One should always read the psalms with a view toward what the human writers are feeling. The psalms are – after all – poetry, and poetry of every age seeks to pass on emotions rather than mere facts. The psalms are also part of that body of scripture referred to as wisdom literature, which means they reflect what God’s people have discovered about life by living it with God in mind. So, we should expect to find the psalms theologically correct, even though they are not theological teaching. Because the psalms are inspired scripture, we should expect them to agree with the theology taught elsewhere in scripture, since the shared inspiration is from the same Holy Spirit.
With those concepts in mind, I invite you to read Psalm 39 with me. Reading this text with its original context in mind will help us to feel what the author felt. Along the way, we might also find reason to question a popular theological concept or two. I am convinced that both the emotion and the theology of this psalm speaks against the popular and pagan notion that human beings are born with immortality. If you happen to agree with that notion – and even consider it biblical – I urge you to look carefully at this text.
I also think this psalm speaks to the concept that some have that God wants them to right every wrong they will face. It tells the story of a godly man who went wrong by taking charge when God wanted him to “sit this one out.” It speaks to the need for all of us to keep who we are in perspective – compared to who God is.
1 TO THE CHOIRMASTER: TO JEDUTHUN. A PSALM OF DAVID.
I said, “I will guard my ways,
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth with a muzzle,
so long as the wicked are in my presence.”
These are the words of a believer who sees a particular injustice, and is tempted to respond to it. Yet he (the subscription says he is David) determines to keep silent. He apparently feels that if he complains about this injustice, the wicked who are in his presence might use that complaint against him. So, he applies a muzzle to his mouth. He is conflicted. He wants to talk, yet he knows he should not. The reader is asked to imagine him strapping a muzzle onto his mouth to prevent himself from speaking. If he speaks, he runs the risk of sinning with his tongue.
I dare say that if you and I were to start listing all the things about life down here on this planet that are injustices, our list would be huge. Yet, resisting the urge to be constant complainers, we have learned the skill of muzzling ourselves too. It is true that there are lots of things wrong with this world. Paul describes this present creation as in bondage to corruption, subject to futility, and eagerly longing for future freedom.1 David saw the results of that bondage to corruption in his own life and family. Yet, he decided not to lash out at the Creator because of the brokenness and disfunctionality he saw in creation. It was a wise choice.
2 I was mute and silent;
I held my peace to no avail,
and my distress grew worse.
Yet, the wise choice to keep silent in the face of injustice does not lead David to immediate harmony. He holds his peace, yet does not experience peace. Instead, the knowledge that things are not right in the world around him leads to distress and turmoil within him. His Creator has given him a conscience, and that conscience will not leave him alone.
Some philosophers claim that the problem is in our view of the world. They claim that if we only looked beyond the apparent disharmony and pain in the world and within ourselves we would see a greater harmony and economy at work – which would grant inner peace and joy. Do not believe it. The world around us is really broken, and it needs to be fixed. If you look deep inside yourself and get in touch with your inner child, you will find that she is a spoiled brat.
The Bible does not invite us to rewrite our experiences. It challenges us not to embrace the evil around us and call it good. Instead, it encourages us to look clearly at all that is wrong with our environment, and run to our creator for answers. Yet, it also warns us that we will not find all the answers now. We will have to learn to be content with a relationship with the one who has the solution to the problems we find. As long as we focus on the problems instead of He who is the solution, our knowledge of what is wrong will only be an ever-increasing burden. We will suffer in silence, and our distress will grow worse.
3 My heart became hot within me.
As I mused, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
David confesses that his wise choice to remain silent did not give him the solution he was looking for. The pain he was holding back was a flame burning in his heart. It grew larger and larger, until he gave in and let his mouth explode.
And that is it. That is the end of what David was worrying about. He confesses that he made a wrong choice and bleated out his complaint, and then the narrative ends. We are never told the exact nature of the complaint, or whether David’s emotional outburst accomplished anything. The reason is simple. This is not a psalm about David’s problem – whatever it was. This is a psalm about David’s relationship with the LORD.
4 “O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
David confesses that he had been guilty of taking the world upon his shoulders, and in the process of doing so he discovered that the world did not fit on his shoulders. He saw the truth, and he could not handle the truth. That is why, after he lashed out in anger at a fallen world, he addresses his LORD. For a short while, he had been tempted to think that he was going to settle something. But, after coming to his senses, he recognizes that settling that problem is not his job. There is one who will outlast him. He, the LORD, is the judge.
Every few years, most nations on this planet hold elections, and we desperately try to convince ourselves that an elected executive is what we need to solve our problems. Then reality sets in, and we spend another few years complaining about how the person we voted for (or against) has let us down. The reality is that even someone as great as king David is incapable of solving the problems that really matter. David recognized this. That is why he asked the LORD to remind him of his end – the measure of his days – how fleeting he is. David needed to be reminded that God was immortal, and he was not.
Yes, you read that right. The LORD’s life would go on and on, but David’s life would come to an end. Here is a theological concept which is mirrored elsewhere in scripture. Paul says that God alone has immortality.2 Jesus says that we mortals should fear God because he is able to destroy human beings entirely (body and soul) in hell.3 But Solomon says that we humans pass the few days of our vain lives like a shadow.4
David took solace in that theological reality. He finally saw that his was not the responsibility to correct all the world’s problems. That is what he has a Creator for. His responsibility was to stay focused on his relationship with the LORD – that Creator. By admitting his own mortality, David found the solution to his personal turmoil. The justice he was seeking would not come from his own hands. It was in the hands of his immortal LORD.
5 Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
Nowadays (as far as I know) we do not use handbreadths to measure anything but horses. The idea, however, is still quite clear. Our days are numbered. They are few, and the older we get, they seem too few. Even if we do have the joy to experience a few days with our grandchildren, we do so with the bittersweet knowledge that we will probably not know them all their lives.
David asks us to look at our lives from God’s perspective. To him, even a lifetime that we might consider long is nothing – as a mere breath. Breathe in, breath out, that is it. That is a human life from God’s perspective.
Centuries later, some human philosophers will get together and say that it is not so. They will posit the most ridiculous anthropological concept ever imagined. They will suggest that human beings live just as long as God does – for eternity. Strangely enough, many in the world will believe them. The concept of the immortality of the soul will be born.
But David is having none of that silliness. He honours God by admitting that he alone is immortal. He shares that characteristic with no one – at least not yet.5 David’s point is that since God will outlast his problem, it is God he should have turned to with the problem, instead of trying to solve it himself.
6 Surely a man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
man heaps up wealth
and does not know who will gather!
Having reflected on the nature of God, now David stops and takes a good look at the rest of humanity. He sees how humanity as a species is guilty of the same kind of blunder that he had fallen into. Like David, the human race is seeking to build a heritage that they are destined to leave to others. Like David, they worry themselves all their lives to heap up a treasury that they will not be able to enjoy. Their shadow will pass, and someone else will gather in the wealth.
David had become one of the richest men of his time, but he also learned to realize how insignificant it is to be rich. Wealth for many becomes a bondage, and a thing that one must struggle for the rest of his life to maintain. The rat race never ends – until life ends. When it does end, all that stuff that the wealthy has accumulated is just stuff. David was a rich man who developed the heart of a Lazarus. He had riches, but they had ceased to have him.
7 “And now, O Lord,
for what do I wait?
My hope is in you.
So, David had come to see that his personal struggle for justice was a means that the LORD used to bring him back to himself. The key and solution to all the things that we strive for is found in God himself. Many have troubles, but do not turn to God. David had troubles, and they forced him to see God for who he is. The LORD is the treasure we all seek. Most of us just do not know it. He is the One we are waiting for. He is our hope.
8 Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool!
Having seen his relationship with God as the most important pursuit there is, David now reflects again on that original pursuit of justice. Many a human being has been destroyed by seeking justice instead of seeking the Just One. David confesses that his attempt to take matters into his own hands only led him to ridicule. He confesses the attempt as what it was – a transgression.
But, why did he see it so? Was he not seeking to right a wrong? Yes, but he came to learn that while God commands us to right as many wrongs as we can, the attempt should never cause us to put ourselves in God’s place. The prophet Isaiah encourages God’s people to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”6 But it was this same prophet who, after seeing the LORD in a vision, declared “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”7 The LORD is the eternal source of all justice, redemption and restoration.
9 I am mute;
I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.
What the LORD had done was rebuke David for his attempt at usurping the throne of heaven. Even God’s king is still a mortal man with no business taking God’s place. So the one who could not help but scream out against injustice in verse three is struck dumb in verse nine. He is finally forced to admit that the resolution of the problem will come from God’s action, not his.
10 Remove your stroke from me;
I am spent by the hostility of your hand.
David had lived his life as a “hands on” kind of person. If there was a bear or a lion endangering his father’s flocks, David would take care of it. If there was a noisy Philistine threatening his brothers and embarrassing his king, David would get his sling. There is a time for “hands on” in the Christian life, but all of us must learn to let God be God. That calls for some times of “hands off.” David’s ordeal led to his being disciplined by the LORD so that he could take his hands off and let the sovereign God be sovereign in this situation.
His loving Shepherd LORD was making him to lie down in green pastures.8 The Israelis use the same Hebrew word today for a knockout in a boxing match. Sometimes a gentle shepherd has to be a little more than gentle. Sometimes our loving God has to push us down with a hostile hand.
11 When you discipline a man with rebukes for sin,
you consume like a moth what is dear to him;
surely all mankind is a mere breath! Selah
The LORD laid his heavy hand of discipline upon his servant, David. It consumed what was dear to him like a moth consumes a cloth. It reminded him of his own temporary nature. It caused him to contemplate the mortality of all mankind. He stopped to think about what he had experienced, and it gave him perspective.
12 “Hear my prayer, O LORD,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
Once more, David speaks out. But this time he is speaking out to the right party. He addresses his complaint to the right department. He sees himself not like a dominant king, but as a dependent sojourner. He is not the master of the house, but a guest, dependent upon the master’s hospitality. He does not pronounce judgment like a “hands on” person. He prays. He cries out for God to hear. He cries tears for God to see.
13 Look away from me,
that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more!”
Does it seem odd for a psalm to end this way? Should there not be a resolution of the original problem? Was there another ending to this psalm that has been lost due to time or a copyist error? No, this is the end of the psalm. The reason the original complaint was not resolved is that resolving our problems is not the most urgent thing for God to do. The most important thing is not that God solve my temporary problems. The most important thing is that he restore my relationship with him.
So, David prays for God to “look away” from him. He wants God to ease up on that hand of discipline upon him, so that he can “smile again.” Once again, he admits that God is immortal, and he is not. Too soon David will “depart” and be “no more.” David asks for his final days to be spent in joy and happiness. He wants to have learned from his mistakes, but he does not want his mistakes to define him.
He seems to have also learned his lesson about being “hands on.” He is willing to let God handle the big stuff in his life. That original problem – the one that vexed him so much earlier – is not even mentioned again. He seems comfortable letting God be God. That is a lesson we all need to learn.
- Romans 8:19-21
- 1 Timothy 6:16.
- Matthew 10:28
- Ecclesiastes 6:12.
- The New Testament reveals that Christ brought immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). Believers can be raised to life immortal, and this will happen at Christ’s return (Romans 6:5;1 Corinthians 15:42; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17). This immortality is not innate (we are not born with it), but is a gift from God’s grace (Romans 6:23).
- Isaiah 1:17.
- Isaiah 6:5.
- Psalm 23:2.