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Thursday, December 7th, 2023
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 39

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & PsalmsHengstenberg's Commentary


Psalms 39

HARD pressed by the wicked, (comp. Psalms 39:1 and Psalms 39:8), the Psalmist has finally purposed to bear his sufferings in quietness and patience, and not to transgress by murmuring against God. But the conflict exceeds his powers, and breaks asunder the cord with which he had closed his mouth. His compressed heart takes wing to itself, and he disputes with God, desires impatiently to learn from him the end of his life, and of his afflictions, and casts up to him the shortness and the nothingness of human life, Psalms 39:3-6. In reference to this part of the Psalm, there is force in the remark of Calvin: “It is to be observed, that David, in this Psalm, does not proclaim his own virtue, while he expresses before God wishes conformable to the rule of piety; but that he rather confesses the fault of his infirmity which had led him to give way to immoderate grief, and violently dragged him into disputation with God. In his own person he places before our eyes a mirror of human weakness, so that we, warned of the danger, may learn to flee with all haste under the wings of God.”

But the Psalmist soon raises himself from his fall, Psalms 39:7-13. The faith which had withdrawn into the lowest depths of his heart, breaks forth when he sees his enemy, doubting Despondency, thus triumphing, and throws it down with the strong hand of violence. He takes up in heart and mouth the great word: “And now, Lord, what wait I for? My hope is in thee,” and now it is an easy matter for him to give up all murmurings and disputings. In the place of these comes now the affecting, but mild and submissive prayer to the Lord, that he would still deliver him, who had been deeply bowed under the sufferings, in which he could not but recognize the righteous punishment of his sins, and would grant some enlargement to him before the close of his brief sojourn.

The Psalm accordingly falls into two parts. The first is treated by the Psalmist historically. He selects the situation of such an one as even now overcome the temptation, represents, first, Psalms 39:1-6, what already had passed in him, and then, in Psalms 39:7-13, what now is passing. The main portion consists of seven verses.

Amyrald already notices the remarkable difference between this Psalm and such as Psalms 37, and endeavours to trace it up to its source. The thirty-seventh Psalm, says he, David wrote when in a quiet spirit he reflected on the matter as it really stands. This Psalm, on the contrary, he wrote, when in hot persecution and violent conflict. Hence is it that the former is easy, simple, polished, but in this the reverse; and while it sets before our eyes the alternating and conflicting thoughts of the Psalmist, it drags the mind of the reader here and there, and the deep commotion of spirit, out of which it proceeded, makes it difficult to be understood.

It is not to be overlooked, that the Psalm possesses in part an Old Testament character. While still there was no clear insight into a future state of being, a long continued state of suffering must have sunk very deep into the heart. “When a man dies, will he live again?”—says Job, of whose speech the Psalm contains the germ—“all the days of my war-service will I wait, till my discharge come.” With every day of his short and miserable existence was the space narrowing for the display of the retributive justice and grace of God; and when the powers of body and of soul began to fail, then the disconsolate thought would press upon him, that he never would come to partake of the blessing which God had promised to his people—it would scarcely be possible to avoid sinking into perplexity and despair. But this special Old Testament character of the Psalm, far from depriving the Psalm of its edifying signification for us, rather serves the purpose of strengthening it. The declaration: My hope stands in thee, which the Psalmist uttered in circumstances when it was against all reason to hope, may well put us to shame, who are easily brought into despair by light and temporal afflictions, while we have the prospect of an exceeding weight of glory; and the more that he hoped, while there was the less to hope for, so much the more readily should our hope be kindled by the light of his.

The superscription runs: To the Song-master, Jedithun, a Psalm, of David. Jeduthun, from ידות , laudatio, with the ending from proper names ון , or Jedithun, as he is here called, and in Psalms 77, 1 Chronicles 16:38, Nehemiah 11:7, in order to avoid the double dark sound, is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 16:41-42; 1 Chronicles 25:1, 1 Chronicles 25:3, 2 Chronicles 5:12, as one of the leaders of sacred music in David’s time. That here after the general: to the song-master, with which the superscriptions for the most part content themselves, (comp. on Psalms 4) there should be added the particular: Jeduthun, has certainly no practical aim; but is to be explained from the design of David to honour Jeduthun, and to hand down his name to posterity, as then the superscriptions contain nothing, which carried only a temporary signification. Many would, with an allusion to על ידותין at the commencement of Psalms 62 and Psalms 77, explain: to the chief musician of the Jeduthunite, Jeduthun marking, not the individual, but the musical chorus of Jeduthun. But נִ?צּ?ֵ?חַ? is never construed with ל , always with על ; the ל in the superscriptions is employed only to designate the author and the chief musician, and on this very account the על must have been used for avoiding the dubiety, even though the connection of נצח with ל had elsewhere occurred; quite analogous to למנצח לידיתון , according to our exposition, is לעבד יהוה לדוד , of the servant of the Lord, David, in Psalms 18, Psalms 36. Still more arbitrary is the exposition of Gesenius: upon an instrument, or according to a melody, invented by Jeduthun.

Verse 1

Ver. 1. I spake, I will keep my ways, that I do not sin with my tongue, I will keep the bridle in my mouth, while still the wicked is before me. Calvin: “He knew how many snares Satan is wont to lay; he therefore looked to the one side and to the other, and set a watch everywhere, lest some temptation, stealing in from the right or left, might reach his mind. To that the avenues were shut on all hands, unless through excess of grief his steadfastness were violently disturbed and broken down.” On the expression, “I spake,” Venema “that is, I firmly resolved, and prescribed to myself this law.” The ways are the entire compass of the actions, within which are included also the words; the tongue was that through which the offence on this special occasion might be committed. Wherein the sinning with the tongue consisted, appears from Psalms 39:4, ss., where the Psalmist, carried away by the violence of his pain, actually falls into this sin against his purpose,—not, as some suppose, by an unseasonable comparison with Psalms 37:1, Psalms 38:13-14, in an intemperate outburst against the enemies, but in an impatient and disrespectful murmuring against God, an expression of doubt in regard to his righteousness and grace. Exactly parallel, therefore, are the passages, Job 1:22, “in all this Job sinned not, and spake nothing foolishly against God,” and Job 2:10, “In all this sinned not Job with his lips.” To keep the mouth to the bridle, is as much as to keep it carefully in check. In the words: while the wicked is still before me, the Psalmist must, according to several, declare his purpose to guard himself against unbecoming speech, especially in the presence of his enemies, in order not to afford them the double triumph of finding him in despair, which might also draw forth their railing at his misfortune, and of seeing him sin against his God. But this exposition is to be rejected, even on this account, that it does not pay regard to the still, which is hence also left out for the most part by those who follow this translation. And then, one does not see how respect to the enemies could be a reason to the Psalmist for entirely refraining from murmuring against God, and maintaining the right with him, as the discourse still indeed manifestly turns on that. For why should this be done in their presence? We have also the verses beginning at Psalms 39:3, in which the Psalmist suffers himself to be drawn into this murmuring, when certainly the enemy could not be thought of as present. The right view is, rather, that the words point to what had been able to seduce the Psalmist to sin with his tongue, what had pressed him hard with the temptation to this. The wicked, of whom it is said in Psalms 37:2. “They shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb,” were still continually before him, since, according to his opinion, the words, “He passed away, and lo: he was not, I sought him, and he was not found,” Psalms 37:36, might have been long in receiving their fulfilment. The wicked is to be thought of according to the nature of things, and according to Psalms 39:8, where, the Psalmist prays, “make me not the reproach of the foolish,” as at the same time the Psalmist’s enemy, so that with his continued existence, the Psalmist’s misery also continued. The best commentary on the expression, “while the wicked is still before me,” is to be found in David’s relations during the time of Saul, which here come the more into account, as in no other had David so much occasion for this still. Certainly David’s conflict at that period stood much as it is here represented.

Verse 2

Ver. 2. I grew dumb and was still, I was silent, not for good, and my pain was stirred. The Psalmist says, he had indeed executed his purpose, declared in the preceding verse, but that ill had thereby accrued. The obstinate and constrained silence, so far from producing good, had rather made his pain rise to a frightful magnitude. In sicknesses of the soul, not less than in those of the body, whatever hinders the necessary crisis, serves only to increase the evil. In the state of mind which now belonged to the Psalmist, the sinning with the tongue was better for him, than the merely constrained and legal silence; he could only through the fall rise again, only through a sinful speaking could he attain to a proper evangelical silence. Upon the accus. דומיה prop. I grew dumb in silence, q. d. I grew wholly and perfectly dumb—see Ew. Large Gr. p. 591, Small Gr. § 486. In Psalms 39:9, corresponds to the דומיה added here: I opened not my mouth. The unpleasant consequences of silence are first expressed negatively, מטוב , far from good, without its having produced any good effect; then positively: and my pain was stirred, quickened. מטוב has been subjected to many false interpretations. The most general is that which regards the expression: from good, as an abbreviation for: from good even to evil, in Genesis 31:24, Genesis 31:29, 2 Samuel 13:22, q. d. I kept silence from every thing. But such an abbreviation can the less be thought of since the manner of speech was not a common one, as its occurring in these solitary places shews. The silence of the Psalmist can refer only to the evil, and the phrase, from good even to evil, would be unsuitable. In the passages referred to, there is indeed the expression, not to speak, but not, as here, to be silent, from good even to evil. Others: I was silent about prosperity, not demanding this loudly and imperiously, renouncing in a spirit of resignation my pretensions to it. But this unsuitable meaning is verbally quite inadmissible; the מן after the verb of silence never marks the object regarding which it is kept. Others again: I was perfectly silent of good, although my sufferings violently drove me to a loud lamentation. But the bono orbus is tame, and not suitable to the connection.

Verse 3

Ver. 3. Warm was my heart in my bosom, in my musing the fire burned, I spake with my tongue. On the two first members comp. Jeremiah 20:9, where it is said of the scorn and enmity of the world (not, as several, of the impulse of inspiration): “And it was in my heart as a burning fire, shut up in, my bones, and was weary with forbearing, and could not do it.” The object of the musing, is the sufferings which the Psalmist had to bear from the wicked. The expression: with my tongue, refers to Psalms 39:1: I spake with my tongue, on which I imposed silence. So that the remark of Koester falls of itself, that we see from this passage, in which the speech with the tongue is a heartfelt speech, proceeding from a deep emotion of mind, what is plainly to be understood by the tongue speeches of the New Testament. Our words are related to Psalms 39:1, precisely as those in Job 3:1, “After this Job opened his mouth, and cursed his day,” to Job 2:10, and Job 1:22.

The Psalmist now in Psalms 39:4-7, which are to be regarded as distinguished by inverted commas, communicates the words which he spake, when he sinned with his tongue.

Verse 4

Ver. 4. “Make me to know, O Lord, my end, and when the limit of my days will come, I wish to know when I may cease.” The Psalmist impatiently demands of the Lord, to let him know when his sufferings, and what in his judgment coincides with these, his life, should come to an end, and complains, as in regard to a great hardship, and terrible injustice, that it was still not brought to a close. To this lamentation upon the greatness and hardship of his extraordinary sufferings, which made death appear to him as a blessing, its delay as an evil, there very suitably follows in Psalms 39:5 and Psalms 39:6 a lamentation upon the shortness and nothingness of human life generally. In connection with this the complaint of our verse first receives its proper strength. It is frightful, if to poor man his short and fleeting existence, which of itself is punishment enough for sin, is besides so embittered, that he must sigh for his end. The same desire for death, upon the supposition, that the suffering shall only end with it, and in despair at the return of salvation, is often uttered by Job, for example, in Job 6:8, ss., “Oh that I might have my request, and that God would grant me the thing I long for; even that it would please God to destroy me, that he would let loose his hand and cut me off. What is my strength, that I should hope? etc.” So also does Job frequently complain of the disproportion between the greatness of sufferings and the shortness of human life, comp. for example, Job 7:7, “Oh remember that my life is a breath, mine eye shall no more see good;” Job 14:1, ss., “Man that is born of woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down; he fleeth also as a shadow and continueth not. And dost thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me before thy judgment? Seeing his days are determined, etc.” Job 16:22. From these parallel passages the relation of this verse to Psalms 39:5 and Psalms 39:6 derives its proper light. By the end we can either understand the end of life, or the end of suffering. That the Psalmist combines both into one, that, despairing of the salvation of the Lord, he looks for the end of his sufferings only with the end of his life, appears from the second member; which is literally: and the extension of my day what it, for: how is it proportioned thereto, what compass has it? But that we are primarily to think of the end of the sufferings, we gather from the parallel passage, already cited from Job 6:12. In the last number also, literally: I wish to know, what I ceasing, for what is the state in regard to my ceasing, when that shall at last take place, (מה never signifies precisely when, here also it is to be explained after the preceding מה היא ), the Psalmist asks not when he shall cease, cease to exist, but, as appears especially from a comparison of Job 14:6, when he shall cease to suffer—which object of the ceasing is very naturally suggested by the connection. He asks, in the middle, after the end of his day, only on this account, that he might learn the end of his sufferings; the ah! will come in not earlier, and to this point his question is directed from the beginning to the close. חדל is never used of existence, but always in reference to a particular condition within the limits of existence. The real meaning of the verse has been for the most part missed by expositors, the occasion of which, as connected with the matter, is this, that the Psalmist, restrained by a lingering feeling of reverence, is unwilling to speak fully out, and does not entirely let go the bit, which, according to Psalms 39:1, he had put in his mouth, but only holds it less tightly. The canon for putting the exposition to the proof is this, that the discourse, according to its relation to Psalms 39:1, on the one hand, (the Psalmist does here what in Psalms 39:1, on the one hand (the Psalmist there grows perfectly dumb, so that his discourse can only have arisen from murmuring impatience), must necessarily contain a sinful element. Now, by this canon, we must renounce the current exposition, according to which the Psalmist entreats God for the right knowledge of his frailty, so that he might set his hope only upon him, or even with an entire abandonment of the Old Testament territory, that he, despising the temporal with its joys and sorrows, might seek after what is eternal; “Cause me, O Lord, to consider my end, and what the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am.” Besides, he, who is plunged in deep distress, has less need of nothing, than the knowledge of human frailty, and he requires no special divine instruction in order to obtain it. The Psalmist declares it in the next verse, of his own hand, in as strong language as it is almost possible to do. If we only read the book of Job, we shall everywhere find a superfluity of this knowledge. In no prayer, as uttered in the Psalms by the pious in affliction, can a similar petition be pointed out. Finally, this exposition cannot stand with the words. It arbitrarily substitutes: make me consider, for: teach me, and renders חדל , which means only ceasing, by frail.

A mournful lamentation upon the oppressiveness of his extraordinary sufferings, follows now upon the shortness and vanity of human existence generally, which, perfectly grounded in the position occupied by the Old Testament saints, would, with the pious, as soon as they moved out of the region of quiet resignation, into that of reckoning and contending with God, be repressed and held down by faith, from the dominion of which the Psalmist here for a moment emancipates himself, in order that he might afterwards return the more unreservedly to it. This faith was, under the Old Testament, a blind one in the good sense. Were the end of this poor life the end of the way of God with his own, to whom he had given so many assurances of his tender love, then its very shortness could not be justified, and especially when viewed in connection with the severe afflictions by which this life is embittered. It is the strongest testimony to the vitality and depth of faith under the Old Testament, that it did not go to wreck on this stumbling stone. Whoever is at pains to disfigure or conceal the true position of matters in this respect, he does not thereby increase the edifying power of the Old Testament, but diminishes it.

Verse 5

Ver. 5 . “Behold as an handbreadth thou makest my days, and my life is as non-existence before thee, only for utter vanity was every man ordained, Selah.” The first member literally: Behold spans hast thou given my days, thou hast made them for spans, my life only a span long. טפחות is, precisely like ימי , governed in the accusative by the verb, and is to be taken in an adverbial signification. אין never signifies nothing, always rather not-being. חדל prop. continuance, then life: my life, which has its name from continuance, as, lucus a non lucendo, is like non-existence, Comp. on Psalms 17:14. The expression: before thee, is not to be explained by an unseasonable comparison of Psalms 90:4: a thousand years are as one day before thee, as if the meaning were: in comparison of thee; but it brings out what was necessary in the connection, that the appointment proceeded from God, q. d. under thy direction and by thy disposal. To the expression in the first member: thou gavest, and in the second: before thee, corresponds נצב , constitutus est, in the third. This is necessary to the sense. For here the reference is not to the mere being, but to the being made (by God.) It is not suitable to render: “every man, who there stands firm,” i.e. “the firmly established and prosperous,” since here and also in Psalms 39:9 the discourse is manifestly of the condition of man in general. The Psalmist would precisely say, that all men without exception are only an all of vanity. The Selah, which here and also in Psalms 39:11 occurs after a representation of the nothingness of the earthly life, is intended to afford time for our brooding over this deep mournful thought, perhaps also in some sense for God, that he might lay to heart this doleful lamentation.

Verse 6

Ver. 6. “Only as an image walks man, only in vain are they disquieted, he gathers and knows not who will enjoy it.” בצלם prop. in an image, for, as an image, comp. Ew. Small Gr. § 521. The image comes into view only in so far as it has no reality, no power, no life in itself, but possesses only a shadow of these. Elsewhere we find in a similar connection shadow, for ex. Psalms 144:4, “Man is like to vanity, his days are as a shadow, that passeth away.” המה , to make a tumult, marks the restless striving and exertions of men. The suff. in אספם refers to the collected whole.

The tone of the Psalmist now suddenly takes a different air; all at once a new David steps forth; and it becomes apparent, that the maxim, “A quarrel between lovers revives love,” is true also in regard to the higher love.

Verse 7

Ver. 7. And now, whereupon wait I, Lord? I hope in thee. The now, as in Psalms 2:10, draws the consequence from what precedes. It is commonly expounded: Since every thing earthly is fugitive and transitory. But we must rather expound: Since thou showest thyself so hard. For it was God’s hardness upon which the Psalmist had complained in Psalms 39:4-6, and the transitoriness of life he had thought of only in so far as it furnished an evidence of this hardness. The words: whereupon do I wait, Lord? Rest on the supposition, that man cannot exist without an object of hope. The answer: My hope stands upon thee comes quite unexpectedly after what had preceded. That the Psalmist still throws himself into the arms of God, of whose hardness he had so complained, is a wonder that mocks every natural explanation.

Verse 8

Ver. 8. From all my sins deliver me, let me not be a mockery to the fool. The Psalmist would be delivered from his sins, if God removed the consequences and punishments, the assaults of the wicked. The Psalmist would be the object of the fool’s scorn, if God should allow the former to bring him to the ground. These words, as also the following, “Since the wicked is still before me,” in Psalms 39:1, show clearly, that the external suffering of the Psalmist, his “stroke” in Psalms 39:10, consisted not, as some imagine, in sickness, of which no trace is to be found in the Psalm, but rather in the hostile oppression of ungodly men.

Verse 9

Ver. 9. I am dumb, open not the mouth, for thou hast done it. J. H. Michaelis remarks excellently, that the discourse here may be of a composed and evangelical silence, as above of a legal and constrained one. As the Psalmist continues still to speak in what follows, the being dumb can only mean his being so in a determinate respect, that indicated more precisely in Psalms 39:1 and Psalms 39:3, according to which, it points not to speaking against the enemies, but to speaking against God. Instead of this: thou past done it, q. d. thou my God, who tenderly lovest thine own, hast laid upon me this suffering, which therefore must be designed, not for destruction, but only for salvation. Luther and others falsely: thou wilt order it well. Comp. 2 Samuel 16:10.

Verses 10-11

Ver. 10. Remove from me thy stroke, through the blow of thy hand I am consumed. Upon נגע , comp. on Psalms 38:11. Ver. 11. When thou chastisest one with rebukes for iniquity, thou dost consume, as by a moth, what he loves; only vanity are all men. Selah. What the Psalmist had said in the second half of the preceding verse, of himself, gives rise here to a mournful consideration of the lot of man in general, a sad exemplification of which was to be seen in himself. Through the woeful representation of this miserable state, he hopes to move God to compassion, under whose hand he humbles himself. תוכחות properly marks only correction with words, and is used of punishments only in so for as they are a sermo realis, a matter-of-fact reproof, and correction. ותמס , prop. thou makest to melt, hiph. from מסה . As the moth, in Scripture, is always the image of what annihilates, never of what decays, we must expound, “as the moth,” not, “as if it were a moth,” but only “as the moth causes to perish,” or brings to nothing. חמוד is everywhere a proper part. pass. the desired, loved, q. d. all wherein he has his joy and satisfaction; and we are not to render it, his beauty, or his glory. John Arnd: “ Just as moths eat a woollen cloth, nay consume the most beautiful garment, so that it is no more fit for use, though formerly it was ever so fine; in like manner is it now with man’s beautiful form, (taking the חמוד too narrowly.) When the hand of the Almighty presses one, and God abandons one for a little, he becomes in a few days so changed to the worse by anguish of soul and sadness, that no one can know him, as may be seen by the example of Job, since his friends, that came to visit him in his affliction, knew him not, and began to weep, and could not for seven days speak to him, for they saw that his distress was great.”

Verse 12

Ver. 12. Hear my prayer, Lord, and give ear to my cry; at my tears be not silent, for I am a stranger with thee, a pilgrim as all my fathers. First, the prayer, then the grounding of it. On the expression: at my tears be not silent, John Arnd: “This is the effect of tears, when one sees or hears any one weeping sadly, one cannot well remain silent, as the Lord Jesus said to the woman at Nain: weep not, and to Mary Magdalene: woman, why weepest thou? This nature teaches us. Now if a man can scarcely be silent at a person’s tears, how much less the Lord God! Therefore it is said in the Psalms 56 Psalm, that God numbers the tears of believers, and in the (Isaiah 25) 25th of Isaiah, that he will wipe away all tears from our eyes.” The prayer is grounded by pointing to the impotence and helplessness of the Psalmist, who, not less than all his fathers, has nothing except what the Lord administers to him, is wholly dependant upon his compassion, and must perish if this is refused him. A stranger and pilgrim, (prop. a lodger, tenant, one that dwells upon the property of another,) has nothing of his own, he is quite dependant upon the goodness of those with whom he lives, is everywhere on the footing of a beggar. As the fathers of the people were strangers and pilgrims with the Canaanites, (comp. Genesis 23:4, where Abraham says to the Hithites: “a stranger and pilgrim am I with you, give me a possession of a burying-place,”) so after the reception of the land all Israelites were strangers and pilgrims with the Lord; comp. Leviticus 25:23, “For the land shall not be sold for ever, for the land is mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” They had nothing in and for themselves, but only in their lord of the manor and patron, In remarkable agreement with this passage, David says in 1 Chronicles 29:15, “for we are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as all our fathers; our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is no hope.” This agreement supplies an important proof of David’s being the author of the Psalms, and of the genuineness of the superscriptions generally. This proof cannot be disposed of by the supposition, that the declaration in Chronicles may have been derived from our Psalm. For it bears there throughout the character of independence. While here the allusion to the Israelitish nothingness serves as a groundwork to the prayer for divine help, there it is set against the imagination, that one can give any thing to God, in order to deserve anything at his hands. The words: as all my fathers, represent the relation of the Psalmist, as not an individual, but a general, national one, ( 1 Kings 19:4) and hence unalterable.

Verse 13

Ver. 13. Leave off from me, that I may be refreshed, before I go away, and be no more. The first member, literally; look away from me, that I may brighten up, q. d. turn away from me thy angry look, so that my sorrowful one may be made cheerful. There is no reason for taking the Hiphil of שעה (the form derived here from שעע and of בלג , here intransitively. We are rather to supply to the former: thy countenance, and to the latter: my countenance. All the words of this closing verse occur in different places in the book of Job, clearly proving that the author of that book was acquainted with this Psalm. Comp. Job 7:19, “How long wilt thou not look away from me,” Job 14:6, “Look away from him,” Job 10:20, “That I may brighten up,” Job 10:21, “Before I go away,” Job 7:8 and Job 7:21, “And am no more.”

Bibliographical Information
Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 39". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/heg/psalms-39.html.
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