For the director of music. For Jeduthun. A psalm of David.
I said, ‘I will watch my ways
and keep my tongue from sin;
I will put a muzzle on my mouth
while in the presence of the wicked.’
So I remained utterly silent,
not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased;
my heart grew hot within me.
While I meditated, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
‘Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath,
even those who seem secure.
‘Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be.
‘But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you.
Save me from all my transgressions;
do not make me the scorn of fools.
I was silent; I would not open my mouth,
for you are the one who has done this.
Remove your scourge from me;
I am overcome by the blow of your hand.
When you rebuke and discipline anyone for their sin,
you consume their wealth like a moth –
surely everyone is but a breath.
‘Hear my prayer, Lord,(Ps. 39:1-13 NIV)
listen to my cry for help;
do not be deaf to my weeping.
I dwell with you as a foreigner,
a stranger, as all my ancestors were.
Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again
before I depart and am no more.’
The Psalmist is struggling to stay silent. The wicked are present and perhaps he is tempted to tell them what he really thinks about them and what they done. But he fears that his anger may get the better of him and cause him to sin, so he vows to keep silent. Not all accusations have to be answered, most of the time it is better to remain silent and wait on the Lord to administer justice. The wise use of the tongue is part of wisdom teaching. But keeping silent is not easy, the sense of rage at injustice puts pressure on you to want to speak out. So committed was the Psalmist not to speak that he realised that he wasn’t even saying good things, and this bubbled up within him causing feelings of anxiety. His heart was hot with anger and he was incandescent with rage, and the longer he turned the matter over in his mind, the more the issue burned within him, so hotly that he had to speak before he was consumed. Then he spoke out, but very wisely he went to speak to God. ‘Lord’, he says, ‘what is the point of all this, where is my life going, what is the purpose of my life, that the outrageous behaviour has to be part of it? Is every day going to be like this, endless lies, bickering and taunting?’ As the Psalmist is in God’s presence he realises that his days are much shorter than he first thought. Prayer is one of God’s means of instruction. In the sanctuary, in the Lord’s presence, the Psalmist is able to obtain some perspective on what was going on. The interminable persecution by the wicked lasts only a moment, because what is your life anyway but a mere width of your hand.
What I thought would know no end is but a mere puff of breath, like the vapour from your breath on a frosty morning. Blink, and you have missed it. The life span for any of us in terms of longevity is nothing to God.
V6 sounds like something we might read in the book of Ecclesiastes, not all that surprising as the Psalms and Ecclesiastes are part of the corpus of Wisdom literature. We invest so much in this life, acquiring possessions, putting this and that right, but really, we are just like phantoms on the stage of life, in a mere walk-on part. We try to add significance by the stuff that we accumulate. In jest a friend, after showing me his amazing collection of angling equipment said, ‘he who has the most gadgets when he dies, wins.’ Not that there is anything inherently wrong with possessions. For example, I derive great pleasure using this fountain pen; a gift from Liz over 25 years ago; to write out these notes before I type them on the computer. The point of the Psalm is not to decry possessions, just to put them in their proper perspective. The importance, prominence and significance that we achieve are all dwarfed in comparison with God. Our busy activity may provide a degree of status, wealth, and reputation, but even in these accomplishments we share the fate of all people; we don’t know what will happen to all the stuff we’ve acquired. Who will want my fountain pen that is so full of memories for me? The idea of writing already seems so passé to many. Our inability to control and project ourselves beyond our short lifespan characterising our fragile existence. Why was the Psalmist detained by the mere whisper of persecution that is a mere fraction of what is already a very short lifespan, a mere puff of breath, dissipating into the air? Lord what is it that is significant in my life, what should I really be looking out for in my life? Now Lord that you have shown me the shortness of my days, what next? Lord I know, I will put my hope in you. Nothing in my life is secure, or important unless my hope is secured in You. All that stuff that I raged about, away with it, it is nothing of note. What is most important is my walk with the Lord. So Lord save me from all my transgressions. If You are all my hope, then the barrier that sin erects must be dismantled by my confession and Your forgiveness, therefore save me from my sins. So easily the Psalmist could have spoken out in his anger, but in God’s presence he has gained perspective and he repents of that anger and those words that he had composed in his heart and mind. If he had spoken out, he would have been the scorn of fools. So often the jibes, accusations and devious half-truths are just offered to see if they can goad you into anger. The Psalmist has learned his lesson, as should we: ‘take it to the Lord in prayer.’
The Psalmist was glad that he had remained silent. In his silence he was deeply disturbed, and he feared that he might sin with his words. It was God that had brought him into this experience of testing, that he might learn a valuable lesson. The Lord has the right to do that because He is God.
It is a vexation of his spirit that life has so many limitations, but he is also vexed by the Lord’s discipline. The wealth that we would acquire is taken away, so that we learn not to put our confidence in wealth. We seek to define ourselves by our possessions, but the Lord consumes this meaning of life like a destructive moth. The meaning of life is in our hope in the Lord.
The Psalmist submits to the wise way of living by putting his hope in the Lord. He acknowledges his ongoing need of God by turning again to God in prayer. Three cries are made to the Lord; hear my prayer, listen to my cry for help and do not be deaf to my weeping. The lesson is he needs God, every hour he needs Him. Just because we learn something doesn’t make us experts overnight. The Psalmist is a stranger in God’s world like his fathers before him, he has not yet obtained all that God has for him. The Psalmist pleads with God to lift His discipline so that he might rejoice again before he departs the scene of this very short life.
But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.(Phil. 3:7-14 NIV)
Lord God forgive us for speaking when we should have remained silent. Remove from us the desire to want to take matters into our own hands. Forgive us for granting too much significance to some offences. Help us to fix our hope in You. Our significance is that You have placed us in union with Christ; this is who we really are. Help us to fix our thoughts on Christ because it is His name we pray. Amen