Psalm 39 Tongue-Tied

Questions: Is it better to say nothing that to say something wrong? What is our overriding purpose? For what do we wait? Is there anything worth hoping in?

“Read More” to pursue answers in the Psalms.

Lord, make me a Fountain of your Love
Draw me into your holy Presence, that I might know you as my Father
And manifest the image of Christ in this world, and the world to come. Amen.

Psalms 39:1-13

I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue:

This is a tough Psalm. One, I personally have a problem with talking too much, so it hits close to home. Two (and this may be a translation problem), I have a hard time following the plot, as I’m not sure which of his actions he’s commending vs. condemning.

My initial assumption is that David was discipling himself to say less, because his mouth had gotten him into trouble. But, what does that have to do with the wicked?

I will keep my mouth with a bridle, while the wicked is before me.

I wonder if he’s mixing two motives here: a just desire to avoid offending God, and a self-protective desire to avoid giving his enemies “anything he says that can be used against him.” If so, then that explains why:

I was dumb with silence, I held my peace, [even] from good; and my sorrow was stirred.

Apparently a vow of silence — however attractive it seemed at the time — ultimately was a cure worse than the disease. Certainly, when we try to avoid sin by extreme abstinence, we end up missing the complementary virtue. In such cases, our emotions are actually a powerful corrective, pulling us back towards healthy normality:

My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: [then] spake I with my tongue,

So, finally David’s had enough of silence. But when he speaks, what does he say?

LORD, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it [is; that] I may know how frail I [am].

Huh? This seems a complete non sequitur. Why the extended rant on life’s brevity?

Behold, thou hast made my days [as] an handbreadth; and mine age [is] as nothing before thee: verily every man at his best state [is] altogether vanity. Selah.

I was going to lump this with the next verse, but felt compelled to stop by the “Selah.” So, let’s pause and see how much sense we can make of this.

I see a couple themes:

a. What is my purpose?
b. Life is short

Perhaps David has realized that his purpose is NOT merely to avoid sin and stay out of trouble, but that there is some good he has to do — yet he still isn’t sure what, or why. Especially given that life is so short and vein, it does seem a bit unfair for God to put such an unclear burden on men. No? Isn’t everything men do totally in vein?

Surely every man walketh in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up [riches], and knoweth not who shall gather them.

So, if we’re not hoping to get rich, and not trying simply to avoid sin, what exactly are we pursuing?

And now, Lord, what wait I for?

The answer is short, and must be profound because I find it confusing. 🙂

my hope [is] in thee.

Um, what does that mean? Is he hoping for something from God? Why “in” then? Where’s he going with this? What does he really want?

Well, to start with he does still seek to be free from sin:

Deliver me from all my transgressions: make me not the reproach of the foolish.

Though, perhaps the point is that now he is asking God for deliverance, instead of externally-imposed human disciple. Which is odd, because he follows by (apparently) blaming God for the problems:

I was dumb, I opened not my mouth; because thou didst [it]. Remove thy stroke away from me: I am consumed by the blow of thine hand. When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity, thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth: surely every man [is] vanity. Selah.

Okay, what’s going on here? My best guess, for what it’s worth, is that David realizes the “problems” he was trying to avoid by silence were actually God’s just rebuke intended to correct and instruct him. Rather than using silence as a defense mechanism, he should instead be silent in awe for who God is — and David is not!

Perhaps that is why David began with a declaration, but now ends with a plea:

Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear unto my cry; hold not thy peace at my tears: for I [am] a stranger with thee, [and] a sojourner, as all my fathers [were].

Better to cry out from desperation than keep silent from fear. Unlike the flinty resolve David starts out with, here we see his naked vulnerability, and his heartfelt confession that he barely knows the God he serves. And yet desperately needs:

O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more.

Life is short. We are weak. Hoping in money and power is vain. The only sure hope — though painful — is God Himself.


God, I confess that I am as an alien and a stranger with you. I don’t understand your ways, your purposes, or your rebukes. I blab on about things I don’t know, to my own detriment. Father, deliver me from my transgressions. According to your great mercy, teach me the right things to say. Help me to lean on you, and learn from you. Help me to wait, O my Lord, for you alone. For in you is my hope, my only hope, my sure hope. In Jesus Christ, my crucified and risen Lord, Amen.