As we continue our march through the Book of Psalms, today we look at Psalm 39. This psalm is a prayer for rescue and in it we see the psalmist’s discouragement. This comes from having a very limited perspective on his situation. Psalm 39 is also a wisdom psalm that masquerades as an individual lament. It was composed for Jeduthun, a Levitical singer appointed by David. This psalm is a bit unusual in that it speaks of the psalmist’s determination to be silent against his foes. Normally psalmists spoke loudly and boldly against their enemies. And, in a move much like Job, the psalmist ends this psalm with the request that God would leave him alone. This psalm can be divided into four parts: the psalmist determined to be silent before his foes, a petition to God for help in view of the shortness of his life, a petition for forgiveness and deliverance, and asking God to leave him alone.
David was determined to remain silent in his suffering so that he would not say something foolish. He didn’t want to say anything that would give his enemies any ammunition to use against him. But the silence only served to magnify his anguish, pain, and inner turmoil. David doesn’t seem to be gravely ill, but something had happened to him because of his sins. He again is dealing with the wicked and ungodly. Perhaps these folks were blaspheming the Lord and David was being harassed because of his beliefs. The last thing David wanted to do was bring reproach upon the name of the Lord. The psalm almost feels like a dirge. One would assume this was a personal lament, but David wrote this to give to a temple musician for public worship. Jeduthun was one of three musicians David had put in charge of worship at the sanctuary of the Lord. The other two were Heman and Asaph.
David was silent but his heart was burning. He was dismayed by the prosperity of the wicked and their disregard for all the Lord had blessed them with. David was so angry he wanted to retaliate, to say something to defend the Lord. But he thought it best to remain quiet. That only made his heart burn with pain and anger. Finally, it was as though he was trying to contain a volcano and David had to speak. There have been other times people’s hearts have burned within them. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus had burning hearts as Jesus walked along with them, explaining what the Word meant. Ezekiel had burning and anguish because of the difficult calling God had given him. You will notice David didn’t even say good things. He just kept quiet, until he could no longer contain himself. The writer of Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us there is a time to speak and a time to remain silent. The one who is wise knows the difference! David didn’t argue with his foes. But he eventually did go to the Lord in prayer.
David was despondent, his heart burdened. Whenever we struggle, it is a good time to go to the Lord. David had concluded that his life was meaningless and fleeting. Those were qualities he had associated with a wicked life, not one lived being as obedient to the Lord. Now he is not sure what to think. It doesn’t seem to matter if a person is godly or not. David knew that life is short…fleeting…a vapor. He also knew that he was human and one day he would die. He even began to measure his days, but his measure was a handbreadth, four fingers. His age was nothing in God’s sight. Like psalm 22, David was looking in the mirror and not seeing much he liked. Not only has David sounded like Job here, but now he sounds like Solomon. Everything is vanities under the sun. The Hebrew word for vanity can also be translated as a breath or emptiness. One Hebrew scholar described vanity as what is left after you break a soap bubble. In verse six David compares life to an empty show with nothing but shadow people rushing about. Jewish thought saw people who had died as shadows, often called shades. But these shadow people here were rushing around truing to get rich…but for what. Who would receive the spoils after they died. So here is a thought. If we measure the length of life, we too might become despondent. Our lives have been described as a vapor…here and then gone. The human lifetime is but a moment to God, as temporary as breath. But if we measure the depth of life, we may be appalled. Life is swift, short, and for many; futile.
And then David has a change of heart. He was confident, with a believing heart. Verse 7 is the central verse in the psalm, and a sort of turning point for David. He asked the question, if life is so short then what am I waiting for. If the world is nothing but a shadow image, let me give myself to the Lord who is the foundation of everything that is real and lasting. David knows his only chance of deliverance is in the Lord, but he also struggles with thinking that his trouble also comes from God. This leaves him in a quandary. Does he go to God and ask for help or does he ask God to leave him alone. And unlike many psalms that move from lament to praise, David has difficulty in making that move. While David was looking at how he lived we can do the same today. Our main concern today is not how long we live but how we live. Hopefully, we measure life by asking if we have values that last rather than asking if we have material wealth. As David turned from his lament to faith in the Lord, he moved from hopelessness and despair to hope, from paralysis to action.
The psalm finishes out by describing what David did to bring about change. He was repentant, with a broken heart. There is a common thread that runs through psalms 38-41 and that is that rebellion brings about suffering. His prayer begins in verse 8. David links his suffering with God’s discipline, assuming it is punishment for sin. He is sure that the Lord uses discipline to correct His children. Again, we do not know David’s sins, but we do know that God listens to the cry of the brokenhearted. And we know that God forgives us when we confess. David was taking great care to not give the wicked any reason to ridicule him. The next thing David did was to ask God to stop striking him. David was exhausted from the blows that came from God’s hand and he used three images to get his point across. He spoke of a plague or sickness, his life draining away, the blow of God’s hand like a loving parent disciplining a child, and the rebuke of His Word which cut deeply into David’s heart.
C.S. Lewis wrote this: God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes that all is vanity unless we put our faith and hope in God. David ends this psalm by referring to himself as an alien or stranger. Some translations say guest. These words indicate a class of non-Israelites who were permitted to live among God’s people within the promised land, but they had no inheritance there. These residents could experience some interaction with the native inhabitants, but they had few if any rights. David drew upon their experience as an analogy to the kind of painful barriers sin had erected between himself and God. We are not strangers to God because He knows us and we know Him, but we are strangers with God as His welcomed guests. He can hear our prayers and our cries. He sees our tears.
David’s last words here are an ask to God that He would leave him alone. He had had enough discipline and David could not remain silent anymore. He did not want to give his enemies fuel for the fire, and he didn’t want to mis-speak to or about the Lord. He also asked that God would not be silent and for God to deliver him. But if God would not deliver him, then David preferred that God just leave him alone. This would allow David to regain his strength and return to life with all of its duties and burdens. One day then he would pass into eternity. This is the same David who in psalm 23 declared he would dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Sometimes the pain of the psalmist was so far from being resolved at the time when they wrote their psalms they remained on the edge of despair until the very last verse. But then we see the hope that God saves those who call on Him over and over. Jesus told His disciples and us this in John 16:33, “In this world you will have troubles, but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.” We hang onto that every day. In reality I believe David did as well but sometimes we all lose sight of this and forget that God walks with us no matter where we are or what we are doing.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W