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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Psalms 39

 

 

Introduction

Heading.

‘For the Chief Musician, for Jeduthun. A Psalm to/for David.’

This Psalm is offered to the person responsible for the sacred music, or the choirmaster, and is of the Davidic collection. ‘To (or ‘for’) David’ may indicate that it was dedicated to David, written for the Davidic house, or even written by David himself.

Jeduthun’s name appears also in the headings of Psalms 62, 77. He is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 16:41 ff; 1 Chronicles 25:1 ff; 2 Chronicles 5:12; 2 Chronicles 35:15, along with Heman and Asaph, as one of the directors of the music in the Temple, and his descendants continued to officiate after the Exile (Nehemiah 11:17). His other name Ethan was probably his name before he was appointed (1 Chronicles 6:44 ff; 1 Chronicles 15:17; 1 Chronicles 15:19).

The Psalm appears to have been written while the Psalmist is going through a ‘near death’ illness, and divides into four sections:

1) The Psalmist is determined not to say anything in the presence of the unrighteous that might give him occasion to criticise God. Once he is alone, however, he cannot keep silent (Psalms 39:1-3).

2) His concern is with his awareness of his own frailty and of the fact that life appears on the whole to be vain and that a man does not know what will happen to the possessions that he has built up once he is dead. Thus as he lies on his sickbed it raises the question of the very meaning of life (Psalms 39:4-6).

3) His solution lies in hoping in YHWH and walking rightly before Him, being delivered from all his transgressions. Meanwhile therefore he prays that YHWH will restore him to health, while recognising that he himself through his illness experience is being corrected for his own sins (Psalms 39:7-11).

4) Recognising the brevity of a man’s life on this earth in comparison with God’s he prays that he may be restored and given a little more time before his life is finally over so that he can make good use of it.


Verses 1-3

1). The Psalmist is determined not to say anything in the presence of unrighteous people that might give them occasion to criticise God. Once he is alone, however, he cannot keep silent (Psalms 39:1-3).

Psalms 39:1

‘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 person is before me.’

The Psalmist declares that he will ‘keep his ways’. That is, he will watch over them and control them. And his aim and purpose is in order that he might not sin with his tongue by bringing his doubts about life before the unrighteous while they are in his presence, or alternatively by bringing his doubts about the unrighteous who are in his thoughts, before men. The latter problem was a constant one in the Psalms. Why did the unrighteous flourish?

So he determines to keep a bridle on his tongue, lest he say anything that brings dishonour on God. Wise is the man or woman who keeps a watch over what comes from their mouths.

Psalms 39:2-3

‘I was dumb with silence,

I held my peace, even from good,

And my sorrow was stirred.

My heart was hot within me,

While I was musing the fire burned,

Then spoke I with my tongue.’

Thus he was ‘dumb with silence’, saying nothing, even about what was good, lest he slip up with his tongue. But such was the force of the thoughts that were flowing into his mind, that his sorrow was stirred, and his heart was hot within him. His meditations were so powerful that they were too much for him to hold in. And thus while he was musing a fire burned in his heart, and in the end he could no longer keep silence.


Verses 4-6

2). His concern was with his awareness of his own frailty and of the fact that life appears on the whole to be vain and that a man does not know what will happen to the possessions that he has built up once he is dead. Thus as he lies on his sickbed it raises the question of the very meaning and purpose of life (Psalms 39:4-6).

Psalms 39:4-5

‘YHWH, make me to know my end,

And the measure of my days, what it is,

Let me know how frail I am.

Behold, you have made my days as handbreadths,

And my lifetime is as nothing before you,

He calls on YHWH to bring home to him how short his life is, what the measure of his days is, and how frail he is. Indeed he recognises that each of his days are but a handsbreadth, a tiny length of time in the great ocean of time, and that his whole life from start to finish is as nothing before God.

Psalms 39:6

Surely every man at his best estate,

Is altogether vanity.’ Selah.

Only in an image does a man walk,

Only (for) a breath do they make a noise,

He heaps up riches,

And knows not who will gather them.

And meanwhile what value does that life have? Even at a man’s very best it is simply vanity. Man’s life is like a dream, a passing image, only for a fleeting breath can men make a noise and enjoy themselves. And during this passing dream he builds up wealth and possessions only for them to fall into other hands in a way which is out of his control. And who knows what they will do with them? Such is life without God.


Verses 7-11

3). His solution lies in hoping in YHWH and walking rightly before Him, being delivered from all his transgressions. Meanwhile therefore he prays that YHWH will restore him to health, while recognising that he himself through his illness experience is being corrected for his own sins (Psalms 39:7-11).

Psalms 39:7-8

‘And now, Lord, what do I wait for?

My hope is in you.

Deliver me from all my transgressions,

Make me not the reproach of the foolish.

His solution lies in hoping in YHWH. He recognises that that is what he is waiting for. If there is any solution it is to be found in God, and in living for Him. So he prays that he might be delivered from all his transgressions, and might live a life that cannot be reproached by the foolish (those who themselves ignore God - Psalms 14:1), a life pleasing to God.

Psalms 39:9

‘I was dumb, I opened not my mouth,

Because you did it.

Here the suggestion appears to be that he was struck dumb with wonder as he recognised that God had done what he asked. He had delivered him for his transgressions and from all reproach, and had responded to his hope. He had brought him peace and rest in the recognition that his life was in God’s hands.

Psalms 39:10-11

Remove your stroke away from me,

I am consumed by the blow of your hand.

When you with rebukes correct man for iniquity,

You make his beauty to consume away like a moth,

Surely every man is vanity.’ Selah.

So he now prays that he might recover from his illness. For his illness had dragged him down and almost devoured him, as by a blow from God’s hand. The result of this rebuke from God, which had been in order to correct him from his sinful ways, was that he had become but a shadow of his former self. He had become, as it were, moth-eaten. And it had revealed to him how vain life in itself was.


Verse 12

4). Recognising the brevity of a man’s life on this earth, in comparison with God’s, he prays that he may be restored and given a little more time before his life is finally over so that he can make good use of it.

Psalms 39:12

Hear my prayer, O YHWH,

And give ear to my cry,

Hold not your peace at my tears,

For I am a stranger with you,

A sojourner,

As all my fathers were.

Oh spare me, that I may recover strength,

Before I go hence, and am no more.

The idea behind these words is that the earth is God’s, and we enter into it but briefly, as though we were mere immigrants with only a short time to dwell on the earth, before finally going on our way from here and being no longer on it, God being the only One Who has permanence here.

This idea of being a sojourner is applied by Abraham to himself (Genesis 23:4), by Moses to all Israel, considered as the feudal subjects and dependents of YHWH (Leviticus 25:23) and by David to himself and his contemporaries (1 Chronicles 29:15). All saw themselves as just ‘passing through’.

Thus he prays for the restoration of his strength so that he might fulfil his days on earth, before he must finally depart from it. He wants to be able to make the best use of the time he has left. The Psalm gives no indication of what lies beyond (unlike, for example Psalms 16:11; Psalms 17:15; Psalms 23:6), but it does exude a confidence and faith in God that is in line with those ideas. He simply rests his hope in God. Peter applies this idea of the ‘stranger and sojourner’ to the Christian as he goes through life towards his heavenly home (1 Peter 2:11).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Psalms 39:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/psalms-39.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Monday, September 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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