George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 1

Psalm 39

1. Title

In keeping with Thirtle’s premise (Introduction, Chapter 1), To the Chief Musician, to (or, for) Jeduthun really belongs to Psalm 38. Otherwise, Psalm 39 would be ascribed to both Jeduthun and David.

2. Links with Psalm 38

Historically (see Par. 4) and verbally and in idea, the two psalms are closely connected:

Psalm 38

Psalm 39
My hope is in thee
Consumed by the blow of thine hand,

and....No soundness because of

thine anger

The rebuke of God
Dumb with silence
My sorrow
The wicked before me
My sore, and....thy stroke (s.w.)

3. Structure

Here is a psalm within a psalm, with a most dramatic change at the end of verse 3.

First, there is a powerful buildup of internal tension: “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin mouth muzzled (as though holding in the ferocity of an angry beast) misery was 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, verses 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!

4. Historical setting

Everything here harmonizes with the history of David’s experiences at the time of Absalom’s rebellion.

1 -3.
David’s natural indignation against the rebels, and indeed the nation, in turning against him, subsides into the silence of self-blame: ‘So let him curse, because the Lord hath said unto him, Curse David’ (1 Sam. 16:10,11).
How frail I am. The disease which afflicted the king at this time: cp. Psalms 6, 38, and 41.
Every man at his best state is altogether vanity. David was a king, and yet also a leper and a fugitive. What ironies are to be discerned in the human condition!
He heapeth up. 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 Psalm 39 and the prayer David uttered on that occasion:

Psalm 39

1 Chronicles 29
Thou hast made my days as an handbreadth...every man..a shadow
Our days on the earth are as a shadow, and there is none abiding.
He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.
All this store....cometh of thine hand, and is all thine own.
I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.
We are strangers before thee, and sojourners, as were all our fathers.

My hope is in thee. “If I shall find favour in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me again, and shew me....his habitation” (2 Sam. 15:25).
Deliver me from all my transgressions. The denunciation uttered by Nathan (2 Sam. 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 (2 Sam. 12:10,11). Hence v. 9: thou didst it.

The reproach of the foolish. Shimei’s railing: 2 Sam. 16:7,8.
Thou didst it. “God hath bidden him curse”: 2 Sam. 16:10.
Thy stroke. David felt the penalty of sin in his own person: cp. Psa. 38:1-11, and see on Psa. 41.
Thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth. (a) David’s good looks (1 Sam. 16:12), and (b) his royal dignity.
O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more. 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” (2 Sam. 18:33). But instead it was Absalom who was “no more”, under a heap of stones (2 Samuel 18:17).

5. Messianic fulfillment

Reference of this psalm to Christ is difficult in places, but must be considered.

Even as pertaining to Jesus, these verses 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 especially: while the wicked is before me. Blatantly evil men must have been a sore provocation to Jesus on many an occasion: e.g. Mark 3:5; Matt. 23:13-36.
I was dumb with silence. Isa. 53:7.

I held my peace....from good, i.e. from self-justification when on trial for his life (Matt. 27:13,14).
An amazing but true confession by Christ concerning himself. He was man at his best state, 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.

The reproach of the foolish. Matt. 27:39-44.
Thou didst it. “It pleased the Lord to bruise him” (Isa. 53:10).
Thy stroke. The word which is used more than 50 times in Lev. 13 and 14 with reference to leprosy (s.w. Psa. 38:11 and Isa. 53:4,8).
His beauty. Isa. 52:14; 53:2 (s.w. desire). Consider also John 8:57, where a man just over 30 years of age was assumed to be almost 50!
My tears. Heb. 5:7: “strong crying and tears” in the garden.

A stranger...a sojourner, as all my fathers were. And thus he is a true “Seed” of Abraham (Rom. 15:8), and Isaac and Jacob (Heb. 11:8,9), who “all died in faith”....confessing that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth (Heb. 11:13). “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more. This is poignantly descriptive of the agonies of Gethsemane.

6. Other details

I will keep my mouth with a bridle (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” (James 3:2). Compare Psa. 17:3; 32:9; 141:3.
I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, even from good; and my sorrow was stirred. My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue. This is echoed by Jeremiah in 20:7-9. Compare also Luke 24:32. Other similar passages: Prov. 16:27,28 (words as a scorching fire) and Isa. 6:6,7 (burning coal put to lips).
This clearly requires, at the end, saying, so as to lead in to vv. 4-13. For other examples of this phenomenon, see 9:12, notes.
Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is. David evidently did not expect to live. And yet he also speaks with hope (v. 7) — of a resurrection?

How frail I am. Literally, 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 Matt. 19:20: “What lack I yet?” (cp. notes, Psa. 23:1, Par. 5).
My days as an handbreadth. “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit to his span of life?” (Matt. 6:27, RSV). Compare Psa. 102:3: “For my days are consumed like smoke”.

At his best state 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.)
The refrain is, literally, Every Adam is (altogether) Abel!”

Selah, leading on to vv. 7,8 — regarding sacrifice (see Introduction, Chapter 7).
Verily (v. 5)....surely....surely. An impressive reiteration of the same interjection ak.

In a vain shew. Zelem = “a shadow” (Delitzsch, RSV) or “phantom” (NEB, NIV). Derivatively, an “image” (mg.) or “idol”.

In vain. Hebrew hebel = “a breath” (or “Abel”): the key word in the Book of Ecclesiastes. (The whole verse here might almost serve as the summary of that book!)

He....knoweth not who shall gather them. The same word as in Luke 12:20, spoken to the rich fool: “Whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?”
My hope is in thee. 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?
Man....moth. In Hebrew, a play on words: ish....ash. Yet there is a beauty and a treasure beyond the reach of any moth (Matt. 6:19,20; 19:21; Luke 12:33,34)!

Selah, as in v. 5, is appropriate to evening sacrifice and confession of sin: 4:7,8.
Hold not thy peace reads rather strangely. Could it mean hold not back thy “Peace” (Num. 6:26)?

Stranger....sojourner: Lev. 25:23; Psa. 119:19; 1 Pet. 2:11.
O spare me might mean Cause me to turn (i.e. to Thee).

That I may recover strength: s.w. 2 Tim. 1:16, in circumstances similar to David’s.

Spare me....before I go hence, and be no more. 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” (Luke 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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