Psalm Bible Study (Worshiping God)

Psalm 39, The Brevity of Life


  • Psalm 39 is another psalm of David. However, the superscription of the psalm tells us that this psalm is to Jeduthun. We can read a little information about Jeduthun in 1 Chronicles 16:37-42; 25:1-8 and 2 Chronicles 5:12; 35:15. Perhaps the most information is revealed to us in 1 Chronicles 25:1-8.
  1. “David and the chiefs of the service also set apart for the service the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who prophesied with lyre, with harps, and with cymbals. The list of those who did the work and of their duties was: Of Jeduthun, the son of Jeduthun: Gedaliah, Zeri, Jeshaiah, Shimei, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, six, under the direction of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to the Lord” (1 Chronicles 25:1,3).
  2. No other information is given to us concerning Jeduthun. From what we read we can determine that Jeduthun and his sons were in charge of the instrumental worship and thanksgiving to the Lord. We are also told that Jeduthun was prophesying through the use of his instrumental talents. We are not told why, yet for some reason of David’s he chooses to dedicate this psalm to Jeduthun.
  3. Many believe that Psalm 39 was written in conjunction with Psalm 38. In psalm 39 we see David is being struck down for his sins, similarly to what we read in psalm 38 (39:9-11). Therefore, we may see this psalm as a continuation of David’s description from psalm 38 about the pain of sin.

I. Wisdom to Muzzle the Tongue (1-3)

A. Holding silence

  • The first three verses explain the circumstances surrounding the psalm. David declares he will guard his ways and hold his tongue so that he will not sin. Something is going on in David’s life that he feels compelled to speak, but will not speak because he does not want to sin with his tongue.
  • We are not told what the particular circumstance is that is causing David to want to speak. However, we are told the reason he would hold his tongue was because “the wicked are in my presence.” There seem to be two possibilities for why David is refraining from speaking.
  • David may be refraining because the words he wants to say would be sinful. This seems to be the implication from verse 1. But David also may be keeping silent because the words he would say would be taken wrong by those around him because those people are wicked. These evil people will not understand what David is trying to say and his words would be used against him by these evil people. This situation reminds us of the agony of Job. Job, in his frustration and suffering, utters words that were taken wrong by his friends and used against him in a series of discourses. Perhaps David does not want this to happen to him.

B. Self-control

  • What we must see in David is the great quality of self-control. There are things he desires to say, but he will guard his ways and muzzle his tongue. In the middle of suffering, surrounded by enemies, and feeling the rebuke of sin, David is able to keep control of his tongue so that he will not sin.
  • David shows us that it is possible, even in the middle of difficult circumstances, to keep our heads about us and do and say what is right. How often we excuse our actions and words because “we are having a bad day.” This is not a justifiable excuse before God. David refuses to suggest he has a right to let his tongue go because of all he is enduring.
  • Rather than say what should not be said, David keeps silent. But as he is holding his peace, his distress grew worse. David is getting more upset concerning what is taking place with the enemies and the circumstances he is enduring. He says his heart became hot within him and the fire burned (verse 3). But David does not lash out with his tongue. Notice when silence was not working and he felt like he needed to say something, he talked to God and not those around him.
  • This is a needed lesson for us today. Too many times we feel that we are compelled to speak. We have the burning in our hearts that David speaks of, and when we feel that fire, we think we must express ourselves. When we feel this way, rather than express ourselves to others, let us speak to God. We need to keep silent and still toward others and speak our minds to the Lord.

II. Brevity of Life (4-6)

A. Life is a breath

  • David’s problem centers around comprehending the brevity of life. In verses 4-6 David contemplates the insignificance of our lives in the greater scheme of this world. In verse 5 David says that our days are a few handbreadths. One handbreadth is the distance of the four fingers together on one’s hand. Therefore, David is saying our days are very short. David further says that a lifetime is nothing is the sight of the eternal God. We are but a shadow and a breath in this world.
  • Even more interesting is the Hebrew word in verse 5 translated “breath” in most versions is the same word the Teacher in Ecclesiastes used when he said, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” To speak of life as a breath or a vapor is to understand the vanity in pursuing the things of this world. David is drawing the same conclusion that the Teacher in Ecclesiastes drew: life is meaningless and vanity without God.
  • James also tried to remind us of the vanity of life in James 4:13-16: “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.’ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.”

B. Recognizing our frailty

  • How rare it is for us to stop and appreciate the brevity of our lives! We assume that things will continue the way we they are day in and day out. The people in many of the countries on the Indian Ocean assumed it would be another vacation day. Little did anyone know that a cataclysmic tsunami would engulf and kill over 130,000 people. We simply assume that tomorrow will be like today and today will be like yesterday without thought about the brevity of life and that our time is truly a vapor.
  • David prays that he understand this truth more fully in verse 4. We need to understand that how fleeting our lives are. We need to understand the measure of our days to be short. We need to appreciate the day and not assume tomorrow is available to us. We leave so much unsaid and undone. How often we see people who have lost loved ones wishing they had another few hours to say or do some final things. They never imagined they would not have time to offer those final important words. They assumed tomorrow would come.
  • We must seize each day that is given to us. Paul said as much to us in Ephesians 5:16, telling us to “redeem the time, because the days are evil” (NKJV). Other translations help us understand this phrase “redeem the time” by saying, “making the most of every opportunity” (NIV) and “making the best use of the time” (ESV). The pursuit of the things in the world is vanity. We need to pursue the things that are most important: God and our relationships with family and believers.

III. Turning To God (7-13)

A. Disciplined for sin (7-11)

  • David now is calling for deliverance from his punishment. David’s hope is in the Lord to help him in his time of suffering. David again speaks about the punishment and suffering he is enduring because of his own sinful activities. Verse 11 strongly makes this point: “you chastise mortals in punishment for sin.”
  • Often we neglect the possibility that the reason for our suffering is because of our sins. We know there are other reasons for suffering. Job shows us that the suffering he endured came from Satan. Job also shows us that suffering is a testing of faith. But this psalm and the proverbs remind us that our suffering also is because of our own choices. We may not be able to see the direct correlation between our sins and the consequences. In fact, many times the consequences we endure are due to the sins of others. David recognizes that his punishment is due to his own sins.
  • Discipline is to turn us from the error of our ways. We discipline our children so they will learn what they are to do and what they are not to do. We do not love our children when we refuse to discipline them and teach them about the way of life. In the same way, God must discipline us because he loves us and wants what is best for our lives. Discipline is painful, but necessary to correct us. This very point was what the writer of Hebrews was saying in Hebrews 12:5-11. Discipline is for our own good, to bring us to his holiness (Hebrews 12:10).

B. Pilgrims in this world (12-13)

  • David closes his prayer by recognizing he is a stranger and alien in this world. Our way of living must always reflect that we are children of God and not permanent residents in this world.
  • Such a thought reminds me of the powerful words the writer of Hebrews expresses concerning the heroes of faith in chapter 11. “All of these died in faith, without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them” (Hebrews 11:13-16).
  • Are we willing to leave this land behind for the heavenly city prepared for those who have given their lives to the Lord? Are we looking forward toward the eternal goal or are we looking backward, missing the ways of this physical world? Our citizenship is to be in heaven and our lifestyle shows if we are citizens of God or citizens of the earth. Let us always desire a better country, seeking a better homeland with the Lord. (NRSV)
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