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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Psalms Chapter 39


psa 39:0

Prayers of One Sorely Tried at the Sight of the Prosperity of the Ungodly

In Psa 38:14 the poet calls himself a dumb person, who opens not his mouth; this submissive, resigned keeping of silence he affirms of himself in the same words in Psa 39:3 also. This forms a prominent characteristic common to the two Psalms, which fully warranted their being placed together as a pair. There is, however, another Psalm, which is still more closely related to Psa 39:1-13, viz., Psa 62:1-12, which, together with Psa 4:1-8, has a similar historical background. The author, in his dignity, is threatened by those who from being false friends have become open enemies, and who revel in the enjoyment of illegitimately acquired power and possessions. From his own experience, in the midst of which he commits his safety and his honour to God, he derives the general warnings, that to trust in riches is deceptive, and that power belongs alone to God the Avenger - two doctrines, in support of which the issue of the affair with Absalom was a forcible example. Thus it is with Psa 62:1-12, and in like manner Psa 39:1-13 also. Both Psalms bear the name of Jeduthun side by side with the name of David at their head; both describe the nothingness of everything human in the same language; both delight more than other Psalms in the use of the assuring, confident אך; both have סלה twice; both coincide in some points with the Book of Job; the form of both Psalms, however, is so polished, transparent, and classic, that criticism is not authorized in assigning to this pair of Psalms any particular poet other than David. The reason of the redacteur not placing Psa 62:1-12 immediately after Psa 39:1-13 is to be found in the fact that Psa 62:1-12 is an Elohim-Psalm, which could not stand in the midst of Jahve-Psalms.

To the inscribed למנצּח, לידיתוּן is added in this instance. The name is also written thus in Psa 77:1; Ch1 16:38; Neh 11:17, and always with the Kerמ ידוּתוּן, which, after the analogy of זבוּלוּן, is the more easily pronouncible pointing (Psa 62:1). It is an offshoot of the form ידוּת or ידית; cf. שׁבוּת and שׁבית, חפשׁוּת and חפשׁית. It is the name of one of David's three choir-masters or precentors - the third in conjunction with Asaph and Heman, Ch1 16:41., Psa 25:1., Ch2 5:12; Ch2 35:15, and is, without doubt, the same person as איתן, 1 Chr. 15, a name which is changed into ידותון after the arrangement in Gibeon, 1 Chr. 16. Consequently side by side with למנצח, לידותון will be the name of the מנצח himself, i.e., the name of the person to whom the song was handed over to be set to music. The fact that in two inscriptions (Psa 62:1; Psa 77:1) we read על instead of the ל of לידיתון, does not militate against this. By ל Jeduthun is denoted as the person to whom the song was handed over for performance; and by על, as the person to whom the performance was assigned. The rendering: "to the director of the Jeduthunites," adopted by Hitzig, is possible regarding the ידותון as used as a generic name like אהרן in Ch1 12:27; Ch1 27:17; but the customary use of the ל in inscriptions is against it.

The Psalm consists of four stanzas without any strophic symmetry. The first three are of only approximately the same compass, and the final smaller stanza has designedly the character of an epilogue.

Psalms 39:1

psa 39:1

(Heb.: 39:2-4) The poet relates how he has resolved to bear his own affliction silently in the face of the prosperity of the ungodly, but that his smart was so overpowering that he was compelled involuntarily to break his silence by loud complaint. The resolve follows the introductory אמרתּי in cohortatives. He meant to take heed to his ways, i.e., his manner of thought and action, in all their extent, lest he should sin with his tongue, viz., by any murmuring complaint concerning his own misfortune, when he saw the prosperity of the ungodly. He was resolved to keep (i.e., cause invariably to press) a bridling (cf. on the form, Gen 30:37), or a bridle (capistrum), upon his mouth, so long as he should see the ungodly continuing and sinning in the fulness of his strength, instead of his speedy ruin which one ought to expect. Then he was struck dumb דּוּמיּה, in silence, i.e., as in Psa 62:2, cf. Lam 3:26, in resigned submission, he was silent מטּוב, turned away from (vid., Psa 28:1; Sa1 7:8, and frequently) prosperity, i.e., from that in which he saw the evil-doer rejoicing; he sought to silence for ever the perplexing contradiction between this prosperity and the righteousness of God. But this self-imposed silence gave intensity to the repressed pain, and this was thereby נעכּר, stirred up, excited, aroused; the inward heat became, in consequence of restrained complaint, all the more intense (Jer 20:9): "and while I was musing a fire was kindled," i.e., the thoughts and emotions rubbing against one another produced a blazing fire, viz., of irrepressible vexation, and the end of it was: "I spake with my tongue," unable any longer to keep in my pain. What now follows is not what was said by the poet when in this condition. On the contrary, he turns away from his purpose, which has been proved to be impracticable, to God Himself with the prayer that He would teach him calm submission.

Psalms 39:4

psa 39:4

(Heb.: 39:5-7) He prays God to set the transitoriness of earthly life clearly before his eyes (cf. Psa 90:12); for if life is only a few spans long, then even his suffering and the prosperity of the ungodly will last only a short time. Oh that God would then grant him to know his end (Job 6:11), i.e., the end of his life, which is at the same time the end of his affliction, and the measure of his days, how it is with this (מה, interrog. extenuantis, as in Psa 8:5), in order that he may become fully conscious of his own frailty! Hupfeld corrects the text to אני מה־חלד, after the analogy of Psa 89:48, because חדל cannot signify "frail." But חדל signifies that which leaves off and ceases, and consequently in this connection, finite and transitory or frail. מה, quam, in connection with an adjective, as in Psa 8:2; Psa 31:20; Psa 36:8; Psa 66:3; Psa 133:1. By הן (the customary form of introducing the propositio minor, Lev 10:18; Lev 25:20) the preceding petition is supported. God has, indeed, made the days, i.e., the lifetime, of a man טפחות, handbreadths, i.e., He has allotted to it only the short extension of a few handbreadths (cf. ימים, a few days, e.g., Isa 65:20), of which nine make a yard (cf. πήχυιος χρόνος in Mimnermus, and Sa1 20:3); the duration of human life (on חלד vid., Psa 17:14) is as a vanishing nothing before God the eternal One. The particle אך is originally affirmative, and starting from that sense becomes restrictive; just as רק is originally restrictive and then affirmative. Sometimes also, as is commonly the case with אכן, the affirmative signification passes over into the adversative (cf. verum, verum enim vero). In our passage, agreeably to the restrictive sense, it is to be explained thus: nothing but mere nothingness (cf. Psa 45:14; Jam 1:2) is every man נצּב, standing firmly, i.e., though he stand never so firmly, though he be never so stedfast (Zac 11:16). Here the music rises to tones of bitter lament, and the song continues in Psa 39:7 with the same theme. צלם, belonging to the same root as צל, signifies a shadow-outline, an image; the בּ is, as in Psa 35:2, Beth essentiae: he walks about consisting only of an unsubstantial shadow. Only הבל, breath-like, or after the manner of breath (Psa 144:4), from empty, vain motives and with vain results, do they make a disturbance (pausal fut. energicum, as in Psa 36:8); and he who restlessly and noisily exerts himself knows not who will suddenly snatch together, i.e., take altogether greedily to himself, the many things that he heaps up (צבר, as in Job 27:16); cf. Isa 33:4, and on - ām = αὐτά, Lev 15:10 (in connection with which אלה הדברים, cf. Isa 42:16, is in the mind of the speaker).

Psalms 39:7

psa 39:7

(Heb.: 39:8-12) It is customary to begin a distinct turning-point of a discourse with ועתּה: and now, i.e., in connection with this nothingness of vanity of a life which is so full of suffering and unrest, what am I to hope, quid sperem (concerning the perfect, vid., on Psa 11:3)? The answer to this question which he himself throws out is, that Jahve is the goal of his waiting or hoping. It might appear strange that the poet is willing to make the brevity of human life a reason for being calm, and a ground of comfort. But here we have the explanation. Although not expressly assured of a future life of blessedness, his faith, even in the midst of death, lays hold on Jahve as the Living One and as the God of the living. It is just this which is so heroic in the Old Testament faith, that in the midst of the riddles of the present, and in the face of the future which is lost in dismal night, it casts itself unreservedly into the arms of God. While, however, sin is the root of all evil, the poet prays in Psa 39:9 before all else, that God would remove from him all the transgressions by which he has fully incurred his affliction; and while, given over to the consequences of his sin, he would become, not only to his own dishonour but also to the dishonour of God, a derision to the unbelieving, he prays in Psa 39:9 that God would not permit it to come to this. כּל, Psa 39:9, has Mercha, and is consequently, as in Psa 35:10, to be read with (not ŏ), since an accent can never be placed by Kametz chatûph. Concerning נבל, Psa 39:9, see on Psa 14:1. As to the rest he is silent and calm; for God is the author, viz., of his affliction (עשׂה, used just as absolutely as in Ps 22:32; Psa 37:5; 52:11, Lam 1:21). Without ceasing still to regard intently the prosperity of the ungodly, he recognises the hand of God in his affliction, and knows that he has not merited anything better. But it is permitted to him to pray that God would suffer mercy to take the place of right. נגעך is the name he gives to his affliction, as in Psa 38:12, as being a stroke (blow) of divine wrath; תּגרת ידך, as a quarrel into which God's hand has fallen with him; and by אני, with the almighty (punishing) hand of God, he contrasts himself the feeble one, to whom, if the present state of things continues, ruin is certain. In Psa 39:12 he puts his own personal experience into the form of a general maxim: when with rebukes (תּוכחות from תּוכחת, collateral form with תּוכחה, תּוכחות) Thou chastenest a man on account of iniquity (perf. conditionale), Thou makest his pleasantness (Isa 53:3), i.e., his bodily beauty (Job 33:21), to melt away, moulder away (ותּמס, fut. apoc. from המסה to cause to melt, Psa 6:7), like the moth (Hos 5:12), so that it falls away, as a moth-eaten garment falls into rags. Thus do all men become mere nothing. They are sinful and perishing. The thought expressed in Psa 39:6 is here repeated as a refrain. The music again strikes in here, as there.

Psalms 39:12

psa 39:12

(Heb.: 39:13-14) Finally, the poet renews the prayer for an alleviation of his sufferings, basing it upon the shortness of the earthly pilgrimage. The urgent שׁמעה is here fuller toned, being שׁמעה.

(Note: So Heidenheim and Baer, following Abulwald, Efodi, and Mose ha-Nakdan. The Masoretic observation לית קמץ חטף, "only here with Kametzchateph," is found appended in codices. This Chatephkametz is euphonic, as in לקחה, Gen 2:23, and in many other instances that are obliterated in our editions, vid., Abulwald, חרקמה ס, p. 198, where even מטּהרו = מטּהרו, Psa 89:45, is cited among these examples (Ges. 10, 2 rem.).)

Side by side with the language of prayer, tears even appear here as prayer that is intelligible to God; for when the gates of prayer seem to be closed, the gates of tears still remain unclosed (שׁערי דמעות לא ננעלו), B. Berachoth 32b. As a reason for his being heard, David appeals to the instability and finite character of this earthly life in language which we also hear from his own lips in Ch1 29:15. גּר is the stranger who travels about and sojourns as a guest in a country that is not his native land; תּושׁב is a sojourner, or one enjoying the protection of the laws, who, without possessing any hereditary title, has settled down there, and to whom a settlement is allotted by sufferance. The earth is God's; that which may be said of the Holy Land (Lev 25:23) may be said of the whole earth; man has no right upon it, he only remains there so long as God permits him. כּכל־אבותי glances back even to the patriarchs (Gen 47:9, cf. Psa 23:4). Israel is, it is true, at the present time in possession of a fixed dwelling-place, but only as the gift of his God, and for each individual it is only during his life, which is but a handbreadth long. May Jahve, then - so David prays - turn away His look of wrath from him, in order that he may shine forth, become cheerful or clear up, before he goes hence and it is too late. השׁע is imper. apoc. Hiph. for השׁעה (in the signification of Kal), and ought, according to the form הרב, properly to be השׁע; it is, however, pointed just like the imper. Hiph. of שׁעע in Isa 6:10, without any necessity for explaining it as meaning obline (oculos tuos) = connive (Abulwald), which would be an expression unworthy of God. It is on the contrary to be rendered: look away from me; on which compare Job 7:19; Job 14:6; on אבליגה cf. ib. Job 10:20; Job 9:27; on אלך בּטרם, ib.Job 10:21; on ואיננּי, ib. Job 7:8, Job 7:21. The close of the Psalm, consequently, is re-echoed in many ways in the Book of Job The Book of Job is occupied with the same riddle as that with which this Psalm is occupied. But in the solution of it, it advances a step further. David does not know how to disassociate in his mind sin and suffering, and wrath and suffering. The Book of Job, on the contrary, thinks of suffering and love together; and in the truth that suffering also, even though it be unto death, must serve the highest interests of those who love God, it possesses a satisfactory solution.

Next: Psalms Chapter 40