Psalm 39 is one of at least three psalms that seems to reflect a knowledge of the book of Job on the part of David (along with Psalm 139 and Psalm 8  ). Clearly, the existence of three psalms that muse on the language and content of the book of Job is more than a coincidence, and is perhaps worthy of its own extended blog entry to detail the connections, assuming I ever have the time to write it. In this particular psalm, David muses on the closing of Job, where Job is silent in the face of God’s presence, hoping for a recovery of strength rather than the weakness and destruction he fears.
Psalm 39 is divided into four sections, and let us look at each one of them and then comment on the themes of this psalm. Before we do that, let us note a little bit about the structure and superscription of Psalm 39. First, it is a psalm of David that was dedicated to the chief musician and to Jeruthun (also known as Ethan, the author of Psalm 89). Let us also understand that like the book of Job is a dialogue on wisdom that is a poetic lament, so also Psalm 39 is a wisdom song that is also a lament. Therefore, we ought to expect that Psalm 39 contains both wisdom as well as an appeal to God for help. And that is precisely what we find.
Psalm 39:1-3 reads: “I said, “I will guard my ways, lest I sin with my tongue; I will restrain my mouth with a muzzle, while the wicked are before me.” I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good; and my sorrow was stirred up. My heart was hot within me; while I was musing, the fire burned. Then I spoke with my tongue.” Speaking personally, it is not an easy thing for me to remain silent. When I was in elementary school, a small wager was placed on my inability to keep silent during a half hour lunch break, and it was among the most painful half hours of my entire life keeping silent while people tried to goad me into talking (which is not a particularly difficult task). I won the wager, but it was difficult. Keeping silent is not easy for me. Given the eloquence of Job in his book, I imagine it was not easy for him either. I know I am silent only when I am intensely angry and am having trouble forming words, when I am so shocked that my ability to speak temporarily escapes me, or when I am trying very hard to be polite and quiet (which is tough, because I always want to answer back). Like the author, when I am silent and musing my heart burns within me to speak or write or express myself somehow, lest my thoughts and feelings overwhelm me, whether those feelings are good or bad.
Psalm 39:4-6 reads as follows: “Yahweh, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days as handbreaths, and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor. Selah. Surely every man walkts about like a shadow; surely they busy themselves in vain; he heaps up riches, and does not know who will gather them.” This partiuclar bit of wisdom is similar to that of Solomon in Ecclesiastes–our lives are so short and so evanescent that our actions are vain and futile. The resources we seek to gather to ourselves vanish quickly and others who are usually less capable of handling them inherit them and waste them. We keep busy our entire lives and often waste the short span of our lives in futile tasks that profit us nothing. David here (similar to the persona of Job) longs to know the measure of his days as well as his end–salvation. Truly, it is only when we receive the gift of eternal life as a result of faithful obedience and conversion that we have a life that is more than the morning fog that burns up in the heat of the day or the grass that is burned up.
Psalm 39:7-11 reads: “And now, Lord, what do I wait for? My hope is in You. Deliver me from all my transgressions; do not make the reproach of the foolish. I was mute, I did not open my mouth, because it was You who did it. Remove Your plague from me; I am consumed by the blow of Your hand, when with rebukes You correct man for iniquity, You make his beauty melt away like a moth; surely every man is vapor. Selah.” David (and Job), like all believers, recognizes his sinful state and asks God to be merciful and gracious to pardon his sins and to not destroy him in righteous indignation, which we all deserve as the penalty for our transgressions. Job at the end of Job is silent, accepting the authority of God to do what He wills with His creation, not demanding to hold God accountable for His suffering. Once Job ceases his demands of God, God graciously restores him to his health and wealth even greater than before, with seven sons and three daughters. Instead of being the reproach of the wicked, as he had been during hsi suffering, Job was restored to glory and favor, and remains a paragon of wisdom and faithfulness in suffering to this day, just as David (despite his numerous ups and downs) is remembered as a man after Yahweh’s own heart. I cannot imagine a better complement. Their end is secure–they await the resurrection of the just with those who remain faithful unto death.
Psalm 39:12-13 reads: “Hear my prayer, O Eternal, and give ear to my cry; do not be silent at my tears; for I am a stranger with You, a sojourner, as all my fathers were. Remove Your gaze from me, that I may regain strength, before I go away and am no more.” What is the prayer of David (and Job)? First, it is that God will not silent in the face of his suffering, but rather respond to his cry with words of comfort. It is ironic that in light of the silence of the poet in the face of God’s judgment that David calls on God to speak out and vindicate His servant. Also, let us note that David considered himself a stranger and a sojouner on this earth, recognizing (as all faithful do) that his true citizenship is in the New Jerusalem, which will be revealed in the world to come. Feeling like a vagabond and a permanent outsider has often been the sentiment of believers, and certainly a feeling I share. It is curious as well that David wishes for God to look away and turn HIs gaze, lest he be consumed by a fire, for no one can look on the face of the Eternal in all of His glory and survive. David (as was true for Job also) was afraid that unless God turned His fierce gaze from him that he would be destroyed, and so he longs to be left alone and spared from judgment. We know that as both Job and David were found faithful, that this request was granted–the trial ended and they were restored to their positions and glory and honor. May all believers be so lucky both now and for all time.
Let us comment briefly on some of the themes of this brief psalm as we close. For one, Psalm 39 is part of a small group of songs that is serves to deeply connect the book of Job and David. Apparently David mused frequently on the book of Job and pondered it, to return to it at least three times in those psalms of his that survive. For another, Psalm 39 contrasts the silence of the psalmist with the desire for God not to be silent in the face of our tears of suffering and anguish. The believer knows that it is not our place to avenge and that Jesus Christ Himself was silent in the face of His accusers, something that is horribly difficult to do for many of us (myself included), who are always looking to defend ourselves and vindicate ourselves. Additionally, this song is deeply concerned with salvation, with God’s grace and forgiveness, and with the removal of His harsh gaze, all while reflecting on the contrast between the brief life and futile pursuits of mankind and the eternal nature of God. In light of this brief life and the temporary nature of our achievements, a believer recognizes that we are only strangers passing through, and that this earth is not really our home, but merely our womb were we live out our time as the unborn children of God awaiting to be born again in the resurrection of the blessed. May we find that peace and eternal joy.