The Brevity and Vanity of Life
1 For the director.[b] For Jeduthun. A psalm of David.
2 I said, “I will be careful of my behavior
so as not to sin with my tongue.
I will keep a muzzle on my mouth[c]
whenever the wicked are in my presence.”
3 I kept completely silent
and refrained from speech,
but my distress only increased.
4 My heart[d] smoldered within me,
and, as I pondered, my mind was inflamed,
and my tongue began to speak:
5 [e]“O Lord, let me know my end
and the number of days left to me;
show me how fleeting my life is.
6 You have allotted me a short span of days;
my life is as nothing in your sight;
human existence is a mere breath. Selah
7 Humans are nothing but a passing shadow;
the riches they amass are a mere breath,
and they do not know who will enjoy them.[f]
8 “So now, O Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in you.
9 Deliver me from all my sins;
do not subject me to the taunts of fools.[g]
10 “I was silent and did not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.
11 Remove your scourge from me;
I am crushed by the blows of your hand.
12 You rebuke and punish people for their sins;
like a moth you consume all their desires;
human existence is a mere puff of wind. Selah
13 [h]“Hear my prayer, O Lord;
do not be deaf to my cry
or ignore my weeping.
For I am a wayfarer[i] before you,
a nomad like all my ancestors.
14 Turn your eyes away so that I may be glad
before I depart and am no more.”[j]
- Psalm 39:1 The psalmist is not a sage who reflects on existence but a man grappling with God. In the face of the blows that strike him, he realizes the total frailty of existence and even of life itself. He would like to cast out from his heart all intentions to rebel, but it is impossible for him to hold back his complaint any longer. A real faith in the resurrection is still absent and, apart from an intervention of God providing a new breath of life, everything seems a mockery. One thinks of the lucid reflections of Ecclesiastes 1:2.
This psalm reminds us that while doing our utmost to acquire and develop the eternal divine life in us, we must regard our bodily life as the highest good, the most precious natural talent entrusted to us by God for our vigilant concern and fruitful action. The heavenly Father himself watches over this life, assigning it food and drink (see Mt 6:25-34) and life itself (see Acts 17:25-28). Jesus himself watches over material life, looking after the hunger of the crowd (see Mt 15:32), curing the sick (Mt 4:23), and raising the dead (Mt 9:25). We must thus greatly value our life and seek to prolong it for the glory of God and our spiritual progress (see Phil 1:23-26). Christians too have this same feeling in times of great distress: without the Lord what value is there in life?
- Psalm 39:1 For the director: these words are thought to be a musical or liturgical notation. Jeduthun: he is believed to be one of the three men appointed choral directors by David (see 1 Chr 25:1). See note on Ps 89:1.
- Psalm 39:2 Muzzle on my mouth: to repress saying anything derogatory in the presence of the wicked.
- Psalm 39:4 Heart: see note on Ps 4:8.
- Psalm 39:5 The psalmist begs God to help him know and accept the brevity and vanity of life, a brevity and vanity stressed in other psalms (see Pss 62:10; 73:19; 90:10-11) and in Isa 40:17.
- Psalm 39:7 This passage is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes.
- Psalm 39:9 Fools: see notes on Ps 14:2, 3.
- Psalm 39:13 The psalmist—a sinner and overcome with adversity—feels like a stranger in God’s presence and in his world. Still, he has no doubts about belonging to the covenant community. So he begs the Lord to remove his judgment from him so that the psalmist may know joy once again.
- Psalm 39:13 Wayfarer: that is, one who is only a temporary sojourner on earth (see Lev 25:23: “The land belongs to me and you are my aliens and tenants”; see also Ps 119:19; 1 Pet 2:11).
- Psalm 39:14 Am no more: in the time of the psalmist there apparently was no idea of any resurrection, even a mitigated one in the netherworld (see note on Ps 6:6).