To the choirmaster: to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.
39:1 I said, “I will guard my ways,
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth with a muzzle,
so long as the wicked are in my presence.”
2 I was mute and silent;
I held my peace to no avail,
and my distress grew worse.
3 My heart became hot within me.
As I mused, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
4 “O LORD, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
5 Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
6 Surely a man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!
7 “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in you.
8 Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool!
9 I am mute; I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.
10 Remove your stroke from me;
I am spent by the hostility of your hand.
11 When you discipline a man
with rebukes for sin,
you consume like a moth what is dear to him;
surely all mankind is a mere breath! Selah
12 “Hear my prayer, O LORD,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
13 Look away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more!”
Our Hope is in the Lord
Today is Sunday, April 19, 2020. It is now six weeks since we last met together as a church. A month and a half. Forty-two days. Not a long time, really, but oh, what changes we have seen in the world, in our country, and in our community during this COVID-19 pandemic.
Those changes have not been without frustrations. Depending on our jobs, some of us have experienced more frustrations than others, but no one has been untouched by what is happening.
In Psalm 39, something was bothering David. Although we don’t know what it was, we do know that he was frustrated and angry, and we can probably all identify with those feelings, especially in times like these that we are now experiencing.
We’re going to look at Psalm 39 in five parts:
- The circumstances: frustrated but silent (v. 1-3)
- The problem: life is brief and (apparently) futile (v. 4-6)
- A turning point: our hope is in the Lord (v. 7)
- The problem intensifies: God’s heavy-handed discipline (v. 8-11)
- A final prayer for deliverance (v. 12-13)
Frustrated but silent
[Read Psalm 39:1-3]
- Who is David talking to in verse 1? The Lord? Someone else? Himself?
- Why was he being careful about what he might say?
- Read verses 2-3 again. Can you feel the tension building up within David? Do you know what that feels like?
[Read James 3:1-12]
In this passage James holds nothing back in describing how dangerous our tongues and our speech can be. In verse nine in particular he describes the sad irony of how the same mouth can bless God and then in the next breath curse our fellow human beings who are made in God’s image. In verses 10-12 he explains further why this should not be happening, using several metaphors.
- How are you doing with this? Do you have your tongue under control?
- But what is the secret? What makes this possible for us to not sin like this?
[Read Colossians 2:6-7]
Two weeks ago we looked at Colossians and the mystery that Paul revealed there, that those who have trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation are in Christ, and Christ is in them. That is what makes it possible for us to not sin: “As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith.”
- How about you? Are you walking (living) in Christ? If you are in Christ, then he expects you to walk in him, he wants you to walk in him, and he makes it possible for you to do so.
Back to our psalm, in verse three David finally can’t take it anymore, and he speaks, but not to just anyone. He speaks to the Lord.
Life is brief and (apparently) futile
[Read Psalm 39:4-6]
What David asks the Lord for is not something that we may have asked, especially as our first request.
- In your own words, what is David asking the Lord for in verse four?
- Is he merely asking the Lord to help him know how many days he has to live?
- How might understanding how brief our lives are help us to live them well, and particularly the way God wants us to live?
In his commentary, Peter Craigie writes that “value in life and appreciation of life must somehow be grasped within a full knowledge of its transitory nature.” In other words, there is wisdom in acknowledging and reflecting on how short our time on this earth really is.
In verse five David says that God has made David’s days “a few handbreadths,” and he goes on to say that his lifetime is as nothing before God, and then he brings all of humanity into the picture and says that even collectively, we are nothing more than a breath.
- What is a handbreadth? Sounds like a measurement of some kind. Read 1 Kings 7:23-26, and then Jeremiah 52:20-21 for the answer.
- The ESV footnote for 1 Kings 7:26 says that a handbreadth was about 3 inches. I measured the four fingers of my hand yesterday and depending on where I held the ruler, my handbreadth was 3 to 3 ½ inches.
- What does David mean when he says that his lifetime is as nothing before God? That it doesn’t matter? Or is he comparing the brevity of his life with the eternality of God?
- Did you notice the word “Selah” at the end of verse five? We don’t know for sure what “Selah” means, but there are several options that make sense. One is that it’s a musical term, telling the musicians to do something at that point in the psalm. Another option is that this is an instruction from the psalmist to “stop, pause, and consider” what he has just written. So in this case, David wants us to reflect for a few moments on the idea that we are a mere breath, and then we are gone.
In verse six David goes on to say that even less than a breath, we are nothing more than a shadow. At least a breath can be felt, it’s somewhat tangible. But a shadow isn’t even there – it can’t be touched or felt.
He then paints an especially bleak picture: Mankind toils (is in turmoil) for nothing, and our non-stop quest to accumulate wealth is ultimately and finally futile, because when we are gone we really do not know what will become of that wealth. One thing is certain though, we can’t take it with us.
- Read Luke 12:13-21 to see what Jesus thinks and says about our endless drive to accumulate more things. What is the one-word description that God gave to the man in the parable (in verse 20)?
- This is a good time to practice “Selah,” and stop, pause, and consider. Look around you where you are right now. Does your life look like the man in this parable?
Our hope is in the Lord
[Read Psalm 39:7]
This is the turning point in David’s thought process, the one thing that all else rests upon. David asks the Lord, “for what do I wait?” To say it another way, “what do I hope for?” or “what do I look for?”
The answer? David’s hope is in the Lord.
- What about you? Is your hope in the Lord? Placing your hope in anything other than God is, in the end, hopeless. Nothing else makes sense in light of eternity.
Even though God is eternal (he has no beginning and no end), and we are fleeting, a few handbreadths, a shadow, and a mere breath, he sees, notices, knows, and remembers every single moment of our lives, every thought that passes through our brains, every word that escapes our mouths, every action that we perform. Everything.
God’s heavy-handed discipline
[Read Psalm 39:8-11]
Now that David has established that he is hoping in God and in nothing else, you might think that his problems are over. But in these verses his life seems to take a turn for the worse. Or does it?
The first line of verse eleven sums up what is happening in these verses: God disciplining his people.
- Notice again in verses 8-9 that David is careful about what he says, choosing to say nothing rather than dishonor the Lord who is doing this to him.
- Still, it is not pleasant, and David asks the Lord in verse ten to stop the discipline and give David some relief.
- In a striking parallel to verse six David acknowledges that in (or by) this discipline from God, God himself consumes all that is dear to David, leaving nothing but God himself, who is and should be David’s true treasure.
- Read Hebrews 12:3-11. Years ago I wrote a note in my bible that this passage is for our encouragement. Why? Because if God did not discipline us, that would be an indication that we are not his children.
Prayer for deliverance
[Read Psalm 39:12-13]
In this final prayer of the psalm, David acknowledges that he is a sojourner with God on this earth, as we all are. This is not our permanent home, and we should strive to live like that is true – because it is true.
Peter knew this and wrote about it in 1 Peter 2:11: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”
In his last request in this psalm, David asks God to remove his discipline from David, if only briefly, so that he can smile once again before his brief, momentary life is over.
We are made for eternity. What we do in this short life matters to God, more than it does to anyone else.
God rebukes and disciplines us, his children, to bring our values in line with his, so that our lives are not wasted, and so that what we choose to do will have eternal value.
Life does have meaning, but it is not in health, freedom from viruses, wealth, possessions, or any other earthly things. Our life’s meaning, and our final hope, are only found in the Lord, because, as Paul wrote to the Colossians: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
To close, ask God to help you know your end, to rightly measure your days, and remind you constantly of how fleeting your life is. Admit that your true and only hope is in him. Thank him for his discipline in your life, as unpleasant as it may be at times. And acknowledge that you are a sojourner in this world, looking forward to that life that is to come, in an eternity spent with God, and all because we are in Christ, and he is in us.