Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
“Undoubtedly,” says Ewald, “the finest elegy in the Psalter;” and the same scholar pronounces it original, so that the many points of similarity with the book of Job (see Notes, passim) must be taken to indicate the acquaintance of its author with this Psalm. Perhaps it is from this elegy that he takes up the problem offered by the contradictions of life which he carries so much farther. A short refrain (Psalm 39:5; Psalm 39:11) enriches the varied versification.
Title.—The inserted “even” assumes that Jeduthun was the choir-master or leader to whom the musical direction of the Psalm was assigned. But it is possible that the choir itself may have continued to be known by the name of the old master long after he had passed away. Jeduthun (variously written, as in the Hebrew here Jedithin) is identified with Ethan (1Chronicles 15:17) the Merarite, who with Heman the Korahite and Asaph the Gershonite were appointed musical directors (1Chronicles 15:19) of the Temple service. (Comp. titles of Psalms 62, 77)
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) My tongue.—To enter into the feeling of the poet we must remember the unrestrained way in which Orientals give way to grief. It was natural and becoming for him to “roar” (Psalm 38:8, &c.) out his indignation or his grief, to mutter (Psalm 1:2, &c) aloud his prayers, to speak out on every impulse. Now he determines to endure in silence and mutely bear the worst, rather than speak what may in the eyes of the impious be construed into a murmur against Divine Providence, into impatience under the Divine decree. (Comp. Psalm 38:13-14.)
With a bridle.—See margin, and comp. Deuteronomy 25:4, where the cognate verb occurs. The root-meaning is “stop.” For the metaphor comp. James 1:26, and Plato, Laws, 3:701, “the argument, like a horse, ought to be pulled up from time to time, and not be allowed to run away, but held with bit and bridle.” (Comp. also Virgil, Æneid, vi. 79.)
I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred.(2) Even from good.—This interpretation, while following the LXX., Vulg., and most ancient versions, is suspicious, since the particle, rendered from, is not generally used in this sense after a verb expressing silence. Indeed there is only one instance which at all supports this rendering (1Kings 22:3, margin). Nor does the context require or even admit it. If the bright side of things had been so evident that he could speak of it the Psalmist would not have feared reproach for doing so, nor was there cause for his silence “as to the law,” the rabbinical mode of explaining the passage. The obvious translation makes the clause parallel with that which follows: “I held my peace without profit. My sorrow was increased,” i.e., instead of lessening my grief by silence, I only increased it.
Stirred.—The LXX. and Vulg. “renewed,” which is nearer the meaning than either the Authorised Version or margin.
My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue,(3) The fire burned.—The attempt at repression only makes the inward flame of feeling burn the more fiercely, till at last it is too much for the resolution that has been formed, and the passion of the heart breaks out in words. Like the modern poet, the Hebrew bard had felt
“Twere better not to breathe or speak
Than cry for strength, remaining weak,
And seem to find, but still to seek.”
“But thought is too much for him, and he breaks into speech, not, however, fretfully, still less with bitter invective against others. It is a dialogue with the ruler of destiny, in which frail man wants to face his condition, and know the worst.
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) Rhythmically and from every other reason the psalm onward from this verse must be treated as the utterance to which the poet’s feelings have at length driven him.
How frail I am.—This is to be preferred to the margin, which follows the LXX. and Vulg. The Hebrew word, from a root meaning to “leave off,” though in Isaiah 53:3 it means “forsaken,” here, as in Ezekiel 3:27, is active, and implies “ceasing to live.”
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) Handbreadth.—Better, some spans long. The plural without the article having this indefinite sense.
Mine age.—Literally, duration. (See Psalm 17:14.) The LXX. and Vulg. have “substance.”
Before thee.—Since in God’s sight “one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” “If nature is below any perception of time, God, at the other extremity of being, is above it. God includes time without being affected by it, and time includes nature, which is unaware of it. He too completely transcends it, his works are too profoundly subject to it, to be otherwise than indifferent to its lapse. But we stand at an intermediate point, and bear affinity with both extremes” (J. Martineau, Hours of Thought).
Verily every man . . .—Better, nothing but breath is every man at his best. (Literally, though standing firm.) Comp.
“Reason thus with life—
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep; a breath thou art.
SHAKESPEARE: Measure for Measure.
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) Surely every man . . .—Better, only as a shadow walks a man. A very commonplace of poetry, from the σκιᾶς ὄναρ ἄνθρωποι of Pindar downwards. Thus Sophocles, “I see that we who live are nothing else but images and vain shadows;” Horace, “Pulvis et umbra sumus; Burke, “What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue.”
The above rendering treats the preposition as the beth essentiæ. If, however, we keep the Authorised Version, the thought is of man’s life, not as a reality, but as a show, a picture, a phantasma (see margin), and himself only an imaginary actor. But this seems modern for the psalms. Shakespeare, no doubt with this passage in his mind, has combined it with the more obvious image:—
“Out, out, brief candle,
Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.”
Surely they . . . —Better, Only for a breath they make a stir.
And now, Lord, what wait I for? my hope is in thee.(7) And now, Lord . . .—“If such is man’s condition, what,” says the psalmist, “is my expectation?” We seem to hear the deep sigh with which the words are uttered; and we must remember that the poet can turn for comfort to no hope of immortality. That had not yet dawned. The thought of God’s mercy, and the hope of his own moral deliverance, these form the ground of his noble elevation above the oppressive sense of human frailty. The LXX. and Vulg. give it very expressively:—
“And now what is my expectation? Is it not the Lord?
And my substance is with thee.”
Deliver me from all my transgressions: make me not the reproach of the foolish.(8) Here the psalmist recurs to his initial thought, but lets us see deeper down into his heart. It was no mere fancy that if he gave vent to his feelings the wicked might find cause for reproach; the cause was there in his own consciousness of transgression.
The reproach of the foolish.—Better, The scorn of the fool. (Comp. Psalm 22:6.)
I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.(9) Thou is emphatic. Kimchi well explains: “I could not complain of man, for it was God’s doing; I could not complain of God, for I was conscious of my own sin.”
Remove thy stroke away from me: I am consumed by the blow of thine hand.(10) Stroke.—See Note to Psalm 38:11.
Blow.—Margin, “conflict.” A word only found here; from a root meaning rough. LXX. and Vulg. have “strength.”
Calvin’s last words are said to have been a reminiscence of this verse.
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.—This is unnecessary. With judgments for sin Thou chastenest a man.
Rebukes.—The word rendered “reproofs” in Psalm 38:14, where see Note.
Beauty.—Literally, Something desirable. (See margin.) Thou, like a moth (consuming a garment: see Pr. Bk. Version), causest his desirable things to melt. (For the image, singularly apt. and natural in a country where “changes of raiment” were so prized, and hoarded up as wealth, comp. Job 13:28; Matthew 6:19; James 5:2.)
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) For I am a stranger.—A reminiscence of Genesis 23:4, and adopted 1Peter 2:11 from the LXX. (See New Testament Commentary, and comp. Hebrews 11:13.) The psalmist, like the Apostle, applies Abraham’s words metaphorically to this earthly pilgrim age (comp. 1Chronicles 29:15), and pathetically asks why, when the tenure of life is so uncertain, God looks angrily on him? (For the passionate appeal for a respite, comp. Job 10:20-21, and for the Hebrew conception of the under world, Psalm 6:5, Note.)
O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.(13) Recover strength.—Better, Let me become cheerful, i.e., look up with a glad look once more on my face, as the angry look fades from the Divine countenance.