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Bible Commentaries

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and Homiletical

Psalms 39

Verses 1-13

Psalms 39:0

To the chief Musician, even to Jeduthun, A Psalm of David

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.

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

And my sorrow was stirred.

3     My heart was hot within me;

While I was musing the fire burned:

Then spake I with my tongue,

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.

5     Behold, thou hast made my days as a hand-breadth;

And mine age is as nothing before thee:

Verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah.

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.

7     And now, Lord, what wait I for?

My hope is in thee.

8     Deliver me from all my transgressions:

Make me not the reproach of the foolish.

9     I was dumb, I opened not my mouth;

Because thou didst it.

10     Remove thy stroke away from me:

I am consumed by the blow of thine hand.

11     When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity,

Thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth:
Surely every man is vanity. Selah.

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

Hold not thy peace at my tears:
For I am a stranger with thee,

And a sojourner, as all my fathers were.

13     O spare me, that I may recover strength,

Before I go hence, and be no more.


For the Title, comp. Introduct. § 12, No. 6. This Psalm is related in many particulars to Psalms 62:0. and has likewise many features in common with Job, and in some respects with Psalms 38:0. The Psalmist has undertaken to be silent respecting his sufferings, in the presence of the ungodly lest he should sin in his speech (Psalms 39:1). He has been silent a short time in submission, but the burning and violent pain of his heart, enkindled to ill-humor in brooding over this unfortunate state of affairs, has found vent by the tongue (Psalms 39:2-3). The context does not indicate that he has uttered such words in the presence of his enemies as have endangered his life, as Hitzig contends referring to an older cotemporary of the prophet Jeremiah. Moreover the following words are not in favor of taking them as a statement of what the Psalmist uttered when in ill-humor (Calvin, Hengst.). They do not express the self-accusation, that he then desired death as the end of his sufferings and prayed for an indication of its nearness. They express the present petition and wish, that God will make the afflicted man conscious of the shortness of life (Psalms 39:4), in accordance with the universal perishableness of man (Psalms 39:5). If, namely, all mortal movements are a noise about nothing (Psalms 39:6), the best thing for the Psalmist is waiting on the Lord (Psalms 39:7), whom now he implores, to deliver him from all his transgressions and not make him the scorn of the ungodly. He does not desire nor does he venture to complain that God has involved him in these sufferings (Psalms 39:9); on the contrary he implores the removal of the stroke of His hand, because this would destroy him (Psalms 39:10), considering the guilt and weakness of man (Psalms 39:11). Therefore he can pressingly implore the hearing of his prayer, which is accompanied with tears, before his departure, on account of the shortness of his earthly pilgrimage (Psalms 39:12-13). The same words as those in the second half of Psalms 39:12 are found in David’s mouth in 1 Chronicles 29:15. The language is more transparent than usual and sticks closer to the subject. [Ewald: “It is the most beautiful of all the elegies in the Psalter.”—“It has great and not accidental resemblances to the discourses of Job 3:31, and since the poets are different in the color of the language and the arrangement of the verses, either this author has read the book of Job, or the author of the book of Job was stimulated by the lamentation of this Psalm to seek a higher solution, the latter is more probable.”—C. A. B.]

Str. I. Psa 39:1. While the wicked is in my presence.—This expression, in itself, might refer to a sinful speaking against the present enemy (Flam., Ruding., Hitzig), or to expressions of ill-will on account of the prosperity of the wicked which was before his eyes, as Psalms 37:0 (Geier, J. H. Mich., Köster, Delitzsch); but since the poet is throughout the Psalm occupied only with his own situation (Hupfeld), it is best to think of murmuring against God on account of his own severe sufferings, as Psalms 38:13 sq., comp. Job 1:22; Job 2:10, (Kimchi, Calvin, De Wette, Hengst.), in which he is in danger of becoming a scorn of fools (Psalms 39:8.).

Str. II. Psa 39:2. Away from prosperity.—In the situation above described the afflicted man is silent for awhile, and indeed מִטּוֹב. Since words of silence never have their object with מִן the explanation “about good,” e.g., the law and praise of God, prosperity and joy, (Chald., Aquil., Rabbins, many of the older interpreters until Rosenm.), or what might serve as a justification against slander (Calvin, Ruding.), are inadmissible. It might possibly be interpreted, “I was silent respecting prosperity,” in so far as it was not asked for or was dispensed with (Ewald, Köster), or turned away from the prosperity of the wicked, since the poet sought to put the inconsistency to a dead silence (Delitzsch), which would certainly be better than: turned away from the prosperous (Maurer). We might likewise say: far away from good = without joy and comfort (Geier, J. H. Mich.) or: so that it was not well with me, gloomy (Hupf.), or: not for good = without good results (Hengst.). A hard ellipsis, difficult to be understood, would result from the interpretation that it is an abbreviation of the complete clause: from good even to evil = utterly, Genesis 31:24; 2 Samuel 13:22, (Flam., De Wette, Hitzig). We refer the obscure and disputed expression to the circumstance, in which the poet describes himself as an unfortunate man, whose pain has in vain fretted within him.

[Psalms 39:3. Fire burned.—Hupfeld: “This is a usual figure of internal excitement and passion, as well as of the anxiety and pain resulting therefrom, when it is denied expression.” Comp. Psalms 22:15; Psalms 32:3; Is. 20:9.—C. A. B.]

Str. III. Psa 39:4. Make me to know,etc. The entire manner of expression shows, that the speaker does not inquire after the point of time of his death, because his sufferings would then be at an end, nor complain of his sufferings on account of the shortness of human life, because he has no longer hope of help; which then is taken as the subject of the previous complaint, derived from the time of his ill-humor, as in Job 6:7 sq.; Job 7:7; Job 14:1 sq.; Job 16:22, in contrasted reference to the present patient endurance of what God has done (Psalms 39:9), where Luther improperly translates: Thou wilt make it right. The speaker, certainly does not implore instruction respecting the perishableness of all earthly and human things, which indeed he has experienced in the most direct way in his own sufferings and which is presupposed as the foundation of his prayer. Its purpose is: that God, by His operation upon the soul of the sufferer, may cause him to spiritually apprehend this for moral and practical purposes, in order that, when he apprehends his own person as a vanishing thing in the midst of the perishable, he may not make so much bustle about himself and his sufferings in the world, but may lay hold of God by faith, as the only true support. Thus there is unity in the entire Psalm and an advance in thought. The Psalmist speaks in a narrative form, Psalms 39:1-3, but subsequently in prayer, arising out of the feelings which the reflection upon his previous action has excited in him, and from which the previous self-accusation as well as the increasing intensity and pressingness of the prayer have originated and are explained. If on the other hand Psalms 39:4 sq., is regarded as the subject of the speech of the tongue mentioned in Psalms 39:3, then we must either give an entirely new and independent beginning to the prayer, in Psalms 39:7 (Calvin, Ruding., Hengst.), which thus divides the Psalm in two halves, with which neither the refrain of Psalms 39:5 in Psalms 39:11, nor the double Selah would agree; or we must with Hupfeld regard all spoken after Psalms 39:3, as the contents of that which in Psalms 39:3 welled forth from the glowing heart upon the tongue. Then the unity of the Psalm would be preserved, since the first half would have the meaning of an Introduction; but the contents do not suit the introduction at all, because there is no trace in the prayer of sinning with the tongue.7I would know what a transitory thing I am.—It is not at all necessary to change חָדֵל into חָלֶד after Psalms 89:48, comp. Isaiah 38:11, (Kimchi, Calvin, Cocc., Cleric., Hupfeld), whose meaning ævum is doubtful, and is taken by Böttcher in the sense of: a little heap of earth, dust (de inferis, § 274).

Psalms 39:5. Hand-breadths.—Instead of this the Vulgate has mensurabiles, and the ancient Psalters veteres after the Sept. παλαιάς, which however is a corruption of παλαιστάς or παλεστάς which, as a literal translation of the Hebrew, is found in the Cod. Alex., and in Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzen and even was known to Ambrose and by him explained not as the palm but as rings. [Hupfeld: “It is used as a little measure of length to indicate the shortness of life, as with us, a span. The construction is that of the double accusative.”—C. A. B.]—Only mere breath is every man though he stand firmly.—It is best to connect נצב with אדם in contrast with הבל. Man is thus described as vigorous, standing firm (Zechariah 11:16), strong in his own feelings, bold and stepping securely, and not merely as one “who lives” (Sept.). It is certainly, in no case, to be connected with the following Selah = standing he bowed. It is possible to connect this word with the entire clause = only to mere nothingness is every man appointed (Hengst. [Alexander]), or better: placed as mere breath (Böttcher), constitutus est. But this interpretation is not necessary and it cannot be sustained by appealing to the previous lines. For the assertion that “before Thee” ( = in Thine eyes) means “according to God’s regulation” is just as untenable as that אַיִן never = “nothing,” but always, = nullity. Hupfeld adduces as decisive against it, Isaiah 40:17; Isaiah 41:12; Isaiah 41:24. The confirming “yes” may be put instead of the restricting “only.”8 Usage allows the one as well as the other.

Str. IV. Psalms 39:6. Only as a shadow doth man walk.—The Rabbinical interpretation that man walketh “in darkness” is incorrect. The beth is the so-called beth essentiæ. [It introduces the predicate. He walks about consisting merely of an unsubstantial shadow like that image of himself in the shadow upon the ground.—Only for a breath do they make a noise.—Perowne: “All the fret and stir, all the eager clamor and rivalry of men, as they elbow and jostle one another to obtain wealth and rank, and the enjoyments of life, are but a breath. Comp. James 4:13-14.”—C. A. B.].—He heapeth up.—It makes no difference in the sense whether we think particularly of treasure. (Job 27:16, [A. V. riches]) or grain (Genesis 41:35; Genesis 41:49). The following verb, however, is in favor of the gathering of the harvest, and the suffix refers to a nom. plur. masc, understood.9

[Psalms 39:7. And now.—Perowne: “Turning away as it were, with a sense of relief from the sad contemplation of man’s fleeting, transitory life, to fix the eye of his heart on Him who abideth forever. We seem almost to hear the deep sigh with which the words are uttered. It is remarkable that even here, it is on God Himself, not on a life to come, that his hope sustains itself.”—C. A. B.].

[Str. V. Psalms 39:8. Transgressions are regarded as the root of his sufferings and hence the prayer that they may be removed. Comp. Psalms 38:5-6; Psalms 31:10.—Scorn of the fool.—Comp. Psalms 22:6. They, beholding his sufferings, would mock him and scorn him for his transgression, charging many things against him of which he was guiltless.

Psalms 39:9. Because Thou didst it.—The Thou is emphatic and indicates that his sufferings were the work of God and no one else.—C. A. B.].

[Str. VI. Psalms 39:11. And like the moth makest what he desires to melt away.—As the moth consumes garments and they waste away, so that which is dearest and most desirable and precious to him, melts away under the stroke of Divine chastisement. This is a usual figure of perishableness, comp. Isaiah 50:9; Isaiah 51:8; Job 13:28.—Only a breath is every manVid. Psalms 39:5, to which this clause refers back.—C. A. B.]

Str. VII. Psalms 39:12. [To my tears.—Delitzsch: “Along-side of the words of prayer appear the tears likewise as a prayer understood by God, for when the doors of prayer appear to be closed, the doors of the tears remain open.”—C. A. B.]—For I am a guest with Thee,etc. The expression which is rendered in the Sept. by πάροικος καὶπαρεπίδημος (like 1 Peter 2:11), originates from Genesis 23:4, as a designation of the relation, in which Abraham stood to the natives of the land through which he wandered, and it was referred afterwards not only to the relation of foreign inhabitants of Canaan to the Israelites who were possessed of the full right of citizenship in the promised land, it being in their possession, Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:16; Leviticus 24:22; Leviticus 25:6, et al.; but likewise to the relation of the Israelites to God as the true and only Lord, Leviticus 25:23. The additional clause: as all my fathers, points to a comprehensive relation of this kind. We have therefore to think not of a merely personal and transient helplessness and need of protection, or of a mere dependence upon God, which likewise remains to those within the fellowship of the people of God, but to include in the idea, at the same time, the thought of the merely transient abode of man in this world, as likewise in 1 Chronicles 29:15, and Hebrews 11:13 sq.—Most ancient Psalters have after apud te, which is missing in Cod. Vat. of the Sept., likewise in terra. The Cod. Vat. also has this reading, while the Cod. Alex. has both readings, ἐν τῇ γῇ παρά σοι.

Psalms 39:12. Look away from me, that I may cheer up.—God’s looking away refers to the turning away His angry face, Psalms 21:9; Psalms 34:16; His look of wrath, Job 7:19; Job 14:6, which has as its result the “cheering up” (Job 9:27; Job 10:20) of the human countenance, since the clouds of care and shadows of trouble vanish.


1. Even experienced believers are deceived at times as to the little reliance they can place upon good resolutions, but only for a short time. Temptation shows how weak we are, how little patience we have in affliction, how easy and how greatly we sin in our impatience and despondency in murmuring and complaining. “It is to be well pondered that David in this Psalm does not declare his virtues in that he had formed his wishes after the rule of piety and sent them up to God, but that he rather complains of the weakness which misled him to foam in excessive pain and remonstrate with God. He sets before us in his person a mirror of human weakness, in order that we, being warned of the danger, may learn carefully to flee under the shadow of the wings of God.” (Calvin).

2. When, however, in the fiery trial of temptation our good resolutions have not stood the test, the way to salvation is in the confession of our weakness and repentance for our foolish confidence in self. A truly pious man after such experiences of himself, will not justify himself by the plea of good intentions or excuse himself by the greatness of the temptation. He has learned, that he has trodden false paths, whilst he thought to conceal his weakness from the ungodly by a strength which he did not possess, and surrounded himself, without internal devotion and tranquility, with the appearance of quiet and patience. Then the pain consumes still deeper the unbroken heart and if he has kindled in it the dull heat of consuming fretfulness, this soon enough finds vent with the violence of long suppressed resentment.

3. The quiet patience of the pious, in the silence of resignation of oneself into the hands and will of God, is an entirely different thing from the defiant suppression of sullen fretfulness, or cold renunciation in mute resignation. The latter is followed too soon by the stormy outbreak of the enchained ill-humor and the lamentable pouring forth of the disquiet of the heart which is destitute of peace and joy. The former is strengthened by stern self-examination, by earnest reflection upon the world, and by ardent prayer, unto perseverance under the sufferings and temptations in this transitory world.

4. The transitoriness of the world and the brevity of human life, afford the man who is at peace in God, no reasons for consuming ill-humor and despondent complaints. Nor does he seek in them any ground of comfort, when his sufferings pain him, or the riddle of life troubles him. He is not so miserable that he hopes that the one will soon come to an end with the other. He hopes and waits on the Lord as the only reliable and only abiding one, who cannot be carried away by the rushing stream of the perishable, and whose voice cannot be drowned in the roaring and yet vain noise which they make. “It is just this which is so heroic in the Old Testament faith, that in the midst of the riddles of the present, and in view of a future, losing itself in a night of gloom, it casts itself absolutely and without hesitation into the arms of God.” (Delitzsch). Yet we must not forget, that herein is the root of the faith in immortality, resurrection and eternal life, for one of the characteristic names of Jehovah is חַי =the Living one.

5. But now the communion with God in life, is restricted in man by sin, yet it would be entirely destroyed, if there were no deliverance from the power of sin, if the judging and punishing hand of God should strike the sinner dead. Therefore the afflicted man, who in his sufferings not only receives but recognizes the Divine punishment of his sins, directs his prayer to deliverance from both, from his sins and his sufferings. The former is manifest in the latter in this temporal life and is even clear to his enemies. It is accordingly in the interest of God as well, that He should not allow the man who waits upon Him, having been converted to Him, to be the scorn of the fool; and even the brevity of the human pilgrimage in the land of promise may under these circumstances be used as a motive for the speedy exhibition of the Divine mercy, as in Job.


The sins of the tongue must be repented of by the entire man.—There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.—The silence of the sufferer who is resigned to the will of God is very different in its causes and effects from the silence of the tempted sinner in the pride of his self-righteousness, in the weakness of his despondency, in the stubbornness of his despair.—In the hour of temptation it is seen that we need another power than our good resolutions.—He who lives and suffers in faith in the righteous government of God, may have sore trials to bear, but he will not open his mouth in complaints, murmurings, and blasphemies, but in confession of sin, in appeals to the mercy of God, in praising the glory of the Lord.—He who can find no more words for prayer, may let his tears speak for him, and God knows what they mean.—The more severely we have to bear the burden of our sins under the pressure of sufferings, the more ardent is the prayer for release by the hand of God.—The sufferings of the penitent are a scorn of the fool, but God’s eye observes them.—Even under long suffering the path which we walk is but short, and even the least burdened have heavy burdens to bear; so much the more necessary is it to find God early, for, without Him, everything is nothing.—Take care that thou dost not exchange a short joy for long pain, and in chasing after perishable goods lose God, the everlasting good.—The explanation of our earthly pilgrimage; a stranger on earth, at home with God.

Starke: In the pious the spirit has to wage a severe conflict with the flesh on account of the prosperity of the ungodly, and the misfortunes of the pious.—Secret fire and pain concealed within the heart, rage with all the more violence; hence the best advice is to shake them out in God’s lap, and besides manifest oneself a Christian well trained in the cross.—If your tongue is to be kept from sinning against God and your neighbors, your heart must first be purified from pride, impatience, and envy.—If the days of our life are short and their end uncertain, let us be diligent not only to properly employ a part of them, but our whole time.—Where faith and living hope are, Christian patience and humility under the strong hand of God are assured of a desired issue.

Osiander: Man, so far as he is regenerate, desires to quench the ill humor and impatience of his flesh—Selnekker: Faith and Hope must overcome all murmuring.—Dauderstadt: In every trouble our chief care should be not to transgress.—Bake: We build here so firmly and yet are stranger guests.—Bengel: David in this Psalm longs beyond measure for the heavenly native land.—Diedrich: Blessed is the man who has God left to him from the shipwreck of all temporal prosperity, so that he now properly chooses Him for himself, and considers Him.—Taube: Without revelation we understand neither life nor death, with the everlasting lamp we understand both.—Thoughts of death foster the sense of our pilgrimage.—Ahlfeld: Be not deceived respecting your home by a foreign land: 1). Which is the foreign land? 2). Which is the home? 3). How may we hold fast to our home when abroad?—Thym: How does hope comfort in death? It fills us 1) with believing trust in our going home, 2) with glad prospects of home, 3) with comforting confidence of meeting again.—Our life on earth is short and transitory. 1) All men know it; 2) but only the disciples of the Lord think of it; 3) and yet it decides our everlasting welfare.—Deichert: The poor human heart attains rest only by resigning itself entirely to God. 1) Its vain struggles for rest and peace of soul without God; 2) its bitter and searching importunity in prayer to God; 3) its final triumph with God.

[Matth. Henry: Those that are of a fretful, discontented spirit, ought not to pore much, for white they suffer their thoughts to dwell upon the cause of their calamity the fire of their discontent is fed with fuel, and burns the more furiously.—When creature confidences fail, it is our comfort that we have a God to go to, a God to trust to, and we should thereby be quickened to take so much the faster hold of Him by faith.—Robert Leighton: It is a piece of strange folly, that we defer the whole, or a great part of our day’s work, to the twilight of the evening, and are so cruel to ourselves, as to keep the great load of our life for a few hours or days, and for a pained, sickly body. He who makes it his daily work to observe his ways, is not astonished when that day comes, which long before was familiar to him every day.—We need not long lines to measure our lives by: each one carries a measure about with him, his own hand.—There is a common imposture among people to read their fortunes by their hands; but this is true palmistry indeed, to read the shortness of our life upon the palms of our hands.—Every man’s fancy is to himself a gallery of pictures, and there he walks up and down, and considers not how vain these are, and how vain a thing he himself is.—Barnes: The most perfect calmness and peace in trouble is produced, not when we rely on our own reasonings, or when we attempt to comprehend and explain a mystery, but when we direct our thoughts simply to the fact that God has done it.—Spurgeon: To avoid sin one had need be very circumspect, and keep one’s actions as with a guard or garrison. Unguarded ways are generally unholy ones. Heedless is another word for graceless.—If I have the fever myself, there is no reason why I should communicate it to my neighbors. If any on board the vessel of my soul are diseased, I will put my heart in quarantine, and allow none to go on shore in the boat of speech till I have a clean bill of health.—Nature may do her best to silence the expression of discontent, but unless grace comes to her rescue, she will be sure to succumb.—Worldly men walk like travellers in a mirage, deluded, duped, deceived, soon to be filled with disappointment and despair.—Men fret, and fume, and worry, and all for mere nothing. They are shadows pursuing shadows, while death pursues them.—All our desires and delights are wretched moth-eaten things when the Lord visits us in His anger.—C. A. B.]


[7][Perowne agrees with Hupfeld in what is the best view. “The words that he ‘spake with his tongue,’ are those which follow to the end of the Psalm. The introduction is merely the record of that inward struggle out of which the Psalm itself arose. And the words that he does speak are directed to God in prayer for teaching, not to man in complaints.”—C. A. B.]

[8][A. V. has “verily” but this is not so good.—C. A. B.]

[9][Wordsworth: “He heapeth up wealth like sheaves on the threshing floor and knoweth not who shall gather the corn into the barn; comp. Matthew 25:24, ‘gathering where thou hast not strawed’ or winnowed. David heaped up a great store of riches for the Temple of God, which he was not permitted to build; and he might sometimes feel misgivings and apprehensions lest those preparations should be frustrated, and that provision be dissipated.”—C. A. B.].

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Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 39". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". 1857-84.