Have you ever been shocked by the passing of time? The first day of school, the last day of a funeral – what if we’re supposed to learn from this instead of being surprised? – And what would we learn anyway? – Psalm 39 is about just that very courageous question.
Psalm 39 (NIV)
1 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.” 2 So I remained utterly silent, not even saying anything good. But my anguish increased; 3 my heart grew hot within me. While I meditated, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: 4 “Show me, LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is. 5 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. 6 “Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be. 7 “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you. 8 Save me from all my transgressions; do not make me the scorn of fools. 9 I was silent; I would not open my mouth, for you are the one who has done this. 10 Remove your scourge from me; I am overcome by the blow of your hand. 11 When you rebuke and discipline anyone for their sin, you consume their wealth like a moth— surely everyone is but a breath. 12 “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. 13 Look away from me, that I may enjoy life again before I depart and am no more.”
MUZZLING THE TONGUE. Often pain (regardless of its source), whether externally or internally motivated, can cause us to lash out. I remember smashing my thumb with a badly aimed blow of a hammer, and my pain, wanting a cause other than myself to blame, overflowed with loud and caustic exclamations as I threw the hammer violently to the ground unaware and unconcerned whether anyone was in my line of fire. In some television and movie presentations, a stock dramatic scene presents a woman in the midst of labor contractions lashing out fiercely at her husband, who wants only to help. Similarly, in moments of psychic or emotional pain many of us tend to strike out at others as a way of diverting ourselves from our own discomfort and passing the blame and pain on to others. In the midst of the pain brought on by personal sin, “muzzling the tongue” (as our psalmist describes) can be either a good or a bad thing. (1) On the good side, the one who stifles the knee-jerk response to lash out at others can enter into a state of “meditative silence,” where the interfering “noise” generated by oneself and others is lessened. When we actually “listen” to what our pain is telling us, we can often hear what God wants us to hear and learn in and through the pain. Silence in the face of pain can be a way of culling out the “bad” from the “good”—avoiding self-justification or attacks unleashed on others. When I truly listen to my pain and the anger it generates, I often discover that it is greater than the circumstances justify or is misdirected. I have begun to evaluate my anger against a scale of 1 to 10. If the circumstance seems to merit an anger level of 4, yet I am responding at level 9 or 10, then I know there is something at work other than the circumstance I am acknowledging. Too often the difference is the result of old wounds submerged and never dealt with, a sense of personal sin or guilt I am unwilling to admit, or fear of rejection or vulnerability. These hidden factors elevate my anger as a way of masking myself and pushing others (including God!) away from intimate relationships in which resolution can occur. – Gerald Wilson
As Brueggemann has famously written, “The Psalm evidences courage and ego strength before Yahweh which permits an act of hope, expectant imperatives, and an insistence that things be changed before it is too late.” As McCann concludes, “the very existence of the psalmist as a speech-partner with God belies the apparent insignificance of humanity.” The psalmist’s act of speaking out so aggressively against God bears witness to the psalmist’s faith — the faith that God will remain faithful in spite of the psalmist’s assertiveness and the faith that deliverance belongs to the Lord. “Any being that has the courage to tell God, ‘Look away’ (v. 13), cannot be entirely insignificant, even if life is fleeting.”And the fact that the psalmist concludes this prayer-poem by so artistically trailing off into silence bears witness to the psalmist’s living hope that as long as the Lord reigns, the human silence that is brought about by suffering will never be the last word. Paul’s word that “In [Christ] every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’ ” (2 Cor. 1:20) is a fitting New Testament commentary on the psalmist’s hope. – Rolf A. Jacobson
The psalm reflects on the transience and troubles of life, of an oppressive divine presence, and of a connection between sin and suffering. The psalm also speaks of hope and petitions for help and forgiveness. The psalmist searches for a hope beyond a mechanistic connection between acts and consequences. The psalm moves beyond an oversimplified theology that is common in contemporary society. Life is ambiguous, and the psalmist strains toward a theology of a hopeful divine presence in that life. The poem brings to mind both Job and Ecclesiastes. The psalm articulates silence and speech, hope and despair, all in just thirteen verses. The movement is from speech to hope, and that seems to subvert the despair, but the concluding verse is ambiguous at best. Still, as in Job’s experience, address of YHWH continues. Is that a significant sign of hope in despair? All are sojourners and resident aliens in a world and life created and sustained by God. The psalmist searches for a way forward with the persistent troubles of life; the beginning point is a relational one in verse 7: “My hope is in you.” – Walter Brueggemann