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Bible Commentaries

Kingcomments on the Whole Bible

Psalms 39

Verses 1-5

Introduction

Psalm 39 continues the subject of Psalm 38, the difference being that in this psalm David hardly speaks of his enemies, but primarily of his illness as a result of his sin. He acknowledges that God gives man a short life. Therefore, he pours out his heart to God as his only hope and asks Him to end His chastisement so that he may enjoy the remaining days of his life.

His illness, as a result of his sin, has brought him to awareness of his futility as a human being and of the transience and brevity of his life (Psalms 39:1-Joshua :). That awareness leads him to ask the LORD to deliver him (Psalms 39:7-1 Chronicles :).

Life Is Short

For “for the choir director” (Psalms 39:1) see at Psalm 4:1.

The psalm is “for Jeduthun”. The name “Jeduthun” also appears in the heading of Psalm 62 and Psalm 77 (Psalms 62:1; Psalms 77:1). The psalm shows that sin is the cause of the transience and brevity of life and man. He also shows that the heart of the righteous learns to accept that. That is why, despite its dark subject, the psalm is also “for Jeduthun”, which means “choir of praise.

Jeduthun is a Levite who, along with Asaph, Heman and Ethan, is commissioned by David to praise God (1 Chronicles 16:41; 2 Chronicles 5:12). He educated his sons in the same work (1 Chronicles 16:38; 1 Chronicles 25:11 Chronicles 25:3; 1 Chronicles 25:6; Nehemiah 11:17). David commissioned Jeduthun to teach and sing this psalm.

For “a Psalm of David” see at Psalm 3:1.

David tells what is on his mind. He describes the state of mind he is in. He says that he will guard his ways, which means that he will pay attention to which ways he is going (Psalms 39:1). It shows that he intends not to deviate from God’s ways again. By his ways he means his entire life’s journey, his attitude and behavior. He focuses on his speaking. Keeping his ways means, above all, to guard his mouth. He will pay attention to what he says and above all what he should not say.

At all costs he wants to avoid sinning with his tongue. Here we see a continuation of what David intended (Psalms 38:13). He feels the urge to speak rebellious words when he sees the “wicked” are in his presence. He sees how the wicked live and speak and how things are going with himself compared to that. That does something to him, it does not leave him indifferent.

But he does not want to be tempted to ventilate his frustration with the great danger of saying the wrong thing. For this he will guard his “mouth as with a muzzle”. This is strongly said, but that is how radical he is, and that is how radical we must also be when it comes to restraining our tongues (cf. Matthew 5:29-Amos :). We often think that we should say whatever comes to mind. This is also encouraged by the people of the world around us, but here we see that this does not suit the believer.

He hushes and keeps quiet in the presence of wicked people (Psalms 39:2). He sees their prosperity and untroubled lives, but restrains himself from saying anything about it. No rebellious words come out of his mouth. He refrains, literally keeps silent, from or about the good, that is about the prosperity of the wicked. His misery and illness, the sorrow of his soul, is aggravated by seeing the prosperity of the wicked and by his attack on him.

His self-control is an inner struggle that gives no rest. By suppressing his feelings, his inner suffering becomes more severe. It does not mean that he has made a wrong decision to remain silent. A good decision can produce new struggles. David is no longer inwardly displeased with the wicked, but he is deeply troubled with his own life.

His heart begins to burn and becomes hot within him (Psalms 39:3). His sighing, that is complaining without words, becomes more intense and a fire ignites. Then he can no longer restrain himself (cf. Jeremiah 20:9) and he speaks with his tongue, that is, he speaks aloud. He does not speak to his enemies, but to the LORD; he does not speak of his enemies, but of himself (Psalms 39:4).

David’s earlier words he speaks within himself and he does so because he sees the wicked facing him. Now he is in God’s presence. That changes a person. What he says are not rebellious words, but are about the shortness of life. Nowhere does a man see his perishableness more clearly than when he is in the presence of God, where he also realizes how sinful he is (cf. Isaiah 6:1-Deuteronomy :).

In this prayer he speaks of the transience of life and the perishableness of man. Transient means to cease to be here, to pass away. David wants to know his end, how it will end for him, and how many days he has left to live. He would like to know when his days will be fulfilled. Then he will know how transient he is, how perishable, that is, he will know that his life is over, finished. He answers his questions himself in the following verses.

He knows that his days are determined by God and that God made his days only “[as] handbreadths” (Psalms 39:5); cf. Exodus 25:25). A handbreadth is four fingers (Jeremiah 52:21) and is one of the smallest units of measurement in ancient Israel. It indicates the brevity of life. Here David acknowledges that this measure applies to him as well. His life span, the number of days allotted to him, is “as nothing” to God, Who is the eternal God.

What is true of David is true of every man, for the life of “every man at his best is a mere breath” (cf. Psalms 62:9; Job 7:7). The Hebrew word for “breath” means vapor, mist, air. Life is altogether vanity, a vapor seen for a short time and then no longer there (James 4:14). Man in his conceit may think that he is “at his best”, literally “standing firm”, that nothing can shake his life, let alone make it disappear. It shows short-sightedness and blindness to the truth that David professes here. Any man who is wise will confess this with him.

Verses 6-11

Hope for Salvation

After the “surely” that every man standing firm is altogether vanity in Psalms 39:5, there follows in Psalms 39:6 the “surely” of every day’s practice: “Surely every man walks about as a phantom.“ The Hebrew word means ‘image’ or ‘shadow’. This is man who does not say “surely” to the truth that he is nothing more than a breath. That man chases after shadow images. It looks like reality, but it is to live in the lie. Today we can apply this to the virtual world, where a person pretends to be the person he would like to be but is not. He must find out that his existence and future are filled with uncertainties.

With another “surely”, David points out how people restlessly chase after more possessions in vain. This is closely connected to the worrying about the things of this life, which the Lord Jesus speaks about. That doesn’t help a person either. Nor does it add anything to the length of his life (Matthew 6:27). “One amasses [riches]“ but one can take nothing of it with him after this life. Added to this is the frustration of not knowing who will run off with his collection of goods after his death (cf. Ecclesiastes 2:18-Psalms :). God calls someone who lives this way a fool (Luke 12:16-Ecclesiastes :).

David’s expectation is of a different kind. The vanity of transient life drives him to the solid rock of the eternal God. His hope is in the Lord, Adonai, the Ruler of the universe (Psalms 39:7). From his hope in the Lord, David asks if He will deliver him from “all” his transgressions (Psalms 39:8) and thus put an end to His disciplinary actions. He knows that God is able and willing to do that. He does not resist God’s discipline, but longs for its end.

His demand for deliverance from all his transgressions is a profound confession that he has committed them. He does not demand deliverance, but longs for grace. This is what God wants to bring a person to, including the believer who has sinned. David adds that God’s deliverance results in the fact that he will not become “the reproach of the foolish”, that is, to the wicked person of Psalms 39:1. One who lives without God is a fool (cf. Psalms 14:1; Psalms 53:1).

The deep awareness of his futility and especially of his transgressions toward the great God kept David from criticizing God’s doing (Psalms 39:9). He does not complain about what God has done to him. God has His intention with what He works or allows in a human life. David will “not open” his “mouth” about it. He knows and acknowledges that God has done it (Psalms 39:10; cf. Amos 3:6). God is not the Author of evil or sin, but uses it in carrying out His plans with man and with creation and in disciplining His own.

When he asks in Psalms 39:10 if God will remove His plague from him, it is not a rebellious question. God has brought His plague upon him and only God can take that plague away from him as well. As a motive, he argues that he is perishing because of the opposition of God’s hand. There is no strength left in him. Has God then not yet achieved His purpose with His discipline? Is His opposition of the sin he has done then any longer necessary?

The chastisement with which God has chastised him for his iniquity has destroyed what is precious to him (Psalms 39:11). The Hebrew word for “precious”, hamudo, means “his desire, his lust”. The Lord’s disciplining purifies the heart, causing the transgression to lose its attractiveness to the heart. God has pulverized him with His chastisement as if he were a moth. As in Psalms 39:5, David comes to realize the futility of man through the disciplining of God. Here he bows down deeply before God and acknowledges that there is nothing left of him. What David is to God, every human being is to God: a breath, vanity.

Verses 12-13

Cry for Help

David, under tears, makes an urgent appeal to God to listen to his prayer and cry for help (Psalms 39:12). He doesn’t ask for much, only that God will make his life bearable in the short time he is still here. Let God not remain silent.

David presents himself to God as “a stranger …, a sojourner” with Him. This means that the LORD is the Owner of the land (Leviticus 25:23) and that as a stranger he expects help from Him. That he is a “sojourner” means that he is a pilgrim merely passing through, which emphasizes the temporality of his existence. He points to “all my fathers”. They have been strangers and sojourners in the world, just as he is now, while they have lived with God. He will have thought of Abraham and the patriarchs and all who have lived in the faith (1 Chronicles 29:15; Hebrews 11:13). For us, too, we are aliens and strangers in the world (1 Peter 2:11).

How long that situation will last, God alone knows and determines. That is not determined by the wicked. They do boast that they have the future in their own hands, but that is unbridled presumption.

Now that he has acknowledged his iniquity (Psalms 39:9), he asks God to turn away from him His chastening, angry gaze that now rests on him (Psalms 39:13). Then he can smile again (cf. Job 10:20), which means that his vitality and joy of life return. Then he will be able to enjoy a few more days of rest and peace before his already short life on earth comes to an end and he departs and is no more. That he is no more means that he is no longer on earth. It does not mean that he would cease to exist.

He wishes to be delivered from his sufferings during his short life and to die in peace, with the assurance that God’s discipline is over and God has accepted him. It is his wish to leave the world not in gloom or with a gloomy and discouraging outlook, but with a joyful look back at the past and the glad expectation of the world to come.

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Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Psalms 39". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/psalms-39.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniƫl', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.