Psalm 39 — A Meditation

Torah ScrollPsalm 39
        tr by Robert Alter

1        I thought, “Let me keep my ways from offending with my tongue.
Let me keep a muzzle on my mouth
            as long as the wicked is before me.”

The psalmist has something on his mind, but he is hesitant to bring it up where the wicked or the evil might hear. If he cries out to God, wicked people might interpret it as lack of faith, or use it as an excuse to speak impertinently of God. They might scorn God’s righteousness or assault God’s sovereignty, or even use the words of a faithful person as an excuse to deny God’s very existence.

2        I was mute – in silence.
I kept still, deprived of good,
            and my pain was grievous.

3        My heart was hot within me.
In my thoughts a fire burned.
            I spoke with my tongue.

He sits silent as long as he can, but eventually he cannot suppress it any longer. A sense of terrible injustice, or maybe outrage, can simmer no more. It must burst into flame.

4        Let me know, O Lord, my end
and what is the measure of my days.
            I would know how fleeting I am.

The psalmist does not reveal the reason for his concern about his life expectancy, but it is real. These are the words of someone who has heard a death sentence, and it is his. He wants the truth.

The truth is that everyone faces a death sentence. None of us knows the moment of our own death before it happens. Some get more hints than others. The heart of the psalmist is “hot within,” because he does not think God is being fair with him.

5        Look, mere handspans You made my days,
and my lot is as nothing before you.
            Mere breath is each man standing.

Like Pilate’s victims in the gospel last Sunday, or like the innocent bystanders crushed by a falling tower, the psalmist says he can see that his life is about to be cut short. In fact, he sees clearly that, compared to eternity where God dwells, nobody amounts to more than a breath.

This plaintive wail is the whining of one who has forgotten that each man stands only because at creation, God breathed his own breath into human beings. A human may be only a breath, but it is God’s breath.

6        In but shadow a man goes about.
Mere breath he murmurs – he stores
            and knows not who will gather.

The psalmist’s words mirror the recurring theme of Ecclesiastes, translated in the King James Version as “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” However, the Hebrew word, hevel can be translated as air or breath. One scholar even translated it as absurdity. Borrowing that interpretation, the text would read, “In but a shadow a man goes about, “mere absurdity,” he murmurs — he stores and knows not who will gather.” In other words, no matter what he accomplishes, he can’t guess who will benefit from it when he is gone. The psalmist is seriously depressed.

7        And now, what I expect, O Master,
My hope is in you.
8    From all my sins save me.
         Make me not the scoundrel’s scorn.

Have you ever wondered if anybody would even notice if you dropped dead on the sidewalk? Or do you feel as if everybody wishes you were dead? The psalmist would be there if not for one thing: he puts his hope in God. He doesn’t express wishful thinking. He doesn’t ask for magic. He simply trusts God. In fact, he acknowledges that for all his ranting, he is actually just like everyone else – a sinner. He asks for God’s cleansing and, recalling those wicked ones hanging around, he asks not to be made a fool of for his faith.

9        I was mute, my mouth did not open,
for it is you who acted.
10  Take away from me your scourge,
                  from the blow of your hand I perish.
11    In rebuke for crime you chastise a man,
melt like the moth his treasure.
            Mere breath all humankind.

The psalmist is mindful again of the presence of the scornful, those who won’t understand the difference between a faithful cry of grief to the God of all creation and a scornful tongue-lashing assault on a myth that has collapsed under the weight of reality. He shuts up. He looks up at God the way a child chastised for stealing from Mother’s purse looks up from a spanking. God has the right to punish him for his sins, but it hurts. It is hard for a creature that hardly has the substance of a breath to stand before the living God. He might melt or simply float away like a puff of air. Is it absurd for the God of all creation to chastise a mere breath?

12    Hear my prayer, O Lord,
to my cry hearken,
            to my tears be not deaf.
      For I am a sojourner with you,
             a new settler like all my fathers. 

The psalmist cannot be silent after all. He must cry to God. To whom else can he go? What other solace is there? He prays fervently, he cries with all his voice, and when his voice gives out only his tears are left, like tears running down the face of the rueful child, to cry out “Why?” The poignancy of his plea that he is a sojourner restates his deep need to understand why he lives at all if he must eventually die.

13    Look away from me, that I may catch my breath
before I depart and am not.

Not only does the psalmist feel the anguish of his inability to extend his own life, but he also feels the weight of God’s judgment on his sins, even though he has already lifted them up with confidence that God will save him. Some people have asked to see God face to face, and this gift appears to have been granted to the psalmist. It is overwhelming. He seems to look down and ask God to look away in order that he may “catch [his] breath.” 

Alter’s translation looks to Job’s story for a different perspective on the last verse. It catches a more hopeful outlook than some, hinting at the psalmist’s recovery of the breath of God, the creation gift, that will enable him to move forward and accept what comes, even if he is no more.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a lovely book about Psalms in which he reminded the reader that the book of Psalms was Jesus’ prayerbook. Read this psalm and imagine how Jesus might have prayed it. How would Jesus’ prayer be colored by his knowledge of the cross and all that it would mean? How does this perspective inform the way that you might pray this prayer? Keep in mind that all of us who claim the name of Christ are constantly surrounded by people who scorn the very idea of faith or the notion of God. Is there something for us to learn from the psalmist’s experience recorded in this psalm?