THE BREVITY AND VANITY OF LIFE
The superscription entitles this psalm, 'The Vanity of Life,' but the brevity of life is also a feature. It is labeled 'A Psalm of David,' 'for the Chief Musician, for Jeduthun.'
"Jeduthun, in this and in Ps. 62 and Ps. 72, was one of David's three Music leaders, the other two being Asaph and Heman (1 Chronicles 16:37-42). He was also the King's Seer (2 Chronicles 35:15)."F1
William Jones has an outline of this psalm, as follows: (1) Silence in Trouble (Psalms 39:1-3); (2) Speech in Trouble (Ps. 39:4:6); and (3) Supplication in Trouble (Psalms 39:7-13).F2
There are a number of interpretations of these verses. (1) One view is that, "The psalmist's breaking his vow of silence was sinful and that Ps. 39:4-11 are his plea for forgiveness."F3 Another view is that his breaking silence was altogether justified as in the case of Jeremiah (Jer.20:9).F4
Far too little is known about the actual circumstances that resulted in this psalm's composition to provide very much certainty regarding exactly what is meant in every line.
"Ewald called this 'The most beautiful of all the elegies in the Psalter.'"F5
Spurgeon's summary of the psalm has this:
"The psalmist is bowed down with sickness and sorrow, and is burdened by unbelieving thoughts and doubts, about which he resolves to be silent. His unsupportable grief demands expression, resulting in the prayer of Ps. 39:3-6, wherein is a very despondent picture of human life."F6
Regarding the authorship: the assignment of the psalm to David in the superscription is the only information available on this question; and Delitzsch has declared that there is no authority whatever for critical assignment of it to, "any particular poet, other than David."F7
In this study, we shall examine the verses one by one.
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."
In common language, of course, this is merely a pledge on the part of the psalmist to keep his mouth shut. It is a fine resolution for most people, especially with regard to all complaints, criticisms, gossip, and many other elements that sometimes are featured in popular conversation.
Also, in the particular situation here, an unusually good reason for this self-imposed intention of silence is given in the final clause.
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.
(Psalms 39:1). Several have pointed out that the true meaning here is 'muzzle,' not 'bridle.'
While the wicked is before me
(Psalms 39:1). Rawlinson admitted that this rendition is the literal meaning but preferred the Prayer-book Version. While the ungodly is in my sight.F8
We are not very impressed with the imaginary "reasons" some writers have assigned for this silence in the presence of the ungodly.
Some have "guessed" that David was so impatient with God's treatment of him and so concerned with doubts and unbelief that he was afraid he might say something that would cause his enemies to declare that he had lost his faith. Maybe so; but I find nothing in the psalm that backs up such an idea.
Of course, if that was indeed the situation, silence was certainly appropriate, "Because God's people are not at liberty to express doubts or complaints, if doing so would give the wicked a chance to blaspheme, or if it should unsettle the faith of any believer."F9
However, as Spurgeon noted, "Silence in the presence of the ungodly is especially wise, `Because bad men are sure to misuse even our holiest speech; and it is well not to cast our pearls before such swine.'"F10
Whatever the reason for David's silence, the presence of the ungodly certainly was an element leading to his decision. We do not understand this as any 'Vow to God' on David's part. There is nothing here that suggests that.
I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good;
And my sorrow was stirred."
David did indeed refrain from speaking, even many of the good things, which he might have said; and this is a hint that there might have been things "not so good," which he thought, but did not speak; however we shall not attempt to supply the details on that, which are not in the text.
I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; And my sorrow was stirred.
(Psalms 39:2). The attempt to suppress his feelings by not speaking of them provided no help at all but only increased his anguish.F11
My heart was hot within me;
While I was musing the fire burned;
Then spake I with my tongue."
My heart was hot within me; While I was musing the fire burned: [Then] spake I with my tongue:
(Psalms 39:3). In our view, this is the same situation that once confronted Jeremiah, who wrote: If I say I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name, then there is in my heart a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary with forbearing, and cannot contain (Jeremiah 20:9). There was no rebuke upon Jeremiah for this failure to keep silence; and we feel sure that none was due David for his failure to keep it here.
Silence is not the final answer to man's problems, however distressing they may be.
"The internal pressure upon David became too great; and finally he spoke."F12
Jehovah, make me to know mine end,
And the measure of my days, what it is;
Let me know how frail I am."
Barnes and many other scholars have labeled this request of David, "As an expression of impatience ... which the psalmist knew was not right";F13 but it is possible that something else is intended here. Addis points out that, according to Duhm, "In this Psalm, the psalmist has the idea of personal and conscious immortality before him. He longs to know whether his life, or at least his full conscious life, is to cease with death; and he here asks God to teach him this mystery."F14
Only a very slight emendation to the text led to Duhm's translation of this clause in Ps. 39:4, "Let me know whether I shall cease to be." This more properly fits the great prophet David than does the other supposition. Hengstenberg, as quoted by Rawlinson, also insisted that the only possible translation of this clause is, "That I may know when I shall cease to be."F15
As Yates pointed out, "This prayer is essentially a prayer for knowledge,"F16 and, of course, there can be no criticism of any such prayer.
Behold, thou hast made my days as handbreadths;
And my lifetime is as nothing before thee:
Surely every man at his best estate is altogether vanity. (Selah)"
It appears to us that David mentions the pitiful brevity and vanity of life here as implied reasons leading up to some far greater reality than the pitiful summary of mortal life as all men know it.
The Bard of Avon commented upon this very futility and nothingness of mortal life in these words:
"Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day.
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. 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: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing. -- William Shakespeare, Lady Macbeth, Act. V, Scene 5, Lines 11-20."
One can hardly resist the speculation that Shakespeare had evidently read this psalm and made his comment on it in the lines just quoted.
We cannot believe, however, that David arrived at the same conclusion as did Shakespeare. There was indeed an answer to David's perplexity, as we shall see. "The very purpose of David's prayer, beginning with this verse, was based in his hope of being led back to a quiet confidence in God, which would dispel the vain thoughts."F17 This vein of thought was applied to all the nations of the world by Isaiah, "All the nations are as nothing before God; they are accounted by him as less than nothing, and vanity" (Isaiah 40:17). This being true of nations, indeed of all nations, how much more is it true of an individual? Not merely David, but all mankind continually stand in crying need of answers to such questions as surface here.
Surely, every man walketh in a vain show;
Surely they are disquieted in vain:
He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them."
The thought here is merely a continuation of that in the previous two verses. "Man indeed walks about as a mere shadow."F18 This is the same thought enunciated by the sacred author James: "What is your life? For ye are a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away" (James 4:14). It should not be overlooked that this persistent evaluation of individuals, and even nations, as vanity, as nothing, appearing for a moment, and then vanishing forever, is not spoken of God's faithful servants but of nations and/or individuals "without God, and without hope in the world."
And now Lord, what wait I for?
My hope is in thee."
"In this verse, the prayer shifts into a plea for mercy";F19 and, in sweet communion with God, all of the discouraging thoughts of the first half of the psalm are swallowed up; and the human spirit rejoices in the stability provided by that "anchor which entereth into that which is within the veil."
And now, Lord, what wait I for? My hope is in thee.
(Psalms 39:7). If life is 'as nothing,' a 'mere shadow,' 'all vanity' (as in Ecclesiastes), etc.? What is there to hope for?
The answer is 'God,' and the meaning is not so much that God will be the soul's portion in the future life, as that God's presence here and now redeems this life from its nothingness.F20
How wonderfully true this is! When God "saves us," through Jesus Christ, that salvation not only includes eternal redemption from death itself and unending happiness throughout eternity, but that salvation endows our present existence with meaning, significance, purpose and an incredibly tremendous value, so great that Christ evaluated the worth of one human soul as greater than the world itself and everything in it.
Deliver me from all my transgressions:
Make me not the reproach of the foolish."
Here is the glory of Old Testament faith. How heroic it is, that in the midst of the riddles of the present, and the looming darkness of that night in which no man can work, and the pitiful brevity of our earthly pilgrimage, that faith lays hold on God as the ultimate reality. He created us; he is the answer; he is the Redeemer; he is our hope and our salvation!
I was dumb, I opened not my mouth;
Because thou didst it."
It is better to follow the RSV in this verse, which has: "I am dumb, I do not open my mouth; for it is thou who hast done it." This simply means that all of David's questions are answered. Having turned to God and having sought his pardon and forgiveness, everything else is suddenly all right; and that is the way it has ever been for people who truly turned to the Lord.
Remove thy stroke away from me;
I am consumed by the blow of thy hand."
This is a prayer that God will take away the hindrance that came to David in some defeat, some illness, some sorrow, or some sin that caused God's displeasure. It is impossible for us to know what exactly that might have been; but there was some consciousness on David's part of God's being displeased; and here he pleads for forgiveness and the removal of that displeasure.
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)"
This is a comment upon the dire results of being rebuked by God for iniquity. It is no light thing at all. "When God corrects a man for sin, he consumes what the man holds dear, just like a moth eats up clothes."F21
Hear my prayer, O Jehovah, and give ear unto my cry;
Hold not thy peace at my tears:
For I am a stranger with thee,
A sojourner, as all my fathers were."
Hear my prayer, O Jehovah, and give ear unto my cry; Hold not thy peace at my tears: For I am a stranger with thee, A sojourner, as all my fathers were.
(Psalms 39:12). God is ever concerned with human tears. Our Lord said to the widow of Nain, Weep not! and to Mary Magdalene, Woman, why weepest thou?.. If a man can scarcely ignore a person's tears, how much less can God? God numbers the tears of believers (Ps. 56); and the ultimate purpose of the Father is to 'Wipe away all tears from human eyes' (Isa. 25:8; Rev. 7:17; 21:4).F22
A sojourner, as all my fathers were
(Psalms 39:12). Men are tempted to treat this world as a permanent residence, but it is not so.
"We are here today, and gone tomorrow;
Yes I know, that is so."
-- From Gilbert and Sullivan's H. M. S. Pinafore.
The word "pilgrim" is often used as a synonym for "sojourner," and it is extremely appropriate. A "pilgrim," is literally, "one who crosses the field." The word came from the period of the Crusades, when lonely persons attempting to make their way to the Holy Land, could often be seen "crossing the fields" of homesteaders; and, of course, they appeared briefly only once and then vanished forever. That is the way it is with all of us pilgrims and sojourners.
O spare me, that I may recover strength,
Before I go hence and be no more."
"The psalmist here no longer wishes for death, yet he expects it, and requests of God a little breathing space."F23
"Nothing is to be made of the expression, `and be no more,' which was merely David's way of mentioning death."F24 We have often called attention to the fact that Old Testament heroes certainly believed in the resurrection, although they did not have the vivid and detailed assurances of it which belong to Christians in the New Testament.
Footnotes for Psalms 39
1: Henry H. Halley's Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), p. 240.
2: Wilson Jones, p. 182.
3: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 475.
4: Wilson Jones, p. 184.
5: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, p. 187.
7: F. Delitzsch, Vol. V-B, p. 27.
8: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 304.
9: Wilson Jones, p. 183.
10: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, p. 187.
11: Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, a 1987 reprint of the 1878 edition), Vol. 1, p. 346.
12: H. C. Leupold, p. 316.
13: Barnes' Notes on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, a 1987 reprint of the 1878 edition), Vol. I, p. 347.
14: W. E. Addis, p. 378.
15: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 305.
16: Wycliffe Old Testament Commentary, p. 509.
18: H. C. Leupold, p. 317.
19: Wycliffe Old Testament Commentary, p. 510.
20: J. R. Dummelow's Commentary, p. 344.
21: The Layman's Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, p. 72.
22: Wilson Jones, p. 191.
23: The Pulpit Commentary, Vol. 8, p. 306.