Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
This Psalm, which is pronounced by Ewald to be “indisputably the most beautiful of all the elegies in the Psalter,” is a sequel to the preceding one. The situation of the Psalmist is in the main the same. Prolonged sickness has brought him to the very edge of the grave. But the crisis of suffering is over, and the taunts of his enemies have ceased for the time.
The Psalm consists of four stanzas, the first three containing three verses each, and the fourth four verses, which fall into two pairs.
The outline of the contents is as follows:
i. As he compares his lot of suffering with the prosperity of the wicked, the Psalmist is tempted to murmur, and resolves to meet the temptation by silence. But the fire of emotion refuses to be suppressed (Psalm 39:1-3).
ii. He is forced to seek relief in prayer that he may be taught to understand the transitoriness of human life and the vanity of worldly aims (Psalm 39:4-6).
iii. Thus he is brought to feel that his only hope is in Jehovah, to Whom he turns in silent resignation (Psalm 39:7-9).
iv. Then, pleading the frailty and the shortness of human life, he prays for relief and respite (Psalm 39:10-13).
In order rightly to understand this Psalm, as well as Psalms 38, it must be remembered (1) that sickness was popularly regarded as a proof of God’s displeasure: (2) that to ancient Israel it seemed that death must be an interruption of fellowship with God (Introd. p. xciii ff.).
This Psalm, like Psalms 38, 40, has been regarded by some critics as the utterance of the nation rather than of an individual. But however well it may admit of such an application, this can hardly have been the original meaning.
The Psalm is closely connected in thought and language with Psalms 38 Cp. Psalm 39:2; Psalm 39:9 with Psalm 38:13-14; Psalm 39:7 with Psalm 38:15; Psalm 39:8 with Psalm 38:16; Psalm 38:10-11 with Psalm 38:1-3; Psalm 38:11. It is also related to Psalms 62. Both Psalms are marked by the same hope in God, and the same view of the vanity of life: and in both the word ak, ‘only’ or ‘surely,’ is characteristic. The parallels with the Book of Job should also be noticed. See note on Psalm 39:13.
The title should be rendered, For the Chief Musician Jeduthun. Jeduthun, whose name appears again in the titles of Psalms 62, 77, is mentioned in 1 Chronicles 16:41 f.; Psalm 25:1 ff.; 2 Chronicles 5:12; 2 Chronicles 35:15, along with Heman and Asaph, as one of the directors of the Temple music. He appears to have been also called Ethan (1 Chronicles 15:17 ff.).
To the chief Musician, even to Jeduthun, A Psalm of David. 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.1. I said] To myself: I resolved, as the result of self-communing. Cp. Psalm 30:6; Psalm 31:14.
I will take heed to my ways] Lit. I will keep my ways: keep watch and ward over thought word and action. Cp. Proverbs 16:17; and the often repeated exhortation in Deuteronomy to ‘take heed’ (Deuteronomy 4:9; &c.). He fears that he may sin with his tongue (Job 31:30) by murmuring against God as he contrasts the prosperity of the wicked with his own lot of trial. Cp. Job 1:22; Job 2:10; and generally Psalms 37, 73.
I will keep &c.] Lit. I will keep a muzzle for my mouth. Cp. Psalm 141:3. Perhaps with the LXX, we should read I will put … on.
while the wicked is before me] For the sight of their prosperity is a temptation. Cp. Habakkuk 1:3. This seems to be the sense, rather than that he was afraid of giving way to complaints in the hearing of the wicked, which might give occasion for ridicule or blasphemy.
1–3. The resolution of silence in the presence of temptation.
I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred.2. silence] The word carries with it the idea of mute submission. Cp. Psalm 62:1; Psalm 37:7; Lamentations 3:26.
even from good] I kept absolute silence, speaking neither good nor bad (Genesis 31:24). Less probably as R.V. marg., and had no comfort.
my sorrow was stirred] The effort to suppress his feelings only aggravated the pain. Cp. Psalm 32:3. So Ovid, Trist. v. 1. 63, ‘Strangulat inclusus dolor atque exaestuat intus.’
My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue,3. burned] Better, as R.V. from Coverdale and P.B.V., kindled. The smouldering fire of passion within could no longer be restrained from bursting into a flame of words. Comp. (though the cause was different) Jeremiah 20:9.
LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am.4. His prayer is not that he may know how much of life is left him; as the P.B.V. that I may be certified how long I have to live, paraphrasing the LXX. ἵνα γνῶ τί ὑστερῶ ἐγώ: ut sciam quid desit mihi, Vulg.: but that he may realise how surely life must end, and how brief it must be at best. What it is = how short it is.
that I may know] Better, as R.V., let me know. Frail, lit, ceasing, transitory.
4–6. Silence has proved impossible. He must give vent to his emotions, and he breaks out into a prayer that he may be taught so to understand the frailty of his life and the vanity of human aims, that he may be led back from selfish, envious, murmuring thoughts, to rest in submission to God’s will. Cp. Psalm 90:12.
Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth; and mine age is as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Selah.5. as a handbreadth] Better, a few handbreadths long. The shortest measure is enough to reckon life by. The ‘handbreadth’ = four ‘fingers’ (Jeremiah 52:21 compared with 1 Kings 7:26) or less than half a ‘span.’
mine age &c.] The same word as that rendered ‘world’ in Psalm 17:14, denoting life in its fleeting, transient aspect. In the sight of the Eternal man’s existence shrinks into nothing. Cp. Isaiah 40:17.
verily &c.] The particle ak, which is characteristic of this Ps. and of Psalms 62, may be used affirmatively to introduce the whole clause (verily, or surely, as in Psalm 39:6; Psalm 39:11), or restrictively, to emphasise the words which immediately follow it (only). The order of the words points to the latter sense here. ‘Only altogether a breath’, i.e. nought but mere vanity are all men at their best estate: lit. when standing firm: however securely they may seem to be established. Cp. Psalm 144:4; James 4:14.
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.6. Only as a phantom doth each walk to and fro:
Only for vanity do they turmoil:
One heapeth up, and he will not know who doth gather the hoard.
Man is an unsubstantial phantom (or shadow, lit. image), Psalm 73:20 : σκιᾶς ὄναρ, ‘a dream of shadow’ as Pindar calls him (Pyth. viii. 95). With unreal aim and unenduring result do men disturb themselves. The word expresses the idea of restless noisy bustle and uproar. Cp. ‘a tumultuous city’ Isaiah 22:2, and see note on ‘abundance’, Psalm 37:16. Shew (A.V.) must be taken to mean ‘appearance,’ not ‘display’ or ‘pomp.’
One heapeth up riches, treasures, possessions of all kinds (Job 27:16), and he will not know after his death who gathers these hoards as his harvest, or rather, who carries them off as his spoil (Isaiah 33:4). Cp. Luke 12:20.
And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.7. And now] Or, Now therefore (Psalm 2:10), introduces a conclusion from a preceding statement.
what wait I for] What have I waited and still am waiting for? or, What (else) could I have waited for? the form of the question implying that nothing else was possible.
wait … hope] The words form a link between the preceding (Psalm 38:15) and the following (Psalm 40:1) Psalms.
7–9. Man’s life being thus transient, and earthly treasures thus deceitful, the Psalmist turns to God, as the one sure stay in life.
Deliver me from all my transgressions: make me not the reproach of the foolish.8. The Psalmist prays to be delivered not merely from his present afflictions but from the power of the sins which he recognises as the cause of them. Sin gets hold of its victim and brings him into punishment. Cp. Psalm 40:12; Job 8:4.
the reproach of the foolish] The fool (Psalm 14:1 note) regards the sufferings of the godly as a mark of God’s wrath, and taunts him accordingly (Psalm 38:16; Psalm 22:8; Psalm 31:11). Cp. the plea of the nation, Psalm 44:13 ff.; Psalm 74:18; Psalm 74:22.
I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.9. This verse may refer to the silence with which he bore the taunts of his enemies (Psalm 39:2; Psalm 38:13-14); or it may be the expression of perfect resignation to the will of God: I am dumb, I will not open my mouth, for Thou hast done it. Cp. Lamentations 1:21. “He has risen out of the moody silence of impatience to the contrite silence of evangelical faith, recognising at once his sin and God’s holy love.” Kay.
Remove thy stroke away from me: I am consumed by the blow of thine hand.10. stroke] The same word as that rendered plague in Psalm 38:11. Cp. Job 9:34.
I am consumed &c.] By the conflict of thy hand am I consumed. ‘I’ stands in emphatic contrast with ‘thy hand’. When the power of the Almighty contends with me, I, frail mortal that I am, must needs perish. Cp. Job 10:2 ff.
10–13. Petition for relief (10, 11) and respite (12, 13).
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.11. When thou with rebukes dost chasten a man for iniquity,
Thou wastest like a moth his desirableness:
Nought but vanity are all men.
The A.V. obscures the correspondence of the first line with Psalm 38:1; Psalm 6:1. As easily as the moth-grub, working unseen, destroys ‘goodly raiment’ (Genesis 27:15), so easily does God’s chastisement destroy a man’s ‘goodliness,’ the bodily strength and beauty which make him attractive (Isaiah 53:2). It is God’s consuming ‘hand’ which is compared to the ‘moth’ (Hosea 5:12); not, as the A.V. might seem to imply, the ephemeral duration of man’s goodliness. Cp. Job 13:28; Isaiah 50:9; Isaiah 51:8.
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.12. hold not thy peace] Restoration to health will be an answer. But the word may be rendered, as in R.V. of Psalm 28:1, be not deaf. So Jerome, ne obsurdescas.
It is a Rabbinic saying that there are three kinds of supplication, each superior to the other; prayer, crying, and tears. Prayer is made in silence, crying with a loud voice, but tears surpass all. “There is no door, through which tears do not pass,” and, “The gates of tears are never locked.” Cp. Hebrews 5:7.
a stranger with thee, and a sojourner] Omit and. ‘Stranger’ and ‘sojourner’ were the technical terms for aliens residing in a country to which they did not belong, and where they had no natural rights of citizenship (Genesis 23:4). The words suggest the idea of a temporary residence, dependent on the good-will of the actual owners. The Israelites were taught to regard themselves as ‘strangers and sojourners’ in the land of Canaan, which belonged to Jehovah (Leviticus 25:23): and here the idea is extended to man in general. The earth is God’s, and man is His tenant upon it (Psalm 119:19). This being so, the Psalmist appeals for a hearing on the ground that he is but a temporary resident on the earth (Genesis 47:9), God’s guest for a while only in the upper world, where alone His Presence can be enjoyed. And further, as the strangers and sojourners among them were specially commended to the care of Israel (Exodus 22:21; &c.), he would plead to be treated by God with a corresponding clemency.
The words are placed in David’s mouth by the Chronicler (1 Chronicles 29:15), and applied by St Peter (1 Peter 2:11) to the Christian’s position in the world, παρακαλῶ ὡς παροίκους καὶ παρεπιδήμους, the words used in the LXX here. Cp. Hebrews 11:13.
as all my fathers] Cp. Elijah’s words, 1 Kings 19:4.
O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.13. O spare me] So Jerome, parce mihi. But more exactly, Look away from me. Cheyne renders, ‘avert thy frown.’
that I may recover strength] Lit. brighten up, as the sky when the clouds clear.
Parallels for every phrase in the verse are to be found in Job. See Job 7:19; Job 14:6; Job 10:20-21; Job 7:8 (R.V.).
It is, as Delitzsch remarks, the heroic character of Old Testament faith, that in the midst of the enigmas of life, and in full view of the deep gloom enshrouding the future, it throws itself unconditionally into the arms of God.