Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 39 (Part 1)

Psalm 39

Dead Sea MSS: 11QPsd (vv. 13-14 [12-13])

The superscription of this Psalm contains the interesting detail /WtWdyl! [Qere], “for/to Yedûtûn”. The word /WtWdy+ (Y®¼û¾ûn) is a proper name, which belonged to a priestly official overseeing aspects of musical activity in the Tabernacle/Temple, though the evidence for this is almost entirely limited to the books of Chronicles (1 Chron 25:1-6; cf. also 16:38ff; 2 Chron 5:12, etc. If the Davidic attribution of the Psalm here (i.e., a musical composition “belonging to David”) is historically accurate, then this additional detail may identify Yedûtûn as the ‘musical director’ (j^X@n~m=) in question. On the other hand, in Psalms 62 and 77 the name occurs in the expression /WtWdy+-lu^, which is usually taken to mean “in the manner/style of Yedûtûn”, indicating a well-known or established musical style. Since the direction in the superscriptions tends to refer to the performing tradition, this would seem to be correct, and it is probably the meaning here as well.

This particular Psalm follows generally in the pattern of the previous Ps 38 (cf. the most recent study), as well as a number of others we have examined thus far. There is a lament for the suffering (from illness) experienced by the Psalmist, with a plea to YHWH for deliverance. The Psalm also contains strong Wisdom-elements, including the familiar contrast between the righteous and wicked that characterizes so many of the Old Testament Psalms.

The meter is irregular, and makes surprising use of a tricolon (triplet, three-line) format at several points. The Psalm is also unusual in that it can be divided rather clearly on the basis of the Selah (hl*s#) markers. Many Psalms contain this marker, though in relatively few cases does it appear to define clearly the poetic or musical structure of the work. Here, the two markers would seem to divide the Psalm into two stanzas (vv. 2-6 and 7-12), followed by the concluding verses (vv. 13-14) which comprise a plea to YHWH (cp. the ending of Ps 38, in the previous study).

Verses 2-6 [1-5]

Verse 2 [1]

“I said, ‘I will guard my paths (I walk)
from sinning with my tongue,
I will guard my mouth (like) a muzzle,
in (the time) while (the) wicked (is) in front of me’.”

In this opening pair of couplets (3+2 and 3+3), the setting of the Psalm is established, echoing that of the prior Ps 38—viz., the protagonist is suffering (presumably from illness), and his adversaries (the wicked) take advantage of this opportunity to mock and abuse him (verbally). In that Psalm too, the protagonist states that he remained silent in face of the attacks by the wicked (vv. 14-15 [13-14]). Here, the implication is phrased in more ethical terms; that is to say, the Psalmist is careful not to sin (vb af*j*) by speaking out against them.

Guarding (vb rm^v*) one’s tongue/mouth (i.e., one’s speech) is an important aspect of following the righteous path (Er#D#) that conforms to the Way of God. This “path” by which one ‘walks’ is a comprehensive image for an entire way of life—of thinking, speaking, and acting. The “tongue”, in particular, is apt to trip one up on this path (Ps 15:3, etc; and note the famous discussion in James 3:1-12, cf. also 1:26).

Verse 3 [2]

“I was bound (in) silence,
I kept still from dropping (words),
and (yet) my anguish was stirred.”

While the Psalmist may have remained silent, he was suffering inside (in his “heart”, see v. 4 below). The noun ba@K= denotes “anguish” (mental as much as physical), which can also result in suffering and sorrow. This anguish was “stirred” (rk^u*), both by his ailing condition, and from the virtuous requirement to stay silent in the face of attacks by the wicked.

In the second line, I tentatively follow Dahood (p. 240) in relating boTm! to a root bfn (a by-form of [fn), meaning “drop, drip”, sometimes used in the sense of speaking (i.e. dropping words). He notes instances of interchange between p (p) and b (b) in Hebrew and Ugaritic, and cites Prov 15:2 for a similar example of bfn.

Metrically, this verse has the form of a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, creating a terse staccato-like effect when recited.

Verse 4 [3]

“My heart was hot in my inner (parts),
(and) in my murmuring a fire burned,
(until) I spoke (with) my tongue:”

Another tricolon follows here (with loosely the same meter, 2+2+2), building upon the portrait in v. 3 [2], and leading into the moment when the protagonist speaks (out loud) in v. 5 [4] (cf. below). He is burning so inside that he is finally compelled to speak with his tongue (i.e., out loud), thus breaking his self-imposed silence (cf. above). It is fascinating to see how this dramatic scenario progresses. From a stirring of anguish within, his “heart” ignites and becomes hot (vb <m^j*); as this “burns” inside, he begins to mutter/murmur (vb gg~h*) quietly to himself, until it finally breaks out into full speech (“I spoke [with] my tongue”).

Verse 5 [4]

“Make me to know, YHWH, my end,
and (the) measure of my days, what it (is),
(that) I may know how fleeting I (am).”

When the Psalmist speaks, it is as a prayer to God. This is somewhat unexpected. His burning desire to speak out, in the face of attacks by the wicked (implied in v. 2 [1]), leads one to expect a denunciation, a declaration protesting his innocence/righteousness, a contrast between the righteous and wicked, or something of the sort. Instead, his speech is phrased as a noble Wisdom-saying, humbly declaring the transitory nature of human existence, in comparison with eternal sovereignty and power of God. On the Wisdom-theme of a human being understanding one’s “end” (Jq@) and length of life (“measure of days”), cf. Job 6:11; 7:1, 6; 8:9; 9:25; 14:5; Psalm 90:9, 12ff; 102:3, 11; 144:4; Prov 14:12; Eccl 3:11; 6:12; 7:2; 8:13ff.

It is not just that a human being’s “days” on earth are fleeting, it is the person himself/herself who is transitory in nature. The adjective ld@j* denotes something that ceases—i.e., ceases to be. The Psalmist truly makes the point personal by emphatically using the pronoun “I” (yn]a&): “I (am) fleeting”, i.e., “I cease to be”. YHWH knows the measure of his days, the length and extent of his earthly existence; this further implies the sovereign control God has over human affairs.

This verse is another tricolon, but with a longer 3-beat (3+3+3) rhythm.

Verse 6 [5]

“See, you have given a hand-breadth (to) my days,
and my duration (is) as no(thing) in front of you—
oh (yes), every (one is) an empty (wind),
every man (is but) a standing (shadow)!”

The Wisdom-theme continues here in verse 6, with a pair of couplets emphasizing again the shortness and transitory nature of human existence. Indeed, YHWH has ‘measured out’ the length of the Psalmist’s “days” (i.e., his life), and it extends merely a “hand’s breadth” (jp^f@)—that is, the width/length of one’s palm. This relatively short distance indicates rather dramatically the shortness of one’s life. Even more striking is the use of the negative (privative) particle /y]a^ (“[there is] no…”) to indicate that human existence amounts to nothingness in comparison with God (that is, when one is in His presence, “in front of” Him). This statement essentially recognizes the sovereign control YHWH has over human life (including the power to end it).

The second couplet is shorter (2-beat [2+2]), as if to express in poetic terms the shortness and insignificance of human life. In these two lines, a human being (“every [one], every man”) is likened to an “empty (wind)” (lb#h#) or a “standing (shadow)” (bV*n]). This last word is a bit difficult to translate precisely. As pointed, the MT reads a Niphal (passive) participle of the verb bx^n` (“stand, [be] set”). This root can be used for a standing image (i.e., statue, pillar, etc), in the specific sense of an idol. This makes a fitting parallel here with lb#h#, sometimes used in reference to the emptiness/nothingness and ‘vanity’ of idols. Here, however, the comparison is less pejorative, and is used merely to capture (most vividly) the idea of emptiness/nothingness.

The poetic marker hl*s# (selah) occurs here after verse 6. The precise nature and purpose of this marker remains uncertain, apart from the fact that it is a (musical) direction that almost certainly relates to the performing tradition. It can be explained as a pause, an indication of a change in tempo or style, and there are other possibilities as well. As I noted above, in the case of this Psalm, its use of the hl*s# marker seems to demarcate the essential structure of the work, dividing it into two stanzas, followed by a short closing section.

The second stanza (vv. 7-12 [6-11]) and the closing lines (vv. 13-14 [12-13]) will be discussed in next week’s study.

References above marked “Dahood” are to Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965).

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