Psalm 39 is yet another lamentation in which the psalmist calls on the Lord for help because of the trouble he’s in. And so, in verse 12 he asks the Lord to hear his prayer and to listen to his cry for help and be not deaf to my weeping. The psalmist is troubled and he turns to the Lord for help.
So, this is yet another lamentation. And I say ‘yet another’ because you may have noticed that many of the psalms so far, if not most of them, have been lamentations. And that’s what makes the psalms so helpful for us while we go through this coronavirus crisis. This is now the thirteenth week when we’ve been unable to meet together in person for worship and have had to make do with listening to these recordings at home. And while we’re glad we can still hear God’s word and we can still meet for prayer via Zoom, it’s not the same as meeting in person; and this kind of thing pales in comparison to the real thing.
And so, we lament the fact that we’re having to make do with a recording and we cannot meet in person to hear God’s word and to sing his praises and to gather around the Lord’s Table to take part in the Lord’s Supper. And while the restrictions on us have eased somewhat in recent weeks and we’re now able to meet outside in small groups, nevertheless we still lament the fact that our lives are still restricted and things are still not back to normal and we’re still not able to go out and about the way we used to do. And many of us are worried about the health and safety of our loved ones; and others are anxious about their work and about how to make a living. And some of us are worried about our children and their education. We have many reasons to lament before the Lord. And so, it’s right that we spend our time in the psalms, because so many of the psalms are lamentations and they show us that we can come to the Lord with our troubles and with our fears to seek his help.
And they also give us hope, don’t they? They give us hope, because these psalms remind us that the Lord is our helper. He’s our rock and our refuge, who hears and answers our prayers. And more than that: he hold out to us the promise of everlasting life in a new a better world to come when all the trials and troubles of this life will have passed away and we’ll enjoy perfect peace and rest forever.
And so, we don’t need to be anxious about this life, because we can rely on the Lord to help us. And we can also be hopeful, because Christ our Saviour has secured for us and for all who believe in him eternal life in the glory to come.
And so, these lamentations give us hope. And Psalm 39 is yet another lamentation in which the psalmist calls on the Lord for help because of the trouble he’s in. And the trouble he’s in has caused him to think about the brevity of life and the vanity of life in this world. In fact, in some ways, this psalm would not be out of place in the book of Ecclesiastes where the preacher declares:
Meaningless. Meaningless. Everything in meaningless.
Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.
This psalm would not be out of place in the book of Ecclesiastes. And it wouldn’t be out of place in the book of Job, where Job lamented:
Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.
He springs up like a flower and withers away;
like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure.
This psalm would not be out of place in the book of Job. However, while the psalmist reflects on the brevity of life and the vanity of life, there’s also a note of hope in this psalm, which we’ll get to at the end. So, let’s turn to study it now.
Verses 1 to 3
And in verses 1 to 3, the psalmist tells us that there was something he wanted to say, but he was afraid to say it. And so, he tells us in verse 1 that he was determined to watch his ways and to keep his tongue from sin. So, he was afraid he might sin against the Lord by the things he said. And so, in order not to sin against the Lord with his words, he put a muzzle on his mouth. Now, he didn’t really put a muzzle on his mouth, but he’s using the image of a muzzle to convey to us that he was determined not to say this thing that was on his mind and in his heart. He was resolved to restrain himself and to keep himself from speaking. And in particular, he wanted to keep himself from speaking in the presence of the wicked. Do you see that at the end of verse 1? As one of the commentators puts it: he didn’t want to say something wrong to the wrong people. He didn’t want to say something to them which would dishonour the Lord.
But look now at verse 2, where he describes for us the growing pressure he felt inside to say this thing that was on his mind. When he keep silent and still, keeping this matter to himself, his anguish increased and his heart grew hot within him. I’m sure we all know by experience what he’s talking about, because we all know those occasions when we want to speak up, but for whatever reason we feel we cannot speak up. And there’s this tension within us, this pressure in our hearts, this burden to speak. ‘My heart grew hot within me’, he says; and as a he meditated and thought about this thing, the fire inside his heart burned. And eventually the pressure became too much and he spoke with his tongue.
And what did he say? What was this thing which he wanted to say which was on his mind and in his heart? What was this thing which he wanted to say, but which he was afraid to say in case he sinned against the Lord? Well, the thing he wanted to say is what he says in the rest of the psalm. Verses 1 to 3 refer to everything he says in the remainder of the psalm about the brevity and vanity of life.
Verses 4 to 6
And he begins in verse 4 by asking the Lord to show him his life’s end and the number of his days. Now, as most of the commentators point out, he’s not really asking the Lord to tell him how many days he has left, but he’s lamenting what he already knows: that life is brief and we all only have a certain number of days left in this world. Ordinarily we tend to live our lives as if we’ll go on forever and that each new day is guaranteed to us. But then something happens, something which wakes us up to the fact that life is short and one day it will end. From what we read later on in the psalm, it seems that the Lord was discipling the psalmist for some sin. So, think of what we read last week about the illness the psalmist was suffering which the Lord sent on him to discipline him and to rebuke him for some sin which he had committed and which he needed to confess. Well, something similar is lying in the background to Psalm 39; and the discipline the psalmist has suffered has made the psalmist realise that his life is short. And, of course, in the early days of the coronavirus crisis, people were shocked because so many people were dying and it made them think about the fragility of life and how any of us might die at any time. Something happens and it makes us wake up to the fact that life is short.
The psalmist realised that; and so he says to the Lord in verse 5 that the Lord had made his days a mere handbreadth. A handbreadth is the breadth of your hand: the distance between your little finger and your index finger. Mine is about 3 inches. So, it’s very short. And the psalmist is therefore saying that the length of his life is very short. The span of his years is nothing before the Lord, he says. In fact, each man’s life is but a breath. How long does it take to take a breath? To breathe in and out? Not long. You take a breath and it’s gone. And that’s what our life is like.
In the beginning, of course, God held out to Adam the promise of eating from the Tree of Life and living forever. But because Adam sinned against the Lord, he forfeited the right to the Tree of Life. And so, after Adam sinned, the Lord said to him that from that time on, his life and the life of his descendants would be hard and difficult and it would end in death, because dust you are and to dust you will return. And so, because of Adam’s sin in the beginning, God has made our life a mere handbreadth, a breath.
Man, the psalmist laments, is a mere phantom. Other English translations say that we are a shadow. And, of course, shadows appear and then they disappear. They don’t last long at all; and when they’re gone, there’s nothing left. That’s what our life is like: it comes and goes and after we’re gone, it’s as if we never existed. And so, the psalmist goes on to say at the end of verse 6 that we bustle about, keeping ourselves busy, but only in vain. We heap up wealth for ourselves, but then we die and who knows who will end up with what we worked so hard to accumulate? All that hard work and busyness and all that activity was wasted.
And notice, of course, that this is true for all. At the end of verse 5, the psalmist refers to ‘each man’s life’. So, he’s referring to every man and every woman. Everyone’s life is but a breath. Your life is but a breath. It doesn’t matter what age you are, your life is short and one day it will end. This is the lot of everyone. This is what life is like in this present, fallen world.
Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.
That’s what the preacher said at the beginning of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Man born of woman is of few days and full of trouble.
He springs up like a flower and withers away;
like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure.
That’s what Job said in his book.
You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.
That’s what James says in his New Testament letter.
The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
That’s what Psalm 90 says. We come and we go and the number of our days is very brief.
Verses 7 to 11
Well, in the following verses — verses 7 to 11 — it becomes clear that the Lord has been disciplining the psalmist. This is what caused him to reflect on the brevity and the vanity of life. He says in verse 7 that he puts his hope in the Lord. We’ll come back to that. But then, in verse 8, he asks the Lord to save him from all his transgressions. You might recall that the word transgressions can also be translated ‘trespasses’. And just as a trespasser sees the ‘no entry’ sign and disregards it and keeps going, so the transgressor see God’s ‘no entry’ sign and disregards it and keeps going. God in his law has said: ‘You shall not do this.’ But the psalmist has disregarded what God has said and has sinned against him.
Well, he now asks the Lord to save him from his transgressions. And we should probably understand his request as a prayer for God to save him from the discipline he’s suffering because of his transgressions. Again, remember what we were thinking about when we studied Psalm 38 and how believers will never suffer eternal judgment in the life to come, because Christ our Saviour has saved us from it. However, believers may suffer temporal judgments in this life, because of unconfessed sin in this life. And it seems that the Lord has been disciplining the psalmist; and now the psalmist prays to the Lord to rescue him from the temporal judgment he’s been suffering. Otherwise fools — those who don’t believe — will mock him.
According to verse 9, he knows that the Lord has done this to him. So, he knows that the reason he’s now suffering is because the hand of the Lord is against him. He knows he’s offended the Lord because of his sin; and now the Lord is disciplining him. But he pleads with the Lord in verse 10 to remove his scourge from him, because he’s been overcome by the blow of God’s hand. The word translated ‘scourge’ refers to the way the Lord has afflicted him. And according to verse 11, he knows that God afflicts people in order to rebuke and discipline them for their sin. And one way he might discipline people for their sin is by consuming their wealth. Now, the NIV is only paraphrasing what David wrote, because he really said that the Lord consumes what is dear to us. Our wealth may indeed be dear to us, but he’s referring to more than our wealth. In fact, one commentator suggests that what is dear to us is our life. And since our life is only a breath, then very soon our life is consumed and it’s gone.
And so, it seems that the Lord has been rebuking and disciplining the psalmist for some unconfessed sin. But his suffering has caused him to think about life in general and the way it is for every one of us. And you see, for every one of us, life is short and there’s a vanity to our life, a meaninglessness to it, because we’re like a shadow which appears for a while and then it disappears and there’s nothing left.
Verses 12 and 13
And so, the psalm ends with the psalmist asking the Lord to hear his prayer and to listen to his cry for help and be not deaf to my weeping. Having lamented before the Lord, because of the brevity of life and the vanity of life, he cries to the Lord for relief. ‘Look away from me’, he says in verse 13. And he means: Turn your rebuke and discipline away from me. Turn it away, so that I may rejoice again before I depart and am no more. So, since my life is brief, let me enjoy the remainder of my days. Pardon my sin and let me know your blessing once more.
This psalm would not be out of place in the book of Ecclesiastes and the book of Job, because the psalmist is reflecting on the brevity and vanity of life in this world. But, as I said at the beginning, there is a note of hope. In fact, the psalmist refers to his hope in verse 7, where he asks:
But now, Lord, what do I look for?
But now, Lord, for what do I wait?
He’s waiting for something. He’s hoping for something, which only the Lord can give. And so, he adds:
My hope is in you.
So, what is this hope which only God can give and which we must wait for? Well, it’s related to what we read in verse 12 where the psalmist confesses that he’s an alien and a stranger. Aliens and strangers in the Old Testament were foreigners who lived in the land of Israel, but who were not Israelites. And so, while they could live on the land, they could not own or inherit the land. In fact, Abraham was an alien and stranger — wasn’t he? — because although he lived in the Promised Land of Canaan, he did not own any of the land, apart from the grave where he buried his wife. And so, instead of building a home, he lived in a tent, because he as only an alien and stranger. And in the days before Moses was born, the people of Israel were regarded as aliens and strangers in Egypt, because though they lived there, they did not belong there. Eventually the people of Israel came to the Promised Land and the Lord allowed them to settle there and to make homes and cities there. They were able to settle in the land which the Lord had given to them.
But, since the Israelites were allowed to settle in the Promised Land of Canaan, and make homes and cities there, it surprises us to discover from Psalm 39 that David regarded himself as an alien and stranger. And this is not the only place where he made clear that he regarded himself as an alien and stranger. In 1 Chronicles 29, near the end of his life, David said to the Lord:
But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. For we are strangers before you and aliens, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding.
His life was like a shadow, which does not abide or last. And he’s only a stranger and an alien.
Why did David regard himself in this way? Well, it’s because he realised that the Lord has something better in store for his believing people. Our life in his world is brief and we’re like a shadow which soon disappears and there’s nothing left. But the Lord has something better in store for his people who believe in him and in all his promises, because he has promised his people everlasting life in a new and better world to come. Listen to how the writer to the Hebrews puts it in Hebrews 11, where he refers to the Old Testament saints like Abraham:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were [aliens and strangers] on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
The Old Testament saints were only aliens and strangers in this world because they were looking for a better country, a heavenly one, a heavenly city which God has prepared for his people.
In the beginning, God held out to Adam the promise of eternal life in the presence of God. But by his sin Adam forfeited the right to eat from the Tree of Life and live for ever and death came into the world. But the Lord Jesus Christ came into the world as one of us. And he obeyed his Father in heaven in all things. Unlike Adam who sinned, the Lord Jesus was perfectly obedient. And in obedience to his Father, he died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for sins so that all who believe in him are pardoned by God and accepted by him. And then, the Lord Jesus who died, was raised and exalted to heaven to prepare a place for his people. And when the time is right, he will come with glory and power to gather his people together to bring us into that new and better world to come, the new heavens and earth, where we will be glorified in the presence of the Lord and will live with him forever. And there will be no more sorrow or sadness and there will be nothing to hurt us or to disappoint us or to frustrate us; and there will be no more disease or death, but only perfect peace and rest and fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. Or as Paul puts it in Romans 8, the whole of this creation was subject to frustration and it’s groaning at present. And all who believe are also groaning. The creation and we ourselves are groaning, because of the way this world is. But we’re waiting for the time when Christ our Saviour comes and sets us free from our bondage to decay to enjoy the glory of the life to come.
So, right now, we groan and lament with the psalmist, because our life in this world is brief and it’s like a shadow which disappears and leaves nothing behind despite all our hard work and busyness. But the good news is that we’re only aliens and strangers in this world; and God our Father has something better in store for us in the new and better world to come; and Christ our Saviour has secured it for us, because he suffered and died on the cross to bring you to God and to everlasting life in the new heavens and earth. And so, despite the sorrow and trials of this life, you should trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, and keep trusting in him; as you wait for the day when he appears to bring you into the glory to come.