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.’
So I remained utterly silent,
not even saying anything good.
But my anguish increased;
my heart grew hot within me.
While I meditated, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:
‘Show me, Lord, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting my life is.
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.
‘Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom;
in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth
without knowing whose it will finally be.
‘But now, Lord, what do I look for?
My hope is in you.
Save me from all my transgressions;
do not make me the scorn of fools.
I was silent; I would not open my mouth,
for you are the one who has done this.
Remove your scourge from me;
I am overcome by the blow of your hand.
When you rebuke and discipline anyone for their sin,
you consume their wealth like a moth –
surely everyone is but a breath.
‘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
Traditionally the book of Ecclesiastes is attributed to David’s son, King Solomon. It’s a good read, but a bundle of laughs it is not. Reading this Psalm makes you think, ‘like father, like son.’
Like Solomon, David is also conscious of the brevity of life (vv. 5, 6) and with it the seeming folly of our brief existence. David is not alone in his existential angst: Shakespeare’s Macbeth lamented that life ‘is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
The Apostle Paul says we see through a glass darkly. That was even more so for David living in the days before Christ. Such melancholy thoughts can still trouble us today, we can be increasingly aware of our own mortality – not just as we get older, but illness, accidents, or the death of someone before their time all remind us how fragile our lives really are.
We can exercise, eat healthily, not drink excessively and not drive like an idiot, but the truth is we have very little control over when we reach our expiry date. The central part of the Psalm asks for God’s help to face up to that lack of control we have over our lives. What has brought on those gloomy thoughts is unclear but it may well be a similar situation to that in the previous Psalm where David was suffering the consequences of his own sin. Presumably that also lies behind David’s initial reluctance to voice what he feels (vv. 1–3) – people don’t tend to be over-sympathetic when they know that we are suffering as a result of our own actions.
Keeping our doubts and our morose thoughts to our self is not a good idea. It’s not wise to burden everyone and anyone, but it is good if we can find people who will listen to us and be with us in our times of need. As Christians we are not called to self-reliance but to support one another and to ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (Galatians 6:2).
Not just the book of Psalms, but the Bible as a whole is brutally realistic about life. Questions are not censored but are asked of God. We may not have all the answers this side of eternity, but the good news is that we can share troubled thoughts with a God who is with us and who understands all that we are going through because he has experienced it himself ( Hebrews 2:14–18; 4:15).