Biblical Research Monthly
by Dr. D.L. Cooper
June 1949

PSALM 39 falls into four natural divisions: a good resolve (vss. 1 and 2); a petition for wisdom to evaluate life properly (vss. 3-5); life on parade (vss. 6-11); and a prayer for help in the closing days of life (vss. 12,13).

We do not know at what time or under what conditions David wrote this psalm; but from the general trend of the thought, one comes to the conclusion that it was in the closing scenes of his life; for he seems to be looking out into the great beyond.

A Good Resolve (vss. 1,2)

    1 I said, I will take heed to my ways,
    That I sin not with my tongue:
    I will keep my mouth with a bridle,
    While the wicked is before me.

    2 I was dumb with silence, I held my
    peace, even from good;
    And my sorrow was stirred."

David's resolution to take heed to his ways or manner of life so that he might not sin against God with his tongue is indeed most highly commendable. The Apostle James spoke of the tongue as being an unruly member, one that can set on fire the entire course of nature. A person by an improper word spoken under certain conditions can stir the emotions and feelings of another until he does something that is desperate. In this way he sets on fire the whole course of nature--in the other person. Often when this is done, tragic results follow. David realized the propensities of wicked, evil men; therefore he declared that he would put a bridle on his mouth when he was in their presence. This attitude was indeed wise, but one should not only bridle his tongue in the presence of wicked people, but also in the presence of all men. Words are arrows, often poisonous, that frequently pierce to the very heart and soul of another--even when the speaker is unaware of saying the wrong thing.

According to verse 2 David declared that he had been dumb with silence and had held his peace from good; nevertheless his sorrow had been stirred. From these statements we gather that there was some case of injustice that had come before the writer's mind. He sensed the unrighteousness of the situation and was stirred even to the point of interfering with matters that did not concern him. He however was able to hold himself with a firm reserve and to remain silent. Of course, he could not do this thing simply by sheer will power. The secret of his self-control on this occasion was the indwelling of the Spirit of God, who enabled him to act wisely and discreetly. Oh that each one of us would thus throw himself upon the Lord and look to Him for strength and for deliverance.

Petition for Wisdom to Evaluate Life Properly (vss. 3-5)

    "3 My heart was hot within me;
    While I was musing the fire burned;
    Then spake I with my tongue:

    4 Jehovah, make me to know mine end,
    And the measure of my days, what it is;
    Let me know how frail I am.

    5 Behold, thou hast made my days as handbreadths;
    And my life-time is as nothing before thee:
    Surely every man at his best estate is altogether vanity."

King David's heart was impressed and moved to meditation by the injustice which he had seen done. Though he kept silent on the point and did not enter into the controversy, his feelings were stirred to the very depths. As a matter of fact, he became indignant and could not dismiss the situation from his mind: "My heart was hot within me."

That evening as he sat in his room, his anger and indignation were at white heat. He became oblivious to all things as he sat before the burning fire and mused on this occurrence that was weighing so very heavily upon his heart. While in deep meditation and thought concerning this matter he was led to pray. Doubtless the Holy Spirit was speaking to his heart and inspired the prayer which he uttered. Every petition that comes from a sincere heart, and that is directed to God in faith, is the result of the Holy Spirit's working in the heart of the believer. Manifestly David was praying in the Spirit on this occasion.

He began his petition by asking the Lord to enable him to see his end and to realize the full measure of days that had been appointed for him. As we consider this petition, we must keep in mind the statement that is found in Psalm 139:16: "Thine eyes did see mine unformed substance; And in thy book they were all written
even the days that were ordained for me, When as yet there was none of them." Our Lord, in whom we live and move and have our being, has fixed the days of our earthly pilgrimage. Though we are free moral agents, God in His infinite wisdom, mercy, and love has made out the program for our lives and has set the date when we shall be called from this life to give an account of the deeds done in the body. In making out the schedule for every life, the Lord allows everyone to make his own choices but weaves every decision that each one makes into a fabric of providential circumstances. Man will therefore work out during his lifetime the plan that God has for him to follow; and when he is called hence, he shall have spent the last day that was appointed to him upon earth.

Realizing the correctness and truthfulness of these statements, David prayed that the Lord might open his eyes and enable him to know the full measure of his days that were yet unspent. Whether or not the prayer was answered and God revealed to him the exact number of years, months, and days that he would yet live, is not known. That however is the thing for which he made his request and petition.

None of us knows how long we shall be permitted to remain in this life. Of course we know that the limit of the human life has been cut down to three score years and ten, or if by reason of health and strength to fourscore years. The nearer any one approaches his eightieth birthday, the fewer years, he realizes, he has to live. There are however some who, for good and sufficient reasons known to the Almighty, exceed the limit of eighty years. But God is righteous and just in permitting them this excess of time.

Moreover, David prayed that God would enable him to see how very frail he was. Each of us should realize that and pray to the same end. Man has no strength within himself. His sufficiency is of God. Paul declared that he through Christ could do all things. With this statement there is the implication that without Him one can do nothing. Everything that we possess has been given to us by the Lord. Whatever talents or capabilities the Lord has conferred upon us have been given to us in order that we might serve in a more efficient capacity our day and generation.

Whenever we realize that we are frail and weak, we can come to the Lord and pray as the Apostle Paul did and receive strength; for it is in weakness that the power of Christ in one's behalf is made possible. This statement (II Cor. 12:9) means that--whenever a person realizes that he of himself has no strength or power and calls upon God and Christ for the needed strength--he receives it and can thus live for God.

According to verse 6 of our passage one's life, though it be a long one, is but as a handbreadth and as nothing before God. What are seventy or eighty years in comparison with His eternal existence? It is nothing. Hence a man at his best estate is altogether vanity, or a mere breath.

Life on Parade (vss. 6-11)

    "6 Surely every man walketh in a vain show;
    Surely they are disquieted in vain:
    He heapeth up riches, and knoweth not who shall gather them.

    7 And now Lord, what wait I for?
    My hope is in thee.

    8 Deliver me from all my transgressions:
    Make me not the reproach of the foolish.

    9 I was dumb, I opened not my mouth;
    Because Thou didst it.

    10 Remove thy stroke away from me:
    I am consumed by the blow of thy hand.

    11 When thou with rebukes dost correct man for iniquity,
    Thou makest his beauty to consume away like a moth:
    Surely every man is vanity."

Writers and poets have compared the human family to a stream that is passing through a valley or a plain. Sometimes they think of the people of earth as a procession that is passing some particular point. This imagery seems to be that which is echoed m verse 6: "Surely every man walketh in a vain show," in a parade of vanity and weakness. Regardless of man's position, his influence, prestige, and power he is simply one in a parade crossing the arena of life, and passing out into the eternity beyond. No one brought anything into this life and neither shall anyone be able to take anything out of it.

Life in many instances is like an empty show. As in a parade men put their best foot forward and are very particular that they appear before spectators in the most favorable light. Thus the human family in its procession across the stage of life is putting the best foot forward and most frequently endeavors to please the people in order to cover up the grosser and baser traits of character. This thought we express by saying of another that he has a good front. In the presence of the general public such a person assumes an attitude and deports himself largely for the sake of reputation and for the sake of the praise and goodwill of men. But when a person sees the back of such a one, he is disillusioned, he sees a colossal amount of vanity and sham. There are some people who have such a good front that others have to associate with them a long time and to eat the proverbial barrel of salt with them before being able to see beneath the veneer of an assumed affability and to discover the real person. When that is done, the other one becomes disillusioned. With the psalmist he concludes that man is on parade in life, endeavoring to make the best impression possible upon his fellow-man.

In the latter part of verse 6 the writer declares that men heap up for themselves riches. At the same time they do not know who will benefit and profit thereby. Unfortunately this statement is all too frequently true today--even among Christians. They strive with their utmost ability and strength to hoard up wealth--only to lie down and die and leave it to others. They know not who will in the long run be the beneficiaries of that for which they have labored.

To His disciples the Lord Jesus gave the positive command that they should stop laying up their treasures upon earth, but that they should keep on laying them up in heaven. I have given the literal, grammatical rendering of the instructions found in Matthew 7:19,20.

Very frequently even Christians think of that which God has entrusted to them as if it were their own. This is a mistaken conception. God blesses people and places wealth and power in their hands in order that they might use them for the advancement of His cause among men. We are simply His stewards. As faithful stewards let us invest His resources wisely. On this point read Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 16:1-13; 19:11-27.

In verse 7 of Psalm 39 the prophet asks: "And now Lord, what wait I for? My hope is in thee." The Old Testament saints were looking for the Lord to appear upon earth and to establish His reign of righteousness. In Psalm 27:13 David declared that he would have fainted had he not believed to see the goodness of Jehovah in the land of the living. He therefore urged others to wait for Jehovah. This passage shows that they were expectantly awaiting the appearance of Jehovah in the land of the living. This Jehovah was none other than the Messiah. Such was the living expectation of the Old Testament saints. In Psalm 37 the inspired author kept urging his readers to wait for Jehovah when He will appear upon earth and establish His reign of righteousness. It may be this very special appearance of the Lord concerning which David was inquiring in Psalm 39:7. If it was not the Messiah's second advent for which he was praying, it was his waiting for the Lord to come and deliver him from some predicament in which he found himself.

From verses 8-11 it is quite evident that God had punished the psalmist for some evil of which he was guilty. He recognizes that he had committed iniquity and that he was guilty of transgressions. Moreover, he believed that God punishes His people for their sins. In this position he was correct. Moses warned Israel and urged them to realize that a man's sin will find him out. Man reaps what he sows. There is no such thing as one's doing wrong without receiving chastisement from God. The Lord deals with each according to his works.

It is in God that man lives, moves and has his being. Whatever strength or health or beauty a person may have, he has received that from the Lord. David, however, declared that when God rebukes or corrects a man for his iniquity, He (Jehovah) consumes his beauty, or his personal appearance. It is quite certain that David uttered this statement from actual experience.

David concluded this section of the psalm with the same thought with which he began it, namely, that man is in a procession, putting on his best appearance in order that he might appeal most strongly to his fellow-man. There is little recognition of God as men march along in the procession of life.

When anyone studies this section of the psalm, he comes to the conclusion that the principles which David laid down are true with reference to the bulk of humanity. There are of course notable, very notable, exceptions to this one rule: "Surely every man is vanity."

A Prayer for Help in the Closing Days of Life (vss. 12,13)

    "12 Hear my prayer, O Jehovah,
    and give ear unto my cry;
    Hold not thy peace at my tears:
    For I am a stranger with thee,
    A sojourner, as all my fathers were.

    13 Oh spare me, that I may recover strength,
    Before I go hence, and be no more."

In the first of these verses the psalmist prayed to God very earnestly and asked Him to give heed to his petition and to have respect to his tears. He realized that, like his progenitors, he was but a sojourner and a pilgrim in this world. The children of God today, according to the first Epistle of the Apostle Peter, are sojourners here. They are in a land not their own, but they are looking for that city which is to come, where they will dwell forever and ever with God and Christ.

The psalmist somehow realized that his life's work was not complete. At the same time he felt that he was insufficient for the task which lay before him and which he wished to complete to the glory of God, prior to his leaving this life. He therefore prayed that God would spare him and give him strength to recover in order that he might accomplish or complete his life's work "Before I go hence and be no more." By going hence and being no more, the writer was thinking of his leaving this life and making his descent into Sheol and not coming back into this life to continue work. The Old Testament saints upon death did go to Sheol where they remained until Christ won the victory on the cross and in spirit went and liberated those who had been incarcerated in Sheol, or Hades. When Jesus brought them forth and ascended to heaven, He took these with Him.

It should be the very earnest petition of everyone of us that God would enable us to realize the shortness of the time that we are permitted to stay here, and to realize how frail we are.

May the Lord enable us not to walk in the parade of life in a vain empty show. May He help us to see that life is something real. May He open our eyes to see that we are put here in this life for the definite, specific purpose of forwarding His cause among men, especially by the proclamation of the truth and by living for Him.

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