Psalm 39
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
Jeduthun, whose name stands at the head of Psalm 39, 62, and 77, was one of a musical family entrusted with the conduct of the musical service in the time of David. The psalms having his name at the head were probably intended to be sung by his choir. It would thus seem that in the Hebrew service of sacred song the prayers and plaints of the individual believer were included, when set to music. If so, the "service of song in the house of the Lord" covered a much wider ground than is usually supposed, and was made to include not only direct address to God, whether of prayer or praise, but also the rehearsal of personal experience; and thus a holy fellowship of song would arise, anticipating long ages before, the expression of the apostle, "Speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs;" only it should be noted that these would be musical utterances of an actual experience going on then and there. It does not follow that the like utterances would be suitable for the service of song now. Discretion and discrimination are needed in the use thereof. This is evidently an individual psalm; it is neither national, prophetic, nor Messianic; it is one of those which reflect the care and anxiety with which David was bowed down at one crisis of his life, though to which of his numerous crises it refers it is not easy to decide, Nor, indeed, is that of moment. It will profit us more to note the course taken by the psalmist at a time of crushing sorrow, and then to see how far the course which he took may be a guide for us under like circumstances.

I. LET US NOTE THE COURSE ADOPTED BY THE PSALMIST AT A TIME OF CRUSHING SORROW. There is a somewhat wide divergence among expositors in their estimate of this psalm, and of the mental revelations therein contained. But we feel bound to look at the psalmist's words tenderly rather than harshly, knowing as we do, how often, in agonies of soul, the best men may utter words which would not escape them in their calmer hours (cf. Psalm 116:11).

1. Here is a case of sore affliction. "Thy stroke" (ver. 10); "the blow of thine hand" (ver. 10). Whatever the sorrow may have been to which reference is made, it is regarded as coming directly from God. "Thou didst it" (ver. 9). It was so heavy that David was "consumed" thereby (ver. 10). And it was looked on by him as a chastisement for his transgressions (cf. vers. 8, 11).

2. It is, under such circumstances, very hard to be absolutely still. So the first verse implies. There is little indication that the disturbing trouble arose (as some suggest) from seeing the prosperity of the wicked; but evidently there is some distinctively personal trouble, probably sickness and weakness, which, with all the public demands made upon him, weighs heavily upon his soul, and he is tempted to complain and to seek sympathy from without. But:

3. He is in the midst of uncongenial souls. (Ver. 1.) "The wicked is before me." Note: Earthly men are poor companions in the distresses of spiritual men. To the natural man the sorrows of a spiritual man would be altogether unintelligible. And supposing that the troubles here referred to arose about the time of and in connection with Absalom's rebellion, the majority of those round about David would be men whose thoughts and aims moved entirely in the military or political sphere. Hence:

4. Here is a wise resolve. (Vers. 1, 2.) He will say nothing. There would be many reasons for this.

(1) No one would enter into his feelings.

(2) What he said would be misunderstood.

(3) He would consequently be misrepresented.

(4) The more he said, the worse matters would be. And

(5) if he told men what he thought and felt, he would be very likely to say something which he would afterwards regret. That I sin not with my tongue. Hence silence is his wisest course.

5. But suppressed grief consumes like a fire. (Ver. 3.) There is nothing which so wears out the soul, nor which so burns within, as woe to which no vent can be given; so David found it, and consequently:

6. The silence is broken. "Then spake I with my tongue." But, in breaking the silence, he speaks not to man, but to God. After the word "tongue," the Authorized Version has a comma, but the Revised Version a colon, indicating that what he said is about to follow. What an infinite mercy that when we cannot say a word to man, through fear of being misunderstood, we can speak to God, and tell him exactly what we feel, as we feel it, knowing that then we touch a heart infinitely tender, and address an intelligence infinitely wise!

7. In speaking to God he moans and groans. (Vers. 4-6.) Does David speak petulantly? Is he asking God to let him know how long he has to endure all this? Is he adducing the frailty and nothingness of man as an argument against his being allowed to suffer thus? So many think, and some, as Calvin, are very hard on David - very. But why? There is a vast difference between the fretfulness of an overburdened man and the waywardness of a rebellious man. And he who knows our frame, takes the difference into account. When Elijah pettishly said, "Now, O Lord, take away my life I" God did not rebuke him; he sent an angel to him, and said, "Arise and eat; the journey is too great for thee."

8. He declares that his expectation of relief is in God alone. (Ver. 7.) Just so. These are not the words of a rebellious, but of a trusting one. And from that point of view the whole psalm must be regarded (cf. Psalm 62.).

9. He will not utter a word of complaint. (Ver. 9.) Render, "I am dumb; I open not my mouth, because thou hast done it" ('Variorum Bible'). "Thyself hast done it." On this fact faith fastens; and when this is the case, not a word of murmuring will escape the lips. The cry of a trusting soul is, "Here am I; let him do with me as seemeth him good" (2 Samuel 15:26).

10. Yet he supplicates. (Vers. 8, 10, 13.) First, he desires deliverance from sin, then a mitigation of the suffering; such is the order, and the order which only a saint would name. The last verse is, in our versions, obscure. The word "spare ' should not be read in the sense intended when we say, "If I am spared," etc., but in the sense of "O spare me this sorrow!" It is a repetition of ver. 10, "Remove this stroke away from me." It asks not for prolongation of life, but for mitigation of pain. The Revised Version margin gives a more correct translation of the phrase, "that I may recover strength;" rather, "that I may brighten up." No conclusion can be drawn from the end of the thirteenth verse, as to the psalmist's view of another life. The Prayer-book Version, "and be no more seen," gives the sense.

11. The supplication is accompanied by a tender plea. (Ver. 12.) "I am a stranger with thee, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were." Archbishop Leighton beautifully expresses the force of this plea, "In this world, wherein thou hast appointed me to sojourn a few days, and I betake myself to thy protection in this strange country. I seek shelter under the shadow of thy wings, therefore have compassion upon me."


1. In some respects we may well imitate him. In restraining our words before man, and in telling all our cares and woes to God exactly as we feel them, and in such a way as will best relieve an overburdened heart.

2. In other respects we should go far beyond him. Believers ought not to confine themselves now within the limits of such a prayer as this; they should always transcend it. We know more of God's Fatherly love; we know of our great High Priest; we know the fellowship of the Spirit; we know of "the unsearchable riches of Christ;" and hence our prayers should rise above those of David as much as the prayer of Ephesians 3:14-21 is above the level of this psalm. Note: The best preventive of sins of the tongue is the fuller and more frequent outpouring of the heart to God. - C.

It is toll of Archbishop Leighton that a friend once met him by the way, and said, "You have been to hear a sermon?" His answer was, "I met a sermon - a sermon de facto, for I met a corpse, and rightly and profitably are the funeral rites performed, when the living lay it to heart." This psalm, so often read at deaths and funerals, suggests some precious lessons for such solemn occasions.

1. A funeral is a time for silence. There is much to think of and ponder in our hearts. We have need to put a restraint upon ourselves, lest we speak rashly or fall into idle and unprofitable talk. But silence cannot always be maintained. As we muse the fire burns, and we are constrained to speak. Let us take care that we speak wisely, with feeling and solemnity, as in the presence of God.

2. A funeral is a time when we are taught the vanity of life. One thing forced on our attention is that life has an end. We know it had a beginning, but we are slow to recognize, at least as to ourselves, that it must have an end. "All men think all men mortal but themselves."

3. Another thing brought to our mind is that life is frail and soon passes away. Measured by human standards, it is but a very little thing - a "hand-breadth;" looked at in the light of God and of eternity, it dwindles away to "nothing." And yet of what stupendous importance to us is this "nothing"!

4. Another thing is that life at the best is full of sorrow and disappointment (ver. 6). Sophocles, one of the wisest of the heathen, said, "I see that we who live are nothing else but images and vain shadows." The great orator, Burke, said, "What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!" Shakespeare also speaks to the same effect -

"Out, out, brief candle,
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more." What, then, comes of all our labours, all our cares and disquietudes, all our hopes and ambitions? Is there no good that abideth? Is there no wealth laid up which will endure? Must we say, "All is vanity"? Yes, if there were no God, no future world. But let us take heart; let us turn from the thoughts that vex and disquiet our souls, and that leave us without hope, to the Lord our God and to Jesus Christ who has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. When we mourn the loss of friends, or when we take part with others in love and sympathy in the last rites of the dead, let us renew our faith in God. "My hope is in thee." Thus we shall gain strength to bear our trials meekly, and to rise, even at the grave's mouth, to the bright vision of immortality. Let us also cry to God for deliverance from sin (vers. 8-11), from the burden of its guilt, from the slavery of its power, from the miserable reproaches which it brings upon us from without and from within, from the base murmurings and discontent which it breeds, and from the cruel forebodings of evil with which it darkens our lives. God alone can bring us help and comfort in such straits. Finally, let us pray earnestly for spiritual invigoration, that we may not fail in our duty to God and to our brethren. We have not only to sympathize, but to act. The best way we can honour the dead is to work for the living. Every breach made in our ranks is a call to close up and to quit ourselves like men, as good soldiers of Jesus Christ. Every bereavement is a reminder to us that we too are but "strangers" and sojourners here, and that soon God will call us home. If some father in the Church is gathered as a "shock of corn in his season," let us give thanks, and take courage to follow in his steps; if some young man of rare gifts and promise, and very dear to our hearts, is cut down early, let us be assured that it is because his Master has need of him for service in nobler fields, and let us strive to fill up what he may have left undone of good work for God; if some child, the light of our eyes, has been taken from us, let us believe that it is to enter a higher school than ours, where the holy angels are the teachers, and where progress is quick and sure under the radiant smiles of God. - W.F.

The old question of the retributive justice of God lies at the bottom of this psalm. Why should the righteous be afflicted and the wicked prosper, since the sins of the latter are greater and more numerous than those of the former? But he has determined that he will not discuss his difficulties before the wicked, lest he should seem to complain of the Divine ways. But when he can no longer restrain speech, this is what he says, in which we have two main divisions of thought.


1. He wishes to know when his sufferings shall come to an end - in death. (Ver. 4.)

2. He is deeply impressed that human life should be so brief and fleeting. (Ver. 5.) Man is but a breath, so that it seems scarcely worth while to live.

3. The restless exertions which men make here are to no purpose. (Ver. 6.) Men are but fleeting shadows, and all that they seek for is evanescent; they are troubled in vain.

II. THE AFFLICTED MAN'S HOPE. (Vers. 7-13.) In God.

1. The good man is waiting for God. (Ver. 7.) To unfold his purpose toward him more fully.

2. To be delivered from all his transgressions. (Ver. 8.)

3. His hope in God teaches him self-restraint. (Ver. 9.)

4. Teaches him to pray for the Divine mercy to remove his sufferings. (Ver. 10.)

5. He pleads for mercy because of the brevity of his life. (Ver. 12.) A stranger, "one who is but a passing guest;" a sojourner, "one who settles for a time in a country, but is not a native of it."

6. And because it is near its close, (Ver. 13.) I shall soon be no more. Help before it is too late for help. Such faith in God, with such views of this life as being all, is something marvellous, when compared with our faith in him, who believe in an immortal life. - S.

Spare me! This prayer is common. From many a bed of sickness, and in the time of weakness and of fear, the mournful cry goes up to heaven. Often there is a gracious answer (Isaiah 38:2, 5). But the mercy of God is not always remembered, nor the vows made in trouble performed. The words suggest -


1. It puts an end to our present mode of being. "Be no more." Yet a little while, and what a change! You will see no more with those eyes; your heart will cease to beat; and your spirit, disengaged from the flesh, will wing its flight to other worlds. What your experiences will be at the awful moment of dissolution, and afterwards, none can tell. All is mystery.

2. It separates us from all we hold dear on earth. "Go hence." This world is dear to us. Here we were born, and have lived; here our minds have been formed and powers developed; here we have tasted the delights of knowledge, of friendship, and of personal achievement; here, in a word, has been our home. To separate from all, to have no more anything to do with what goes on under the sun, is a distressing thing. No wonder if we recoil with pain.

3. It settles for ever our spiritual destiny. "Before I go hence." Life is associated with hope, death with doom. So long as a man lives, there is a possibility of amendment. Errors may be corrected, follies retrieved, evil courses abandoned; but let death come, and it will end all this. Any event that affects our future is important, but this is the most important of all.

"Great God, on what a slender thread
Hang everlasting things!
The eternal states of all the dead
Upon life's feeble strings!" No wonder, if in thought of these things, we should cry, "Spare me!"

II. THAT GOOD MEN SOMETIMES SHRINK FROM DEATH UNDER A SENSE OF WEAKNESS AND UNPREPAREDNESS. Some are prepared to die. But such a state of mind is rare and inconstant. The best of men have their times of misgiving, as well as their moments of exulting faith. Doubting Castle and the Valley of the Shadow of Death lie in the pilgrim's path, as well as the Delectable Mountains. Even the sweet Land of Beulah is bounded by the cold flood and the swellings of Jordan. The moods of the soul vary. He who says to-day, "I will fear no evil" (Psalm 23:4), may cry to-morrow from the dust, "Oh, spare me!" Paul had a large experience. He had been "in deaths oft" (2 Corinthians 11:23); his heart had been well-nigh broken by separations (Acts 20:37); his whole soul shuddered at the thought of being a "castaway" (1 Corinthians 9:27); but what chiefly moved him in the thought of death was sin. "The sting of death is sin." And this has been the feeling of many, and therefore the cry is not merely," Spare me!" but, "that I may recover strength."

1. Strength is needed to face death with fortitude.

2. Strength is lost through sin. There is the action of the body (ver. 11) and of the affections (ver. 12), but worst of all is sin. It clouds the mind, burdens the conscience, racks the heart, darkens the future (Psalm 31:10).

3. Strength may be recovered if sought in due time. "Before I go hence." To everything there is a season. Hence the urgency of the prayer. Life should be used for invigoration of the soul. To be ready we must have our lamps burning. We all receive warnings Perhaps we have been "spared" already. Therefore take heed. It is as we can say, "To me to live is Christ," that we can add, "To die is gain."

III. THAT IN THE SOUL'S DARKEST HOUR GOD IS A SUFFICIENT REFUGE. "Spare me!" Why? Is it that you are young, that you have bright hopes, that you are concerned about those near and dear to you, that you have the consciousness of powers unused, or that you desire to do more for God than you have yet done? The great thing is - Are you seeking this high boon for yourself or for God? If you put your hand in the fire, or cast yourself before the railway car, what boots it to cry, "Spare me"? We can only be spared, in the truest and best sense, by being brought nearer God. God is the Lord of life (1 Samuel 2:6; Revelation 1:18); God is very pitiful and of tender mercy (Exodus 33:11); God is mighty to save. Let us, therefore, trust in him. "Spare me!" - if not the body, the soul; if not to longer life on earth, to eternal life with thee in heaven. - W.F.

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