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Bible Commentaries

Utley's You Can Understand the Bible

Psalms 39

Psalms 39:0

STROPHE DIVISIONS OF MODERN TRANSLATIONS

NASB NKJV NRSV TEV NJB
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
Psalms 39:1-6 Psalms 39:1-3 Psalms 39:1-6 Psalms 39:1-4 Psalms 39:1-2
Psalms 39:3-4
Psalms 39:4-6
Psalms 39:5-6 Psalms 39:5-6
Psalms 39:7-11 Psalms 39:7-11 Psalms 39:7-10 Psalms 39:7-11 Psalms 39:7-9
Psalms 39:10-11
Psalms 39:11
Psalms 39:12-13 Psalms 39:12-13 Psalms 39:12-13 Psalms 39:12-13 Psalms 39:12-13

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)

FOLLOWING THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR'S INTENT AT PARAGRAPH LEVEL

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.

CONTEXTUAL INSIGHTS

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, Psalms 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. Psalms 39:6, Psalms 39:11).

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, Psalms 39:12

2. like a sojourner, Psalms 39:12

D. Psalms 39:13 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.

Verses 1-6

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 39:1-6 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.”

Psalms 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, John 6:65) 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.

Psalms 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., Matthew 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, John 6:65)

2. a receptive heart (Matthew 13:0)

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. Matthew 7:6).

Psalms 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.

Psalms 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. Ecclesiastes 2:14-16, Ecclesiastes 2:19, Ecclesiastes 2:26; Ecclesiastes 9:2-3).

Psalms 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. Jeremiah 20:9).

Psalms 39:4-6 These are the issues the psalmist was “musing” (BDB 211, cf. Psalms 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

Psalms 39:5 “handbreadths” This term (BDB 381) is one of several Hebrew measurements from the human body (see Special Topic: Cubit).

1. arms outstretched

2. finger tip to elbow

3. fingers outstretched

4. four fingers together

5. one digit of a finger

SPECIAL TOPIC: CUBIT

“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. Isaiah 40:15).

“a mere breath” This phrase (BDB 481 construct BDB 210 I) is another connection to Ecclesiastes (cf. Ecclesiastes 1:2; Ecclesiastes 12:8; lit. “vapor,” “breath,” “vanity,” see Special Topic: Vain, Empty, Nothingness). This term is used thirty times in Ecclesiastes and only nine in the Psalms (cf. Psalms 39:5, Psalms 39:6, Psalms 39:11; Psalms 144:4) and three in Proverbs.

“Selah” See note at Psalms 3:2 and Introduction to Psalms, VII.

Psalms 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; Job 14:2; Psalms 102:11; Psalms 109:23; Psalms 144:4). This is the issue of this Psalm! Psalms 8:0 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 Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes 2:18-23. See Special Topic: Wealth.

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

“Could almost serve as a summary of Ecclesiastes.”

Verses 7-11

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 39:7-11 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.

Psalms 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. Psalms 51:14; Psalms 79:9)

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. Psalms 139:0)

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

In Psalms 39:10-11 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?!

Psalms 39:10

NASB, NKJV, JPSOA“plague” NRSV“stroke” TEV, REB“blows” NJB, LXX“scourge”

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

1. plague Genesis 12:17; Exodus 11:1; 1 Kings 8:37; Psalms 38:11; Psalms 39:10

2. strike/stroke Psalms 89:23; Isaiah 53:8

3. scourge Psalms 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. Hebrews 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. Psalms 38:15; Psalms 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. Romans 8:28-30, Romans 8:31-39)! 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: HAND). As to the theological issue see Psalms 39:4 and 38:2. God as a disciplining, loving parent is a wonderful metaphor (cf. Proverbs 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. Hebrews 12:5-13).

Verses 12-13

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Psalms 39:12-13 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.”

Psalms 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. Psalms 28:1; Psalms 35:22; Psalms 83:1; Psalms 109:1

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

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

Psalms 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 Chronicles 29:15; Psalms 119:19, Psalms 119:54; Hebrews 11:13; 1 Peter 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.

Psalms 39:13 In light of the holiness of YHWH, this life becomes distressed (cf. Job 14:6). The pull to be like YHWH (cf. Matthew 5:48; Leviticus 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; Job 14:6; Isaiah 22:4) of a holy God!

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

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

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 (Psalms 39:1)?

2. Explain in your own words the implication of Psalms 39:4.

3. What is a “handbreadth”?

4. Explain Psalms 39:11b. Why would YHWH take everything precious from one of His followers?

5. Does Psalms 39:11c imply that YHWH does not care about individual humans?

6. What does Psalms 39:12, c and d, mean? Are we strangers to YHWH?

7. Explain in your own words the meaning or implication of Psalms 39:13.

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Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Psalms 39". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/psalms-39.html. 2021.