Psalm 39

For my weekly quiet time this week, I will blog about Psalm 39.

The Psalmist does not want to sin with his tongue, which perhaps means that he is afraid that he will open his mouth and curse God, or that his complaints about God will cause his enemies to mock God and the Psalmist’s faith.  But the Psalmist can keep silent no longer, and some take this to imply that the Psalmist does not want to complain about God to other people, but that he should feel free to do so before God.  And yet, v 9 seems to indicate that the Psalmist regards silence before the God who is afflicting him as the wisest course, which may imply that the Psalmist hopes that passive acceptance of his suffering will appease God.  But the Psalmist has a difficult time keeping quiet.

After the Psalmist says in v 3 that he cannot keep silent, one might expect him to complain about his plight or the injustices of life.  Instead, he launches into a discussion about how life is short and the accumulation of wealth is vain, for who knows who will gather that wealth after the one owning it has died? The Psalmist sounds here like Qoheleth, but there are different ideas about the role of this discussion within Psalm 39 as a whole.  I think that the most plausible interpretation is that the Psalmist is expressing his hope that God will deliver him soon because life is short and the Psalmist wants to enjoy it while he still can.  But others have claimed that the Psalmist may be contrasting his own transitory nature—and the transitory nature of all of humanity—with the eternity of God.  Many say that he is trying to find peace in a relationship with God amidst his suffering and the seeming vanity of life.  And then, corresponding with the first view that life is short and the Psalmist desires deliverance so that he can enjoy it while he still can, there are some who argue that the Psalmist doesn’t even want much to do with God!  After all, the Psalmist in v 14 asks God to look away from him so that he can be happy before he is no more.  The Psalmist in Psalm 39 believes that God is punishing him for his sins.

And yet, the Psalmist hopes in God.  He calls himself a stranger and a sojourner in v 12, perhaps because his life on earth is temporary, or because the Israelites are strangers and sojourners on God’s land (Leviticus 25:23).  But the Hebrew words for “stranger” (ger) and “sojourner” (toshav) are technical terms for foreigners in the land of Israel, people who were economically vulnerable because they did not have an inheritance.  In the different writings of the Torah, God is the protector of the resident aliens, and he commands Israel to be compassionate towards them.  Perhaps the Psalmist hopes that God will have compassion on him precisely because he is a stranger and a sojourner, for the Psalmist in v 12 asks God to hear him and to give heed to his tears because he is a stranger and a sojourner.

I can identify with the Psalmist’s desire that God leave him alone, for I can somewhat relate to atheists like Christopher Hitchens who say that they don’t want some divine super-cop monitoring their every thought, feeling, and action on a constant basis.  I myself fall short on a continual basis!  And yet, I would not want for God to have nothing to do with me, for I believe that God’s presence can give meaning to my life, which can easily lose purpose (and I am just speaking for myself here, not everyone, for there are plenty of people who find happiness and purpose without religion).  At the very least, I enjoy God’s company!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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