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Psalm 39



The Vanity Of Life Prayer for Wisdom and Forgiveness Prayer for Healing In Sickness
(A Lament)
The Confession of a Sufferer Insignificance of Human Beings Before God
MT Intro
"For the choir director, for Jeduthun."

A Psalm of David

39:1-6  39:1-3 39:1-6 39:1-4 39:1-2
      39:5-6 39:5-6
39:7-11 39:7-11 39:7-10 39:7-11 39:7-9
39:12-13 39:12-13 39:12-13 39:12-13 39:12-13

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Guide to Good Bible Reading")


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.



A. At first this Psalm is confusing. It starts out in a veiled literary technique, almost like a divine secret that cannot be shared/understood by outsiders to a faithful (but still sinful) walk with YHWH, Ps. 39:8.


B. The divine secret and human question is the transitoriness of human life. Mankind is so frail, fragile, temporary, ignorant, and usually focuses his/her attention on the wrong things (cf. Ps. 39:6, 11).


C. This Psalm in many ways reminds me of Ecclesiastes (the futility of life if there is no God). The psalmist characterizes himself in surprising ways.

1. like a stranger, Ps. 39:12

2. like a sojourner, Ps. 39:12


D. Verse 13 is still a mystery to me. The shocking truth of our fallen condition is that

1. we are attracted to God

2. His holiness frightens us and repels us, all at once!

There is a real mental conflict between the transitoriness of the human situation and the eternality of our God who created us for fellowship. We cannot be happy without knowing and loving Him. But we are broken and temporal. He is perfect and eternal.


 1I said, "I will guard my ways
 That I may not sin with my tongue;
 I will guard my mouth as with a muzzle
 While the wicked are in my presence."
 2I was mute and silent,
 I refrained even from good,
 And my sorrow grew worse.
 3My heart was hot within me,
 While I was musing the fire burned;
 Then I spoke with my tongue:
 4"Lord, make me to know my end
 And what is the extent of my days;
 Let me know how transient I am.
 5Behold, You have made my days as handbreadths,
 And my lifetime as nothing in Your sight;
 Surely every man at his best is a mere breath.  Selah.
 6Surely every man walks about as a phantom;
 Surely they make an uproar for nothing;
 He amasses riches and does not know who will gather them."

39:1-6 The wicked live only for today, for themselves, but the faithful follower knows he lives and speaks for YHWH. However, without the aid of the Spirit (cf. John 6:44,65) the wicked cannot comprehend

1. their own spiritual and physical condition

2. the truth of God

They ask the wrong questions and focus on the wrong things.

39:1 "I will guard" Notice that the verb (BDB 1036, KB 1581, Qal cohortative) is repeated. The psalmist should not speak his thought about life and God in the presence of intrenched unbelief (i.e., Matt. 7:6). This strophe cannot be proof-texted as a Scripture against witnessing to others. But it is true that some issues, some doctrines should be avoided in our conversations with unbelievers at first because of possible misunderstanding or confusion. A biblical worldview requires

1. the Spirit (cf. John 6:44,65)

2. a receptive heart (Matthew 13)

3. revelation in an understandable form

4. time/effort

The UBS Handbook (p. 374) interprets the silence as the psalmist not wanting to complain about his life in the presence of the wicked.

▣ "That I may not sin with my tongue" The sin here must be understood in context as speaking truth that the wicked cannot receive (cf. Matt. 7:6).

39:2-3 Apparently the psalmist tried not to think on these issues himself. But revelation caused him to address God with his question and concern about the fleetingness and transitoriness of human life.

39:2 "I refrained even from good" The MT of this line is "I held my peace to no avail" (i.e., without success; lit. "no good," BDB 373). This is ambiguous and different translations explain it differently. In context it refers to the psalmist's desire to speak but felt he should not. His reluctance to speak did not help the situation.

If life is so short, what should fallen humans focus on? The fate of the righteous and the unrighteous seems the same (cf. Eccl. 2:14-16,19,26; 9:2-3).

39:3 "the fire burned" This verb (BDB 128, KB 145, Qal imperfect) is the same that describes Jeremiah's compulsion to speak YHWH's word (cf. Jer. 20:9).

39:4-6 These are the issues the psalmist was "musing" (BDB 211, cf. Ps. 5:1) about.

1. the uncertainty of life

2. the fleetingness of life

3. the false focus (i.e., fame, riches) of life

4. the unfairness of life


39:5 "handbreadths" This term (BDB 381) is one of several Hebrew measurements from the human body.

1. arms outstretched

2. finger tip to elbow

3. fingers outstretched

4. four fingers together

5. one digit of a finger



▣ "my lifetime as nothing in Your sight" This is not asserting that YHWH does not care but that human life is fleeting and insignificant when compared to YHWH (cf. Isa. 40:15).

▣ "a mere breath" This phrase (BDB 481 construct BDB 210 I) is another connection to Ecclesiastes (cf. Eccl. 1:2; 12:8; lit. "vapor," "breath," "vanity"). This term is used thirty times in Ecclesiastes and only nine in the Psalms (cf. Ps. 39:5,6,11; 144:4) and three in Proverbs.

▣ "Selah" See note at Ps. 3:2 and Introduction to Psalms, VII.

39:6 "phantom" This is literally "shadow" (BDB 853). It can refer to clouds but is used regularly in a figurative sense of the transitoriness of life (cf. Job 8:9; 14:2; Ps. 102:11; 109:23; 144:4). This is the issue of this Psalm! Psalm 8 would be a good theological parallel.

▣ "He amasses riches and does not know who will gather them" This is so similar to the thought of Qohelech in Eccl. 2:18-23.

The NASB Study Bible (p. 778) has a good comment on this verse.

"Could almost serve as a summary of Ecclesiastes."

 7"And now, Lord, for what do I wait?
 My hope is in You.
 8Deliver me from all my transgressions;
 Make me not the reproach of the foolish.
 9I have become mute, I do not open my mouth,
 Because it is You who have done it.
 10Remove Your plague from me;
 Because of the opposition of Your hand I am perishing.
 11With reproofs You chasten a man for iniquity;
 You consume as a moth what is precious to him;
 Surely every man is a mere breath."  Selah.

39:7-11 This strophe is a general summary of how YHWH deals with His faithful followers amidst all the questions and confusion of life in a fallen world.

1. they wait for YHWH

2. they hope in YHWH (#1,2 are the theological key in our mysterious and transitory lives)

3. they pray for deliverance from YHWH — BDB 664, KB 717, Hiphil imperative (cf. Ps. 38:10)

4. they pray not to be foolish — BDB 962, KB 1321, Qal imperfect used in a jussive sense

5. YHWH guides our words and life (cf. Psalm 139)

6. they seek the removal of YHWH's judgment — BDB 693, KB 747, Hiphil imperative

In verses 10-11 the reasons for YHWH's actions are spelled out.

1. YHWH is active in their lives

2. YHWH's judgments are disciplinary not just punitive

3. YHWH takes away the things we trust in and cherish more than Him! Everything except YHWH is transitory! Do you get it?!



TEV, REB"blows"
NJB, LXX"scourge"

The Hebrew noun (BDB 619, see note at Ps. 38:11) is used often of a disease sent by YHWH.

1. plague — Gen. 12:17; Exod. 11:1; 1 Kgs. 8:37; Ps. 38:11; 39:10

2. strike/stroke — Ps. 89:23; Isa. 53:8

3. scourge — Ps. 89:23

YHWH can remove it because He sent it! It is always hard, if not impossible, to know the source of an illness, event, crisis, etc. in this life. The OT's theology attributed all causality to YHWH as a theological way of asserting monotheism. But from the progressive revelation of the NT several options arise.

1. God does send things

a. for punishment

b. for spiritual growth (cf. Heb. 5:8)

2. God allows (not sends) things to occur

3. we live in a fallen world where bad things happen (statistical evil)

I have chosen, by faith (as did the psalmist), to trust, hope, and wait (cf. Ps. 38:15; 39:7) on God in the midst of the mysterious, unfair, often evil events of life. I do not understand "why" or "why now" or "why this" or "how long," but I do by faith believe that God is with me, for me, and that there can be a purpose and effective outcome for all things (cf. Rom. 8:28-30,31-39)! It is a worldview, a faith stance, a theological orientation!

▣ "the opposition of Your hand" Hand is an idiom for power to act (see Special Topic at Ps. 7:3-4). As to the theological issue see Ps. 32:4 and 38:2. God as a disciplining, loving parent is a wonderful metaphor (cf. Pro. 3:11-12). He is active in our lives because He does not want us to destroy ourselves and others. The "hand" of discipline has a positive purpose (cf. Heb. 12:5-13).

 12"Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry;
 Do not be silent at my tears;
 For I am a stranger with You,
 A sojourner like all my fathers.
 13Turn Your gaze away from me, that I may smile again
 Before I depart and am no more."

39:12-13 As is common in the Psalms, it closes with prayer requests.

1. Hear — BDB 1033, KB 1570, Qal imperative

2. Give ear — BDB 24, KB 27, Hiphil imperative

3. Do not be silent — BDB 361, KB 357, Qal imperfect used in a jussive sense, cf. Ps. 28:1; 35:22; 83:1; 109:1

4. Turn Your gaze away — BDB 1043, KB 1609, Hiphil imperative, see Job 7:17-19; 10:20-21; 14:6

5. That I may smile again — BDB 114, KB 132, Hiphil cohortative, see Job 9:27; 10:20


39:12 The last two lines of this verse address the tension between

1. special covenant people

2. continuing sinners with fleeting lives (cf. 1 Chr. 29:15; Ps. 119:19,54; Heb. 11:13; 1 Pet. 2:11).

Remember this is the fog of the OT. The gospel of Jesus Christ will address many of these issues and questions about life, purpose, and eternity!

▣ "I am a stranger" This word/concept bothers me. It seems to denote one who does not know God or is not known by God. But in context it refers to a visitor in a tent who stays one or two nights and departs. It is another example of figurative language used to describe and bemoan the transitoriness of human life.

39:13 In light of the holiness of YHWH, this life becomes distressed (cf. Job 14:6). The pull to be like YHWH (cf. Matt. 5:48; Lev. 19:2) is overwhelming. Only in Jesus can a peace come for us to be in the presence (i.e., gaze, i.e., associated with YHWH's judgment, cf. Job 7:19; 14:6; Isa. 22:4) of a holy God!

In light of this verse, Peter's request in Luke 5:8 makes sense!


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

1. Why does the psalmist want to be silent in the presence of the wicked (Ps. 39:1)?

2. Explain in your own words the implication of verse 4.

3. What is a "handbreadth"?

4. Explain verse 11b. Why would YHWH take everything precious from one of His followers?

5. Does verse 11c imply that YHWH does not care about individual humans?

6. What does verse 12, c and d, mean? Are we strangers to YHWH?

7. Explain in your own words the meaning or implication of verse 13.


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