Psalm 39: just a shadow
What is the Measure of My Days
To the choirmaster: to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.
(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!
(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!
(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!"
To the choirmaster (or director of music or chief musician). To Jeduthun. A psalm of David.
It would seem that David wrote this song to be sung in tabernacle worship, as a praise to God. Jeduthun and his sons were Levites in charge of ministering in the tabernacle.
With them were Heman and Jeduthun and the rest of those chosen and designated by name to give thanks to the LORD, "for his love endures forever." Heman and Jeduthun were responsible for the sounding of the trumpets and cymbals and for the playing of the other instruments for sacred song. The sons of Jeduthun were stationed at the gate.
1 Chronicles 16:41-42
Well, there is no indication as to the time in David's life that this is written nor the circumstances around it. Although, the content might suggest that David was older. It's only in wisdom and maturity that one learns to hold his or her tongue. Right?
I said to myself, "I will watch what I do and not sin in what I say. I will hold my tongue when the ungodly are around me." But as I stood there in silence--not even speaking of good things--the turmoil within me grew worse.
Psalm 39:1-2 NLT
Some translations say: I will hold my tongue with a muzzle (the KJV says: with a bridle). A muzzle is typically used to keep a dog from biting or barking. Right? I wish we knew who David wanted to bite, but we can safely assume that he was mad and holding his tongue was hard to do. So hard that he couldn't even say anything nice.
So instead, he went to God. The Lord would much rather we come to Him with our frustrations than share them others. Gossip and slander and words from anger are never a good thing.
Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble.
Proverbs 21:23 NLT
If you claim to be religious but don't control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless.
James 1:26 NLT
And Jesus said:
"I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."
Matthew 12:36-37 ESV
The psalms are clear examples of God's listening ear in whatever our circumstance. But the scripture is also clear that we must hold our tongue otherwise, especially around unbelievers. Why is that?
"Tongue sins are great sins; like sparks of fire ill words spread, and do great damage."
--Charles Spurgeon, English preacher, 1834-1892
Our anger and grief and disappointment are never wrong feelings to have. But the words that leave our mouths as a result of these feelings often are. God clearly gives us a way to deal, the best way to express ourselves while remaining in His desire for us: His listening, available ear and His Word filled with encouragement and direction. Besides it being for our own well-being, God wants us to hold our tongues when in the presence of others because He loves all of His children, even those that do not know Him yet.
If my inability to hold my tongue causes one of His children to never take the step to know Him, I will have to answer to that in Heaven. And THAT is not a conversation I want to have.
The more I thought about it, the hotter I got, igniting a fire of words: "LORD, remind me how brief my time on earth will be. Remind me that my days are numbered--how fleeting my life is. You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand. My entire lifetime is just a moment to you; at best, each of us is but a breath."
Psalm 39:3-5 NLT
As David was in the presence of non-believers, listening to them, he got angrier and angrier. He had nothing nice to say. He was about to explode: "igniting a fire of words." But he turned to God in his anger.
"David's silence was broken in the best way--by humble prayer to God. He would not speak his fears and doubts before the wicked, but he would pour them out before his God."
--Pastor David Guzik, www.enduringword.com
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 2:11 ESV
All is vanity! Life is short. Just a breath. But David had confidence in the promises of his Father. His life had meaning to God. His worth was in the Lord. When he was angry, it's the Lord's council he sought. When life felt like a breath in the wind, he turned to God for the reminder of what was important.
As I sit here trying to understand this psalm in light of what's going on in the United States this week, I am stunned, once again, at how relevant the Word of God is. The God's Word is our stronghold. The Word of God is our comfort and reassurance. Sometimes the noise of life drowns out our ability to hear God's voice, but His voice is strong and sure in His Word.
Do you need comfort today? Do you need peace?
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and turns to the north;
round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Ecclesiastes is attributed to King Solomon, David's son. It would seem that Solomon was taught by his father. Vanity! Everything is meaningless! A breath in the wind. Moving shadows.
God is the only answer.
Like King David in his time of internal struggle, we must look to the Word of God for answers, for understanding and for peace.
How great you are, Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears.
2 Samuel 7:22
Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.
My life on earth is but a breath.
I love that the psalmist wanted the congregation to pause here; selah, interlude. In the same way, as we see turmoil and fear and anger amongst our fellow countrymen and women, and as followers of Christ, may we pause. Take an interlude. Seek the Word of God before responding; may we "muzzle our tongues" before "igniting a fire of words."
We seek the counsel of the Lord.
We remember the vanity of life. The meaninglessness of everything under the sun. We remember that our lives are a breath.
We are merely moving shadows, and all our busy rushing ends in nothing. We heap up wealth, not knowing who will spend it. And so, Lord, where do I put my hope? My only hope is in you. Rescue me from my rebellion. Do not let fools mock me. I am silent before you; I won't say a word, for my punishment is from you. But please stop striking me! I am exhausted by the blows from your hand. When you discipline us for our sins, you consume like a moth what is precious to us.
Each of us is but a breath.
Psalm 39:6-11 NLT
"Worldly men walk like travellers in a mirage, deluded, duped, deceived, soon to be filled with disappointment and despair. Surely they are disquieted in vain. Men fret, and fume, and worry, and all for mere nothing. They are shadows pursuing shadows, while death pursues them."
I love the metaphor that we are all "moving shadows," and all of it is in vain.
"This is the land of shadows. Heaven is the land of reality, of true high definition."
--Pastor David Guzik
Jesus taught us,
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Psalm 39 has been sung in praise to the Lord for millenia now. As children of God, our lives are rooted in the promises of the Father. We work for Him, to further His Kingdom, to lead more to Christ. We store up things in heaven that cannot be stolen and will not rust; love and mercy and grace.
After reminding himself of what really matters, David goes on to plead with God, to stop the punishment, the blows, and the discipline. What does he mean? He knows he's doing the right thing by holding his tongue. So why is God disciplining him?
This psalm is a prayer to God. Amidst David's honest pleads for help it is possible that he remembers his sin. Or it is possible that David wonders--out loud to his Father--of the terrible situation he finds himself in is in fact a punishment for some sin he had yet to be forgiven for. Do you ever find that God is listening to your prayer when in the midst of it you hear Him or feel Him pointing toward a sin you had been ignoring?
Like this, just a whisper, "let's stop right here for a moment...we first have some unfinished business with..."
Maybe this is just another reminder of the beauty of just opening our hearts up to God, of calling upon Him in all our crazy and cluttered thoughts...
"This is a prayer that God will take away the hinderance that came to David in some defeat, some illness, some sorrow, or some sin that caused God's displeasure. It is impossible for us to know what exactly that might have been; but there was some consciousness on David's part of God's being displeased; and here he pleads for forgiveness and the removal of that displeasure."
--Pastor James Burton Coffman, 1905-2006
Hear my prayer, LORD, 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.
Psalm 39:12-13 NIV
"Tears speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues; they act as keys upon the wards of tender hearts, and mercy denies them nothing, if through them the weeper looks to richer drops, even to the blood of Jesus."
I love the end of this psalm, and what a good reminder for all of us! David boldly tells God not to turn away from his tears, "hold not your peace at my tears" (ESV). Listen to me! Hear me! Remember me.
For I am a stranger with You. A sojourner like my fathers. (NASB)
For I am your guest--a traveler passing through, as my ancestors were before me. (NLT)
For I am a sojourner with you, a guest, like all my fathers. (ESV)
A sojourner. A stranger. But David knew he didn't walk alone. The psalm reads "I am a stranger with you" "your guest," we are passing through this life together unto the other side.
"Abraham first described himself as a stranger and a sojourner...All his children, those who inherit a like faith, must say the same. Faith cannot find a home on this side of the stars. It has caught a glimpse of the Infinite, and it can never be contend with anything else."
--F.B. Meyer, English pastor and evangelist, 1847-1929, quoted in www.enduringword.com
And finally, David calls again for the relief of God's pressing hand, the weight of chastisement, the lifting of a loving Father's punishment. While praying this prayer of help to the Father, David felt the weight of some unspoken sin, as often happens when we bear our hearts to God. David had a need for confession and then the relief of forgiveness.
Look away from me, that I may smile again, before I depart and am no more.
Did David hope the end was near? But it's clear that whenever the end comes, he wanted to be right with God.
Oh, that the day He comes to take us home may we have been smiling knowing that our hearts were clean and our paths straight.
"God is a careful and attentive Father, ready to welcome any person who takes a step or even expresses the desire to take a step that leads home. He is there, staring out at the horizon, expecting us, waiting for us."
--Pope Francis, The Name of God is Mercy
Heavenly Father, our country and world is in turmoil, but you know this. Times just seem to us to be getting more and more difficult, more and more sad, more and more uncertain. Give us strength to turn to you. May we speak to you first rather than risk responding in sin and anger. Give us peaceful and quiet and gentle spirits during this turmoil. May we seek to emulate your Son. As the world is in chaos around us, help us to remember that it is all but moving shadows, nothing that surprises or worries you, nothing that you have not seen before. You are the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, you are the Ancient of Days, and we take comfort in your mighty strength and in your mercy and your faithfulness. Please Father, in your will, heal our land, protect our loved ones, and strengthen your church. Amen.