The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Psalm 39

Psa 39:1


SETTING: Prob rebellion of Absalom. Here is a psalm within a psalm, with a most dramatic change at the end of v 3. First, there is a powerful buildup of internal tension: "I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not... my mouth muzzled (as though holding in the ferocity of an angry beast)... my misery was stirred... my heart was hot within me... the fire burned. Then spake I with my tongue (saying)..." There is here a growing tension of strong indignation and pent-up resentment. The sympathetic reader knows that an explosion of bitterness and wrath is inevitable. But, instead, vv 4-13 follow with the exact opposite: a matchless expression of self-abasement and true humility, recognizing a personal need for the grace of God and pleading for help most pathetically. One is tempted to imagine David's poetic eloquence being vented in a searing denunciation of the wickedness of his adversaries, but then suddenly he comes to a stop (or is it later, when the fever in his soul has subsided?) with a realization that he himself is no better than they. He too needs the overflow of heavenly help, and must have it. So the original outburst of self-justification and anger, which David was most assuredly leading up to, is torn up and thrown away! Cp 1Sa 16:10,11: "So let him curse, because the LORD has said to him, Curse David."

(NT) Vv 1-3: Even as pertaining to Jesus, these vv describe the natural human impulse to anger -- an impulse which is in every man, even the Messiah! Against such impulses Jesus too had to contend. But note esp: "as long as the wicked are in my presence". Blatantly evil men must have been a sore provocation to Jesus on many an occasion: eg Mar 3:5; Mat 23:13-36.

I WILL WATCH MY WAYS: No man ever fell into error through being too watchful!

I WILL PUT A MUZZLE ON MY MOUTH: "I will keep my mouth with a bridle" (AV) (or "muzzle": NEB, NIV). "If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man, and able also to bridle the whole body" (Jam 3:2). Cp Psa 17:3; 32:9; 141:3.

Psa 39:3

This clearly requires, at the end, "saying", so as to lead in to vv 4-13. For other examples of this phenomenon, see Psa 9:12n.

"Often the withholding of words causes them to heat up within us, and when the time is right for their utterance, they come forth with great power and meaning. In the heat of the meditation it is as though the drossier elements have been burnt out and nothing but the purity of the refined silver is poured forth" (NPH).

Psa 39:4

HOW FLEETING IS MY LIFE: A disease which afflicted David at this time: cp Psa 6, 38, 41. (NT) Lit, "what (will be) my leaving off (of life)". In the LXX this becomes "what I lack", perhaps to be quoted in question form by the rich young ruler in Mat 19:20: "What lack I yet?" (cp Psa 23:1n).

Vv 4-6 (NT): An amazing but true confession by Christ concerning himself. He was "man at his best state" (v 5), and yet because of his inheritance of a fallen human nature with all its propensities (transgressions: v 8!), there must have been times when he felt utterly weighed down.

Psa 39:5

YOU HAVE MADE MY DAYS A MERE HANDBREADTH: "Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his span of life?" (Mat 6:27, RSV). Cp Psa 102:3.

"Lo, handbreadths hast thou given my days." The word rendered "handbreadth" means properly the spread hand; the palm; the hand when the four fingers are expanded. The word is then used to denote anything very short or brief. It is one of the smallest natural measures, as distinguished from the "foot" -- that is, the length of the foot; and from the cubit -- that is, the length of the arm to the elbow. It is the "shortness" of life, therefore, that is the subject of painful and complaining reflection here. Who has not been in a state of mind to sympathize with the feelings of the psalmist? Who is there that does not often wonder, when he thinks of what he could and would accomplish on earth if his life extended to one thousand years, and when he thinks of the great interests at stake in reference to the Kingdom which God has made dependent on so short a life? Who can at all times so calm down his feelings as to give utterance to no expressions of impatience that life is so soon to terminate? Who is there who reflects on the great interests at stake that has not asked the question why God has not given man more time to prepare for eternity? On the face of it our God is not fair -- He asks us to trade but 70 short years of miserable existence in this mortal, dying frame... for eternity spent in sinlessness and love and obedience and harmony.

EACH MAN'S LIFE IS BUT A BREATH: The refrain is, lit, "Every Adam is (altogether) Abel!" "Every man at his best state is altogether vanity" (AV). David was a king, and yet also a leper and a fugitive. What ironies are to be discerned in the human condition!

"At his best state" (KJV) may indicate Aaron, God's high priest. Yet even he needed the benefit of a sacrificial offering: Lev 9:2,7. (As did Jesus himself: Heb 7:27; 9:7,12.)

SELAH: Leading on to vv 7,8 -- re sacrifice. See Lesson, Selah.

Psa 39:6

A MERE PHANTOM: "A vain shew" (AV). Zelem = "a shadow" (KD, RSV) or "phantom" (NEB, NIV). Derivatively, an "image" (mg) or "idol".

IN VAIN: Heb hebel = "a breath" (or "Abel"): the key word in Ecc. (The whole v here might almost serve as the summary of that book!)

HE HEAPS UP WEALTH: The abundant provision already made for the new temple. But now David does not know whether all this fine material will ever be used for such a godly purpose. There are several points of comparison between Psa 39 and the prayer David uttered on that occasion: Psa 39:5,6 with 1Ch 29:15; Psa 39:6 with 1Ch 29:16; Psa 39:12 with 1Ch 29:15.

NOT KNOWING WHO WILL GET IT: The same word as in Luk 12:20, spoken to the rich fool: "Whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?"

Psa 39:7

MY HOPE IS IN YOU: What "hope"? Of a more worthy son than Absalom, or of recovery to health, or of restoration to the throne, or of resurrection? Or of all four? "If I shall find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me again, and show me... his habitation" (2Sa 15:25).

Psa 39:8

SAVE ME FROM ALL MY TRANSGRESSIONS: The denunciation uttered by Nathan (2Sa 12:7-12) took away any further attempt at evasion. Now there is only stark honesty about himself. This rebellion and most of the other troubles in this part of his reign stem from his appalling lapse (2Sa 12:10,11). Hence v 9: thou didst it.

THE SCORN OF FOOLS: Shimei's railing: 2Sa 16:7,8.

Psa 39:9

YOU ARE THE ONE WHO HAS DONE IT: "God has bidden him curse" (2Sa 16:16).

(NT): "It pleased the Lord to bruise him" (Isa 53:10).

Psa 39:10

YOUR SCOURGE: The word which is used more than 50 times in Lev 13; 14 with ref to leprosy (sw Psa 38:11 and Isa 53:4,8). David felt the penalty of sin in his own person: cp Psa 38:1-11, and see on Psa 41.

Psa 39:11

MEN (ish)... MOTH (ash): In Heb, a play on words: ish... .ash. Yet there is a beauty and a treasure beyond the reach of any moth (Mat 6:19,20; 19:21; Luk 12:33,34)!

"Thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth." (a) David's good looks (1Sa 16:12), and (b) his royal dignity.

(NT) "Beauty": Isa 52:14; 53:2 (sw "desire"). Consider also Joh 8:57, where Jesus, a man just over 30 years of age, is assumed to be almost 50!

See Lesson, Selah.

Psa 39:12

BE NOT DEAF TO MY WEEPING: "Hold not thy peace" (AV) reads rather strangely. Could it mean "Hold not back thy 'Peace' " (Num 6:26)?

WEEPING: Heb 5:7: "strong crying and tears".

ALIEN... STRANGER... AS MY FATHERS: And thus the true "seed" of Abraham (Rom 15:8), and Isaac and Jacob (Heb 11:8,9), who all died in faith... being strangers and pilgrims (Heb 11:13). See Luk 9:58.

Psa 39:13

Had David contemplated offering himself for the sins of Absalom and the rest (thus foreshadowing Christ)? "O my son Absalom... would God I had died for thee" (2Sa 18:33). But instead it was Absalom who was "no more", under a heap of stones (2Sa 18:17).

(NT) Poignantly descriptive of the agonies of Gethsemane.

"Spare me... before I go hence, and be no more" (AV). The prayer is a desperate one. Does it really make sense? Did Peter's prayer make sense, when he prayed, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord" (Luk 5:8)? But Jesus did not do as Peter asked. God -- and Christ -- know how men speak when they are desperate, and they take it into account in their responses.


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