. I felt as though I had entered a new age in this nation. Like – the day before that, the US was one thing that it would never be again. And I knew and still know that – apart from God’s undeserved mercy – this will cost us. And it will cost us because a majority of the 9 very powerful people on the bench of the Supreme Court decided to rewrite history at the disquieted urging of these men who are just an image and who – despite their disquietedness and raging – will ultimately pass away.

And when you find yourself in a situation like that with these disquieted vain people all around you gathering up their riches and intimidating you from speaking the truth, you have no one to whom you can turn – but the Lord. And that’s just what we see David doing in verse 7.

 7 And now, Lord, what wait I for?
my hope is in thee.

The psalmists often speak of waiting for the Lord. What he’s communicating is that he’s waiting for the Lord to come and rescue him or give him a swift answer or something like that. So, really what it is to wait for the Lord is to hope in him taking some sort of action – to confidently expect him to come through for you.

And that’s just what David says as he follows up the question he posed to himself regarding what he’s waiting for. He answers that question with the response that he’s hoping in the Lord. He’s waiting for the Lord to take action on his behalf.

And it’s interesting that in the next verse it seems as if the wicked are out of his mind now as he’s focused on the Lord alone.

In fact, this might be the lament that David wanted to give at the start but was hindered by the presence of evil men.

 8 Deliver me from all my transgressions:
make me not the reproach of the foolish.

So, David is saying that if God allows the natural consequences of his sin to catch up with him, that things will get so bad for him that even fools will insult him.

And, think of this. It seems quite likely that David was personally embarrassed – and that’s maybe why he didn’t want to speak of these things in front of the wicked. He didn’t necessarily want them to know how bad he was and how God was chastening him for his sin.

And so, that’s why we saw him reflecting on his own transiency and that of the wicked as well. It’s like he had to come to the point where he’s realizing in a new way that he’s not going to live forever in his current body. He is frail and weak – so why pretend like he’s not? To gain the respect of wicked men – who themselves are so temporary?

The alternative? Pour out your heart concerning the fact that you have sinned and that God is chastening you. If the wicked don’t like it – or they use it as an opportunity to discredit you – who are they, anyway? And how insignificant is their opinion?

Yes, David sinned. Yes, he was being chastened. No, he shouldn’t feel compelled to hide the fact that God was dealing with him about it.

And those consequences of David’s sin had quite an impact on him, as David testifies in verse 9.

 9 I was dumb,
I opened not my mouth;

because thou didst it.

David is going back to the beginning of the psalm where he felt compelled to not speak of God’s chastening of his sin in front of the wicked.

Why was he silent? It’s because God was chastening him. God did it.

So, we see that David is now owning up to this. “Yes, I’m being chastened. Yes, it’s God who’s doing it.

So, what did God’s chastening feel like for David? Verse 10 begins to fill us in.

 10 Remove thy stroke away from me:
I am consumed by the blow of thine hand.

The word translated here as stroke is translated that way 4 times in the KJV. But 65 times it’s translated as plague. So, David has been experiencing something that he considers a plague – a sickness, a disease – something like that.

And it’s God’s plague. God sent it. God did it to David. David perceives that it is from God’s hand. This plague-like blow is from the Lord. And as we saw earlier, it’s a result of his sin.

And this blow is consuming. It makes David feel like this could be the end of him.

And then David seems to broaden his consideration of the effects of God’s chastening of his own sin – to thinking more broadly of how God deals with everyone for their sin in verse 11.

 11 When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity,
thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth:

It’s as if David is kind of removing himself from the situation and speaking to God very calmly and rationally about the way that God deals with people because of their sin.

I think he’s using this consideration to help him deal with that initial reticence to confess that God was chastening him for his sin. Sometimes we can feel almost like we’re the only one that knows what chastening for sin feels like. But David here is reminding himself that God deals with others the same way. He’s not alone. He’s not the only one who knows what this is like.

Even the wicked – whom he was so ashamed of knowing of his chastening – they typically experience hardships as a result of their sin.

Now, David says that God is like a moth. Moths are ravenous creatures – considering how small they are. And yet, they don’t eat everything quickly. It takes time for them to consume what they’re devouring.

And yet, eventually, if you leave a garment in a place where there’s a moth – maybe in the basement of your home or somewhere like that – you’ll come back to a garment that’s full of holes.

And that’s how David pictures God. As he chastens us it’s like he’s a consuming moth. He will eat up what is beautiful – covetable, delightful, pleasant.

And I don’t know about you – but when a person considers what God does in response to his sin – how he takes away the stuff that’s most delightful to him – you might get a little angry.

Your response to God’s chastening might be questioning God about his ways.

And yet, that’s not David’s response. Look at what he turns to when he considers God’s chastening of people. He says…

surely every man is vanity.

Selah.

So, instead of getting angry at God and reflecting on God in response to his dealing with sinners, David looks at and considers the nature of the sinner.

We’re all vanity. We’re all a mere vapor. We’re a cloud blown through the atmosphere.

We’re vulnerable to moths – both literal and metaphorical!

But David turns now from considering the destructive nature of the Lord when it comes to dealing with sin – and the transient nature of sinners – and now he’s going to petition the Lord in verse 12.

12 Hear my prayer, O LORD,
and give ear unto my cry;

hold not thy peace at my tears:

So, this is very serious to David. He’s praying and crying and he has tears about his sin and the consequences that it’s produced in his life.

And then David launches into picturing himself as a stranger and wanderer in the rest of verse 12.

for I am a stranger with thee,

and a sojourner,
as all my fathers were.

We are strangers in this world. This isn’t our permanent home. We don’t derive ultimate satisfaction from the stuff here. Neither did David.

He sensed that he was in an alien environment – a foreign place – where he could just not ever feel at home.

And that sounds all very sad and woeful. But notice what David says. Yes, he’s a stranger – but he’s a stranger with God.

David’s not saying that he’s a stranger to God. But that somehow God is a stranger with him.

And isn’t that comforting to know? You and I feel like we don’t belong here. But – you know what? God feels the same way.

When he looks at this world and its systems that are set against him, he feels just as estranged from it as we do.

And I think that David is again reminding himself of the fact that revealing the fact that God is chastening him for sins is not something that he needs to hide at all costs. It might damage his reputation with some – but honestly, David is a stranger in this world. Why should he be so concerned about his reputation?

Then David has one last request of the Lord.

 13 O spare me, that I may recover strength,
before I go hence, and be no more.

So, David is asking God to spare him. Another way that’s translated in the KJV is to turn away. And obviously, David values God’s fellow-alienship with him. He’s not asking God to stop looking favorably upon him. Rather, David is asking that God turn his angry destructive gaze from him.

And if God does that, David says that he will recover strength. That can also be translated as be comforted or even smile. So, David wants to be comforted – even to the point of smiling.

And he wants this to happen before he dies. That’s what he means by saying that he wants these things to happen before he goes hence and is no more.

It’s a fairly negative note to end this psalm with. And yet, it’s just one more instance of David coming to terms with his temporary nature on the earth. And it’s that temporary nature that he’s reflecting on to not make such a big deal of what others think of him.

David here is like the Syrophoenician woman in the Gospels who would be happy with the crumbs from the table. David will take anything he can get.

At this point – after being reduced to a moth-eaten garment – after trying to hide his pain and chastening by the Lord from the wicked around him – all David wants is to simply be able to smile before he dies.

He’s hoping for more. That was evident from what he’s said previously in this psalm. But he at least wants to be able to smile once more in this life.

May the Lord be at least that gracious to us – and to anyone who’s experiencing whatever level of chastening for our sin. May the Lord spare us and comfort us once more.