Psalm 39

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The Hebrew expression natsách (preceded by the preposition meaning “to”) is commonly thought to signify “to the musical director” or “leader.” In the Septuagint, the rendering is “to the end.” An ancient Latin translation of the Hebrew Psalter reads pro victoria (“for victory”), probably because of linking the Hebrew expression to a root meaning “to defeat.” This suggests that considerable uncertainty exists about the meaning of the Hebrew expression.

The musician Jeduthun may have been the same person as the Levite Ethan. (Compare 1 Chronicles 15:17, 19 with 1 Chronicles 16:39-41 and 25:1.) Jeduthun does not appear to have been involved in composing the words of this psalm, for it is ascribed to David. It may be, however, that he shared in establishing the style for the performance or determined the musical instruments to be used. If so, the reference in the superscription may be understood to mean “according to the style of Jeduthun.”

In the Dead Sea Psalms scroll that contains much of Psalm 38, the words of Psalm 39 do not follow immediately afterward. Instead, the words of Psalm 71 precede those of Psalm 39.

David determined to restrain his tongue to avoid sinning when speaking. The reference to guarding his “ways” could mean that he would strive to control his temper or emotions to stop himself from angry outbursts or hasty speech that he would later regret. When in the presence of someone wicked or a “sinner” (LXX), he would guard his mouth with a muzzle. This could include restraining himself from saying anything that might be used against him or which could contribute to their hardening themselves in their wayward course and justifying themselves.

David was “mute, [in a state of] silence [mute and humbled, LXX],” apparently in the presence of anyone wicked. The expression “quiet to good” could mean that David maintained complete silence, not even uttering a good word. He added, “and my pain was stirred up [renewed, LXX].” This could mean that, despite his remaining quiet, he experienced a painful inner upheaval. Translators have variously rendered the Hebrew. “Dumb and silent before the wicked, I refrained from any speech. But my sorrow increased.” (NAB) “I kept completely silent, but it did no good, and I hurt even worse.” (CEV) “I was silent and still; I held my peace to no avail; my distress grew worse.” (NRSV) “But when I was silent and still, not even saying anything good, my anguish increased.” (NIV) “I kept very quiet. I didn’t even say anything good, but I became even more upset.” (NCV) “I was dumb, silent; I was very still while my pain was intense.” (Tanakh)

The psalmist likened the intense stirrings inside him to his heart’s becoming hot. Apparently as a result of “thought” or “meditation” about the situation he faced, David felt that a fire was burning within him. (See the Notes section on verse 3[4].) It appears that, because of the intense emotional upheaval within him, the psalmist finally did speak “with [his] tongue,” evidently directing his words to his God.

The psalmist’s appeal seems to be for an indication about his future. He pleaded for YHWH to let him know his “end,” the measure of his days, and the “transient” nature of his life. (See the Notes section regarding verse 4[5].) It would seem that David wondered whether his life would soon end.

He felt that YHWH had made his “days” mere “handbreadths” or very short (a handbreadth being a sixth of a cubit or about three inches [c. 8 centimeters]). In the sight of the eternal God, the psalmist’s “duration,” “existence” (LXX), or length of life was like nothing. The linking of “all breath” to the words “every man stands” (“every living man,” LXX) suggests that short-lived humans are just an exhaled breath or a puff of air. The Hebrew word for “breath” (hével) also denotes “vanity,” “emptiness,” or “futility,” or “worthlessness.” These meanings fit the Septuagint rendering mataiótes.

Being short-lived, man goes about like a shadow, a semblance, a phantom, or an apparition. All human commotion, bustling about, or restless striving is emptiness, vanity, or an exhaled breath. Without knowing who will do the gathering or receive the benefit from his efforts, a man piles up possessions. Incessant striving for what has no lasting value is indeed emptiness.

David’s focus, however, was different. He raised the question, “And now for what do I wait, Lord?” This question indicated that he looked to his God for aid and guidance, for he added, “my hope [is] in you.”

The psalmist’s request to be delivered from all his transgressions apparently was an appeal to be rescued from the distresses he regarded as the consequences of his sins. Knowing that fools or morally corrupt persons would taunt him if he were to suffer calamity, he pleaded that YHWH would not make him the “reproach of the fool.” According to the Septuagint, God had already made him the senseless one’s object of reproach.

The psalmist remained mute, not opening his mouth. This is because he considered what was happening to him as God’s doing. He humbly submitted to the distressing circumstances, not protesting or voicing bitter complaint. The Septuagint reads, “You are the One who made me.”

Nevertheless, because of his great suffering, he prayed, “Remove your plague from me.” Because of the “hostility” (“strength,” LXX) of God’s hand or power directed against him, David found himself in a state of exhaustion, fully spent. (See the Notes section on verse 10[11].)

The “reproofs for guilt” with which God chastens or disciplines man are the serious consequences from following a sinful course. Whatever a man might delight in or treasure, God is portrayed as consuming like a moth (evidently in its destructive caterpillar stage). The psalmist then repeats words found in verse 5(6), “Surely a breath [is] every man,” amounting to nothing more than a puff of air on account of the brevity of human life. The Septuagint reading is, “Surely in vain every man is troubled.”

David pleaded for YHWH to hear his prayer, giving ear to his cry for aid, and not to ignore his tears. Probably because of the brevity of life, he spoke of himself as being a resident alien or, as were all his “fathers” or ancestors, a “sojourner” (a temporary guest) with God.

The appeal for God to “look away” from him may be understood to mean that God not subject him to intense critical scrutiny. He desired to experience cheer (“be refreshed,” LXX) before departing from the earthly scene and being no more.


Regarding the divine name (YHWH), see Psalm 1.

In verse 3(4), the Septuagint says, “in my meditation [meléte] a fire would be kindled.” The Hebrew term (hagíg), rendered meléte in the Septuagint, has been defined as meaning “sighing,” “murmuring,” “whispering,” and “musing.” The Hebrew verb for “meditate” (hagáh) can also mean “wail” or “mourn, “growl” (like a lion), or “coo” (make a mournful sound like a dove). (Isaiah 16:7; 31:4; 38:14 )

In verse 4(5), the Hebrew adjective for “transient” (chadél) can also mean “lacking.” This is the sense conveyed in the Septuagint (“that I might know what I lack”).

In verse 5(6), the word palaistás (palm breadths) appears in Rahlfs’ text, but fourth-century Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus read palaiás (old).

The expression “selah” appears at the end of verses 5(6) and 11(12). In the Septuagint, the rendering diápsalma is thought to mean “pause” or “musical interlude.”

There is uncertainty about whether the Hebrew term tigráh (in verse 10[11]) means “hostility.”

Verse 11(12) in the Septuagint does not refer to a moth, but says of God, “You caused his soul [life] to waste away like a spider [or, spider’s web].”