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Psalm 39

Prayer for Wisdom and Forgiveness

To the leader: to Jeduthun. A Psalm of David.


I said, “I will guard my ways

that I may not sin with my tongue;

I will keep a muzzle on my mouth

as long as the wicked are in my presence.”


I was silent and still;

I held my peace to no avail;

my distress grew worse,


my heart became hot within me.

While I mused, the fire burned;

then I spoke with my tongue:



“L ord, let me know my end,

and what is the measure of my days;

let me know how fleeting my life is.


You have made my days a few handbreadths,

and my lifetime is as nothing in your sight.

Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah


Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.

Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;

they heap up, and do not know who will gather.



“And now, O Lord, what do I wait for?

My hope is in you.


Deliver me from all my transgressions.

Do not make me the scorn of the fool.


I am silent; I do not open my mouth,

for it is you who have done it.


Remove your stroke from me;

I am worn down by the blows of your hand.



“You chastise mortals

in punishment for sin,

consuming like a moth what is dear to them;

surely everyone is a mere breath. Selah



“Hear my prayer, O L ord,

and give ear to my cry;

do not hold your peace at my tears.

For I am your passing guest,

an alien, like all my forebears.


Turn your gaze away from me, that I may smile again,

before I depart and am no more.”

4. O Jehovah! cause me to know my end. It appears from this, that David was transported by an improper and sinful excess of passion, seeing he finds fault with God. This will appear still more clearly from the following verses. It is true, indeed, that in what follows he introduces pious and becoming prayers, but here he complains, that, being a mortal man, whose life is frail and transitory, he is not treated more mildly by God. Of this, and similar complaints, the discourses of Job are almost full. It is, therefore, not without anger and resentment that David speaks in this manner: “O God, since thou art acting with so much severity towards me, at least make me to know how long thou hast appointed me to live. But is it so, that my life is but a moment, why then dost thou act with so great rigour? and why dost thou accumulate upon my head such a load of miseries, as if I had yet many ages to live? What does it profit me to have been born, if I must pass the period of my existence, which is so brief, in misery, and oppressed with a continued succession of calamities?”

Accordingly, this verse should be read in connection with the following one. Behold, thou hast made my days as a hand-breadth. A hand-breadth is the measure of four fingers, and is here taken for a very small measure; as if it had been said, the life of man flies swiftly away, and the end of it, as it were, touches the beginning. Hence the Psalmist concludes that all men are only vanity before God. As to the meaning of the words, he does not ask that the brevity of human life should be shown to him, as if he knew it not. There is in this language a kind of irony, as if he had said, Let us count the number of the years which still remain to me on earth, and will they be a sufficient recompense for the miseries which I endure? Some render the word חדל, chedel, mundane; and others temporal, that is to say, that which endures only for a time. But the latter rendering is not appropriate in this place: for David does not as yet expressly declare the shortness of his life, but continues to speak on that subject ambiguously. If the word mundane is adopted, the sense will be, Show me whether thou wilt prolong my life to the end of the world. But in my judgment, the translation which I have followed is much more appropriate; and, besides, there may have been a transposition of the letters ד, daleth, and ל, lamed, making the word chedel for cheled. It may, however, very properly be taken for an age or period of life. 6666     “Mine age, i.e., the whole extent of my life.” — Cresswell. When he says that his age is, as it were, nothing before God, in order to excite God so much the more to pity and compassion, he appeals to him as a witness of his frailty, intimating, that it is not a thing unknown to him how transitory and passing the life of man is. The expression, wholly or altogether vanity, 6767     The word הבל, hebel, rendered vanity, according to some, means the mirage, that deceptive appearance of a collection of waters in the distance, which the traveler, through the Arabian deserts, imagines he sees before him, and from which he fondly hopes to quench his thirst; but which, upon his coming up to it, he finds to be only burning sands, to which the reflection of the light of the sun had given the appearance of a lake of water. According to others, vanity means a vapor, as the breath of one’s mouth, which speedily vanishes; to which the apostle refers in James 4:14. “I take the word in its proper sense,” [vapor,] says Bishop Mant, “as more poetical and energetic than the derivative one of ‘vanity.’” See Simonis and Parkhurst on הבל. Abel gave to his second son the name of Hebel, vanity, and here David declares that כל-אדם col-adam, all adam, every man is hebel, vanity. implies that among the whole human race there is nothing but vanity. He declares this of men, even whilst they are standing; 6868     This word here rendered standeth “is well paraphrased by Dathe, ‘Dum firmissime constitutus videatur.’” — Rogers Psalms in Heb., volume2, p. 200. that is to say, when, being in the prime and vigor of life, they wish to be held in estimation, and seem to themselves to be men possessed of considerable influence and power. It was the pangs of sorrow which forced David to give utterance to these complaints; but it is to be observed, that it is chiefly when men are sore oppressed by adversity that they are made to feel their nothingness in the sight of God. Prosperity so intoxicates them, that, forgetful of their condition, and sunk in insensibility, they dream of an immortal state on earth. It is very profitable for us to know our own frailty, but we must beware lest, on account of it, we fall into such a state of sorrow as may lead us to murmur and repine. David speaks truly and wisely in declaring, that man, even when he seems to have risen to the highest state of greatness, is only like the bubble which rises upon the water, blown up by the wind; but he is in fault when he takes occasion from this to complain of God. Let us, therefore, so feel the misery of our present condition, as that, however cast down and afflicted, we may, as humble suppliants, lift up our eyes to God, and implore his mercy. This we find David does a little after, having corrected himself; for he does not continue to indulge in rash and inconsiderate lamentations, but lifting up his soul in the exercise of faith, he attains heavenly consolation.

6. Surely man walketh in a shadow. 6969     In the Hebrew it is literally, “Man walketh in an image;” a phantasm, that which seems to be something real and substantial, but which does not deserve that character, which is an appearance only. Life is a mere show; “the baseless fabric of a vision;” it has the semblance of solidity, but there is no reality in it. The word occurs again in Psalm 73:20, “Thou shalt despise their image;” their vain show, or phantastic prosperity. Walford reads, “walketh as a shadow;” observing, that “the prefix ב is often used for כ as a particle of similitude.” he farther observes, that Dathe’s translation, “he pursues a shadow,” gives a good sense, but does not convey the exact notion of the figure that is conveyed by the Hebrew. He still prosecutes the same subject. By the word shadow, he means, that there is nothing substantial in man, but that he is only, as we say, a vain show, and has I know not how much of display and ostentation. 7070     “Et je ne scay quelle parade et ostentation.” — Fr. Some translate the word darkness, and understand the Psalmist’s language in this sense, That the life of man vanishes away before it can be known. But in these words David simply declares of every man individually what Paul extends to the whole world, when he says,

“The fashion of this world passeth away.” —
1 Corinthians 7:31

Thus he denies that there is any thing abiding in men, because the appearance of strength which displays itself in them for a time soon passes away. What he adds, that men disquiet themselves in vain, shows the very height of their vanity; as if he had said, It seems as if men were born for the very purpose of rendering themselves more and more contemptible: for although they are only as a shadow, yet as if they were fools, or rather insane, they involve themselves needlessly in harassing cares, and vexing themselves to no purpose. He expresses still more plainly how they manifest their folly, when he declares that while they anxiously and carefully heap up riches, they never think that they must soon, and it may be suddenly, leave their present abode. And why is it that they thus fret away their mind and body, but only because they imagine that they can never have enough? for by their insatiable desire of gain, they eagerly grasp at all the riches of the world, as if they had to live a hundred times the life of man. Moreover, David does not in this passage hold up to scorn the covetousness of man in the same sense in which Solomon does, Ecclesiastes 5:10; for he not only speaks of their heirs, but declares generally, that men disquiet and vex themselves with care, although they know not who shall reap the fruit of their labor in amassing riches. 7171     It is important to mark the difference between the Hebrew word צכר, tsabar, here rendered to heap together, and the Word אסף, asaph, rendered to gather “The former,” says Hammond, “here appears to contain all the toil of the harvest, in reaping, binding, setting up, and heaping things together, bringing them from the several places where they grow, into a cumulus The latter denotes the stowing or housing, laying it up, removing or carrying it out of the field, where it is heaped or set up, ready for carriage. For so אסף signifies sometimes to lay up, sometimes to take away This, then, is the description of the vanity of our human estate, that when a man hath run through all the labors of acquisition, and hath nothing visible to interpose betwixt him and his enjoyments, yet even then he is uncertain, not only whether himself shall possess it at last, but whether his heir shall do it; nay, he knows not whether his enemy may not; he cannot tell ‘who shall gather them into the barn,’ or enjoy them when they are there.” They may indeed wish to make provision for themselves; but what madness and folly is it for them to torment themselves with incessant and unprofitable cares which have no certain object or limit? David here condemns those ardent and unbridled desires, under the influence of which worldly men are carried away, and talk in a strange manner, confounding heaven and earth; for they admit not that they are mortal, much less do they consider that their life is bounded by the narrow limits of a hand-breadth. David spoke under the influence of a distempered and troubled state of mind; but there is included in his language this very profitable lesson, that there is no remedy better fitted for enabling us to rise above all unnecessary cares, than the recollection that the brief period of our life is only, as it were, a hand-breadth.

7. And now, O Lord! what do I wait for? David, having acknowledged that his heart had been too much under the influence of ardent and impetuous emotion, from which he had experienced great disquietude, now returns to a calm and settled state of mind; and from this what I have before stated is rendered still more obvious, namely, that this psalm consists partly of appropriate prayers and partly of inconsiderate complaints. I have said that David here begins to pray aright. It is true, that even worldly men sometimes feel in the very same way in which David here acknowledges that he felt; but the knowledge of their own vanity does not lead them so far as to seek substantial support in God. On the contrary, they rather wilfully render themselves insensible, that they may indulge undisturbed in their own vanity. We may learn from this passage, that no man looks to God for the purpose of depending upon him, and resting his hope in him, until he is made to feel his own frailty, yea, and even brought to nought. There is tacitly great force in the adverb now, as if David had said, The flattery and vain imaginations by which the minds of men are held fast in the sleep of security no longer deceive me, but I am now fully sensible of my condition. But we must go beyond this elementary stage; for it is not enough, that, being aroused by a sense of our infirmity, we should seek with fear and trembling to know our duty, unless at the same time God manifest himself to us, on whom alone all our expectation should depend. Accordingly, as it serves no end for worldly men to be convinced of their utter vanity, because, although convinced of this, they never improve by it, let us learn to press forward and make still further progress, in order that, being as it were dead, we may be quickened by God, whose peculiar office it is to create all things out of nothing; for man then ceases to be vanity, and begins to be truly something, when, aided by the power of God, he aspires to heavenly things.

8. Deliver me from all my sins. In this verse the Psalmist still continues his godly and holy prayer. He is now no longer carried away by the violence of his grief to murmur against God, but, humbly acknowledging himself guilty before God, he has recourse to his mercy. In asking to be delivered from his transgressions, he ascribes the praise of righteousness to God, while he charges upon himself the blame of all the misery which he endures; and he blames himself, not only on account of one sin, but acknowledges that he is justly chargeable with manifold transgressions. By this rule we must be guided, if we would wish to obtain an alleviation of our miseries; for, until the very source of them has been dried up, they will never cease to follow one another in rapid succession. David unquestionably wished an alleviation of his miseries, but, as he expected that, as soon as he should be reconciled to God, the chastisement of his sins would also cease, he only here asks that his sins may be forgiven him. We are thus taught by the example of David, not merely to seek deliverance from the miseries which afflict and trouble us, but to trace them to their cause and source, entreating God that he would not lay our sins to our charge, but blot out our guilt. What follows concerning the reproach or scorn of the foolish may be understood in an active as well as a passive signification, denoting, either that God would not abandon him to the mockery of the wicked, or that he would not involve him in the same disgrace to which the ungodly are given over. As, however, either of these senses will agree very well with the design of the Psalmist, I leave it to the reader to adopt the one which he prefers. Besides, the word נבל, nabal, signifies not only a foolish person, but also a contemptible man, one who is utterly worthless and base. It is at least certain, that by this word the reprobate, whom the Scriptures condemn for their folly, are intended; because, being deprived of their reason and understanding, they break forth into every excess in contemning and reproaching God.

9. I was dumb Here David blames himself, because he had not preserved that silence which, as we have already seen, the violence of his grief forced him to break. When he says then that he was dumb, he does not mean this as a commendation of the uniform and persevering restraint which he had exercised over himself. It is rather a correction of his error, as if reproving his own impatience, he had spoken within himself in this way: What doest thou? thou hadst enjoined upon thyself silence, and now thou murmurest proudly against God; what wilt thou gain by this presumption? We have here a very profitable and instructive lesson; for nothing is better fitted to restrain the violent paroxysms of grief, than the recollection that we have to do, not with a mortal man, but with God, who will always maintain his own righteousness in opposition to all that men may say against it in their murmuring complaints, and even in their outrageous accusations. What is the reason why the great majority of men run to such excess in their impatience, but because they forget that, in doing so, they dare to plead a controversy with God? Thus, while some impute all their miseries to fortune, and others to men, and others account for them from a variety of causes which their own fancy suggests, while scarcely one in a hundred recognises in them the hand of God, they allow themselves to indulge in bitter complaint, without ever thinking that in so doing they offend God. David, on the contrary, in order to subdue every unholy desire and sinful excess, returns to God, and resolves to keep silence, because the affliction which he is now suffering proceeded from God. As David, who was thus afflicted with the severest trials, resolved nevertheless to keep silence, let us learn from this, that it is one of the chief exercises of our faith to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, and to submit to his judgments without murmuring or complaint. It is to be observed, that men humbly and calmly submit themselves to God only when they are persuaded, not only that he does by his almighty power whatever he pleases, but that he is also a righteous Judge; for although the wicked feel that the hand of God is upon them, yet as they charge him with cruelty and tyranny, they cease not to pour forth horrible blasphemies against him. In the meantime, David regards the secret judgments of God with such reverence and wonder, that, satisfied with his will alone, he considers it sinful to open his mouth to utter a single word against him.

10 Take away thy stroke from me. David here confirms the prayer which he had already presented, namely, that having obtained pardon from God, he might, at the same time, be gently dealt with by him. This prayer, however, does not disturb the silence of which he had just made mention; for our desires and prayers, if they are framed according to the rule of God’s word, are not inconsiderate and noisy so as to provoke the divine displeasure against us, but proceed from the calm stillness which faith and patience produce in our hearts. It is indeed true, that when any one prays earnestly to God, he cannot fail to mix up with it his own feelings, pour forth his complaints, and manifest an extreme ardor. But we see that David, who formerly bewailed his miseries in loud lamentations, now sets himself calmly to consider and weigh what he merited, and prays for pardon. His meaning is, that God would mitigate the punishment which he had inflicted upon him. The reason immediately follows; for I have fainted by the blow of thy hand. In thus speaking, David does not allege this as an excuse to extenuate his fault, but desires that he may be borne with in his infirmity. As he says with respect to himself individually, that he is consumed, because he feels that the hand of God is against him, so he immediately states in the 11th verse the same truth in general terms, telling us, that if God should begin to deal with us according to the strict demands of the law, the consequence would be, that all would perish, and be utterly overwhelmed under his wrath. He plainly shows, first, that he is speaking not of any one man, or even of men generally, for he makes use of a Hebrew word, which denotes a man renowned for his valor, courage, or excellence; 7474     “Car il use d’un mot par lequel les Hebrieux signifient un homme vertueux, courageux, ou excellent.” — Fr. The Hebrew word is איש, ish See volume 1, p. 40, note. and then, secondly, he says, that if God should set himself to chastise such persons, every thing which they esteem precious in themselves would consume away or be dissolved. The sum is, that among men there is no one endued with such power and glory whom the wrath of God, if it burn fiercely against him, will not forthwith bring to nothing. But it will be necessary to examine the words more minutely. David does not simply describe the dreadful character of God’s wrath; but at the same time he declares and sets forth his righteousness in all the punishments which he inflicts upon men. The judgments of God sometimes strike fear and dread into the hearts even of heathen men, but their blindness fills them with such rage, that they still continue to fight against God. By the term rebukes, David means severe punishments, such as are the tokens of strict justice and signs of divine wrath. We know that God often exercises the rod of his chastisement upon true believers, but he does it in such a manner as that in punishing them he at the same time gives them a taste of his mercy and his love, and not only tempers the chastisements with which he visits them, but also mingles them with comfort, which serves to render them much more tolerable. David, then, is not speaking in this place of fatherly chastisement, but of the punishment which God inflicts upon the reprobate, when, like an inexorable judge in the exercise of his office, he executes against them the judgment which they have merited. He tells us that when God makes this rigour to be felt, there is no man who does not forthwith consume or pine away. At first view the comparison of God to a moth may seem absurd; for what relation is there, it may be said, between a small moth-worm and the infinite majesty of God? I answer, That David has with much propriety made use of this simile, that we may know that although God does not openly thunder from heaven against the reprobate, yet his secret curse ceases not to consume them away, just as the moth, though unperceived, wastes by its secret gnawing a piece of cloth or wood. 7575     The meaning according to our English version seems to be, that the beauty of man is consumed as the moth is consumed. “But,” says Walford, “this gives no correct or suitable sense. The design is to state, not that the moth is consumed, but that it is a consumer or spoiler of garments.” He reads,
   “With rebukes thou chastisest man for iniquity,
Then thou destroyest his goodliness as a moth
destroyeth a garment.”

   This is precisely Calvin’s interpretation. The moth is called in Hebrew עש, ash, from its corroding and destroying the texture of cloth, etc. See Parkhurst’s Lexicon on the word עש. The metaphor here employed is of frequent occurrence in Scripture. For example, in Hosea 5:12, God says, “I will be to Ephraim as a moth,” that is, I will consume them; and in Isaiah 50:9, it is said, “The moth shall eat them as a garment.”
At the same time, he alludes to the excellency 7676     The original word, which Calvin renders “excellency,” is translated by Hammond “precious things;” by which he understands wealth, greatness, health, beauty, strength, and, in short, whatever is most precious to us. of man, which he says is destroyed as it were by corruption, when God is offended, even as the moth destroys the most precious cloths by wasting them. The Scriptures often very appropriately employ various similitudes in this Way, and are wont to apply them sometimes in one view and sometimes in another. When Hezekiah (Isaiah 38:13) compares God to a lion, he does so in reference to the feelings of his own mind, because he was so prostrated and overwhelmed with fear and terror. But in this place David teaches us, that although the world may not perceive the dreadful vengeance of God, yet it consumes the reprobate by secretly gnawing them. This sentence, that every man is vanity, is again very properly repeated; for until we are overcome by the power of God, and as it were humbled in the dust, we never search into our own hearts, that the knowledge of our own vanity may divest us of all presumption. Whence is it that men are so foolishly satisfied with themselves, yea, and even applaud themselves, unless it be that, so long as God bears with them, they are wilfully blind to their own infirmities? The only remedy, then, by which men are cured of pride is when, alarmed with a sense of God’s wrath, they begin not only to be dissatisfied with themselves, but also to humble themselves even to the dust.

12 Hear my prayer, O Jehovah! David gradually increases his vehemence in prayer. He speaks first of prayer; in the second place, of crying; and in the third place, of tears This gradation is not a mere figure of rhetoric, which serves only to adorn the style, or to express the same thing in different language. This shows that David bewailed his condition sincerely, and from the bottom of his heart; and in this he has given us, by his own example, a rule for prayer. When he calls himself a stranger and a sojourner, he again shows how miserable his condition was; and he adds expressly, before God, not only because men are absent from God so long as they dwell in this world, but in the same sense in which he formerly said, My days are before thee as nothing; that is to say, God, without standing in need of any one to inform him, knows well enough that men have only a short journey to perform in this world, the end of which is soon reached, or that they remain only a short time in it, as those who are lodged in a house for pay. 7878     “Comme des gens qui sont logez en une maison par emprunt.” — Fr. The purport of the Psalmist’s discourse is, that God sees from heaven how miserable our condition would be, if he did not sustain us by his mercy.

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